REVIEW: The Alienist, S1 Ep4 – These Bloody Thoughts

alienist s1e4 howard kreizler

This week’s The Alienist was a slow burner, but a methodical one, ratcheting up the suspense until the last possible second. As we’re approaching the midpoint of the series, details about the killer are becoming clearer, and Dr. Kreizler’s efforts to understand his mind are leading him—and by association, his investigative team—down a dangerous, dark path. This episode in particular is definitely psychology-heavy, as evidenced by the title. Kreizler spends much of the episode in moody contemplation, adrift and distancing himself from his team. He’s frustrated, but also walking a thin line—how far is too far when trying to walk in a killer’s shoes?

In order to gain some much needed insight, Kreizler visits a former patient, whose opulent home belies her deviant behavior. They discuss the relationship between pain and pleasure, wherein Kreizler learns a valuable piece of information: that the killer likely takes pleasure in wounding others because he carries wounds of his own. Settled on a park bench underneath sun-dappled trees (a stark contrast from the gray, drab city buildings), Kreizler and Sara Howard discuss humanity’s capacity to kill. It’s the question of nature versus nurture that drives the core of this episode and fuels Kreizler’s efforts to uncover the “how” and “why” of the killer.

alienist s1e4 moore and kreizler

Citing the case of a society woman who drowned her children—but never faced actual consequences outside of her own horrible coping mechanisms because of her wealth—Kreizler rules in favor of nurture. He argues that society is the thing that formed her, that the pressures and expectations shoved onto women made her capable of murdering her own kids. Sara is more than a little skeptical. Even though she’s experienced the rampant sexism and strict gender roles that come with being a woman, she doesn’t think she’d ever be capable of murdering a child. It’s here that Kreizler delivers one of the most chilling realizations of the episode: that everyone has the “raw materials” to become a killer, but not everyone experiences the spark to make those materials “combustible.”

Other attempts to chip away at the killer’s psyche find Kreizler speaking with a xenophobic teenager imprisoned at Bellevue for killing dogs. This connection to the current unsolved murder case becomes more apparent later on, but this guy is clearly unhinged, and engages Kreizler in a way we haven’t quite seen before. He’s always been broody and soft-spoken, callous but never explosive. Well, he loses his cool here. When he’s not getting the level of cooperation he’s looking for, it’s the first time we see him raise his voice.

It feels like more than surface level frustration and maybe a warning sign that the case is beginning to sink its claws in a little too deep. And the fact that Kreizler is pushing everyone around him away isn’t going to help matters, either. Again, he tries to highlight his own research (the courtship of pain and pleasure) by digging around in John Moore’s mind, explaining that the killer might be “eroticizing a past trauma.” He suggests that John is doing the same with the prostitutes he seeks out for company, reliving a past wound when his fiancée left him for someone else. John’s just about done with Kreizler prying around where he isn’t wanted, and of course once he tries to put Kreizler under a magnifying glass, the good doctor doesn’t want to offer anything up. We get the impression that Kreizler has a lot he’s burying and doesn’t want to confront, from the way he flinches at being called a cripple by his former patient, to a schoolyard visit at the institute where he administers care. After encouraging a boy to unleash his aggressions toward his mother by kicking a ball against a brick wall, Kreizler takes a whack at it himself. So, who exactly is he visualizing? He gives a dark, meaningful look when the ball hits its target, but we don’t know for sure the source of his aggression. Is it the killer, or something deeper in his past? Unless he can finally confront his own wounds, it’s not likely he’ll make the kind of progress on the case that he’s hoping for.

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Meanwhile, other members of Kreizler’s team are chasing new leads and evidence left behind at the latest crime scene. The Isaacson brothers determine that the killer does not, in fact, have the ability to fly—he uses ropes and pitons to scale buildings, revealing that not only does he have access to climbing equipment, he’s skilled at using it. John Moore finds himself meandering through the underbelly of the city once again (where his previous activities, still left to mystery, earn him some questionable stares) to chase down the brothel where the latest victim, a Syrian immigrant, worked. Moore discovers that the killer was known only as “a saint,” a moniker that he used to describe himself. As for the killer’s supposed “silver smile,” Moore doesn’t find anyone at the abandoned brothel who’s seen a man with silver teeth.

