Previously on The Alienist, “Hildebrandt’s Starling
“Sex is but a three letter word, Commissioner,” Dr Kreizler says to his friend and colleague at the start of this, the sixth episode of The Alienist’s debut season. But as we all know, it’s much more than that. Sex is a main motivator of human behavior. Freedom of sexual expression is in direct opposition to its repression. Such repression can lead to anguish, lies, perverse behavior, and – unfortunately – violence. This is not to say that all sexual expression is to be permitted, but at a time in history, such as the one portrayed in The Alienist, repression of that which makes us individual and human can have a devastating effect on one’s psychological make-up. Practically every proponent of modern psychiatry will agree that our formative years are those when our parents reared us. Childhood trauma, if not properly recognized and treated, may lead to a problematic adulthood. Bad parenting, indeed.
Now before this review turns into a D-grade essay in psychoanalysis, let me explain how my hack-handed attempts to understand the motivations behind our main characters drives forward this outstanding episode.
John Moore has a drinking problem; that much is obvious. One thing isn’t clear, though. At the end of episode two, he was subjected to an assault at the hands of some boys that Connor and Paul Kelly, co-owner of Paresis Hall, set on him – the details of which are sketchy at best. It had to have been a traumatic experience for the newspaper illustrator, one he could need help recovering from. As it is, the bottle (or flask) is his sole source of comfort. However, he appears to be making headway in connecting with the people around him. Luke Evans’ two scenes with the boy Joseph (Jackson Gann) are touching and informative. Abstaining from alcohol is a lot harder than it seems for Moore, as he’s doing it more for his grandmother and Sarah than for himself. I found it charming that he successfully bid for a typewriter at an auction run by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (where the great and good of the city feel great and good about themselves for helping the poor unfortunates), with the intention of asking Sarah to teach him to type. Their interaction is playful and slightly flirty, but it becomes clear later that Sarah has eyes for Kreizler. By the end of the episode, though, her relationship with the alienist is irrevocably changed.
In fact, it’s the character interaction full stop that elevates this show above others of its kind. For example, the opening scene features the full ensemble, minus Mary, putting a plan together to catch the killer before he strikes again. It involves dressing poor Stevie as a girl, effectively using him as bait. It’s the Feast of the Ascension, so Kreizler believes the killer will either pick or murder his prey then. Roosevelt isn’t completely sold, but he sees himself as having little choice but to follow it through. Marcus teams with Moore, Lucius with Cyrus, with Sarah and Kreizler sidelined because she is a woman and therefore the “weaker sex”, Kreizler because he’s a “cripple”. Roosevelt chastises Sarah for her forwardness and approach to the case, hence Kreizler’s opening exchange at the start of this review. Man’s attitudes to empowered women have been with us since the dawn of time, it seems.
Stevie is uncomfortable out on the streets, but seemingly manages to hold his own. But just as it looks like the killer might be making his move, Stevie is approached by one of the street urchins. His cover may have been blown, and Plan Ascension is a bust – but there’s always Pentecost. That’s the thing about the Christian calendar: you’re never too far away from the next holy day. Sarah once more takes control. This time, the trap will be set within the brothel itself, with Moore and Marcus on the inside, Lucius and Cyrus on sentry duty across and above. They’re confident they’ll nab their man.
They’re half right.
Aside from the team’s hunt for the child-killer, there are other urgent developments in the story. Sarah continues to play detective and due to Kreizler’s demands that both she and Moore look within themselves to become effective team members, she decides to look into Kreizler’s past. When she questions him about his crippled arm, the alienist tells her he was born with a congenital condition that left his arm malformed. But when Sarah checks into his story, she discovers that as a young boy, Kreizler was heralded as an up-and-coming pianist, with a particular work by Mozart impossible to play with just the one hand. It’s an absorbing scene that’s punctuated with sudden violence when Kreizler slaps Sarah across the cheek when he can’t take any more of her questions. It’s a defining moment for these two characters, one that neither can walk away from or brush off. As it turns out, they have to put this aside as the killer has been spotted in the brothel, and the game is afoot.
In another well-staged sequence of events, Sarah is locked safely in a room with Stevie (calling himself Stella for the occasion), while the men chase down the killer. They end up on the roof where Cyrus has been knocked out. Moore and Kreizler realise straightaway that they have been fooled. Looking back across the building they came from, they see an open window a couple of rooms away from where Sarah and Stevie are staying. Another boy has been snatched and murdered. I suspect it is poor Joseph who’s the unfortunate victim.
If that wasn’t all, former-Captain Connor, enraged at Roosevelt for publicly humiliating him and for the fact that he now has to pay for his beer, takes it upon himself to hunt down Willem Van Burgen, who’s done a runner from his parents. He is supposed to be on a boat to Buenos Aires, but he doesn’t fancy the trip. Connor and one of his colleagues catch up with Silver Smile on a bridge over the Hudson, and despite Van Burgen’s insistence that his influential family have his back, Connor puts a bullet in his brain and tosses his body into the river.
“Ascension” is a stunning and fast-paced episode that moves the story full steam ahead, but still makes time for those important character moments. God, I love this show.
The Alienist S1E6 Review Score
The Alienist - Episode 6: “Ascension” | Starring: Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans