“THE ALIENIST”— Suffering from Mental Illness


Suffering from Mental Illness

Amos Lassen

“In the 19th century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.” This quotation is seen at the beginning of each episode of “The Alienist” and it there to remind us just how early this story takes place in the history of psychology. In the last years of the nineteenth century, science and civil rights alike were both on the verge of exploding; and these both had a serious impact on society in general, especially in the context of law and order and they were was ready for their own revolution.

According to what we see here, the New York Police Department was more concerned with maintaining a status quo which best suited their associates in the church and big industry. This meant a combination of traditionalism, corruption and turning a blind eye to minor crimes. Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) was police commissioner in New York at this time, and when young boys started turning up murdered and mutilated (prostitutes and immigrants; definitely low priority cases), he saw that the only way to get the crime resolved effectively was to authorize an unofficial investigation. This was already underway, led by the renowned/controversial “alienist” Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and his friend from the New York Times John Moore (Luke Evans).

Roosevelt authorized the use of police time in the form of three more forward-thinking individuals, with the challenge that Kreizler solve the crimes before the official (and slack) police investigation could, so as to prove the value in radical approaches. These three were Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the first woman to join the police department – albeit as a “typewriter”, though with the mind of a detective – and brothers Marcus (Douglas Smith) and Lucius (Matthew Shear) Isaacson, who relished new scientific investigatory tools such as fingerprints. Thus the “fruitful partnership” is born.

“The Alienist” is a mystery/thriller and a history, and social commentary squeezed into one ten-episode story. The series was based on the 1994 novel of the same name by Caleb Carr. I usually do not have a problem watching adaptations of novels that are not identical to their sources but here it seems there was such determination to adapt the setting and main plot with care that a few minor plot points and characters were squeezed so small that a received insufficient explanations.

The camera is the main character here— episode was beautifully shot. The series is full of gritty and challenging scenes and images and there are issues of child and domestic abuse and anti-Semitism.


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