Morale was low on The Alienist this week, and no surprise: It’s easy to forget, in our current era of fast-paced contemporary procedural dramas, that Laszlo Kreizler and his friends are racing against the clock to innovate the forensic science we take for granted. From scratch. In a world where motorized vehicles don’t exist, let alone email. So when their Ascension Day sting operation goes south and another boy turns up dead, everyone is understandably waaaay down in the dumps.
We open with Stevie and Moore working to create a sketch of their suspect, which is going extremely poorly. Stevie is obviously rattled, and Moore keeps arguing with him when he insists that the killer has extremely close-set eyes and “a forehead as big as a wall.” (Sooo…he’s Megamind, basically?) Instead, it’s the body of the newest victim — and an offhand comment from Roosevelt — that provides the team with their best new lead. The child has been not just mutilated, but scalped, and:
“I’ve only seen the likes of that out West,” says Roosevelt.
This leads to an epiphany for Kreizler about the killer’s background, a theory confirmed by a helpful anthropologist at the Museum of Natural History: The way their perp mutilates his victims suggests that he’s been witness to murders committed by Plains Indians in the Western states, who cut off the genitals of their enemies to deny them “the pleasures of copulation in the spirit world.” But because no self-respecting Plains Indian would do that to a child, the killer must be a non-Native performing a gruesome act of cultural appropriation.
Meanwhile, outside the police station, a rioting crowd nearly tears Kreizler apart before he and Moore are given a lift out of danger by Paul Kelly, the smarmy pimp we met back in the pilot. So the good people of New York are finally taking seriously the presence of a killer in their midst? Nope, says Kelly: They’re rioting because they want the brothels reopened, which he suggests they do (in the same way that a guy holding a gun might suggest that you give him your wallet). It’s the first of several reminders that a lot of rich and/or powerful people — from former police chief Byrnes to J.P. Morgan himself — are circling the investigation, all hoping to nudge its outcome in one direction or another. And in the midst of all those “sainted men” (not to mention the so-called saint they’re hunting) is Kreizler himself, who has to face some uncomfortable truths in this episode about his own privilege and power.
After being harshly called out by Cyrus’ niece for having put her uncle in harm’s way, Kreizler starts to question the nature of his relationships with his servants and tries to un-blur the lines, only to offer Cyrus and Mary the things they want least: an apology and employment elsewhere, respectively. But despite making use of a well-worn trope (the expert psychologist who desperately needs a big damn dose of his own medicine), Kreizler’s arc in this episode ends up being a nice little illustration of a man coming back into touch with his own nature. At the start, our hero is seen plunging a scalpel into the cold flesh of a dead child, an act for which he apologizes with no apparent feeling at all. By the end, he’s tentatively embracing his housekeeper with a swell of wordless emotion. And in this moment of intimacy, Kreizler has never looked more vulnerable, more unsure of himself, or — perhaps most importantly — less like a saint, and more like a man.