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‘The Alienist’ Humbles Its Hero to Tackle Issues of Class, Privilege, and Systemic Oppression

Laszlo Kreizler’s progressive ways aren’t quite progressive enough.

"The Alienist"

Kata Vermes/TNT

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Alienist” episode “Many Sainted Men.”]

Set in 1896, TNT’s “The Alienist” hasn’t just been invested in the central mystery of a serial killer preying on boy prostitutes, but also in exploring how society is on the brink of change during the turn of the century. Advances in criminal profiling, forensics, and other police work have been the focus as the killer is sought, but plenty of other social issues have been raised as well.

Copping to Corruption

Before diving into the issues involving Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), we’ll take a small digression that highlights one of the class inequities that are experienced by those who actually are supposed to have some power in the city: the police. After Connors (David Wilmot) went vigilante and killed off Willem Van Bergen (Josef Altin) last week, believing he was the culprit behind the murders, NYPD Head Thomas F. Byrnes (Ted Levine) had to explain just how wrong Connors was. You see, Van Bergen belonged to a very wealthy and very influential family. It was in the police’s best interest to shield him from the investigation and perhaps spirit him out of the city before he could do more harm.

Ted Levine, "The Alienist"

“We have to take care of the rich; they keep us above the primordial filth,” said Byrnes. “Without them, we’re not better than animals. So long as they have money, we do their bidding.”

While corruption is timeless, it’s sobering to hear just how little autonomy the city’s police have to actually do their job. Instead, they’re expected to act in direct opposition to their job: to aid a person they believe to be a child killer.

Laszlo Gets Called Out

A lack of agency isn’t just prevalent among law enforcement in that era, though. Sadly, unless you’re a rich white male, options are far more limited. In Kreizler’s circle of colleagues, it’s clear that there are still divisions, ones of his own devising. Monday’s episode, “Many Sainted Men,” uses Kreizler as a lens through which the blindness that comes with privilege is explored.

Let’s make no mistake: Kreizler is absolutely privileged. Besides being able to move around in society with ease, it appears that he has unlimited funds even though he doesn’t seem to have any sort of ongoing employment. Oh, he’s written a paper or two, and has been consulted for his alienist skills, but nothing regular. He doesn’t live simply either. He’s somehow able to run a school for misfit kids, and a meal at Delmonico’s is always a splurge, but he thinks nothing of throwing an extravagant dinner there just so he can have a meeting to talk about the case. It doesn’t seem like the alienist team needed J.P. Morgan’s offer to fund their investigation at all.

Kreizler is a generous man though, and it’s revealed that he financed the education of Joanna Crawford (Brittany Marie Batchelder), the niece of his manservant Cyrus (Robert Wisdom). In an illuminating scene at the hospital where Cyrus is recovering after being accosted, though, she and Kreizler have a conversation that reveals that while she’s grateful for his patronage, he’s not as benevolent or egalitarian as he thinks he is.

Brittany Marie Batchelder, "The Alienist"

The first indication that she’s going to call him out is when he greets her as “Miss Joanna,” but then she corrects him and says, “Miss Joanna would make you Mr. Laszlo.” In that society, calling someone by their first name is a familiarity used for very close associates or loved ones, or in the case of employer to employee. Colleagues you respect should be addressed by their surname. It should be noted that Kreizler respectfully calls Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) “Miss Howard” and not “Miss Sara.” Realizing his mistake, Kreizler shifts to “Miss Crawford.”

Later, she reveals that she has gained employment with the Philadelphia Tribune, and that once she gets enough money, intends to pay him back for putting her through school. While Kreizler is quick to turn down the offer, explaining that Cyrus’ “services over the years” is more than enough repayment, Crawford points out that part of Cyrus’ service was nearly getting killed. It’s clear that she doesn’t think very highly of how Cyrus is employed by Kreizler.

Although Kreizler insists that he and Cyrus are friends, Cyrus is a servant and spends most of his time working in the stables. They are not equal, and their so-called friendship complicates matters because it creates a loyalty and sense of obligation in Cyrus to his employer for the extra level of decency.

Crawford puts it best when she addresses how Kreizler’s kindness isn’t friendship at all. If they were really friends, he would’ve released Cyrus from his service.

“I see keeping him downtrodden through courtesy and progressive ideas is simply more effective than shackles and a whip,” she says. “Thank you for letting me know about my uncle, doctor. And thank you as well for paying for my schooling. I still intend to reimburse you.”

The Imperfect Ally

Robert Wisdom, "The Alienist"

“The Alienist” is not subtle in its messaging, and in this case, that appears to be needed to get through to Kreizler. There is no denying that he is a good and kind person, albeit one with his share of problems. This episode has done a better job of exploring him in more depth than the haphazard hints dropped previously.

In this case, his problem is that moving through life with privilege makes it difficult for him to see some of the inequities others face. And in trying to be progressive, he sometimes stumbles and reverts back to accepted societal behaviors that nevertheless continue to oppress and marginalize others. It’s a problem that still exists today among people who want to be allies, but lack the knowledge of just how big and ongoing the obstacles are that others face.

“I see I’ve offended you without knowing why,” Kreizler tells Crawford, and this is her opening to educate him.

Kreizler’s issue is one that’s tied up in noblesse oblige: the concept of how nobility’s privilege makes it incumbent upon them to help out the less privileged. On the surface, this sort of charity appears compassionate and benign, and the downtrodden certainly benefit. Inherent to this concept though is that such charity is seen as noble behavior, and thus, it justifies their privilege. In doing so, it justifies the lower classes’ lot in life. It’s merely another tool of systematic oppression.

Crawford sees this, and it’s why she wants to repay her debt to Kreizler, making this a business transaction without having him as her patron, which would give her a feeling of duty to him. Also, his paying for her schooling gives her the tools to be freed from him. He’s actually done better by Crawford than he has by her uncle.

Kreizler, no dummy, takes this lesson to heart, and later apologizes to Cyrus and Stevie (Matt Lintz) for putting their lives in danger. Although they say there’s no need for forgiveness, this conversation is a start in how their interactions can go forward, as Kreizler can no longer take them for granted. Change could happen.

Q'orianka Kilcher, "The Alienist"

As for his housemaid Mary (Q’orianka Kilcher), he offers to let her go and work elsewhere, which upsets her. Her difficulties with speech and her violent past would make it hard to find other work, and then there’s the complicated matter of their feelings for each other. Once Kreizler is able to remove the employer-employee barriers by asking her to eat dinner with him, is he finally able to acknowledge their mutual attraction?

Of course, beginning a romance with one’s housemaid is its own sticky situation. If he wants to continue the relationship, that will bring up issues with her employment, whether she’ll also be obligated to take care of his household but also sleep with him. Also, would he be willing to acknowledge her as his partner in public? Somehow, all of this seems like a very, very bad idea, one that he hadn’t thought through because of his privilege.

”The Alienist” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.

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