The Alienist season 2 review: Angel of Darkness is an unpretentious whodunit done thrillingly well

New York City, 1897. Babies are being kidnapped, and turning up dead. Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) is joined by her friends, the alienist Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) and journalist John Moore (Luke Evans), in solving the grotesque crimes.

Rohini Nair October 26, 2020 11:22:54 IST
The Alienist season 2 review: Angel of Darkness is an unpretentious whodunit done thrillingly well

Still from The Alienist Season 2: Angel of Darkness | From L-R, Daniel Bruhl as Laszlo Kreizler, Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard and Luke Evans as John Moore | Photo by Kata Vermes for TNT

The most recent spate of "big ticket" pop culture offerings has been something of a mixed bag: There was the pioneering, oft-sublime and oft-patchy Lovecraft Country; the gorgeous but underwhelming Perry Mason; the overhyped hotchpotch of Ratched; the much-awaited and ultimately dismal The Haunting of Bly Manor, to name just a few. Amid these, comes the unpretentious but solid 'Angel of Darkness' — season 2 of 19th century psychological crime drama The Alienist.

Season 2 of this TNT Original corresponds with book 2 in Caleb Carr's Laszlo Kreizler series, named for the 'alienist' (as early experts in the emerging field of Psychology were called) who uses his knowledge of human behaviour to profile — and nab — criminals. If The Alienist season 1 had Laszlo (Daniel Bruhl) front and centre of the story, then 'Angel of Darkness' shifts the POV to his associate, Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), who has moved on from her previous job as secretary to New York City's police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, and set up her own private detective agency.

Late-1800s, turn-of-the-century New York isn't as prominent a character in this second season as in the original, but it still makes its presence felt, manifesting in the control the city's rich and powerful exert over all the rest, in the way class — and of course, gender and race — permeate nearly every aspect of human life.

When 'Angel of Darkness' begins, Sara is solving dubious domestic crimes — mainly called on by wealthy old women who suspect their house help of stealing silverware. A more important case has her, John Moore (Luke Evans) and Laszlo occupied in various capacities: a destitute young woman called Martha McNabb is being put to death for the murder of her infant. The trio believes that Martha is innocent (not least because the baby's body hasn't been recovered), but their attempts to get justice for her are thwarted. The testimony of the doctor in charge of the lying-in hospital Martha gave birth at, is key in having her sentenced to death.

The execution is only just behind them when Sara gets called in on another case — the baby daughter of a Spanish diplomat is kidnapped, right from her cradle, and a doll, eyes painted over in the 'memento mori' style, left in her place. Senor and Senora Linares wish to keep the kidnapping quiet — there are tensions between Spain and America, talk of an impending war, and they have little reason to believe that American law enforcement will treat their case with the required urgency or discretion. Barely has Sara begun to investigate the matter that a dead baby (also painted like the doll) — later identified as Martha McNabb's infant — turns up in the toy section of a swish department store. Realising that time could be running out for the Linares' child, Sara ropes John and Laszlo into the case, with occasional "inside information" from their old friends — the forensic police detectives Marcus and Lucius Isaacson (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear).

Their quest leads them to uncover the decidedly shady happenings at the lying-in hospital, to which both Martha and Senora Linares are connected. They further discover that the murderer/kidnapper has had other victims. Everyone brings their strengths to bear as the clock runs out: Sara channels her sharp criminal detection skills, John helps with the research and legwork, the Isaacsons pitch in with forensic clues, Laszlo profiles the person who could be behind the crimes, using hypnosis to uncover Senora Linares' suppressed memories from the day of the kidnapping. This is teamwork at its finest.

By making everyone an equal contributor and with Sara as the POV character, season 2 is a far better binge watch than its predecessor. The Alienist is among those shows where the second season is a marked improvement on the first, and this is seen in the tighter pacing (eight episodes as opposed to the debut season's 10), lesser exposition and more action, fewer side quests and red herrings. Sara may not be as warm and outgoing a character as John, but she's still a lot more expressive than Laszlo as the main protagonist.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the portions that season 2 could have pruned are Laszlo's attempts to understand paraphilias — a digression that doesn't have much to do with the main case. The will they-won't they nature of John and Sara's relationship, carried over from the previous season, feels a little stretched out at a certain point, but is a pleasant enough diversion from the tension of the hunt. The original cast are all settled in their roles, and this season's roster sees some fine additions in the form of Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones' Roose Bolton, seen here as the unsavoury hospital doctor); Rosy McEwen as Libby Hatch, a nurse at the hospital who Sara forms a significant connection with; and Matt Letscher as newspaper mogul (and John's in-law to be) William Randolph Hearst.

It's been nearly two-and-a-half years since The Alienist released on Netflix back in May of 2018, so interest in its second season may not be as high as it should/could be. That's a pity because 'Angel of Darkness' is the kind of gripping period murder mystery that is almost the template for gripping period murder mysteries. It's unlikely that The Alienist's season 2 will be labelled genre-bending art or prestige TV, but it is — from beginning to end — a good story, told well. Contrasted with a rash of TV shows that over-promise only to under-deliver, the no-frills, dependable consistency of 'Angel of Darkness' is a refreshing palate cleanser — and satisfying enough.

The Alienist Season 2: Angel of Darkness is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here

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