[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from the first episode of “The Alienist,” titled “The Boy on the Bridge.”]
On TNT’s “The Alienist,” John Moore is part of a team trying to unmask a serial killer who has been targeting boy prostitutes who dress as girls. Getting into the mind of the murderer requires that they understand his past traumas, but Moore has his own problems that he’s not facing.
On the surface, Moore is an upstanding late-19th-century illustrator who is accepted in the highest circles of society. He also has a very peculiar practice when he frequents the local brothel. As he visits his favorite sex worker, she wears an engagement ring, which he provides. When they’re done, he pays her and gets the ring back. We’ve seen this curious transaction take place twice in as many episodes. Luke Evans, who portrays Moore, spoke to IndieWire about about his complex character in a recent interview.
“Julia, the name that he calls the prostitute, that is a slow trickle. It’s conversations that happen within the first five or six episodes,” said Evans. “The grandmother has a very important part to play in it. She’s incredibly direct. He’s surrounded by people who constantly nag him and tell him that he’s not doing what he should be doing at his time in life and, ‘Maybe she wouldn’t have left you if it wasn’t for this or for that.’ You do finally get to understand what it is has happened.
“It’s a very sad situation,” Evans continued. “This guy is trying to relive a moment and he’s hurting himself. He believes that he’s done something wrong. And even though he has these very small moments of love, of closeness and intimacy with the same prostitute that he goes to and gives the engagement ring, and reenacts this very sad moment. It’s a desperate moment. Why would you go and pay somebody to go and reenact it? He’s hurting himself. He’s disciplining, he’s beating himself up emotionally.”
Although “The Alienist” is adapted from Caleb Carr’s novel of the same name, this is a bonus character trait that was not seen in the book. Executive producer and director Jakob Verbruggen explains, “The book is written from Moore’s point of view. He’s the narrator. We didn’t have that much information about him, so we developed his character a little bit further in our series.”
Evans added, “He wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s a hopeless romantic. So that along with the alcoholism makes him sensitive to everything.”
Moore’s more emotionally wrought style is in direct contrast to his colleagues. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) is the alienist in question, the 19th-century version of a psychologist, who is trying to profile the killer. Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) has ambitions of doing police work, but has been relegated to the role of secretary because of the few career options open to women at the time.
“[Kreizler] forces Moore to find a purpose, to find a place within the team,” said Evans. “Moore has to prove to Kreizler and to himself and to the team and to the audience that he has a reason to be there. And so Moore uses his ability to open doors that Kreizler would never be able to open, his charm factor. The fact that he drinks in some of these places allows him to access to people and to barmen and to prostitutes and to all these, the underbelly of society the other people in the story would not be able to get access to.”
Moore’s relationship with Sara Howard is more complicated. They’ve known each other a number of years, and Moore still wants to shield her from the more gruesome details of the case. She takes this overprotection as well as can be expected.
“He’s completely mesmerized by her and her strength and her wit and her bravery and often he tries to be the gentleman and is completely snubbed by her when she says, ‘For god’s sake John, I trained in medicine. I understand. I’ve seen dead bodies before,’” said Evans. “So his charm factor is completely thrown to the side because she doesn’t need him to be a gentleman. She doesn’t need him to be mollycoddling her and keeping her seeing all the nice things in life. She’s in police force because she wants to solve crimes.”
Howard also sees right through Moore, especially when she has to wait outside the brothel for him to finish to speak to him about the case.
“She doesn’t give him an inch for quite a while. She really is quite harsh with him, and in a way it’s good,” said Evans. “I mean, she knows he has problems and he has issues. She allows him in slowly but she also tells him exactly what she thinks and that’s what he needs. He’s been licking his wounds a little bit too long.”
As for a potential romance between the two, Evans would only say, “The hopeless romantic in him sees any wonderful young woman as an opportunity to maybe find the love of his life, maybe move on from this heartbreak and this jilted fiancee. He’s much older than her but their families have known each other for a long time.”
Verbruggen added on last note about how things may play out with the group.
“All our main characters, they’re all alienated in some kind of way,” he said. “They’re loners because they represent new ideas. Society doesn’t accept them. What they know and will understand is that they need each other. They will create this surrogate family. I think over the course of 10 episodes, we’ll get to know more and more about these people and the demons they carry with them. I think it’s because of Kreizler that they make peace with their past. You have to understand your own past in order to continue in life.”
“The Alienist” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.