“People who can’t stand up for themselves are often unhappily blamed for the sins of others.”
In last week’s double dose of The Alienist: Angel Of Darkness, Sarah Howard and company discovered a new potential serial killer case, with the disappearances of two babies. The first was Martha Napp’s infant, who disappeared from the Lying-In Hospital where she gave birth, and whose dead body turned up in a department store doll display. The other was the Linares’ infant, Ana, who was stolen from her home and replaced with a baby doll from the same department store display.
The second episode also introduced hypnosis, which was first introduced into modern medicine in the mid-1800s. By 1897 the idea of “hypnotic suggestion” as a “way into the hidden recesses of the brain” had entered into the nascent psychology movement to which our alienist, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, subscribes. It was a frustrating, though technically correct addition to Kreizler’s arsenal, mainly because it seemed the show was leaning into the mythic ideas of hypnosis. The opening of this week’s episode seemed to further that, as Kreizler tests it out on Sarah. The results are misty water-colored memories of red balloons and hands covered in blood, like some sort of trailer for IT Chapter 3.
But, as so often happens in this series, I was pleasantly surprised when the actual time came to use hypnosis on Señora Linares to help her remember her afternoon at Central Park before the babynapping. What hypnosis does is relax the mind, and, used in conjunction with something like an artistic endeavor, especially in a discipline in which the patient is deeply familiar, can “stir the psyche,” as it were. And nothing magical happens. There’s no “painting of the murderer’s face.” All Kreizler gets is an image of the correct place to stand within the park. It is a far more accurate portrayal of what hypnosis can and cannot do. Still, it’s also coincidentally enough for Sarah to go on. She realizes the “gunshots” were the flash of the portrait taker nearby, providing a lead, as Milly (Georgia Lowe) goes to see whose pictures he took on the day in question.
Last week’s episode also ended pointing to Dr. Markoe’s Lying-In Hospital being the source of the poison that killed the Napp infant. Combined with Señora Linares admitting she sent her infant there, because she didn’t trust public hospitals, and Sarah’s decided she must meet with Markoe.
Using Moore’s friend Ogden Gildersleeve, a primary donor to the hospital (and smitten with Sarah), she lands an interview with Markoe. Sarah turns it into an unscheduled tour of the building, including the “Maternity Research” area. The sequence provides a full measure of the Matron’s lack of management skills, plus two brand new characters, ward nurses Libby Hatch (Rosy McEwen) and Colleen Ledwidge (Liadan Dunlea). The former turns out to be a surprisingly excellent spy for Sarah, and all for the cost of a pot pie for lunch. Libby not only gets her hands on the missing Napp file but contradicts the Matron’s lies about the details of the baby’s disappearance. She even overhears Markoe and Byrnes plotting to stop Sarah from digging any further. As for Colleen, we don’t learn much this hour, other than she’s a backtalker—and she was the last one to see the Napp baby alive.
But the real highlight of this episode is the interview with Markoe. The lighting, soundtrack, and attitude are designed to prime the audience to see Markoe’s arguments as lies and excuses. But his discussions with Sarah about the reality of his work are not incorrect. If one takes him at his word, he might even be afforded a measure of sympathy. Lying-in homes were not well funded. They relied on hiring single “fallen” women who would not be able to get work elsewhere—as for how “reliable” the witnesses are, not bothering to take statements from them is probably also true to life since places like this were not regulated.
Despite Markoe’s insisting everything is as above board as one could expect, Sarah comes away with the Matron as her prime suspect. Libby says she was obsessed with the Linares family baby, keeping it away from everyone during its stay. Moreover, when Sarah tracks down her boarding house residence, the landlady notes Matron tends to bring her work home with her, as in, live babies. However, perhaps the most damning bit of evidence is circumstantial, as the Matron is also a little obsessed with the current rich man’s mistress Helen, the one who gave birth last week and whose baby Markoe said to “dispose of.” The lover who sent her there, Richard Osgood (Ryan Ellsworth), has sent the poor thing fancy dresses as if that somehow makes up for what she’s been through, and Helen wakes in a daze to find the Matron dreamily dancing around wearing it. Not a good look, Matron.
This week’s second episode has one of the best period set pieces so far, as most of the hour is spent at Moore’s engagement party to Hearst’s daughter (ahem, excuse me, goddaughter) Violet Hayward. It’s an excuse for ties and tails, while the women are decked out to the nines in costumes. (All save Sarah, who is surprisingly the worst dressed at the event, despite her regularly acing the “day dress” category every week. A sign, I suppose, of how uncomfortable she is in evening wear instead of work clothing.) It’s also an excuse to put all the upper-class characters in the same room for confrontations at the season’s halfway point.
But all that will be overshadowed by the episode’s end, as The Alienist repeats the same formula as last season, revealing the criminal with half a season still to go.
But before we get to that, first let’s discuss that ball.
As someone who regularly covers period mysteries, I find most land in one of two categories. There are the “mystery forward” types, where the period costumes are merely window dressing to the case. Then there are shows which are really period dramas, where the mystery is merely a background excuse for an engine; there because it’s what the characters do for a living, not because it’s what matters. The Alienist mostly falls into the former category, with the serial killer story consuming the majority of screentime, and the period accents treated as easter eggs. This season’s fourth episode attempts to have it both ways, as the engagement party scene feels pulled from a Gilded Age-set romance novel, and I’m not just talking about Violet seducing Moore upstairs, while her bridesmaids lustfully attack the wedding cake in hopes of finding the ring inside it.
