[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Alienist” episode “Psychopathia Sexualis.”]
Well, that was disappointing.
“The Alienist” has made an effort to present more progressive viewpoints in its story, overlaying this modern mindset onto the Victorian-era murder mystery. Issues about class, gender, race, and more have been explored in such a way that feels as natural to question now as they might have been during the turn of the century. That’s why it’s frustrating that one key element of Caleb Carr’s original novel didn’t get a similar update.
At the end of Monday’s episode, “Psychopathia Sexualis,” the former Captain Connor (David Wilmot) and a couple of his thugs are sent by NYPD Chief Byrnes (Ted Levine) to make sure that alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler doesn’t solve the boy prostitute murders before the cops do. That would be embarrassing, not to mention undermine the people’s faith in the boys in blue. What exactly Connor & Co. plan on doing isn’t very clear beyond throw around some muscle in Kreizler’s home in his absence. Unfortunately, during this visit, housemaid Mary (Q’orianka Kilcher) plummets to her death after struggling with Conner and busting through the banister on the second floor of the house.
Poor Mary fell victim to one of the worst tropes: fridging. In this storytelling device, a disposable loved one is killed off at a key moment to cause the main protagonist anguish. This event can completely dishearten or derail a hero or serve as motivation for revenge or to fight/try harder.
It’s not clear exactly what effect that Mary’s death will have on Kreizler since she died as the episode’s last moments, but their relationship feels as if it were created purely as a plot device. She never really had much to do in the story except in reference to Kreizler (while Dakota Fanning’s character Sara had her role expanded from the novel). The show only saw fit to get Mary and Kreizler together last week, and he was giddy with newfound love even as his own life was in danger in this episode, as if to highlight the tragic irony or her death. The timing is also unfortunate since this is probably the most progress that the investigation has made in the case, having tracked down the name of the person who fits the killer’s psychological and historical profile. Just as Kreizler’s investigative team gains momentum, this happens.
Sadly, a decision that initially seemed positive – casting actress Q’orianka Kilcher in a role that was initially written as blond-haired and blue-eyed – has now turned sour. Fridging Mary means that the show has killed off a woman of color from a featured role. That Mary also had a type of aphasia just makes matters worse when it comes to the depiction of an underrepresented person. This, after last week’s strong messaging about privilege and oppression.
To be fair, killing off Mary occurs in Carr’s original novel on which the show is based, even though the specifics are slightly different. Therefore, it’s not entirely the show’s fault in its poor treatment of Mary, but given how much the series has already changed and updated the narrative, it’s disappointing that this one dismal plot point not only remained intact, but was rendered even more problematic with the casting choice. This is not a good look for “The Alienist.” It remains to be seen how or if the series will try to correct the optics of this with two episodes left.
”The Alienist” airs on Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.