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Series / The Alienist

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In the 19th century, persons suffering from mental illness were considered to be alienated from their true natures. The experts who studied them were therefore referred to as Alienists.

The Alienist is a television miniseries broadcasting on TNT beginning in January 2018 in the United States and on Netflix in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Based on the 1994 novel written by Caleb Carr, it stars Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning.

New York City, 1896. The city is expanding under a new wave of immigration. Poverty and street crime are rampant, and no less rampant is police corruption. The newly-appointed Commissioner, one Theodore Roosevelt, strives to clean up the police department, navigating a minefield of crooked cops, corrupt politicians, and decadent aristocrats. Meanwhile, the Alienist Laszlo Kreizler (Brühl) practices his emerging field of medicine with troubled children, and freelance artist and notorious cad John Schuyler Moore (Evans) drinks and whores his way through high society.


In the midst of all this, a heinous crime is discovered. A young boy is found murdered, his body horribly mutilated. The scandalous and unusual details of the crime - the boy was a prostitute who would dress like a girl, he was sexually assaulted and his body was left on a barely-accessible rooftop - get Kreizler's attention. He theorizes that this is a new kind of criminal: a serial killer. Whoever killed this boy will kill again, and he must be found before that. But the case is so disturbing and unseemly that the regular police are content to simply sweep this thing under the rug, and Roosevelt already has his hands full with everything else going on, so the investigation must be done discreetly, and out of sight of the regular department. With Roosevelt's tacit approval, Kreizler assembles a team consisting of his friend Moore, Roosevelt's secretary Sara Howard (Fanning), and two young detectives who dabble in the new science of forensics. They plunge into the investigation, trying to determine who this killer is, why he's killing, and how to stop him from killing again.


As a miniseries adaptation of a novel, the story is expanded significantly from the source material, exploring some elements in more detail that were present in the background of the book: classism and racism in 19th Century America, and some exploration into gender identity issues.

A second season, titled The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, premiered on July 19, 2020.

This series provides examples of:

