This week’s episode of The Alienist, “These Bloody Thoughts,” opens with a tense scene between Dr. Kreizler and a former patient (Mrs. Williams), a woman who reveals herself as a BDSM practitioner, although she doesn’t use those terms. She obviously relishes the control she has over Kreizler, who becomes increasingly fidgety as their conversation continues. What’s intriguing is how Kreizler then exerts control over both John and Sara in their subsequent interactions.
Sara, who is still wounded from Kreizler prying into the emotional impact of her father’s suicide, meets with him at a nearby park to give him John’s formerly lost sketchbook and Kreizler points out a young woman with an empty baby carriage. Apparently she drowned her two young children after a nervous breakdown, a reveal that visibly rattles Sara’s cool demeanor. After trying to ingratiate Sara by offering proto-feminist platitudes about the expectations society places on women, such as smiling “when you feel incapable of smiling,” Kreizler has one final comment before he excuses himself and walks away: “We all possess the raw material to commit horrible acts.” Mic drop.
Kreizler also exacts emotional control over John after he finds out that he’s taken Mary out to see one of Edison’s new Vitagraph pictures. John suggests that Kreizler is jealous. Kreizler then asks if John’s jealousy over his former fiancée leaving him for another man has become “part of your sexual ritual when you sleep with prostitutes.” Annoyed, John wonders, “Why must you push away those who care for you?” to which Kreizler retorts, “The question is why you stay.”
In the meantime, Lucius and Marcus have found rope strands and a piton at Castle Garden, leading them to believe that the killer has climbing experience. When John visits The Golden Rule, the brothel which employed Fatima/Ali ibn-Ghazi before he was murdered, he finds Marcus there, too. And yes, there are rope strands, thus more evidence of the killer’s climbing skills.
As it turns out Ali was sold to the brothel’s madam, Scotch Ann (a scene-stealing Kate Dickie), for a gambling debt. John also meets Bernadette/Joseph, another boy-whore who was friends with Ali and tells him that the man who took away Ali is “a saint” who promised to take Fatima to “a castle in the sky.” Deeply disturbed by the harrowing life these young men live, John warns the boy against going with anyone who exhibits a silver smile, asking him to “come see me” instead.
It might seem unbelievable to today’s North American sensibilities, but prostitution, including child prostitution, was big business in the late 19th century. According to the podcast Selling Sex: 19th Century New York City Prostitution and Brothels, “The years between roughly 1850 to about 1910 were the years that commercialized sex and vice in New York City were the most visible, the most prolific, and the most wild.” The podcast also confirms that “many younger gay males worked Armory Hall and were ‘painted,’ or powdered and rouged and sometimes wearing women’s clothing- they wandered through the crowd and sang and danced and solicited customers.”
Using Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s 1992 book City of Eros as a reference, an article in the 2007 Undergraduate Economic Review of Illinois Wesleyan University supports the world depicted in The Alienist, remarking that “Most child and teenage prostitutes came from backgrounds of poverty, neglect, and immigrant and unskilled laborer parents.” In addition, a 2004 book called Male Sex Work and Society, lends further credence to The Alienist’s narrative, right down the name of the brothel: “In 1899 New York City, hustler bars proliferated on the Bowery near Fifth Street (Little Bucks, Columbia Hall), Bleecker Street (The Slide), and West Third Street (The Golden Rule Pleasure Club, favored by transvestite hustlers).”
Where “These Bloody Thoughts” veers from author Caleb Carr’s original novel is in the “silver smile” character, whose mode of dress makes one suspect he might be the elusive Willem Van Bergen. While it’s true that mercury salts were used to treat syphilis (and are indeed the source of the phrase “a night with Venus and a lifetime with mercury”), the character with the silver smile seems to be a creation of the TV show. Of course, only those who’ve read Carr’s novel will notice the difference, and if you’re like me, you’ll flip through the pages of the book wondering if there was something you missed.
One thing the episode does take directly from the original novel is the letter that the killer sends to Mrs. Santorelli. She brings it directly to Sara, proving that this child murderer is taunting the families of his victims. He is also taunting the very people who are trying to unmask him; he manages to convince them all, individually, that Kreizler wanted them to meet up at a certain time and place, while letting Kreizler himself think it was John who called the meeting.
The contents of the letter are horrific indeed: the killer claims to be a cannibal. To further convince the audience that it’s Willem who wrote the words, voice-over of Kreizler reading the letter aloud is heard over the episode’s final scene, in which Willem, flashing his “silver smile” confronts a group of young boys at an ice cream shop: “Evening girls. Which one of you is up for a little fun?”
So is Willem-as-killer just a red herring or has the show seriously altered the backstory of the murderer? Only time will tell.