“The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” puts the women front & center

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness Daniel Bruhl, Dakota Fanning & Luke Evans in The Alienist: Angel of Darkness (TNT)

Season 2 of TNT’s Victorian era crime thriller turns the spotlight on Dakota Fanning & an eerie plot about kidnapped infants.

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Season one of TNT’s The Alienist gave the television crime procedural a penny dreadful twist, with a disturbed killer leaving his grisly calling card of mutilated boys all over gilded age New York City. Based on Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name, The Alienist worked despite its unrelenting grimness mostly because of its dynamic ensemble cast. Daniel Brühl starred as Dr. Kreizler, the titular Alienist (an early word for a behavioral psychologist) with Dakota Fanning as the ambitious young Sara Howard and Luke Evans as the resident himbo/newsman John Moore. While season one focused heavily on Kreizler and his methods of criminal detection (think a turn-of-the-century Will Graham) season two shifts focus and relies on Dakota Fanning’s Sara as the hero.

Set one year after the events of the first season, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness is still as grisly as viewers have come to expect, kicking the premiere off with the execution of a woman suspected of killing her infant daughter. Sara, Kreizler, and Moore each attend the execution in their respective roles, Sara as part of a group of suffragettes protesting the death penalty. When another baby is taken from the home of a wealthy Spanish diplomat, Sara is brought in with her team of lady detectives to recover the child before it is too late.

The Howard Detective agency brings some much-needed variety in the form of Sara’s detectives, particularly Melanie Field as the resourceful Bitsy, who is instrumental in discovering the identity of the kidnapper. In fact, Angel of Darkness seems to belong primarily to the women, with John Moore now engaged to Violet (Emily Barber), the illegitimate daughter of William Randolph Hearst (Matt Letscher), and Lara Pulver as Karen Stratton, an Alienist much like Kreizler. Newcomer Rosy McEwan is particularly terrific in her scene-stealing, scenery-chewing maternity ward nurse. Even veteran actress Alice Krige is on deck as Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The division between the middle-to-lower classes and the Upper 400 have never been more underscored than they are here, nor the division between the sexes. While Sara represents the new, trouser-wearing, vote-seeking, business-owning woman, there are those who do not have her financial privilege, whose only choices are to become mistresses for wealthy men like Hearst and his ilk, who like to impregnate their mistresses as a display of their physical prowess before quietly shunting them off. And then there are those women who have children not because they wish to, but because it is what is expected of them. For Sara, it is easier to let go of the prospect of love and marriage than it is to reconcile with the specter of motherhood.

The division between the middle-to-lower classes and the Upper 400 have never been more underscored than they are here, nor the division between the sexes.

Fanning steps into the role of protagonist with confidence and empathy, even managing to win over the brutish and troublesome former police commissioner Byrnes (Ted Levine), who ended season one as a sworn enemy of the trio. Her sharply observant mind is just as admirable as Kreizler’s, if not as celebrated, and Fanning does an admirable job of showing how any woman would chafe in obscurity while their male counterparts gain celebrity.

Sara Howard is every bit the brooding, stoic detective, with Evans’ John Moore playing the soft-spoken, breathlessly adoring reporter. It’s a refreshing spin on an old trope and the two actors embody their respective roles well, with plenty of lingering glances and unspoken frustration. Evans is particularly enjoyable as a man who understands and accepts his own limitations, who is comfortable with allowing the gun-toting Sara to play rescuer to his damsel in distress.

While the show takes great pains to hide the identity of this season’s villain, the reveal comes as no great surprise. There’s still a ticking clock to beat, with the babies of wealthy families being stolen right out from under the watchful eyes of nannies and mothers alike, but Angel of Darkness makes a concerted effort to spend more time with the perpetrator. In the end, it is not a monster the intrepid team must apprehend, but an object of pity, a person whose victimhood has led them into the darkest places a mind can go. There is still plenty of blood spilled, but for a show called The Alienist, there is very little Alienism happening on screen, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

While the dialogue at times gets hokey, there is an earnestness at work behind every performance, stitched into every costume and painted into each drab street sign. There is a real feeling of momentum as the 19th century breathes its last lingering breaths, and that momentum is echoed in the rising and falling actions of these eight episodes. Just as you can feel New York on the cusp of great change in the new century, the finale sees the three leads going their separate ways (for a time at least) as each embarks on an exciting new future. If TNT decides to end the series here, it would make for a complete and satisfying end.

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness premieres July 19th.

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness Trailer:

Beau North
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