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  • Abusive Parents: As in the book, Laszlo Kreizler's father was physically abusive, breaking his young son's arm so badly he became permanently disabled. This informs Laszlo's understanding of the killer's pathology.
  • Action Girl: Sara Howard, the first woman to work for the New York City Police Department, is determined to join the hunt for the killer, despite the sexist assumption of her male colleagues that, as a woman, she will be in need of male protection and only prove an encumbrance to the group. Ultimately, she ends up contributing more breakthroughs to the search for the killer than any other group member. When Kreizler quits the group in a fit of heroic BSOD after Mary’s death, Sara rallies everyone back to action, and takes over as the impromptu leader of the group. In the climactic final scene, she saves the lives of John and Kreizler by shooting Connor.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: The team meshes quite well in the book, despite a few differences that they quickly put aside. Not so in the series. Moore and Kreizler in particular almost hate each other.
  • Adaptational Expansion: The series delves more deeply into the decadence of New York high society, as well as the class struggle taking place at the same time.
  • The Alcoholic: Moore. His grandmother gets him to quit drinking partway through the series, and he's got clear withdrawal symptoms from then on.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Several characters are troubled in non-specific ways, mostly stemming from childhood traumas:
    • Mary can neither speak nor write, with the implication that she was born with aphasia and agraphia.
    • Kreizler has No Social Skills, is blunt to the point of rudeness, and has trouble relating to his peers socially.
    • Moore demonstrates some signs of clinical depression, self-medicating with alcohol and promiscuity.
  • Ambiguous Gender Identity: There is a subtle trans subtext in the series that was not present in the original book; the concept of transgender identity was poorly understood in 1896 and wasn't mainstream in 1994 either. In some cases it's not clear if the boy prostitutes identify as girls or if it's just an act they put on for work. The backstory of at least one of the victims - Kreizler's former patient - points to them having some kind of non-cisgender identity: the child apparently liked to dress and act like a girl, and rather than "cure" him of this behavior, Kreizler advised acceptance and understanding. When the victim's mother learns that her son was most likely targeted because of this behavior, she blames Kreizler for his death.
  • Apophenia Plot: Kreizler has a gift for stringing together evidence in order to construct detailed psychological profiles, but his unchecked biases often lead to the profiles being far off the mark. In the first season, his attempt to tie the murder of his former patient to a string of murders leads to the wrong suspect, with terrible results, and in the second season, he tries too hard to make a plausible case against a crooked doctor against whom he had a grudge, while missing the real killer, a ward nurse who happened to work for the doctor but was acting out her own agenda.
  • At the Opera Tonight: Played with. Moore and Kreizler spend a part of the finale at the opera, but they're there mainly as decoys to distract the attention of the corrupt cops looking to shut down their investigation. It's there that Kreizler reveals to Moore that he knows where the killer is, and that they must go alone while everyone else's attention is somewhere else.
  • Attractive Bent-Gender: A dark twist, almost to the point of deconstruction-some of the boys who dress like girls actually make very convincing and very pretty girls...which is, of course, the reason they're being preyed upon. When the team dresses Stevie up as part of a sting, he turns out to make a pretty girl too, much to his own consternation.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: As is often the case with real-life serial killers, the killer here began with torturing and killing animals. He seems to have a particular enmity against cats.
  • Bedlam House: The team visit several in the course of their investigation, which is actually pretty period-appropriate. Sara visits a particularly disturbing one, where a restrained young woman who has just urinated on herself desperately tries to convince her that she's not really crazy - which could well be true: given how lax mental health regulation was in the 19th Century, she might well have been nothing more than an orphan who had one bad day in view of some crooked doctor. Kreizler's institution where he treats troubled children in a more gentle and progressive manner is the notable exception.
