'The Alienist' Season 1, Episode 8 Is Like 'Ready Player One' For America's Foundational Evils

The Alienist episode 8, "Psychopathia Sexualis," takes the show on the road. It leaves behind the pathologized class geography of New York City for a whirlwind tour of the United States' other great sins, most powerfully a principle still at work today: the tendency for the violence of wars abroad to find its way home for deployment against the oppressed classes.

"Psychopathia Sexualis" opens in love, with Mary Palmer (Q'orianka Kilcher) and Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) pining for each other across a great distance (they hooked up at the end of Episode 7), with Mary in New York and Kreizler with John Moore (Luke Evans) on a train to Washington D.C. There they hope to learn more about their top suspect: a soldier who served out West and drove Sioux and Lakota native people into reservations on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs until he was declared unfit for service and committed to a government hospital.

Kreizler and Moore's adventures on the East Coast leave Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) feeling left out, so she too leaves New York to chase down a potential lead upstate in New Paltz. With the Isaacson brothers (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) riding the rails out to North Dakota to speak with their suspect's commanding officer, most of The Alienist cast spends "Psychopathia Sexualis" outside of the city, swapping the show's dense, smog-choked urban milieu for the surprising forested and rural ubiquity of 19th century America. That makes "Psychopathia Sexualis" one of most distinctive episodes yet; an intriguing break from the rest of the series.

Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and John Moore leave the city to investigate their most promising suspect yet. Warner Bros. Television Distribution

It also becomes an opportunity to explore themes beyond the New York upper crust and the dangerous sexual marketplace made invisible by the wealthy's police department lackeys. The Alienist has always been comfortable dropping real-world events and people into the mix, most notably Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, but Episode 8 goes even further. Sitting Bull and other real events in the military campaigns against native tribes feature prominently. And, it turns out, our suspect spent some time adding to the police atrocities during the Haymarket massacre in Chicago, an 1886 demonstration interrupted by an anarchist bombing. The police responded by opening fire on the crowd of labor union strikers. A subsequent trial resulted in the execution of five anarchists, tried for conspiracy based on their politics rather than any demonstrated connection to the bomber. Unsurprisingly, this episode's script, with its focus on labor protest, is credited to John Sayles, who has captured the struggle of oppressed people and the lower classes in movies like Matewan and Lone Star.

Consistent with the Kreizler (and the show's) psychological theories, Episode 8 is about how society creates its monsters. Similar to the modern day militarization of the police, "Psychopathia Sexualis" draws a link between imperial ventures, in this case the continental suppression of native tribes, and violence at home. Military tactics abroad become domestic police tactics. Our suspect committed atrocities against Native Americans and working class protesters in Chicago, just as he would later visit violence upon the sex worker underclass in New York (assuming, that is, we have our man).

Even if the eighth episode of The Alienist can feel a little too interwoven with contemporary events, like the Ready Player One approach to America's foundational evils, it does an excellent job expanding the scope of its central thesis: that the serial killer doesn't act alone, but is instead created, nurtured and enabled by power structures dug into society like blood-sucking ticks.

Unfortunately, while "Psychopathia Sexualis" builds a powerful profile of a killer whose history of violence is coterminous with the nation's, it also falls back on some of the genre's pulpier storytelling choices. Despite J.P. Morgan backing Kreizler's investigation in the last episode, "Many Sainted Men," the cops still have it out for Moore and Kreizler, sending TV's most incompetent assassin to shoot at their horse-drawn carriage (it's never really clear why the police are tailing them, beyond the vague threat of Kreizler's new investigative methods to their billy club approach to police work). Even worse is the episode's end, which retroactively cheapens Kreizler's lovesick character growth by killing Mary. It's a little disappointing that The Alienist's most powerful expansion of its themes, revealing American history to be the serial killer's co-conspirators, ends with a death that instead screams "this time it's personal."

The Alienist Season 1 returns next Monday to TNT for Episode 9, "Requiem."