Is 'The Alienist' a Critique of Capitalism or a Pro-Neoliberal Narrative?

(screengrab from TNT's The Alienist opening title sequence)

Author Caleb Carr's The Alienist explores the 19th century psychiatric debate between free will and determinism. TNT's nearly identical adaptation of the novel, however, comes up with a completely different conclusion.

The Alienist
Caleb Carr

Random House

October 2006 (reprint)

The Alienist


21 January - 26 March 2018


The opening title sequence of TNT's The Alienist was nominated for an Emmy in 2018. With its haunting musical score and graphic visuals of New York City's urban landscape intercut with the main characters' faces in various stages of construction and decay, the Emmy nomination is justified. But the title sequence is more than just aesthetics: the juxtaposition between the city and the characters establishes The Alienist's central tension and theme.

Here's where it gets interesting. TNT's The Alienist is an adaptation of Caleb Carr's 1994 novel of the same name, and both the show and the novel meditate on the same social issues. However, though both renditions of the story are asking the same questions, they come to exactly opposite answers.

Set in 1896 New York City, The Alienist is the story of Laszlo Kreizler a psychologist-turned-detective, who uses 19th century psychology to track a serial killer of young boys. Like Jonathan Groff's Holden Ford in Netflix's Mindhunter, Kreizler creates a psychological profile of the killer through a blend of cutting-edge psychology and detective work.

Carr's novel is a period-piece detective story brimming with vivid historical detail and personas. His most thorough recreation, though, is of the psychological theories of the late 19th century. The novel's central tension hinges on the debates between proponents of determinism and of free will. Kreizler champions social and psychological determinism (the idea that people are products of their social context, early childhood experiences, and biological makeup), while his Harvard professor William James argues for a theory of free will (the idea that people have the ability to choose their actions freely at any given moment). Though oversimplified, Carr successfully uses these competing theories to establish his real purpose: a critique of the American social system.

Hand in Water by TheDigital Artist (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

John Moore, the novel's narrator and Kreizler's old college chum, sums up the stakes of these two competing psychological theories. While watching a fictionalized debate between Kreizler and James, Moore is torn "between loyalty to [Kreizler] whose beliefs had always made [Moore] uneasy and enthusiasm for [James] and a philosophy that seemed to offer the promise of limitless possibilities for not only [Moore's] but every man's future" (47). Moore puts his finger on the novel's cutting social critique: Kreizler's social determinism makes Moore uneasy because it lays the responsibility—say, for the brutal murders of young boys—at the feet of the society that creates the individuals, while James's free will maintains that responsibility lies with individual actors.

And Moore is not the only one who is uneasy. New York's social elite actively obstruct Kreizler's investigation, though not for the clichéd purpose of protecting one of their own (the TV show's red herring is that the killer is a spoiled adult-child of an upper-class family), but because they fear the implications of Kreizler's social determinism. If he proves that systemic corruption and social inequality create a society capable of producing brutal child murderers, the social status quo—this theory suggests—would have to change. Hired by the elite to do their dirty work, the corrupt ex-chief of police spouts off a fiery but revealing tirade against Kreizler and his ideas: "Rank determinism…speaks against freedom, against responsibility! Yes, I say it is un-American!" (301).

"Un-American"—there's the rub. On the surface, the novel is about a psychologist-detective tracking down a serial killer, but just beneath the surface lurks a narrative that probes the culpability of an American capitalist system for its role in the crimes committed by those oppressed under the ideology of the "American Dream". More than a simple tug of the proverbial bootstraps is needed to address the issues underpinning systemic inequality. Carr takes to task American capitalism and neoliberalism. The Alienist's antagonist is not the serial killer -- society itself. The murderer is but a symptom; the social system that perpetuates gross inequality and inhumanity is the disease.

TNT's The Alienist takes a different approach, however: the show keeps the novel's plot intact while completely reversing its social criticism.

