Not until after World War II did women truly come into their own. Prior to that we were still mostly wives and daughters. When the men went to war, we went to work and just like the song, how were they to be kept on the farm after that? The song was about soldiers and the coming vision of an urban world tempting them to leave their small farming towns. It was also about the work force that had been made up of Rosie The Riveter and the satisfaction women got from keeping the home front going and helping their men overseas by turning out war machines. Not for much longer would we be content to do the laundry and rear the kids. We wanted to learn to drive and earn the money for our own damn bank account.
But that’s not really where it started, is it? One could say it began with Mary Shelley writing ‘Frankenstein’, a real departure from the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. Or maybe it began with the women’s suffragist movement and gaining the vote. Women have always been nurses and healers and midwives but in the late eighteen hundreds they began to fill secretarial positions that had once been the milieu of men.
Other occupations were sought by women and they had to begin somewhere, right? In ‘The Alienist’ we see the female lead, Sara Howard, appointed as the first female in the New York City police department. Of course, she’s in a secretarial position but it’s as the assistant to the newly appointed police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt. Not bad, Sara. In this touted role, and under the auspices of a tolerant but often exasperated boss, our girl throws herself into what she really wants: a detective’s job.
Let me say first that the people who designed the sets and man the cameras for this TNT television masterpiece have done a bang-up job of recreating NYC just prior to the year of 1900. Its roads are only slightly less clogged, but this time it’s with horse drawn carriages. Crowded tenements are criss-crossed with outdoor clothes lines and chickens and pigs roam the streets freely. If the dingy streets are illuminated at all it’s with gas lights and often the colors are washed out completely to give that nice, eerie black and white touch. Sitting in your easy chair in front of the tv you can feel the cold fingers of the soupy fog.
The story is a mix of genres. Thriller, detective mystery and horror with a little romance thrown in for spice. Mix it all up and you have a show that’s hard to watch at times. Season one’s plot was centered around the murders of boy child prostitutes. This was not the New York of modern times where we find such things to be shocking but, honestly, it’s probably no less prevalent today nor is the plight of homeless children. We’d like to think so because it’s become a cause celebrated by famous people and the stuff of headlines, movies and television but it’s still going on. Social programs haven’t fixed the larger problem.
The Alienist shows us a John Q. Public who turns a blind eye to these horrid happenings because they aren’t deemed edible by a polite society. A matron might contribute her time and money to found a charity but she wasn’t about to make a trip to the Bowery and get her hands dirty. Men adopted a laissez-faire attitude and left it to the police.
Not Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), Dr. Laszlo Kreisler (Daniel Bruhl) or New York Times reporter John Moore (Luke Evans). Together with the emerging men of forensic science, Marcus Isaacson (Douglas Smith) and his brother Lucius (Matthew Shear), they plunge headlong into hot water with the police force, often run by corrupt officers who are getting fat off graft and their association with the criminal element preying on these exploited children.
I wondered what an alienist was when I heard the commercials for the show. To my surprise I turned around and saw it was a period piece and not some new sci fi offering. Okay. Then I found out it was the early term for psychiatrist, that people who were mentally ill were thought to be “alienated” from their true nature, therefore, a doctor of the mind was an “alienist.” Oh.
Dr. Kreisler, the alienist, is a man with compassion rather than a compulsion to lock away insane people. His approach is to find out what trauma resulted in a sane person committing an act deemed to be the result of insanity or outright brutality. He champions their cause and testifies in court for a more humane approach in dealing with pathological criminals.
John Moore scoops every other reporter by his willingness to walk the mean streets and fight for his shocking articles to make the front page. He’s a dark horse in the newspaper business and doesn’t hesitate to use his skill to follow a lead, right into the very mouth of madness.
The forensic detectives are the beginning of what will eventually become pathologists and CSI technicians. We get to see them try out a new idea that will become fingerprinting and cheerfully, but with all due respect, cut into the bodies of victims and discover cause of death. They’re invaluable members of the team and the forerunners of scientific police methods.
Sara Howard is respectable and moves in the upper echelons of New York society but she doesn’t hesitate to use her position to further her ambition or cram well-crafted insults down the throat of her detractors. She smokes, drinks bourbon straight and is a crack shot with a pistol. She’s also generous of heart and fearless in her determination to bring justice to the helpless and downtrodden.
So, here’s to you, Sara (and Ms. Fanning). It had to start somewhere. Probably with a true-to-life woman a lot like you.