  • Being Tortured Makes You Evil: Japeth Drury wasn't the most sane young man to begin with, what with his fanatically-religious parents and being witness to grisly events on the frontier, but being sexually assaulted by a trusted adult friend was what finally pushed him over the edge.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Japeth Drury is killed and his murder spree stopped, but he dies before Kreizler has a chance to talk to him and try and discern his motives, meaning his efforts to find some kind of explanation for his murderous impulses were for naught. In order to quell the rising tide of dissent in the police department, Roosevelt has to whitewash Connor's dirty past and posthumously honor him for bringing down Drury (and to be fair, he was the one who mortally wounded him). And of course, Mary is gone. But our heroes have survived and moved past their own defining emotional traumas to become better people and good friends.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Connor takes out Willem Van Bergen with a single shot right between the eyes.
  • Butt-Monkey: Moore simply cannot catch a break. In addition to his long dead little brother, he gets the shit kicked out of him, drugged, (multiple times) in all likelihood sexually assaulted, Sara doesn't take his feelings seriously, Laszlo treats him rather poorly, he struggles with alcoholism, gets dragged into a depraved serial's killer ritualistic murder spree of young children, and you can count on one hand the characters who don't give him shit about something.
  • Camping a Crapper: Cyrus tries to do this to Captain Connor (unsuccessfully) as a payback for killing Mary.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Kreizler is really bad at communicating with other adults (he's fine with kids). Especially Mary; an attempt to tell her how he feels comes out all wrong and ends up pissing her off.
  • Can't Act Perverted Toward a Love Interest: As noted below, Moore behaves this way with Sara.
  • Chekhov's Skill: It's mentioned once or twice in passing over the course of the series that Sara knows how to shoot.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Moore gets it on with any willing lady, but he's not vulgar or abusive about it, and he's otherwise a decent guy. And he always acts the perfect gentleman toward Sara. He never really hits on her, except in a fond half-joking manner.
  • Christianity is Catholic: When Kreizler discerns the killer's pattern, corresponding to Catholic Saints' feast days, he refers to it as the "Christian Calendar." It's inaccurate to call it a "Christian" calendar, as not all denominations of Christianity recognize the concept of Sainthood and honor feast days the way Catholicism does. This may be Creator Provincialism on his part, since New York is predominately Catholic, and he was apparently raised catholic.
  • Combat Sadomasochist: Japeth Drury got his taste for killing while serving in the Army. He was part of the force that put down the Haymarket Riot, and his former commanding officer is visibly disturbed as he recalls finding Drury in the thick of things: surrounded by bodies, naked, covered in blood, and, "down there...stiff as a flagpole."
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: Though Laszlo is formally Mary's boss, in fact he is highly dependent on her in everyday tasks like changing his clothes or tying his shoes due to his crippled arm. He also has a bad temper, and when he misbehaves towards Mary, she is not above "punishing" him by leaving him to do these tasks on his own (which would not be a problem for a person with two functioning arms, but renders Kreizler basically helpless).
  • Crapsack World: It doesn't get much more crapsack than 1890's New York City. This is a place where thousands of impoverished immigrants are crammed into stinking hovels that the police don't bother coming to unless they want something, and a brutal serial killer can work with impunity so long as he doesn't prey on anyone who "matters".
  • Dark and Troubled Past: In scads, elaborating on the novel's central conceit of heroic characters with a history of trauma (in particular Laszlo Kreizler) seeking to understand characters whose history of trauma leads to their shocking crimes.
  • Defiant to the End: Mary. Connor kills her in the end, but she gives the son of a bitch a good beating, stabbing him in the chest before she goes down.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Sara Howard is frequently harassed and looked down on by the police force, as the first female employee of the department. She's even marginalized by Kreizler's team, although that's mostly out of a misguided desire to protect her.
  • Dirty Cop: Burns and Connor are both deep in the Van Bergens' pocket, and they have dealings with almost every den of ill-repute in New York. They start actively obstructing the investigation on the order of the Van Bergen family when their pedophile son Willem becomes a suspect.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: The killer's victims are young male prostitutes, which unfortunately means very few people actually care about their deaths.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Male on Male: Early in the investigation, a brothel-keeper slips a drug into Moore's drink to keep him from asking questions, turns the working boys loose on him, and then has him dumped out on the street half-conscious and half-naked. It's not clear exactly what the prostitutes do to him, but he's definitely assaulted in some way. It's never treated as a crime or a violation by any of the characters; everyone just chalks it up to another of Moore's drunken shenanigans, Moore included. He's more embarrassed by the fact that he wakes up with no pants. This may or may not be Deliberate Values Dissonance.