Luke Evans as John Moore, Daniel Brühl as Laszlo Kreizler, and Stephen Louis Grush as Jesse Pomeroy (IMDB)

Consider the following scene, entirely original to the show, from Episode 5, "Hildebrandt's Starling". Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) consults an old psychology professor (not James, but David Warner's Professor Cavanaugh) for assistance in overcoming his biases toward the case. The professor recalls Kreizler's first college examination in which he was required to describe a starling. After several attempts, each of which the professor deems incomplete, Kreizler spends three days examining the bird, at which point "the poor thing began to molt." It was then that Kreizler had finally "seen" his bird, the professor claims.

Part of this exchange is about reminding Kreizler to value method over conclusions, which helps him get back on the killer's trail. But there is another important component at play: time. Echoing the images of construction and decay in the opening credits, the bird begins to molt—to change—over the course of the examination. The bird, like a human being, is not a static object that can be assessed once and for all; living beings require continual examination because, over time, they change.

Luke Evans as John Moore and Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard in "Hildebrandt's Starling" episode (© TNT / IMDB)

Like the bird, the characters in the show change over time as well. But they change through personal exertions of free will. Moore (Luke Evans), a heavy drinker, white knuckles through his alcoholism in order to prove his marriageability to Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning). Kreizler's housekeeper and eventual love interest, Mary (Q'orianka Kilcher), who in her youth set her father on fire as revenge for repeated sexual abuse, proves through her years of dutiful service to Kreizler that she is a changed woman.

In the final episode of the series, Kreizler and Sara reveal to each other the secrets of their past, secrets that continue to torment them in adulthood. Rather than being a congenital defect (like it is in the novel), Kreizler's underdeveloped arm is the result of a violent outburst by his abusive father. Sara reveals that she assisted her father in killing himself after his botched suicide attempt. In response to these revelations, Sara tells Kreizler that they must use the memory of their pain to help others, instead of allowing their pasts to haunt them (a watered-down description of determinism). If everyone was determined by their childhood trauma, she states, "we'd all be murderers."

This prompts the concluding scene in the series in the "Castle in the Sky" episode, just before the final credits roll. Kreizler visits his ailing father (Tim Barlow) in order to make amends. Despite his father's perennial maxim that "[n]ature never allows a man to be more than he is. Only less," Kreizler now believes, after the events of the series, that "we can be better than nature intended."

Better than nature intended. This is the sentiment that concludes the TV series.

The idea that an individual could be better than nature intended would be, if you'll forgive the pun, alien to the Kreizler of the novel, to say the least.

Carr's novel contains a pointed critique of systemic inequality. It depicts a power and class conflict through competing psychological theories of social and individual responsibility for one's actions, bringing to the fore a social hypocrisy that usually remains behind closed doors.

TNT's reimagining of The Alienist papers over this critique with a neoliberal narrative that shifts responsibility from society to the individual.

I'll end on an example: After the killer is apprehended, Kreizler dissects the killer's brain in search of anatomical abnormalities that might explain his violent behavior. This occurs in both the novel and the show. In both, the brain is found to be perfectly normal. The Kreizler of the novel concludes that the healthy brain "indicates that [his theory of determinism] was right" (Carr 481). In the show, the exact same evidence leads to exact opposite conclusion. The Kreizler of the show states the healthy brain "proves we don't know anything. God works between the lines."

God works between the lines? This is an extremely uncharacteristic statement, even for the show's reimagining of Laszlo Kreizler, because Kreizler is a staunch and outspoken atheist and refuses to concede anything to a higher power.

This moment of confusion is emblematic of the show's ultimate failing: its neoliberal revision of the source material turns all deviant action into a moral failing on the part of individual actors, refusing to acknowledge the political and economic underpinnings of social life or hold accountable the people with the most power.

Ultimately, The Alienist dramatizes the struggle over who controls the narrative of responsibility, and TNT's adaptation makes it clear who is winning.





PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.


Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".


Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.


The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.


NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.


South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.


Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.


Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.