[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “The Alienist” finale “Castle in the Sky.”]
After months of research, late nights, stakeouts, and diving into dark psyches, “The Alienist” investigative team finally finds their man … and then promptly loses him when a rogue police officer shoots and kills him. It’s a frustrating outcome for all involved, but most especially Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), whose work profiling the killer feels incomplete.
Over the course of the season, Kreizler’s attempts to profile the man he’d come to know as Japheth Dury, aka John Beecham, uncovered horrific stories of emotional abuse at the hands of his mother and sexual abuse from a trusted family friend. Although Kreizler can’t condone Dury murdering and mutilating boy prostitutes, he eventually came around to having a bit of sympathy for him. “We set out to find a monster, but all we found was a child,” Kreizler muses after the case has closed.
The themes of childhood trauma have been recurring throughout the show. Executive producer Rosalie Swedlin spoke with IndieWire for “The Alienist” finale and how each of the main characters went through a personal journey to alongside the breakthroughs in the investigation.
“For each class of society, we get to see the relationships between parents and children, especially in the case of the boys who are either sold into prostitution or put out on the street and find their ways as a means of earning a living,” she said. “Most often, they were boys who were beaten or abandoned or sold off by parents with debts and other issues. Even in the upper classes, children and parents are estranged. I think it’s an underlying theme that is played out in many different ways.”
Count Kreizler among those children. In a revealing scene with Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the good doctor discloses that his weak arm is not a congenital condition as he had been claiming, but rather the result of his father’s abuse and temper. It’s a sobering revelation, but one that explains why Kreizler has pursued his particular profession and identifies with troubled youth, which includes the grown Japheth Dury.
“We felt after that scene between Kreizler and Sara, where he finally tells the truth about what happened to him as a boy, that a culmination of that cathartic moment is the visit to his father and to make peace with the anger, frustration, and secret that has held him back,” said Swedlin. “The idea is that Kreizler is liberating himself to be a more emotionally connected human being. He’s a brilliant man and he is doing great work in the world, but he’s a very closed off person through most of the series. That scene we hope leads to him being a generally more emotional and connected person.”
Sara was the one who had seen through Kreizler’s lie about his arm from the start, likely because she also suffered from a childhood trauma involving her father. In that same heart-to-heart with Kreizler, she reveals that her father had depression and eventually tried to take his own life. Unfortunately, at 12 years old, Sara was the one to find him still alive but suffering from the missed shot. Together, father and daughter finished what he had started. The experience explains why she hadn’t been put off by some of the more gruesome aspects of the cases and knew how to handle a gun at critical moments.
“It becomes the catalyst, if you like, of why she can be heroic when everyone’s lives are in jeopardy,” said Swedlin. “That character arc has been very carefully built in through the series knowing where we wanted it to go.
“In one of the episodes, if you remember, she goes to Blackwell’s Island and Moore says, ‘That must’ve been difficult for you,’” said Swedlin, referencing Sara’s visit to the insane asylum that’s housed on what’s now known as Roosevelt Island. “In the second episode, Moore shares with Kreizler … that after her father’s death when she was 12 years old, she spent some time in a sanitarium. So, as I say, we’ve peppered in hints and seeds that will lead up to what’s revealed in the final episode.”
Despite those tragic circumstances, her father also had a positive influence on Sara and made her uniquely equipped to shatter the glass ceiling when it comes to women’s involvement in law enforcement. On the show, she’s the first woman to be hired by the police, and after this experience, she’s looking to continue working cases if she’s allowed.
“She was very much influenced by her father who taught her… to ride, to use a gun, and to drink whiskey if she was going to be able to hold her own in a man’s world,” said Swedlin. “From the time she was a child, she was very much brought up to believe that she could accomplish something in the world. So, it becomes her primary motivation.”
It’s this side of Sara that longtime friend John Moore (Luke Evans) must accept when she refuses his declaration of love. She’s a career-minded woman and doesn’t have time for his foolishness. But he’s not to be deterred and promised to wait until she reached her goal of becoming “chief of detectives.”
As the third leg in this crime-fighting triangle, Moore was initially written as a crime reporter in Caleb Carr’s novel that inspired the series, but on the show, he’s a society illustrator, which is made easier by his upbringing and natural charm. This is initially an asset for the investigation.
“Kreizler says publicly, ‘People like you more than they like me,’” said Swedlin. “At the beginning when they think that the murderer might well have come from the wealthy class, the entitled class, Moore’s a great help to Kreizler.”
Despite his privilege, Moore was also deeply troubled, had a drinking problem, and was somewhat lost after his fiancee left him with nothing but heartache, resentment, and a twisted brothel habit. There’s also a rift with his family due to a disagreement over how to address how his brother really died.
“When we meet him, he’s alienated from his family, he’s spending a lot of time in Frenchtown in the houses of prostitution and drinking,” said Swedlin. “When his grandmother organizes a little tea party, he talks about his brother’s drowning and you get the sense that he was the only one who spoke the truth about what caused his brother’s death.
“Kreizler recognizes his friend is in trouble and by enlisting him in the investigation, it was a little bit of tough love and a hope that he would rehabilitate more to his better self, help him get out of this personal malaise that was caused by his brother’s death and his alienation from his family,” she added. “We wanted to create more of a character arc for Moore to give him someplace to go. That’s what led to the decision not to make him the crime reporter at the outset.”
His journey was perhaps less dramatic than the others’ but he nevertheless became a more confident person who believed in love again and stopped turning to alcohol to solve his problems.
Season 2 Possibilities
Since none of the main characters have died and Carr has written a second novel in the “Alienist” series, “The Angel of Darkness,” the show could conceivably come back. There’s no word yet though if there will be a second season, much less one that follows that story.
Swedlin said, “We love the characters, and our goal when we set out to make the show was to tell the story of the book, which has a finite ending when they catch Beecham. At the moment, there are no plans for a further installment, but the whole process has been a great joy. So, who knows? And if those costumes are still available, I wouldn’t mind having one of them. I love the men’s suits as much as Dakota’s costumes.”