“The Alienist” thoughts, Episode Four: “These Bloody Thoughts”

Four episodes in, understanding what “The Alienist” does and doesn’t do well is a walk in the park. Well, it involves a walk in the park, at least.

The stroll in question is taken by Sarah Howard. Tasked by Commissioner Roosevelt with delivering John Moore’s purloined sketchbook to Dr. Lazlo Kreizler — whom she would otherwise as soon avoid, after his callous inquiries about her father’s suicide — Sarah finds the doctor people-watching in a local park. The person he’s watching, specifically, is a mother who once drowned her two young children in the bath. Protected from prosecution or institutionalization by her family fortune (sound familiar?), she now pushes an empty baby carriage around the park, doting on an infant only she can see.

Empathizing with such a person is a bridge too far, Sarah tells Kreizler. But the doctor points out that while the drive to kill may be alien to Miss Howard, the societal pressures faced by all women — “to marry, to have children, to smile when you feel incapable of smiling” — are as familiar to her as they are to the murderous mother.

“Society formed her,” he states bluntly, suggesting that everyone has the “raw materials” to become a killer, lacking only the external spark to make them “combustible.” It’s a provocative payoff to an exchange between Sarah and Kreizler earlier in the exchange, which seemed like simple black comedy at the time: Angry at the doctor for his attempts to glean insight into murder by probing her own psychology, Sarah sneers, “I don’t believe I have it in me to kill a child.” Kreizler smiles reassuringly and says, “You might surprise yourself,” as if he’s encouraging her to apply for a promotion or run a 5K.

If only “The Alienist” had the same faith in its audience’s ability to understand the complexities of its characters’ minds that Kreizler has in Sarah’s. Take the sequence in the park. It’s not for-the-ages dialogue, but the writing is certainly clear in its emotional and intellectual intent (Daniel Brühl and Dakota Fanning’s characteristically restrained performances make the gruesome details of their exchange even more memorable.) But the end of the sequence lays aside the scalpel and breaks out the sledgehammer: As Sarah contemplates Kreizler’s sad tale, children sing a schoolyard rhyme about putting a baby “in a bathtub to see if he could swim,” while a close-up practically immerses us in the waters of a nearby fountain. It could hardly be less subtle if the script had called for Ms. Fanning to turn to the camera and say, “Get it?”

I reviewed episode four of The Alienist for the New York Times.

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