The Alienist is not just a murder mystery show. It heavily revolves around the divide between the poor and the rich. The latter’s privilege and influence rule over all, erasing their debt and crimes like an eraser on a chalkboard. That’s what Kreizler is trying to explain to Sara during a walk in a park. Across from them is a woman with an empty bassinet and gentle face. Apparently, she had the impulse to drown both her children in the bathtub and was freed from her crimes because of her status. While the drive to kill may not form right away, there are always components that can lead to it. In this woman’s case, it was society’s pressures to conform to womanly duties, something that we’ve seen Sara struggle within the series. Sara quickly counters that she could never kill a child only to be dismissed by Kreizler who merely says “You might surprise yourself.”
Kreizler is having his own troubles dissecting the mind of our killer, and visits one of his former patients, a professional dominatrix, seeking insight on the connection between pleasure and pain. Accompanied by some not-so-subtle flirting, she hypothesizes that those who wound others have wounds of their own. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it helps paint a clearer picture of who our perpetrator is. Willem Van Bergen is a blue blood with a silver smile, tainted by mercury salts that are used for syphilis treatment. He’s able to continue his conquests because of his family name and influence over the local police force.
Moore does some of his own investigating down at the Golden Rule, an abandoned brothel where the latest dead boy, Ali, worked. After running into Marcus and a particularly hostel madam, Moore ends up on the roof where he discovers another clue: pieces of hemp rope dangling over the edge of the building. So the killer doesn’t just get off on heights, but he’s also an experienced climber as well. One of the local boys who knew Ali gave his own insight into the killer. “He’s a saint,” the boy says, “he was going to take him to a castle in the sky.” We can already see how Willem is using his wealthy status to lure poor boys out into the open.
Meanwhile, the sexual tension between Kreizler and his housekeeper, Mary, are heating up. From last week’s episode, we could tell that something had happened between them, but now the weirdness has upped a notch. After noticing that Mary was jealous of the doctor spending so much time with Sara, Moore decides to take her out on a date. They stroll through the time and witness Thomas Edison’s latest invention. With her arm linked around John’s, Mary is seemingly happy for the first time in the series.
But God forbid she isn’t at the house when Kreizler needs to take his shoes off. After scouting the house for Mary, he ends up in her bedroom. Just the mere setting seems to be a turn-on for him. He furthers his sexual urges by picking up her undergarments on the ground and sniff them. It’s an appalling scene to watch, especially since he’s supposed to be our protagonist. I love flawed characters, but when they start to creep into the sexually disturbing category, it makes it harder to cheer for them.
At the end of the episode, the gang meets up at a bar at the doctor’s request. Strangely enough, the doctor claims that he was invited by John and doesn’t recall sending an invite. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the killer summoned everyone there to read a horrific letter that he sent to Georgio’s family. He’s watching them in the room and wants to see their expressions and reactions to his deeds. The showrunners don’t hold back in the grotesque and make the letter as disgusting as possible (it is heavily influenced by real-life child-killer Albert Fish’s letters to his victims’ families). The killer seems to have the upper hand now that he has broken our team’s psyches and snatched them in his trap.
The last scene ends with a big reveal: we see Willem’s face for the first time as he approaches a group of younger boys at a counter. The last thing we see is his silver smile as he tells the audience what he will be doing to these poor children.
Halfway through the series, The Alienist seems to be at a significant turning point. Revealing Willem’s face so early reminds us that this isn’t so much about who the killer is, but rather what he is. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, it will be primarily focused on psychology and how far these men’s minds can go. Kreizler and Willem are TNT’s Batman and Joker, and their battling of wits will undoubtedly be a treat.