“The Alienist” thoughts, Episode Three: “Silver Smile”

“The Alienist” started its series premiere with a beat cop discovering a severed human hand. It began its second episode with an undertaker lighting torches fueled by decomposition gases in the bellies of corpses. This week the showrunner, Jakob Verbruggen, who is also the episode’s director, steers the series in a decidedly less disgusting direction, although the subject matter is no less disturbing: What is the etiquette for informing a high-society couple over lunch that their son may have murdered a young boy prostitute? Should one wait till after dessert, or just jump straight in?

Thomas Byrnes, the corrupt former chief of the New York Police Department (played by Ted Levine, who still bears the murderous imprimatur of his role as Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs”), clearly feels his wealthy patrons the Van Bergens have no time to lose if they wish to keep secret their son’s possible involvement in the recent child slayings. The exchange is shot through with dark, absurdist humor by Byrnes’s hilariously long walks from one end of the Van Bergens’ lengthy dining table to the other. “Willem has got himself in water a bit hotter than usual,” he says to Willem’s mother, portrayed in a surprising, tight-laced cameo by Sean Young.

“Thought you should know now,” he adds, before hoofing it back to Mr. Van Bergen (Steven Pacey), who sits at the other end of the table, chewing a spoonful of pudding. “There’s no later.”

A comedy of manners? In a squalid period piece full of mutilated bodies? Yes, and thank goodness. Levine’s craggy deadpan, Young’s “well I never” fan-fluttering, and a second surprise cameo, from Grace Zabriskie as John Moore’s disapproving mother (Zabriskie played Sarah Palmer in “Twin Peaks”), temper the gloom and grime with charmingly effective humor. In Byrnes’s visit to the Van Bergens — which, by the way, gives us our first real hints as to the identity of the killer — and in moments like Mrs. Moore’s jumpy reaction to a ringing phone (“Oh! Loathsome machine!”), the writer Gina Gionfriddo gives us room to breathe after immersing us in so much horror and squalor.

I reviewed episode 3 of The Alienist, the best of the bunch so far, for the New York Times.

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