REVIEW: The Alienist, S1 Ep5 – Hildebrandt’s Starling

alienist s1e5 roosevelt and cops

So, we’ve arrived at the midpoint of The Alienist, and this week’s episode lays some fascinating—but if we’re being honest here, kind of confusing—groundwork for the second half of the series. A lot was covered in “Hildebrandt’s Starling,” which is arguably one of the best episodes The Alienist has produced yet. It does rely on some crime drama tropes, especially to build the most important sequence in this episode, but among all that tropey goodness, it’s entertaining. And, it’s satisfying…at least until the wheels keep turning and you’re left with more questions than answers. But we’ll get to that later.

The episode begins with Kreizler and his investigative team asking a handwriting expert for his opinion on the letter sent to Mrs. Santorelli. It’s interesting to see another aspect of modern day criminal profiling in its fledgling stages; along with the handwriting analysis, the Isaacson brothers are able to match a fingermark on the paper to the one found on the Zweig boy earlier in the season. According to the penmanship, the team determines their killer’s age range (mid-twenties to mid-thirties) and Kreizler pulls some key phrases from the letter’s contents. One of them is a date: February 19th. (There’s always something wonderfully chilling about dates lining up to real life).

alienist s1e5 sara fingerprint

When Sara suggests that the killer’s words hint at a dominating female presence in his life, Kreizler’s anger rears its ugly head again. Sara stands her ground, insistent, even as Kreizler dismisses her observations and claims that if that were true, the man wouldn’t have killed. Projecting much, Laszlo? Sara seems to have struck quite the nerve. She storms off, telling Moore—who follows behind, always desperate to fix Kreizler’s sometimes abrasive nature—that Kreizler is a bully and she’s not going to be bullied. Hell yes, Sara! She’s put up with a lot from the doctor, and she has every right to be sick of it at this point.

Normally, The Alienists attempts at setting up romance earn nothing but an eye roll and maybe a groan as they add more threads to the tangled mess. But, Sara and Moore share a scene and it’s so hard not to be charmed by it. Moore jokingly asks her to marry him, though it might not be much of a joke on his end. Sara, however, thinks it’s hilarious. This might be the first time we’ve seen her laughing, and it was adorable. There was genuine chemistry to be found between the two of them; none of those awkward silences or stiff kisses on the cheek.

In his continuing efforts to see the case from different angles, Kreizler visits an old Harvard professor. The professor recalls Kreizler’s first assignment to study a bird, the title of this episode: Hildebrandt’s Starling. After several unsatisfactory observations of the bird in question, his professor always met him with one piece of advice: “Look at your bird.” The advice leads Kreizler to revisit an old case, a familiar killer. (He drags Moore along for the ride, because why not? How many more ways can we make that man uncomfortable?) They journey into the dark, narrow halls of a penitentiary, where The Alienist’s self-indulgent cinematography gets to show off again. It doesn’t even matter how much the series likes to revel in its shot compositions, because it’s just so damn pretty.

The slow, methodical reveal of Jesse Pomeroy—a real-life serial killer infused into The Alienist’s fictional narrative, dubbed “The Boston Boy Fiend”—is probably one of the most chilling uses of sound design the show has accomplished yet. The eerie scraping of metal on metal, the chain making its way across a ceiling track before we see the disfigured killer on his leash. It’s reminiscent of Will Graham meeting Hannibal Lecter to consult on The Tooth Fairy case in Red Dragon. Jesse Pomeroy, whose case Kreizler consulted at some point, lures Kreizler into sympathizing with him when he fakes a tortured past. (And for a moment, maybe we believe it too; the actor playing Jesse is unsettling, topped off by a convincing Boston accent). Kreizler looks horribly embarrassed at the deception and gets a shiv pointed in his face for his mistake. He doesn’t glean a lot from the encounter, except that maybe he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did.

alienist s1e5 jesse pomeroy

Nothing like a shiv directed at your eyeball to deflate your ego. To be honest, Kreizler needed to be knocked down a peg or two. His explosion at Sara’s input was just a buildup of what we’ve been seeing from him for a few episodes now.

