For weeks, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler’s team of supersleuths has been chasing a series of spectres: a man who kills, mutilates, and cannibalizes children. A man whose syphilis treatment has turned his teeth permanently silver. A wealthy patron of boy prostitutes whose exposure would be politically disastrous. A trained climber with psychic wounds. And until this week, it seemed reasonable to conclude that all of these spectres were actually one single guy…until you realize that we’re only halfway through a 10-episode season, and there’s no way they’d show us the killer this early.
Hence, the theme of “Hildebrandt’s Starling” is a lesson not just to Kreizler, but to us, too: To understand the nature of the thing, you’ve got to look at it until it reveals itself. (Or watch it on television. Okay, so this isn’t a perfect analogy.)
This time, Kreizler’s tour de former patients leads him to Jesse Pomeroy, an honest-to-goodness baby serial killer from the annals of history. In real life, Pomeroy was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 14 after brutally murdering several children in Boston. In the world of The Alienist, Kreizler had a go at unraveling his psychology somewhere along the way. Moore tags along, coming fresh from a just-kidding-or-am-I proposal to Sarah (the nicest little interaction we’ve ever seen between the two! Aww). The two of them learn nothing, except that spending 20-plus years of his life on the 1896 version of a dog trolley hasn’t made Pomeroy any less of a dick.
But the real red herring isn’t the Boston Boy Fiend; it’s the mysterious Willem Van Bergen, the upper-class bad boy with the metallic teeth and deviant sexual proclivities. While Kreizler and Co. are still searching for the killer, pretty much everyone else (including the police and his parents) have made up their minds that Willem did it — leading to an awkward confrontation in which the mayor unwittingly tips off Theodore Roosevelt that there’s something happening behind the scenes of his very corrupt police department.
“Let the family handle it,” the mayor says.
Needless to say, Roosevelt isn’t about to do that. He’s only more determined to assert his authority and prove that no New Yorker, however privileged, is above the law. So Roosevelt tells Sarah; Sarah digs up the likeliest suspects; and shortly, the info is in Kreizler’s hands…as is a glass of whiskey, because that’s what Sarah drinks and the doctor is a sucker for peer pressure from an independent woman in huge sleeves. Cheers!
So, about Willem Van Bergen: He’s the man with the silver teeth and raging case of arm pustules who once scuffled with a bishop before abandoning the church for “a life of the flesh.” He is also, according to Kreizler, not the killer — but Roosevelt doesn’t care, which brings us to a nice little cat-and-mouse montage. On one side, Willem seduces a young male prostitute in a scene that’s crammed with luxurious textures: velvet, crystal, milk, silk, a lace dress, a bubbling champagne flute. On the other, Roosevelt charges uptown with a paddy wagon to arrest Van Bergen on suspicion of murder. Finally, the timelines converge…with a twist you probably saw coming: The door Roosevelt knocks on isn’t Willem’s, and the knock Willem hears isn’t Roosevelt’s.
Connor, who intentionally scuttled the operation, tries to play it off like an honest mistake, but Roosevelt isn’t fooled. He doesn’t just tell Connor to turn over his badge; he rips it from the man’s body like he’s channeling Justin Timberlake at the 2004 Super Bowl. And of course, while Roosevelt was chasing a false lead, Mr. and Mrs. Van Bergen were busy breaking up their wayward son’s naughty night to pack him off to Switzerland or Bermuda or wherever. (Although for what it’s worth, Willem seems disinclined to go.)
But while Roosevelt didn’t get his man, Kreizler is one step closer to catching his killer. He knows the murderer’s victims are boys who remind him of himself. He knows he stalks them at a Lower East Side church frequented by immigrants. And finally, he’s figured out the pattern that leaves him one step ahead of the killer’s next move: The boys are being captured and killed on Christian holy days, which leaves them a brief window of time before the next body turns up.