‘The Alienist’: Dakota Fanning Takes Center Stage to Solve a New Crime in ‘Angel of Darkness’

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” has chosen well to premiere in the summer. Not only because viewers currently social distancing will have another intriguing case to follow, but because it is structured like those great paperbacks one can sit down with at home. These are the origins of this TNT show which is the latest serial adaptation of a Caleb Carr novel. The first season of the simply titled “The Alienist” was based on Carr’s first book in his “Kreizler series,” named after one of the main characters. This one continues into the second book, with a new case but greater emphasis on its female characters.

 Atmosphere overall is the name of the game here as the season begins in New York City in 1897. The streets are gritty and full of smoke and poverty. Sara-Howard (Dakota Fanning) now runs her own private detective agency with an all-female staff. However the caseloads are disappointing as they mostly consist of rich clients convinced their servants are stealing. But there is high tension when Sara, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and comrade and New York Times reporter John Moore (Luke Evans), attend the electric chair execution of a woman they believe to be wrongfully accused of killing her child. The three are reunited even further when another infant kidnapping occurs. This time it is the child of a Spanish diplomatic family. Tensions are running high with Spain and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Matt Letscher) is eager to stoke the fire with his publications. The investigation to find the missing baby will take Sara, Moore and Kreizler deep into the heart of the city’s corruption and madness.

It does not matter much if you missed the first season of “The Alienist,” because “Angel of Darkness” is its own narrative. Like the novel it is based on it continues the narrative thread of its characters’ personal lives, without connecting them to some overall, grander plot. As viewers we can only be grateful considering the plot of this season branches out into so many different characters, interests and twists. But that is the tradition of this genre and the question is whether it gets pulled off well. “Angel of Darkness” drips with great atmosphere, evoking an 1890s New York where every corner feels dangerous or as if something eerie is hiding behind battered walls. The writing team, including Carr who helped pen a few episodes in this 9-chapter run, enjoy connecting the main characters to the historical events of the time. Moore is now engaged to Violet (Emily Barber), illegitimate daughter of Hearst, and so Moore finds himself at dinners where the newspaper tycoon fuels talk of the upcoming Spanish-American war. Sara is meanwhile a feminist pioneer, running her detective office while decrying the death penalty with the suffragette movement. Alienist Kreizler hears a lot about Freud and wants to try out the new method of hypnosis with witnesses involved in the missing child case. All this happens as they are surrounded by a late 19th century America still run by strict, misogynist and racist codes. Goons chop up bodies and dump them near a harbor, so the Hearst papers can claim it was done by Spaniards. Kreizler debates a doctor, Markoe (Michael McElhatton), whose views towards gender verge on eugenics. 

“Angel of Darkness” is not meant to cater to history buffs of course and will appeal to viewers as the TV equivalent of a page-turner. The central mystery begins simple enough with the kidnapping of an important baby.  Early episodes close in the same style of returning to a darkly-lit shot of the infant in a cradle somewhere in the clutches of the villain, without showing us just who it is. We get a parade of possible witnesses and suspects, the most intriguing of which is a maternity ward nurse played by Rosy McEwen who befriends Sara and might know some darker secrets concerning Dr. Markoe. Never does the writing spoil or give away too much. Episodes never feel lumbering because the characters’ own personal stories get just as involved as the case. This season it becomes even more obvious that Moore and Sara love each other, but the journalist wants a family and Sara is an independent, brilliant woman who loves her work. Is he willing to sacrifice some of his more traditional wishes to be with Sara, or will he settle for life with the well-bred Violet? Kreizler gets his own love interest with Karen Stratton (Lara Pulver), a fellow Alienist. 

The addition of Stratton helps turn “Angel of Darkness” into a more female-centric offering than the first edition of “The Alienist,” which was more focused on Kreizler and his work as an ancestor of today’s profilers. “Angel of Darkness” is almost entirely focused on Sara, her emerging role as a detective and how she has to maneuver in a male-dominated 19th century city. To get into a courthouse she has to lie to a prejudiced guard by pretending she’s under orders from Washington, D.C., and while she has feelings for Moore, she has no intention of being a housewife. There are other ways in which the show explores the system’s unfairness to women in how little police work is done to solve the missing children’s cases at the heart of the plot, instead the cops simply arrest someone like the Spanish baby’s mother without evidence. Violet gets perks from her father, but she is also an example of how powerful men like Hearst use women as playthings.

As in the first “Alienist,” there are great performances here, the best of which is Fanning who carries the show fully as Sara. She has that strength bred by independence and intelligence, while Daniel Brühl goes to some darker places as Kreizler. Ted Levine is the most fun returning cast member as the gruff and intimidating former police commissioner Byrnes, who makes people snitch with a mere stare. Casting Levine in this show was always a stroke of genius for those who remember him as the serial killer Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Never doubt that the case will get solved by the final episode, but it is a twisting, disorienting road where the perpetrator will be a complete surprise. But when that surprise comes it is written with some memorable drama as the story becomes a classic tale of crime inspired by loss, scarred memories and heartbreak. The crime is just one brushstroke in the canvas because later matters of the heart must be solved, particularly between Sara and Moore. Even after a killer is caught, their bond remains with all its complications.

Dressed in dirty streets and shadowy hallways, “Angel of Darkness” has edge mixed with an old-fashioned way of setting up a mystery and spreading it out for several chapters. Every week it reveals just enough to keep us coming back, mixing gothic ambiance with bloody murder and shared feelings too dangerous to admit.

The Alienist: Angel of Darkness” premieres July 19 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.