On the lighter side of things, the double love triangle…love rhombus? (Break out that flow chart!) Whatever it is that we’re calling these messy romantic entanglements, they gained some traction this episode. There’s, as usual, some petty jealousy and misunderstandings involved when John and Mary Palmer discover that Sara and Kreizler are taking a stroll in the park. Honestly, this whole subplot is needless and a little exhausting, but at least this episode got a genuine smile out of Mary. That was so lovely to see. John takes her out on a date to watch Thomas Edison’s Vitascope in action—and it’s these wonderfully rendered historical details and set pieces that make The Alienist interesting. We watch an entire room of society folks dressed to the nines completely losing it over a projector screen, a pianist providing accompaniment to the scene of rushing waves. Mary clutches John’s arm, beaming, giddy, and just as awed as she is terrified at how the water races across the projector screen.

At the very least, it’s nice to see Mary making friends with someone outside her household, where Kreizler keeps an obsessive eye on her whereabouts. Kreizler goes snooping around in Mary’s room once he realizes she isn’t home and sniffs her undergarments. Yeah, eww. We always got the vibe that Kreizler’s a little eccentric, but he’s crossing over the line into total creeper territory at an alarming rate.

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Still on the hunt, Moore visits a dentist to determine the cause of the killer’s “silver smile,” learning that it’s a side effect of using mercury salts, a common treatment at the time for syphilis. This, in part, might explain some of the killer’s weird behavior, but probably not his unsavory compulsions. Syphilis does a lot to addle a person’s mind, since the symptoms are excruciating—as we saw with the first suspect the police department tried to pin the murders on—and mercury comes with a whole host of nasty effects. Though this time period does feature some rapid advancements in technology, these are still the same people who thought putting chloroform (among other things) into cough syrup was a good idea, so this isn’t exactly surprising.

Elsewhere, Captain Connor and Chief Byrnes continue to do everything in their power to undermine Commissioner Roosevelt’s investigation. While Chief Byrnes makes another plea to Mrs. Van Bergen to get her son off the streets of the city, the smarmy Captain Connor deposits John Moore’s art book full of murder sketches onto Roosevelt’s desk. Since the last time we saw this book it was being fondled by the killer, there’s obviously a direct line between these crooked cops and the elusive murderer. It’s also Connor’s “gotcha” moment; he makes sure Sara Howard is in the room when the art book is delivered, and name drops the Isaacson brothers to let them both know he’s onto their secretive investigation. Roosevelt’s already being hounded by the press about the murders, so he’s got more problems on top of problems. It’s a wonder, though, that he doesn’t pull rank on the two of them; after all, Connor is just a captain and Byrnes doesn’t even go here anymore.

As it turns out, the killer has been making moves against Kreizler and his team, too. Lured to a ritzy supper club under the impression that they’ve been invited by Kreizler (except the doctor himself, who claims he’s received a message from John) to meet up. The horrified shock on their faces as they exchange glances across the table only gets worse when Sara shows them a letter that was delivered to Mrs. Santorelli, passed onto the police department. The contents of the letter are just about as awful as you’d expect, if not worse—filled to the brim with grotesque bragging about mutilation, cannibalism that would probably make Hannibal Lecter proud, and a lot of ugly xenophobic garbage. The killer’s victims have all been immigrants, and this intense anti-immigrant sentiment is just one of the themes that makes The Alienist relevant in the modern era. It’s just unfortunate to find parallels in a story that takes place before the turn of the century.

alienist s1e4 isaacsons moore kreizler

While the team comes to grips with the killer actively toying with them, we finally get to see his face. He shows us that now infamous “silver smile” as he presumably seeks out his next victim from a candy shop full of children. It’s a tense, well-crafted scene that unfolds as intended, all that suspense paying off at the last moment with a reveal we’ve been teased about these past four episodes. Now that Kreizler and his team are firmly in the killer’s sights, there’s no doubt that this cat-and-mouse game is just getting started.