The Alienist returns with the same handsome-looking production and entertaining fusion of history and fictional embellishment, and with Dakota Fanning’s Sara Howard occupying the limelight there’s plenty of potential in this new season.
This recap of The Alienist: Angel of Darkness episode 1, “Ex Ore Infantium”, and The Alienist: Angel of Darkness episode 2, “Something Wicked”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous season by clicking these words.
It seems like killing babies is the in thing for prominent period crime thrillers these days – no sooner does HBO’s Perry Mason delight in infanticide than TNT’s The Alienist: Angel of Darkness follows right up with its own effort. The latter works overtime, in fact; its debut episode, “Ex Ore Infantium”, features two missing, presumed-dead nippers, one almost straight away and one at the halfway point. The first is taken from an unwed mother who is quickly convicted of the crime, but then a second is taken on the day of the first mother’s execution for that crime, this one from a swanky pad occupied by the Spanish consulate general and his wife.
This is in New York City of 1897, you understand, and the period informs a great deal of what follows. Despite the subtitle, this is really a regular old second season after the first – which went from TNT to Netflix – proved a runaway hit. They’re based on the historical mystery novels of Caleb Carr and concern a likable triumvirate of thrown-together experts who’re quickly reunited here for a second go-around. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) is the titular alienist, a fancy Victorian word for a psychiatrist; John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans) is a New York Times cartoonist and high-society type, and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) is New York’s first female investigator and makes no secret of the fact – she also seems to very much be the focal character of this second outing.
Fittingly given current global affairs, it’s protest that initially brings these characters back together; they all oppose the execution of Martha Napp (Hebe Beardsall), the mother of the first missing babe, who maintains that her sprog was taken with help from a woman known as the Matron (Heather Goldenhersh). It’s Howard who’s approached about the matter of the second missing child. With the Spanish-American War looming there is tension between nations which prohibits Isabella Linares (Bruna Cusí), the wife of the Spanish consul-general, from seeking help from the NYPD when her child is taken from their home, replaced in its crib by a doll with blacked-out eyes and mouth. Thus, the matter is taken to Howard’s door in The Alienist: Angel of Darkness episode 1.
The baby, meanwhile, or at least a baby, is taken to a fancy department store and arranged within the toy section; a particularly morbid discovery for the posh little girl who’s browsing there, and indeed for Howard, who arrives assuming the dead infant is the Linares baby, and Moore, who arrives believing it to be the missing Napp kid.
As it turns out, it’s Moore whose hunch is correct. After being allowed a peek at the scene by Marcus (Douglas Smith) and Lucius (Matthew Shear) Isaacson, returning NYPD brother coppers, it’s actually Kreizler who identifies the child as Napp’s. The circumstances surrounding the kiddo’s death are deeply unpleasant, involving acid and asphyxiation and memento mori, which explains both the markings on the dead child’s face and those on the doll left in place of the still-missing Linares kid.
“Ex Ore Infantium” is really designed to be taken as one half of a whole that is completed by The Alienist: Angel of Darkness episode 2, “Something Wicked”, which explains TNT’s unusual double-drop airing strategy. Rather than feeling like two separate installments, this opening tandem plays much more like one long chunk of story chopped in half; the back side continues to introduce more characters – including Moore’s skeptical NYT boss Bernie Peterson (Demetri Goritsas), a returning Thomas Byrnes (Ted Levine) from the first season, and his unscrupulous employer at The New York Journal, William Randolph Hearst Sr. (Matt Letscher) – and continue the premiere’s dirt-digging, even seeing Howard return quickly to the upscale toy shop where the Napp child was discovered.
It’s hard to imagine that matters of class won’t play a serious role in this murder-mystery going forwards, given the difference in treatment between Napp and Linares, who’re worlds apart in social station, and the idea of a swanky department store being a fitting exhibition for the dead child of an unwed commoner. A contact of Howard’s is able to determine that the doll left in place of the Linares’ baby was a Ruby Red and that the purchaser bought four more, which certainly doesn’t bode well, and the address listed on the original purchase was, would you believe it, one of NYC’s roughest areas. See? Class commentary!
That address is of St. Ignatius Boarding House, which burned down the previous year and thus hasn’t been occupied since, and is also, one assumes not coincidentally, owned by Goo Goo Knox, the leader of a real-life Victorian-era street gang known as the Hudson Dusters. As this all unravels, we also get a much deeper sense of intertwining character relationships and simmering political undercurrents. Moore is engaged to Violet Hayworth (Emily Barber), who wants him to work at the Journal with her godfather Hearst, who is blackmailing Lucius for info about the case and dispatching Byrnes to spread rumors that the Spanish are murdering Cubans, among other gossipy assignments that threaten the case.
Things are shaping up rather nicely, then. There’s a welcome fusion of history and embellishment to please those who like spotting fictionalized versions of real people, and it gives the story plenty of license to dip into certain period issues; a grim murder-mystery is one thing, but such matters are always better, I find, when they’re happening against a backdrop of civil unrest and great historical change. There are lots of “firsts” in this period – first woman detective, first woman killed in the electric chair, and on and on – so it’ll be enjoyable to look out for a few more of those. It’s just a bit of a downer that they have to come with dead babies.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.