Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness brings another serial killer case to 1890s New York

Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Evans star in The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness
Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Evans star in The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness
Photo: Kata Vermes (TNT
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“That’s what the common man wants to read over his grits. The United States standing up to bullies.”

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“Ex Ore Infantium”

The year is 1897, 36 scant months until the dawn of the 20th century, and somewhere in New York City, a serial killer is kidnapping and murdering babies. So far, the two cases could not be further apart. The first child disappeared from a lying-in home, born to an unwed mother who was subsequently accused, tried, and convicted of killing her child. The second, taken the same day as the first mother’s execution, was kidnapped out of the high-end mansion on 5th Ave, where the Spanish consulate general resides with his wife.

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Thus begins the second season of TNT’s The Alienist. Based on the historical mystery novels by Caleb Carr, this new season, at least so far, loosely follows the second book, Angel Of Darkness. (Hence the show’s official moniker, The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness.) The series once again stars Daniel Brühl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, the titular “alienist” (the Victorian term for psychiatrist), Luke Evans as John Schuyler Moore, a New York Times cartoonist and society man-about-town, and Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard, the first woman to become a police investigator in New York. The series loosely ties itself to history; Howard, for instance, is (sort of) based on Isabella Goodwin, New York’s first female detective. The three were brought together by Teddy Roosevelt (yes *that* Teddy Roosevelt) to solve a serial killer mystery in season one. Now they’re back together on a new case.

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Much like its predecessor, Angel Of Darkness has a tall order to dramatize Carr’s work for the small screen. A military historian, Carr’s novels are written for history buffs first, murder mystery fans second. It’s a bit of a miracle how riveting his books are, considering all action will, at times, come to a screaming halt so he may blithely regale the reader with the odd minutiae of how fingerprinting and mugshots became the mystery staples we know today. Both novels also have framing devices where characters recount these mysteries from decades in the future. However, Angel Of Darkness’ reason for recounting is far thinner than the first novel’s peg of the death of Roosevelt bringing back memories.

Much of this would make for awkward TV at best, so season two showrunner Stuart Carolan* removes the framing device and the excess explanations, and adds in more story. The original tale revolves around the kidnapping of Ana Linares, the infant of a Spanish dignitary. The opening episode gets to that in due course, though the baby in question does not disappear until the 29-minute mark. Instead, Howard, Moore, and Kreizler first find themselves back together for the execution of Martha Napp (Hebe Beardsall), the unwed mother, who insists her baby was kidnapped from the lying-in home run by Dr. Markoe (Michael McElhatton), with help from a woman known only as The Matron (Heather Goldenhersh). All three are there to protest, as they believe Napp innocent.

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They are right, though that won’t be clear until the episode’s end. In between, Howard, who has left the police department to open a private detective agency, finds another case brought to her door (literally brought to her door) by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Isabella Linares (Bruna Cusí), the wife of the Spanish consul-general, has had her child kidnapped, right out of their house, after an incident in Central Park left her convinced she and her child were being watched and followed. The “delicate political situation” (which will blow up into the Spanish-American War a year later) means the Linares assume there will be no help from the NYPD, so Howard is her best hope. The only real clue: a doll left in the cradle where the baby lay, with its eyes and mouth blacked out.

As Howard ponders the doll, she notes it was purchased at the very fancy Seidel Cooper department store. Intercut with this, viewers watch a small upper-class girl explore the toy section of the very same store where she sees the oddest purple babydoll, which turns out to be a dead infant. Howard and Moore descend on the store, him thinking it’s the missing Napp child and her afraid it’s the Linares baby.

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With Roosevelt now working as Secretary of the Navy, the police contact roles are the Isaacson brothers, Marcus (Douglas Smith) and Lucius (Matthew Shear), from season one, who happen to wind up as the investigators on the inside. After letting Howard and Moore in for a quick look, the two fill them in on details such as the child dying of asphyxiation after acid was put in her mouth. Kreizler is brought in later as the body lies in the lab and identifies the child as Napp’s. He also identifies the markings on the child’s face (which echo the ones on the baby doll left at the Linares) as memento mori, a popular way to dress up the deceased for photos in the late Victorian era.

The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness
The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness
Photo: Kata Vermes (TNT
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“Something Wicked”

One of the major questions coming into this season was why TNT was releasing the series in batches like this. In a regular summer, it might have made sense to “make a splash.” But with the pandemic keeping filming on hold for fall shows, one would think cable drama installments would be doled out more sparingly. Episode two,“Something Wicked,” does somewhat explain the thought process, as, by the time the episode is over, I felt much more like I had a handle on where the show was heading than after a single round.

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As episode two begins, a pair of butchers seem to be dismembering a human male. By the end of the hour, this will find a way to connect to the missing Linares child. But perhaps the show is not as ready to make the connection between missing babies as viewers. Moore’s boss at The New York Times, Bernie Peterson (Demetri Goritsas), calls his evidence of one baby replaced with a Siegel Cooper doll and the other replacing a Siegel Cooper doll circumstantial, forcing Moore and Howard to keep digging. He’s going to regret that when The New York Journal scoops him, since Thomas Byrnes (Ted Levine) from season one is back and working for NY Journal owner William Randolph Hearst Sr. (Matt Letscher), blackmailing Lucius into feeding them information on the investigation.

