If there is one thing that The Alienist: Angel of Darkness’ finale taught us, it’s that this second season belonged entirely to Sara Howard. The psychological queries that so dominated the first season, as well as the “let’s pull together this trio of misfits” aspect, took a backseat to the (Number One Ladies’) detective agency that Sara set up. It was through her that the first case of the missing Spanish baby was solved, the truth of the Lying In hospital was exposed, and the connection with Libby was first made. While Lazlo flirted with another alienist and John fretted about his love life, it was Sara who took control in terms of the season’s mysteries.
That’s not to say, of course, that the dynamics among the trio are not still key both to the series itself and to the success of their detective work. John’s connections, Lazlo’s insights, and Sara’s skills as an investigator all work in perfect tandem. But with the story itself focused, ultimately, on a bereaved woman who shared a childhood trauma with Sara—and whose crimes were certainly all rooted in femininity—it made sense for Sara to be the one in the group who took center stage. (Although in more general terms, Rosy McEwen was putting in the work as Libby).
Though Angel of Darkness was two episodes shorter than the first season of The Alienist, it managed to tell a story that was truly all over the place. Not that I minded; revealing Libby as the perpetrator of the many, varied crimes the team investigated allowed for a different kind of tension from the first season. Here, Libby continued to evade the group again and again, managing not only to steal another baby, but also escape from prison and steal back her own daughter. So much of it was wonderfully ludicrous (any one of this season’s plots could have sustained it alone), and yet, fully riveting to watch because we were rewarded with crescendo after crescendo. We were positively swept from one episode to the next (perhaps so we wouldn’t think about it too deeply—it worked!)
Sure, some further examination by Lazlo may have been warranted (why did Libby turn the babies into dolls? Why did those other babies die? Why did she photograph them? etc.), and John having a little more to do other than avoid his fiancé and pine for Sara would have been good. And yet, the show is always adept at making us care deeply about these characters and their personal moments. It’s not just about the crime. If that were true, something like Marcus’ death wouldn’t have hit as hard as it did, and Lucius pulling the trigger to save our leads and get his own kind of revenge wouldn’t have been so triumphant.
And in the end, both of those sides to The Alienist’s appeal came together in Sara’s story. She was able to connect with Libby enough to get the location of the Vanderbilt child, and her hand was more or less forced to admit her feelings for John (and to explain to him why she had hesitated with him in the past). But neither final outcome was purely good. Libby, broken beyond repair, had lost everything and was alone, facing (presumably) her execution. Sara pondered her connection with her, undoubtedly thinking of their shared history (a loveless mother, a father who committed suicide) and how she could have taken a different path herself. She has walls and she has pain like Libby, but she internalizes rather than externalizes those issues. And then, just when we start to think that John could accept her for who she is and maybe, just maybe, they could forge a life together on their own terms … his pre-marital relations with Violet meant that the wedding will go on. Even Lazlo managed to find a partner by the end of Season 2, and all of this served as an interesting inversion of Season 1’s light love triangle. Now Sara marches forth solo in her personal life, although her thriving professional life is another story. (All three leads, in fact, found a large degree of professional accomplishment by the end of Season 2, with John getting a promotion and Lazlo off for a Freudian adventure.)
There is not currently a third book published in The Alienist series, although apparently author Caleb Carr has one set 20 years in the future to be released in 2022 (which might as well be 20 years in our own future, at this point). The series took a fairly long break between its first and second run, but given that the production completely changed its directing and writing team in the interim, why not go with a fresh story for Season 3? Of course, if The Alienist ends here (at least for now), it has done so with a fair degree of satisfaction. Sara is the face of the new working woman, Lazlo is on the cusp of a psychological movement that will sweep the world, and John is … probably still trying to avoid his now-wife, but is at least trying to hire POC at the New York Times. They’re all going to be fine, even though perhaps no one is happy exactly (except maybe Lazlo). But it wouldn’t be The Alienist if they were. What the series has delivered, once again, is a riveting crime drama with a viscerally alive setting that is both dank and glamorous in turn. For any of its faults, it must be said: there is not another show quite like this one, and it will be missed.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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