  • Dr. Psych Patient: Kreizler briefly encounters this trope when he visits the D.C. military asylum, and an institutionalized former field surgeon recognizes him from a medical seminar.
  • Everybody Smokes: As appropriate for the time period. Moore in particular steps up his smoking habit once he stops drinking.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: When Kreizler turns down J.P. Morgan's offer of assistance, knowing full well it's a Deal with the Devil, Morgan is absolutely baffled. It's almost as if he can't process meeting someone who can't be bought off.
  • Heroic BSoD: After Mary's death, Kreizler closes the investigation, and then spends the entire episode sitting alone in his dark quiet house, brooding, drinking, and occasionally breaking things in fits of anger.
  • Historical Domain Character: Several. Teddy Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan appear in supporting roles. Moore also briefly encounters a young John Jacob Astor IV during the finale.
  • Hollywood Costuming: In two episodes Sara is seen in her undergarments, including a corset. Historically women would have worn chemises underneath corsets to protect their bodies from possible welts and to protect the corset from sweat and body oils. Because of Fanservice, Sara is not seen wearing a chemise under her corsets.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Downplayed. Lucius and Marcus question Constable Doyle why he was at Kreizler's house when Mary was killed. Doyle says Mary had invited him in and mentioned she flirted with him. Only for Marcus to point out Mary was mute and cannot speak. Regardless, Lucius and Marcus unfortunately did not have enough proof to arrest Doyle.
  • Idle Rich:
    • The Van Bergens, and nearly every other upper class individual in the series, save Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and Roosevelt.
    • John Moore starts out showing some tendencies of this trope—he is a wealthy, hard-drinking playboy who only half-heartedly dabbles at his job as a crime illustrator for the New York Times, and who, by his own admission, “likes to avoid" what he calls "an honest day's work." However, as the series goes on, he begins to take on quite a bit of hard work in an effort to contribute to the investigation. Midway through the series, moved by his love for Sara Howard, he begins to change in earnest, giving up alcohol, working harder, and even attempting to learn how to type so he can take up reporting.
  • It Always Rains at Funerals: At Mary's funeral, after the pall-bearers lower her coffin to the ground and the service ends, only Laszlo and John stay, and it immediately starts to rain, turning the ground to mud, and reflecting Laszlo's mood.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: It in no way justifies him hitting her, but when Moore confronts Kreizler about him slapping Sara, Kreizler points out (in so many words) that Sara brought up his disability and Dark and Troubled Past completely unprompted and had the nerve to call him a 'coward' for not facing it after he repeatedly (and in greater and greater agitation) told her to just stop. Admittedly, she may have a point, but what she said was still unnecessary and way out of line.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
    • John Schuyler Moore is a cynical, ill-tempered drunk, but he's basically a good guy. He genuinely cares for Sara, he loves his grandmother, and he befriends the boy prostitute Joseph, making sure he stays safe and talking to him about how he might help him escape this life.
    • Kreizler can be a jackass and has his own hang ups, but he feels genuinely responsible for a pair of children being murdered under his watch and just wants to stop the killer before he hurts more people. It's also clear he does value his friends, even if he comes off as unappreciative, especially in regards to Moore and Cyrus.
  • Jewish and Nerdy: The Isaacson twins.
  • Karmic Death: Captain Conner was thoroughly unpleasant and disrespectful towards women, verbally abusive towards their spouse, subjects Sara to harassment frequently and was the one who killed Mary. In the end, it was a woman who killed him.
  • Kick the Dog: Kreizler likes to do this to his friends to push them away.
  • Love Triangle: Moore-Kreizler-Sara and briefly, Moore-Kreizler-Mary, but that was mainly Moore trying to rattle Kreizler's cage.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Martha Napp is wrongfully executed for her daughter's murder.
  • My Greatest Failure: Kreizler takes the case very personally and very seriously, once he learns that one of the victims was a former patient of his, and that his advice might have been indirectly responsible for his death.

