The TNT drama series The Alienist took a bit of a long, circuitous route to finally make it to the air (at one point Cary Fukunaga was going to direct all the episodes), but the finished product proved to be a compelling, binge-worthy murder mystery wrapped up in a prestige drama series’ clothes. And while the mystery was solved by the end of Season 1, the show’s second season – which features an almost entirely new and different creative team – offers up a new grisly murder trail for the show’s trio of amateur detectives to solve. The Alienist: Angel of Darkness is less a Season 2 and more of a sequel to the show’s first season, as it pretty much resets the board and forges ahead with a new narrative. And while the show struggles to turn into something truly remarkable, it remains a compelling enough watch thanks to solid performances, high production value, and a genuinely captivating new case.
When The Alienist: Angel of Darkness begins, the show’s lead characters have been separated. Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) – previously a secretary for Theodore Roosevelt – now heads up her own detective agency. Meanwhile, John Moore (Luke Evans), previously an illustrator, is now a reporter for the New York Times; and Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl)… well, Dr. Kreizler is still putting his expertise as an alienist to good use.
When a kidnapped baby turns up dead and displayed in grisly fashion, followed by the kidnapping of another baby, Sara suspects a serial killer may be on the loose. She reconnects with Laszlo and John to try and find this recently kidnapped child before it’s too late, and as happened in the show’s first season, their investigation leads them down some shady paths.
Season 2 opens with a potentially wrongful execution of a woman accused of murdering her child, which Sara and Laszlo protest, and a good chunk of the season’s story appears to revolve around female agency – or lack thereof in New York City’s “Gilded Age.” It’s no surprise, then, that Sara takes center stage in Angel of Darkness, and Fanning clearly delights in taking on a more forceful role this season. Sara leads the charge for much of the investigation, which makes for a nice change of pace from Season 1. Laszlo is compelling, but a little goes a long way.
Also back from Season 1 are the charming brothers Marcus and Lucius Isaacson (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear, respectively) to run some forensics on the increasing pile of bodies popping up, Robert Ray Wisdom as Cyrus, and Ted Levine as former NYPD Commissioner Thomas Byrnes. Levine in particular is a delight, chewing the scenery and quite literally twirling his mustache as one of the show’s effective antagonists. As with Season 1, Angel of Darkness digs into themes relating to social status, corrupt policing, and the spillover of politics into, well, everything – to varying degrees of success. Indeed, while the show’s heart is in the right place, it somewhat stumbles to find an elegant way to tackle all the issues it wants to. Sara just outright saying, “I am a strong, independent female woman!” wouldn’t feel entirely out of place.
Pretty much the entire creative team is new this season. Stuart Carolan takes over as showrunner, and Peaky Blinders alum David Caffrey effectively takes over as the show’s primary director. The transition is relatively seamless – this still feels like The Alienist, it’s just less of a continuation and more of “another story.” Again, Angel of Darkness is much more like a sequel than a Season 2, but the production value remains high.
It’s also not significantly better or worse than the show’s first season. The Alienist never quite joined the ranks of The Americans or even Boardwalk Empire as a “great” period drama series, and Angel of Darkness doesn’t really see the show making that leap in quality. But sometimes all you want is a really compelling murder mystery with high production value and compelling characters, and in that way The Alienist: Angel of Darkness delivers. It also must be said that, as we head into Month 5 of quarantine, a little quality goes a long way. Is Angel of Darkness great? Not really. Will I keep watching to find out who did the murders? Absolutely I will.
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness premieres on TNT on Sunday, July 19th, with two episodes airing back to back starting at 9pm ET/PT.