Okay, so I should have known better than to think that The Alienist would give away the killer so early in the game. But it’s to the show’s credit that this revelation is somehow not the most exciting thing that happens in this episode: The whole hour basically sets up the second half of the season and the twist is part and parcel. But we’ll get to that.
As per Caleb Carr’s novel, a big part of The Alienist is digging into the development of modern investigative methods. In “Hildebrandt’s Starling”, we get a look at both graphology (a.k.a., the study of handwriting) and the Isaacsons’ progress in working with fingerprinting. The letter that was sent to Mrs. Santorelli has provided a fingerprint that matches the one found on the Zweig boy’s watch, and from the handwriting, they piece together that their culprit is of means, and somewhere between 24 and 35 years old. Kreizler suggests that something violent must have happened to the killer as a child to spur on his violent instincts as an adult, and that negative parental influence is probably also a factor in his behavior.
Though Kreizler is clearly crushing on Howard, he’s also been looking straight into the murder abyss, and the end result here is that he keeps snapping at her in a way that would absolutely be a deal-breaker if I were in Howard’s shoes. For instance, when Howard says that she thinks the negative parental influence in question is probably the mother, Kreizler is so convinced that “had a woman been dominant in his life at any point, this would not have happened,” he yells at her and throws his chalk across the room. This is, of course, projection, but it doesn’t excuse his behavior, and it certainly doesn’t stop Howard from storming out of the house.
As always, it’s Moore who follows her out to try to make amends. His attempts at getting her back to the house don’t last long, though — he’s more interested in flirting. When Howard tells him off, he notes that she sounds like his grandmother, to which she retorts that he ought to listen to her. And so Moore does what his grandmother would want: He proposes to Howard. As he begins to recite marriage vows right there in the middle of the street, Howard laughs, saying that if she thought he were being sincere, she might actually consider it. Suddenly earnest — rather than somber or arrogant — he asks if she’d accept his proposal, were he serious. But her carriage is already on its way away, and he’s left without an answer. Still, it’s enough for Moore to start trying to change his ways. He quits drinking, though going cold turkey is something he balances by smoking like a chimney instead.
Somewhat heartbreakingly, Kreizler is still doing better at getting into Howard’s good graces. In fairness, he has a healthy helping of humble pie before he sees her again, first visiting an old professor to ask for advice as to how to see things more clearly, and then visiting Jesse Pomeroy, also known as “The Boston Boy Fiend,” in jail. As Kreizler puts forth his reasoning as to why Pomeroy killed so many young boys, Pomeroy breaks down, weeping that his father left him and his mother never cared for him. But it’s all a ruse: As soon as Kreizler begins to show sympathy, Pomeroy laughs, telling him that he’ll never know why he committed those murders. Kreizler doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.
Meanwhile, Howard has been digging into some investigative work. She writes to several hospitals and psychiatric institutions, asking after anyone who might match the behavior and background that they’ve determined to be true of the killer. She also finds police records of similar incidents in the past, and brings them to where Kreizler is having dinner. Once again, he invites her to sit with him, and they commence what constitutes flirting for alienists before finally discussing the case. The police have a suspect, and Howard’s brought along the files she found. The name has been redacted in all of them, but one name remains: Bishop H. Potter was involved in the cover-up of one of the incidents.
It’s Kreizler’s visit to the bishop that leads him to the realization that the killer is not the man they’d thought. During their discussion, the bishop lets slip what should be the final piece of the puzzle — the family’s name — but obviously, nothing is ever going to be so easy. While contemplating the church’s calendar, he realizes that each incident had occurred on a Christian holiday, and also puts together that the killer has been targeting victims reminding him of his own background. In other words, they’re looking for someone who’d grown up in relative poverty and squalor, not a high-society man.
Roosevelt, however, is on the warpath. Though Moore, Kreizler, Howard, and the murderer form the wheel upon which The Alienist turns, there’s a secondary (and, as per my general fondness for side characters, almost more interesting) drama playing out with Roosevelt and Connor. I cannot get enough of Brian Geraghty’s and David Wilmot’s performances, not least because they complement each other in a way that’s much clearer than our primary characters. Roosevelt has a true north, and he’s going to do what’s right no matter what the cost — and in the face of an implicit threat from the mayor to let the case go. Meanwhile, Connor is going to keep trying to stick to the old guard to save his own hide.
Once Roosevelt discovers that their suspect is Willem Van Bergen, he charges Connor (who feigns ignorance to Willem’s history) with finding where the man is. When they arrive, intent upon making an arrest, he discovers that they’ve been duped: There’s an old woman living at the address that Connor gave him, and Van Bergen is nowhere to be found. For obstructing the course of the law, Roosevelt strips Connor of his badge and gun, and leaves him standing miserably in the rain.
Needless to say, Van Bergen gets away. His mother (who, yes, is Sean Young, better known as the replicant Rachael) arrives to spirit him away, and as soon as they’re in the same room, it’s obvious that Howard was right. She’s a dominant, smothering force, and almost kisses him on the mouth before he pulls away, screaming his refusal. Though Willem may not be the killer, there’s still something rotten in the house of Van Bergen. More than that, our investigative team needs to get a move on — the next religious holiday is only a few days away.