  • Nice Jewish Boy: Lucius Isaacson. He is presented as kind, intelligent, polite, hard working, and deeply devoted to his mother and his religious faith.
  • N-Word Privileges: Kreizler refers to himself quite frankly as a cripple due to his disabled arm, but doesn't take kindly to anyone else doing so, especially when they're trying to condescend to him.
  • Only Friend: Moore seems to be Kreizler's just because he puts up with way more of Laszlo's shit than he strictly speaking has to.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Stevie is probably the toughest kid outside of a Charles Dickens novel. Very little rattles him. When he meets the killer face-to-face during the stakeout, he is shaken to his very core, unable to even speak in full sentences for a while afterwards. It takes him the space of two episodes to recover.
  • Operation: Jealousy: When Moore learns that Kreizler and Sara are out together, he treats Mary to a night on the town. It's heavily implied he did this to make both of them jealous.
  • Police Are Useless: The New York City Police Department is so corrupt that they'd rather ignore these horrible murders than actually investigate them, for fear of opening a number of worm-filled cans about their own activities or those of their wealthy patrons. Roosevelt's trying to change that, but he's got a steep uphill battle to fight.
  • Politically Correct History: Several characters have more progressive opinions than would be expected for their time period, though they do face some pushback. Kreizler, of course, demonstrates a decidedly modern insight and understanding of gender identity. And after Roosevelt mentions witnessing similar mutilations during skirmishes with Plains Indians, the team consults with the Docent of the Museum of Natural History, who demonstrates an atypical knowledge of and affinity for Lakota culture. He quite firmly insists that the murders couldn't be the work of anyone from that culture: desecrating the body of a fallen enemy is done to ensure that he's crippled in the afterlife, and no self-respecting Lakota warrior would ever see a child as a threat deserving of such treatment. This knowledge is what leads the team to conclude that the killer is imitating acts he may have witnessed or seen images of, without understanding the context behind them.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Walking Irish stereotype Captain Connor, a Dirty Cop who verbally abuses his wife and children, subjects Sara to low-key harassment and intimidation at every opportunity, and has no tolerance for "fairies and sodomites." He's also quite liberal with slurs like "wop" and "guinea." His attitudes wouldn't be too far afield of what would have been socially-acceptable at the time, but he is an unnecessarily massive dick about it.
  • Power Dynamics Kink: Kreizler and his servant Mary have a very weird power dynamic in their relationship, where on the one hand, Kreizler is Mary's boss, but on the other hand, he is highly dependent upon her because of his bad arm. Mary seems to enjoy Laszlo's timidity whenever he needs her to do something for him.
  • Powerful People Are Subs:
    • Kreizler is an ambitious psychiatrist and quite a high-ranking member of the New York society, but there are some hints that he enjoys a submissive role in romantic relationships. This shows up in his conversation with the professional dominatrix Mrs. Williams (he mentions that he enjoyed her stories of "men's vulnerabilities"), and in his relationship with Karen Stratton, who takes him to various kinky places. His relationship with Mary also has strong undertones of this kind: he is highly dependent on her due to his bad arm, and she enjoys his timidity whenever he needs her to do something for him (and whenever he pisses her off, she just leaves him on his own, and he cannot even tie his own shoelaces without her). Besides, while Mary was away, he sneaked to her room to sniff her clothes.
    • There is also the unnamed brewery foreman who is one of Mrs. Williams' clients. In her own words, he's "used to giving orders", but "in here, he prefers taking them".
  • Private Detective: Sara becomes one at the start of Season 2, having left the NYPD to open her own agency focusing on cases brought by women.
  • Proper Lady: Brutally deconstructed with Mrs. Van Bergen. She is an elegant, well dressed, primly mannered upper class lady who, on the surface, appears to be a model wife and mother. However, it is eventually revealed that she is an aloof, careless monster who has not only turned a blind eye to her son’s perversions, but has actively enabled them. There are even subtle hints that she may have molested her son at some point.
  • Psychopathic Man Child: Willem Van Bergen, one of the team's prime suspects. He likes to drug and rape young boys, and when confronted by it he throws a temper tantrum like a spoiled eight-year-old.
  • Red Herring: Willem Van Bergen, the most likely suspect, is not the killer, as evidenced by the fact that another murder is being committed almost at the exact same time that Connor tracks him down and shoots him dead.
  • Scary Teeth: The main suspect in the case is a regular the prostitutes refer to as "The Man with the Silver Smile." This turns out to be a side effect from contemporary medical treatment: at the time, syphilis was treated with mercury, which could stain the teeth. Willem Van Bergen has such silver-colored teeth. The actual killer does not have the same issue.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: A running theme in the narrative. The Van Bergens use their money and influence to shield their son Willem from the investigation despite him being a prime suspect. Willem tries to invoke this when Connor chases him down, but it doesn't save him.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Japeth Drury murdered nearly his entire family in his first act of killing. Only his older brother, who had already left the area, was spared. The massacre is so brutal that the locals actually chalked it up to an Indian raid, and the remains of the Drury farmstead has become the local "scary old house on the edge of town."
  • Serial Killer: As in the novel, the series talks about the idea of a serial killer - a murderer who kills repeatedly, in adherence to a pattern, for seemingly no material motive - as a relatively new concept. Jack the Ripper is briefly discussed in reference.
  • Smoking Is Glamorous: Elegant professional Sara and dashing detective Marcus both smoke in especially attractive ways (for Sara it also marks her off as something of a rebel, as well as one of the guys).
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Joseph is killed in the book. Here he just barely survives.
  • Surprisingly Good Hungarian: Brühl's delivery of Kreizler's Hungarian lines is nearly flawless.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: After digging into Drury's past, some members of the investigative team, such as Kreizler, cannot help but feel sorry for the serial killer, as he had a Dark and Troubled Past and went through many traumatic events in his childhood and adulthood.
  • Theme Serial Killer: The killer's pattern corresponds with Catholic Feast Days, likely a result of his messed-up religious upbringing, which enables Kreizler's team to predict and track his attacks.
  • Too Broken to Break: In the second season finale, after interrogating Libby, Thomas concedes his inability to break her will. Laszlo retorts:
    Laszlo: You can't break someone that is already broken, Mr. Byrnes.
  • Tranquil Fury: Everything that's happening puts Theodore Roosevelt in an almost constant state of slow burn.
  • Turn in Your Badge: After Connor misleads Roosevelt about Willem Van Bergen's location, causing him significant embarrassment, a seething Roosevelt kicks him off the force right there.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Nearly all of the upper class men presented in this series (save Kreizler, John, and Roosevelt, who are presented as consummate outsiders) fit this description, but Willem Van Bergen, Roosevelt’s “friend” Hobart Weaver, and Jack Astor stand out as particularly apt examples of this trope.
  • Violently Protective Girlfriend: Not too long after Kreizler and Mary begin their relationship, Connor breaks into Kreizler's house to find him. Kreizler wasn't home but Mary had no problem picking up a knife and attacking Connor to make sure no harm would come to Kreizler. Mary would get killed in the scuffle.
  • Weakness Turns Her On: Laszlo relies on Mary for a great deal and when the two of them are in close proximity the frosty doctor turns into an awkward schoolboy. It would be much weirder if Mary wasn't so visibly into it.
  • Wham Episode: "Psychopathia Sexualis": the team uncover the identity of the killer, and Moore and Kreizler barely survive an assassination attempt. Meanwhile, Connor and his thugs break into Kreizler's house and kill Mary.
  • Wound Licking: Lampshaded when Dr. Kreizler offers to lick a cut on his servant Mary's hand. He tells her that saliva contains a natural coagulant.
  • Wretched Hive: Late 19th-Century New York City is a hotbed of filth, crime, and corruption. Which is somewhat Truth in Television.