Nearly everything about the engagement party is more about character development than plot. It’s a tribute to Evans’ and Fanning’s acting skills that the two-part confrontation, where he first gets upset that she’s planning to use his party to confront Markoe, and then she tells him not to marry Violet because the girl is shallow and cruel, worked as well as it did. The scene between Moore and Hearst about using the Linares baby story to stir anti-Spanish sentiment was surprisingly good, even if the point was to give viewers more screentime with Osgood. (It also adds more “terrible person” points beyond the way he’s treated his mistress by having him warmonger.) The scene that followed, where Byrnes shows up and attempts to give Hearst “Violet’s” present of Cuban cigars, was also well done. So far, Hearst has been friendly to Byrnes, and having him sneeringly dismisses the working-class low life because he’s embarrassed to talk to him in front of Osgood was also well done.
But the real standout moment was when Hearst pours his genuine distaste for Moore into a “roast” before presenting the groom (and bride) with the first German-engineered motor carriage in America. There were probably more critical moments at the party. Kreizler’s confrontation with Osgood shaming him for Helen, for one, and the introduction of Karen Stratton (Lara Pulver) as Kreizler’s new love interest for another. But the emotional ugliness of the scene is the one people will remember.
Unfortunately, the pivotal moment furthering the plot was the least believable. Helen somehow magically finds a ballgown and walks out of the Lying-In Hospital (even though she’s barely able to stand) and right into the ballroom to scream at Osgood for throwing her away. That’s not to say it wasn’t cathartic. It was well-timed, too, because it stopped Sarah from actually embarrassing Moore by confronting Markoe. Instead, she merely rushes to the aid of a distressed woman who Markoe is trying to remove from the premises.
Once again, the scene with Markoe is one where it’s hard to know who to believe. Helen is screaming she’s been “fixed,” a horrific claim, if true. But Markoe breathlessly tells Sarah Helen had developed an infection. “I was saving her life,” he bites off. One could assume Markoe is simply a born liar. But at every turn, it feels like he has reasons for doing what he does. Markoe is a misogynistic prick, who sees these women as lesser. But he is also the only one out here trying to save their lives, which, in this society, is a thankless task.
By the end of the hour, even Kreizler is coming around to this way of thinking. Markoe may be a bastard, but he’s not evil. He’s just created a place where evil can thrive. And Bitsy (Melanie Field), Sarah’s assistant who has gone undercover at the hospital, confirms this. Not that it’s all “above board” as Markoe claimed. The “Maternity Research” ward is a cover for rich mistresses. And something sinister is happening there, as every baby is magically “stillborn,” so the fathers don’t have to deal with them. And Markoe treats the staff—especially the Ward Girls who had their babies in the hospital—like disposable lovers. Colleen is the girl currently assigned to “attend” on him, and though the word “rape” is never used, it’s evident that’s what’s going on, and everyone knows it. (Heck, the Matron sends Colleen to “go see Dr. Markoe,” like she’s asking the girl to go get fresh towels.)
Bitsy also makes friends with Colleen and realizes she’s not just a previous patient at the hospital. She was sent there by Osgood, who was her lover previously and knocked her up the same as he did Helen. He threw her over after having the child in the same way. Also, Colleen’s baby was “stillborn,” just like all the others.
Between Colleen’s catching Bitsy studying the medicine cabinets to see who checked out the drug used to kill the Napp baby, and her general bitterness, the show makes it seem like she’s our murderer. When Bitsy starts asking about the Napp baby, Colleen flies into a rage, which seems like confirmation. But it’s all misdirection, as Bitsy learns too late. Just as Señora Linares goes through the park photos Milly retrieved and identifies her stalker, Bitsy discovers it’s Libby who’s the real threat. Libby is short for Elizabeth Hatch: EH.
Though Sarah, Kreizler, and the Isaacsons arrive in time to stop Libby from killing Bitsy, she escapes and heads to the Matron’s. But this is not proof the Matron is some sort of accomplice, just a chance at vengeance on her physically and emotionally abusive boss. It’s the end of the line for the Matron, as Libby paints her face with the same memento mori as the Ruby Red doll.
- Poison, powdered carbon, and breast milk doesn’t sound like the tastiest concoction, but I suppose a baby’s taste buds are not well developed enough to mind.
- Cecilia Beaux (Carolina Main), who helps in the painting scene, was an American society portraitist of the period, and would have most likely been someone Señora Linares knew.
- The whole exchange about fathers’ suicides as “accidents” between Sarah and Libby is an eyebrow-raiser. “An accident with a rope and bridge” indeed.
- Moore’s bachelor party moving to Cyrus’ Montrose Oyster Saloon is a nice touch, considering what Libby said about human waste in the Hudson fattening them earlier.
- I need the subplot of Moore getting Cyrus’ daughter, Joanna Crawford, a gig at the New York Times to go somewhere, especially if she’s going to have to cover herself head to foot at parties.
- The German horseless motor carriage was a prop of beauty. Seriously, big ups to this series’ design department. The whole party was a stunner, but that, in particular, was a showstopper moment.
- Also, for the car-lovers in the room, that was a Benz three-wheeler, first made in 1885. Hearst bought the 1896 model.
- It won’t happen, but a Colleen/Helen team up to take down Osgood would not be remiss in my book
- Did you see the face Moore made when Violet handed him her pup? Moore hates Mrs. BamBam. Violet, DTMFA.