Moore and Howard’s first stop: Siegel-Cooper, the department store where the infant’s body was found, a place where New York City’s elite shop. The baby’s appearance hasn’t made the toy department less crowded, but Sarah has a friend on the inside, who identifies the doll left in place of the Linares’ baby. It’s a “Ruby Red,” and the person who purchased it (known in the books only as “EH” and “EH” has bought five of them over the last year. Perhaps a few more mothers on 5th Avenue should start locking up their nurseries.

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The Alienist; Angel Of Darkness
The Alienist; Angel Of Darkness
Image: Kata Vermes (TNT

But though “EH” stopped putting in her address for the last few purchases, her original buy still has one: 597 Hudson St., which at the time was one of New York City’s roughest areas. Moore tears himself away from fiancée, Violet Hayworth (Emily Barber). who is trying to get him to switch jobs to her “godfather’s” Hearst’s NY Journal to take a late-night ride with Howard to check it out. But it seems the address line may have been left blank because “EH” hasn’t lived there in months. The location is St. Ignatius Boarding House, and it burnt down last year.

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That being said, the trip is not without its uses. Howard and Moore get to call up Cyrus Montrose (Robert Ray Wisdom) from season one, who has left Kreizler’s employ to run his own pub. The show also takes this opportunity to introduce the Hudson Dusters. Much like Peaky Blinders over on Netflix, these guys were a real-life street gang that began in the late Victorian era and operated with relative impunity until World War I. The butchers cutting up human remains were doing so on the behest of leader Goo Goo Knox, who also happens to be the owner of the former St. Ignatius Board House, and clearly knows *something* about the resident Moore and Howard are looking for. Not that he’s going to tell either of them squat. He has a couple of dead men to drink to. Meanwhile, Byrnes is down there too, though mostly to gin up rumors the dead mean are Cubans, murdered by the Spanish as part of the continuing war mongering by his boss.

Two episodes back-to-back gives the show’s new plot a lot more heft. But it also underlines an issue that’s been ongoing since the show’s first season. Despite the name “The Alienist” referring to Kreizler, making him the show’s titular character, he is often a third-ran in any given episode behind Luke Evans’ Moore and Dakota Fanning’s Howard. This week that “separate track” was worse than usual since most of it was him doing unlikable things that furthered little of the plot.

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The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness
The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness
Photo: Kata Vermes (TNT

I appreciate the refusal to bow to “presentism,” a.k.a. giving period-based characters modern sensibilities and morals they would not have held in the show’s era. But this week underscored how much Kreizler treats women as objects for him to force his will. The series attempts to show him heavy-handed in general—the scene where he confronts Dr. Markoe at the symposium, for example. But his visit to Isabelle to try to bully her into taking part in hypnosis and dismissing Howard being upset with him over it was a double barrel of disrespectful behavior. Part of that derives from the show having him push the now-discredited “hypnosis” theory, which was coming into vogue during this era. It is accurate to suggest someone like him, who is on the “cutting edge” of psychotherapy, would be the sort to be taken in by hypnosis and slip off the edge of modern medicine into quackery. But it does have the unfortunate consequence of forcing the main character to spend almost the entire hour being an ass.

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But things are moving along. Byrnes going around dropping gossip in NYPD Captain Doyle (Martin McCreadie)’s ear means the Linares’ hope of keeping this quiet won’t last long. And by episode’s end, Dr. Markoe and the Matron are busily delivering yet another out of wedlock baby to the rich and famous and disposing of it. As for our missing child and its mystery captor, both are on the move.

I repeat, The Baby Is On The Move.

Stray observations

  • Martha Napp’s story is based on Martha M. Place, the first woman to die by the electric chair. A few small differences: Martha was married and the incident happened at home, not an institutional facility. The step daughter she was accused of killing, Ida, was a teenager, though the child did die via asphyxiation by acid to the mouth and eyes.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s appearance is a bit of a throwaway. With all the Women’s Suffrage going on in the background, I hope she’ll be back.
  • William Randolph Hearst Sr. ran the New York Journal as a Murdoch-esque tabloid, though not the kind that would auction off a dead woman’s hair.
  • Violet Hayworth secretly being Hearst’s daughter also is based in history. Hearst had an alleged daughter who he never acknowledged. Patricia Lake was born in 1919, and spent her life as a socialite and a radio comedian. It is unknown to me if she wore hats anywhere near this spectacular though.
  • Siegel Cooper was a real department store of the era, and where the wealthiest of the gilded age shopped.
  • Goo Goo Knox was the real-life leader of the Hudson Dusters, but his number two wasn’t Fat Jack, it was Circular Jack. Also, GooGoo’s line “I’m a regular J.P. Morgan,” is a hat tip to season one, which involved the famous banker.
  • Violet’s puppy, Mrs. BamBam, is adorbs. I demand more scenes of dogs wearing pearls in tea rooms.
  • I would like to take this opportunity to give the Miss Phryne Fisher Award for Coordination of Weapon and Wardrobe in a Period TV Show to Dakota Fanning. That gown she’s wearing down on the docks and her powder gray pistol in Episode 2 are *chefs kiss.*
  • *Ed. note: The season two showrunner was previously listed as Frank Pugliese.
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