“The Alienist” does, however, play to the cheap seats in another way common to period dramas of its ilk: period-appropriate gore and squalor, and as much of it as you can stomach. The episode’s first shot is of a corpse, one of many laid out in a morgue and illuminated by flames lit to burn off the gas inside each cadaver’s bloated belly. A visit to the tenement home of the Santorellis, whose child was one of the victims, reveals a waterfall of sewage, a horde of screeching rats and a baby left to crawl through the hallway while the parents scream at each other inside.
Irish cops beat witnesses to a pulp. Underage sex workers in revealing drag attach themselves like leeches to prospective clients. The eyeless heads of slain humans and cattle stare blindly and balefully at us through the screen. The contrast with the opulence of the opera house and restaurant where Kreizler and his companions convene is striking, sure, but it’s also about as subtle as Captain Connor’s interrogation methods.
More interesting than all the sociopolitical and physical carnage is the leitmotif that ties it to the rest of the investigation: imagery involving the eye. The emphasis makes perfect symbolic sense as our heroes attempt to bring that which is hidden to light. The grisly removal of an eyeball from a cow’s head by the twin forensics specialists Marcus and Lucius Isaacson (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) — an attempt to determine the killer’s weapon — certainly makes an impression to that effect, just as an “Arkansas toothpick” made an impression on the victims’ eye sockets. The team gazes through magnifying devices (used for the then-fledgling science of “finger marks”) and later through opera glasses in order to spy on Commissioner Roosevelt and his companions — an aging Mayor William Lafayette Strong and the philandering robber baron J.P. Morgan.
When Sarah and Kreizler ride home from dinner together, their professional and personal chemistry is communicated through a setup that has her staring almost directly into the camera as she speaks, looping the viewer into their conspiracy to carry on with the investigation. Sarah’s eyes also come into play when the corrupt and leering Captain Connor spots an eyelash on her cheek and plucks it from her face, demanding she blow it from his fingers, which are encrusted with the dried blood of a recent assault victim, for good luck. (Her refusal to do so does not sit well with the good captain.)
Many of the episode’s most significant moments rely on little or no speech at all. The most cinematographically striking sequence of the episode is a series of close-up crosscuts between Sarah’s inquisitive gaze and the unsolved casefiles, as she rifles through them in search of homicides that fit Dr. Kreizler’s pattern. The handsome Marcus Isaacson arranges a sexual liaison with comely socialist he spots on the street almost entirely through sidelong glances, to the point where they don’t actually introduce themselves until they’re already in the act. (“Nice to meet you!” “Likewise!” they pant, in one of the episode’s comedic high points.) We observe Kreizler’s thus-far silent maid, Mary (Q’orianka Kilcher, intense but underutilized), form a one-sided connection with Sarah, revealed entirely by her quiet stare.
In the final scene, John Moore lies paralyzed in a brothel as some kind of drug or poison takes hold, at the mercy of Captain Connor and his gangster cronies. The last thing we see is a close-up his terrified eyeball. He gasps, unable to speak. But his eye tells us all we need to know about the darkness that’s descending.