In this essay concerning the TNT series The Alienist, Emily Kubincanek explores the breakout performance by newcomer Rosy McEwen and touches on major spoilers for all of season two.
The second installment of TNT’s The Alienist had a lot to live up to. It needed the same exquisite period costumes, the same playful banter between the main crime-solving trio, and an equally gruesome crime for them to solve. Thankfully, The Alienist: Angel of Darkness exceeds those expectations and more.
As the show shifts focus towards the women of New York City during the Gilded Age, its most impressive performance doesn’t come from the slate of stars returning for a second season. Newcomer Rosy McEwen‘s breakout performance outshines the experienced screen actors around her while putting a face to The Alienist‘s commentary on 20th-century women’s issues.
The first season of the series, based on the novel by Caleb Carr, follows the psychologist — a.k.a. the alienist — Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and his mission to solve the grisly murders of numerous young boy sex workers. He enlists the help of New York Times writer John Moore (Luke Evans) and secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) to track down the serial killer.
Angel of Darkness, also adapted from a Carr novel, reunites the three, although there have been some changes in the year between seasons. Sara now has her own private detective agency, equipped with an all-female staff. John is now engaged to William Randolph Hearst’s daughter. And Dr. Kreizler dedicates all his time to his own psychiatric institute.
In the first episode of the second season, Sara tries to prevent the execution of a woman wrongfully accused of murdering her baby. She soon becomes enthralled in her most dangerous assignment yet as she tracks down the real killer, who continues to kidnap and murder babies around the city.
Angel of Darkness announces its consideration for the Gilded Age’s effect on women from that first episode. Huge crowds of women protest the execution of a wrongfully-accused mother. We peek into the harmful and fatal environment of Lying-In Hospital, which is solely for the unfortunate mothers of wealthy men’s unwanted children.
Sara’s female detective agency is surely breaking boundaries, but not without push-back from the community. The juxtaposition between what women are fighting for (suffrage, careers) and what they’re reduced to (homemakers, sexual playthings, emotional wrecks) shows a society pulling women in all different directions at the same time. These themes show up in multiple facets of the show, from the historical context to the driving force for Sara’s conflict.
We see a tangible manifestation of those themes in the new character Libby Hatch, played by McEwen in her first-ever television role. Introduced as a docile nurse in the Lying-In Hospital, Libby allows Sara to penetrate the secrecy of the hospital and reveals its unfavorable goings-on.
After some coaxing, Libby agrees to help Sara find the connection between the hospital and whoever is kidnapping babies across the city. She also opens up about her troubled childhood, something Sara identifies with. They grow closer and their friendship seems to be evolving into a powerful partnership in finding justice.
That all changes when Libby reveals herself as the deranged killer they’ve been trying to catch.
McEwen’s performance takes Libby from being a simple disguised villain to an incredibly nuanced and unpredictable leading force of the show. While the main characters remain rather flat and predictable, McEwen gives Libby the energy the others lack. She seamlessly transitions from the likable, even pitiful young woman looking to be understood to the dangerous killer capable of taking an infant’s life. Of course, it shouldn’t be inconceivable that a woman can be both. We have long accepted male serial killers as such and praise the performances portraying them as well.
In an interview with TV Goodness, McEwen reveals how she approached the complexities of her character: “She’s not a psychopath [who] doesn’t feel emotion [or show it] behind the eyes,” the actress explains. “She has had a traumatic childhood, but the way that I approached it was I had to go right back to the basic human instinct, which she feels… Basically the only way that I could get on board with everything she was doing was going back to the roots of what she feels, which is essentially a need to be loved, which is an innate human feeling that we all have. And going back to that basic need. From there, I could build everything on top of that.”
Libby’s tragic backstory makes the story interesting, creating a shocking twist mid-season. There couldn’t be a twist without a powerful performance from McEwen. We must first be convinced of Libby’s nonthreatening personality. McEwen draws us into focusing on a character that, at first, seems like a small player in a big game.
She plays into the assumptions that people had for women at that time, helping her slide under the rug, making her conventionally likable in the audience’s eyes. Just as we grow to like her vulnerable scenes with Sara, McEwen switches gears and shows us what we didn’t think Libby could be capable of. She attempts to murder her coworker (another spy for Sara) and escapes, leaving us dumbfounded.
The next time we see Libby, she murders her boss from the hospital. McEwen manages to still give us the softer, wounded side of Libby all while violently lashing out. We can see on her face that she hates what she is doing but cannot help it. Her anger and rage quickly give way to tears when she’s finished murdering an innocent woman.
After the act, she lays down with her victim and holds her, searching for some comfort despite her hatred for the woman. These two moods seem like they could belong to two different people, yet McEwen is able to blend them into a cohesive performance. This creates such a torn image of our newly revealed villain, and it’s fascinating to watch.
We never know what McEwen will achieve next in the performance. The range of emotions she can run through in a scene is leagues more than what we are accustomed to seeing on this show. She is unfiltered and doesn’t bury her emotions like the rest of the characters. She’s able to be pitiful, begging Sara to help her find her baby, and then point a gun to her head with no hesitation in the same scene. The Alienist normally lets the set and costume design do the showboating, not the actors. In a cast of otherwise rather reserved characters, Libby outdoes them all.
Actually, thanks to this complicated and unruly character, the main slate is challenged as well. Sara holds most of the screen time of the three returning players. She’s grown assertive, and she’s not willing to back down to the men in her life in order to solve this case. Libby draws out Sara’s past, giving the audience a look at emotions Fanning has never shown before.
Sara feels bad for Libby and wants to help her, making apprehending her even harder. She knows that if she is able to catch Libby, she’ll be able to keep her from killing. However, she’ll also send the woman to an inevitable death sentence. The Libby role gives Sara more challenges in this season compared to the last, which is what a great character and a dynamic performance should do.
It’s such an achievement for such a fresh face. The power of McEwen’s performance doesn’t come from any notoriety or from the context of a comparable filmography. We expect a great actor like Daniel Brühl to extend his hold on the show into this season, but McEwen dominates Angel of Darkness. Her ability to pull off such a remarkable standout performance in her first on-screen role is a revelation of pure stardom and a forecast of an entertaining career to come.