The Alienist (S01E01): “The Boy on the Bridge”

The better part of a quarter century ago, I was out to dinner with some friends in New York City. One of those friends worked for a literary agency, and told us all about a new author her agency had just signed and the author’s brilliant book they had just sold for a considerable sum of money. She told us that we had to read it. Her tips on new books were usually worth listening to (she also tipped us off to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’) so as soon as it came out, I bought it and devoured it. The book was, of course, Caleb Carr’s ‘The Alienist,’ which has finally made its way to the television screen.

The opening scene informs us that we are in New York City in 1896. The location and the time are of key importance to the story. New York was a dark, grim city at the time, and Budapest makes an excellent substitute. Late at night, Dr. László Kreizler, the alienist of the title, is summoned to view a corpse, along with newspaper illustrator John Moore, and we know right away this isn’t an ordinary murder. Possibly it’s the fact that the corpse, that of a young boy named Giorgio Santorelli who worked as a prostitute at a place called Paresis Hall, is wearing a dress. Possibly the fact that he has been cut open and his innards turned into, well, outards. Possibly it’s the gaping black holes where his eyes used to be.

The murder brings to mind another murder from three years before, when Kreizler, who specialized in treating children, was treating a boy named Benjamin Zweig who wanted to dress in his twin sister Sofia’s clothes. His advice to the parents was to accept him as he was (a remarkably advanced viewpoint for the time) and presumably the parents did. Then, the children disappeared when they were playing outside. Their bodies were found in a water tower. Sofia’s body was left intact, but Benjamin has been cut open and his organs arranged around his body. The parallels between the two cases does not escape Kreizler, and Moore convinces his old friend Sara Howard, Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary and the first female employee of the New York Police Department, to get them the Zweig file. The police, in general, aren’t going to be much help. Roosevelt has ordered Paresis Hall closed, and the owners simply move their sex workers across the street, while handing the local copper his usual envelope of bribe money, minus ten dollars for their inconvenience. Solving the murder of one of those boys is clearly not going to be a high priority, another reason for Roosevelt to give the case to Kreizler and Moore.

Sara says no at first. But she spends her days typing and fending off harassers (and dealing with sleeves so puffy they would have made Anne Shirley weep with envy). After an evening’s reflection, her mood possibly improved by a meal, the removal of her corset and a cigarette, she decides that being involved with an actual case might be a little more up her alley and gets the file. However, there isn’t much there and nothing Kreizler can use. Kreizler needs the details of how Benjamin has been cut up, to see if there is similarity to the current murder case, so he exhumes the body to have it studied by the Isaacson brothers, who are like Gil Grissom‘s great-great-grandfathers. Their newfangled ideas about forensics are exactly what Kreizler needs.
And he needs it quickly. He and Moore are getting into his carriage, and there is a package on the carriage floor. It’s from the murderer, and it’s a human tongue. Giorgio’s tongue. He spots someone watching them and chases him, but he gets away. And, going by the final scene, is looking to kill again. To find the killer, Kreisler tells Moore, he will have to become the killer, using the same method he used to help children.

The episode was riveting. The cast is brilliant, and Budapest makes for a dandy 1890s New York City. I was hooked from the get go, but I did have one or two things that I didn’t love. I was puzzled by first finding Moore at a brothel, I don’t think that was in the book and it seemed gratuitous. (And if we have to have gratuitous sex, can we at least let Luke Evans be the one to take off his clothes? Just sayin’.) Teddy Roosevelt seemed stiff and a little ineffectual, though that may just be in comparison to the general brutality of the police. And I really wasn’t feeling a lot of chemistry between the cast members. And there were no scenes of lavish dinners at Delmonico’s. I was looking forward to that. Well, maybe next week.

Other things:
– Can we talk about the man at Bellevue with advanced syphilis? People, practice safe sex. Okay, PSA over.
– Did you see the marks on Dakota Fanning’s skin when she removed her corset?
– Sara makes a comment about ‘mutton shelters’ and I have no clue what they are. From the context, I’m guessing maybe charitable places for prostitutes who have gotten old?

“In the 19th Century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true nature. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.”
“I see only a little pink mouse.”
“I’m not here on savory business.”