This season of The Alienist is now halfway over, but are those investigating the case any closer to solving it? While Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, John Moore, Sara Howard, and Lucius and Marcus Isaacson now know a lot about the man who has been murdering young male prostitutes, they still don’t know his identity.
This week’s episode has a ton of new developments, however. It opens with a handwriting analyst poring over the letter that the killer sent to Mrs. Santorelli. He notes that the writing reflects someone trained in “The Palmer method,” which leads Sara to speculate that he is likely between 24 and 35 years old. A fingerprint found on the stamp matches one found on the watch worn by the Santorelli boy, so they also know the killer is the one who sent the letter, as if there was any doubt.
Sara’s instincts and insights are remarkably astute, especially since she doesn’t have years of training in psychology and is not actually an official police officer. She proposes that the killer has been a victim of abuse himself, probably at the hands of a woman. Kreizler’s reaction to this is violent; he yells at her, throws a piece of chalk at the board, and insists that if a woman did have an effect on the killer’s life, he wouldn’t be a killer at all. This is straight out of Caleb Carr’s original novel.
After such an intensely dramatic scene, the one that follows is surprisingly light-hearted. Sara leaves and Moore chases after her. He interprets her earlier assessment of his life as “the gilded upbringing of a handsome but indolent member of the leisure class” as damning him with faint praise. He says she sounds like his grandmother and then half-jokingly proposes to her, as that is likely what his grandmother would want for him: to be a married father.
But Sara doesn’t have time for marriage; she is busy typing letters to various mental institutions inquiring if they know of any former patients who fit the profile of the elusive serial killer. While in the novel there were a great many ideas that Lazlo’s team brought to him, in the series many of the team members just act on their own, without consulting their “leader” beforehand. It makes for a faster-paced and more suspenseful dynamic.
Kreizler seeks the advice of his former Professor, a man named Cavanaugh (the great David Warner). It’s likely that Kreizler knew that Cavanaugh would make him feel better about himself. He does, praising his intelligence and dedication, eventually suggesting that it’s “not what you learn, but how you learn it.”
Later, Moore—now chain-smoking because he’s given up drinking—accompanies Kreizler to visit Jesse Pomeroy, the so-called “Boston Boy Fiend.” Perhaps Pomeroy represents “Hildebrandt’s Starling” to Kreizler, a subject he must look at more closely to understand. The real-life Pomeroy, described as “the Jack the Ripper of the high school set,” was sent to prison at age 14 for viciously torturing and murdering young boys, and despite many pleas to the parole board, died in prison in 1932 at the age of 72.
On The Alienist, Kreizler has already made Pomeroy’s acquaintance. “I never considered you mad for killing those children,” Kreizler assures the inmate, who is handcuffed and shackled by the waist and neck. Kreizler asks why he mutilated his victims and Pomeroy responds with a tearful story about how his face was so ugly his own mother wouldn’t kiss him. Kreizler goes to comfort him and then Pomeroy cackles with glee at having fooled the man with a completely fabricated story. Then he lunges towards Kreizler, brandishing a formerly concealed weapon, and screaming “You’ll never know!” until a guard intervenes and Kreizler and Moore are escorted from the cell. On the way back, Moore has a flashback nightmare of his brother’s drowning death, which shows that his indolent life has also been filled with trauma. Kreizler admits to his friend that “I don’t know as much as I think I do,” although the person to whom he should be confessing is Sara.
Elsewhere, Roosevelt is confronted by the Mayor, who is upset that “one of their own” is under suspicion for murder. Caught off guard, Roosevelt gets defensive, swearing that the killer will be brought to justice no matter his family’s social standing. Back at headquarters, he questions a tight-lipped Connor about whether “a person of means has come to the attention of the department.” He also asks Sara to comb through the police records to see if anyone might fit the profile of their killer.
Sara brings the results of her search to Kreizler, who is dining alone. This results in some delightful sparring between Sara and Kreizler and shows that she is a worthy adversary of the doctor. She calls Kreizler “intractable” and he bristles at the word. Still, he follows her leads, questioning a Bishop about the redacted name in a police report. Apparently a young man who used to do charity work at that church was sent away because of a “misunderstanding.” The bishop does maintain that the young man in question lived “a life of the flesh.” He also lets the Van Bergen name slip and informs Kreizler that February 19 was Ash Wednesday.
Roosevelt stops by to check on Kreizler’s progress and to accuse him of not taking this case seriously, treating it like a mere exercise not an attempt to bring a child murderer to justice. Yet although Kreizler agrees that Van Bergen shares some of the traits of their killer, he doesn’t feel he’s the culprit. He “is choosing victims who remind him of his own upbringing,” and that’s not an upbringing that was marked by wealth and privilege.
Irritated with Kreizler’s response, Roosevelt confronts a secretive Connor about Willem Van Bergen’s status as a suspect, especially one that the cops might be protecting, demanding Van Bergen’s whereabouts. In a clever bit of misdirection, scenes of Roosevelt and a full fleet of cops seeking Van Bergen are cross-cut with Willem seducing a young boy with a milk bath. Yet it’s Willem’s mother, not Roosevelt, who knocks on his door, telling him he needs to get out of town for a while. She also tries to kiss him on the lips, which sends her son into an even more obvious rage. Could there be some parental trauma in Willem’s past as well?
Meanwhile, Roosevelt soon discovers that Connor has given him the wrong address on purpose and in his fury, rips off Connor’s badge and demands he turn over his gun. “You’re going to regret this, Mr. Roosevelt,” the disgraced cop mutters and the camera shows him standing in the street alone in the rain while the rest of the police and Roosevelt himself leave the scene, a visual representation of the way Roosevelt is leaving the old days of graft and back-alley deals behind to make way for a new police force that’s driven by integrity.
That same evening, Kreizler calls Moore over to investigate a hunch he’s been working out since he spoke to the bishop: all of the murders are taking place on or near Catholic holy days, which obviously has some significance for the killer. The next one is May 14, the Feast of the Ascension. Perhaps they can come up with a plan to catch this man before he kills again.