It’s 19th century Manhattan and there’s a serial killer on the loose. The kind of killer who stalks his prey and violently dismembers young male prostitutes. Hiding the shadow of darkness, the stench of the city air blends in with the smells of death as he tears bodies from limb to limb.
Gritty, dirty, and gruesome is the only way to describe TNT’s The Alienist which opens with the murder of a young boy, sexually violated and tortured, the camera hovers over his body dressed in female clothing to show us his eyes are missing. A sight like this is unheard in the early days of NYC but the motive is clear: this was personal.
Pulling inspiration from Sherlock Holmes with the rawness of Gangs of New York and the grotesqueness of Se7en with sprinkles of The Silence of the Lamb, this psychological thriller is truly a delight.
Adapted from Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel, The Alienist, this is not your everyday murder mystery; blending mental illness, equality and socio-economics it takes viewers through a journey of life in 1896 as forensic science and behavioral psychology was in its infant stages.
In this 10-episode limited series, we meet alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (played by Daniel Bruhl), a psychologist who studies human behavior in people deemed to have abnormal minds. Why the name alienist? In the 19th century, people suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.
Kreizler, however, isn’t your average alienist; he’s a mastermind of psychology. Paying close attention to detail there’s an air of arrogance to him as he demands the best from those around him. Putting fear into the hearts of those who respect his work, he possesses the ability to look beyond social norms to refine what’s considered “normal” behavior in the 1800’s, paving a way to a more modern approach to human interaction.
Then there’s illustrator and journalist John Moore (played by Luke Evans) who is loud, obnoxious and emotional. The Ying to Kreizler’s yang, they form a working relationship when they realize each other has access to the crime that could benefit this murder case.
Rounding out the cast is phenomenal Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard. Hired as the first female secretary in an all-male police precinct, she is unlike any other women from the 19th century. Focused on a life as a career woman, she cares less about marriage and tending to home life (such a scandal!). Faced with men who refuse to treat her as an equal, either making fun of her, verbally assaulting her or just treating her like a fragile doll, she remains steadfast in the face of adversity.
While The Alienist is about crime solving, it’s also a reflection of how the issues of yesteryear are the same issues people face in America today. The story of immigrants wanting a place to belong coupled with daily struggles of homophobia, classism and the lack of healthcare grounds makes the show relatable to viewers. The show is brimming with inequality as the show highlights the depreciated nature of certain locations.
The Alienist is a wonderful experience for those in need of a good murder mystery. Filled with powerful performances and crisp settings, it takes the viewer on a dark and twisty ride of psychological wonderment.