Speaking of lingering cinematography, Commissioner Roosevelt’s entrance into this episode is one worthy (finally!) of his historical counterpart. He takes a ride on his horse through Central Park and you can just see the beginnings of what will eventually become the Rough Riders. That’s two years away yet, so for now he’s stuck dealing with insufferable police captains and widespread corruption marring his investigations. But he gets to be a bigger participant this episode, and a commanding one who actually gets to do things—up until now, it seemed like The Alienist was underutilizing his presence and Brian Geraghty’s portrayal of him.

On his ride, Roosevelt crosses paths with the mayor, who might be complicit in the cover up happening within the police department. He lets it slip that the suspect is a man of means, one of the “400,” an elite whose wealth and status make them untouchable. He encourages Roosevelt to avoid bad press and let the family take care of it. But Roosevelt’s had it up to here and lets the mayor think he’s been convinced. At the police station, Roosevelt calls on Captain Connor, asking about an upper class suspect that might’ve come to their attention. Connor fakes ignorance, but it’s obvious he’s shaking in his boots. It’s nice to see the tables turned for once and Roosevelt finally using the power behind his rank, demanding Connor to bring him a name for the suspect.

After getting permission from Roosevelt, Sara does a little digging of her own through police records for potential suspects. She brings her findings to Kreizler, who’s in the middle of dinner at a lavish restaurant. The back and forth between the two of them in this scene is brilliant, as Kreizler seems kind of desperate to make amends and Sara wants to be just a bit vindictive. When she tells him she prefers whisky to wine, he orders her one, but she makes it two. And she makes him drink it. He hates it the whole time, but Kreizler does it anyway like it’s his peace offering. The look on her face is priceless, satisfying, as she leans back in her chair and observes him over the rim of her own glass. Sara explains that she was raised by a single father who taught her to live in a man’s world by cultivating masculine habits. Even in this restaurant Sara looks out of place, though by all means she should belong there.

alienist s1e5 kreizler sara

Following the leads given to him by Sara, Kreizler tracks down Bishop Potter, a clergyman who helped cover up for a young man accused of “roughhousing” that put a 12 year old boy in the hospital. Once confronted with the police report, Bishop Potter admits a name we’re now familiar with: Van Bergen. As they debate the emerging field of psychology against religion (those pesky, demonic alienists), Kreizler notices a calendar in the church with dates highlighted in red. One of them, February 19th, is revealed to have been Ash Wednesday—the date the killer mentioned in his letter.

Roosevelt meets Kreizler at his office, and Kreizler is able to give him a name: Willem Van Bergen. But it’s Kreizler’s next admission that puzzles Roosevelt—and the audience, as it sets off quite a chain reaction that barrels toward the episode’s end. He says Van Bergen isn’t their killer because he doesn’t fit the profile they’ve been building. If Van Bergen is from the wealthy elite, why would he hunt and kill boys who come from the poorest parts of the city? Kreizler is convinced that he’d hunt among his own social class. Roosevelt doesn’t buy this. And really, are we supposed to? It’s not clear yet, exactly, if Van Bergen, the creep with the silver teeth who was revealed last episode, is a red herring.

His brand new Colt at his side, Roosevelt leads the storm of police heading for the address of Willem Van Bergen. Connor tries to talk him out of it, which is our first clue that something shady is once again at work. Taking a page right out of The Silence of the Lambs, we’re treated to parallel narratives that eventually converge: Van Bergen in an exquisitely furnished room with his latest victim bathing in milk (yes, milk) and wearing a silk dress, and Roosevelt and his cops closing in on an apartment, guns drawn. At the same time Roosevelt knocks on the door, Van Bergen hears it. But when Van Bergen’s door opens, it’s his mother, and Roosevelt is greeted by a disarming elderly woman. Roosevelt realizes quickly that he’s been deceived on purpose, and he’s livid.

alienist s1e5 roosevelt connor

Meanwhile, Mrs. Van Bergen sends the young boy away, telling her son that he has to leave the city. He doesn’t want to, and when his mother tries to kiss him on the mouth, he pulls away, resisting her. Even if Van Bergen is a red herring, Sara’s theory is right: Mrs. Van Bergen is the dominating female presence in Willem’s life, who’s likely been abusing him for a long time.

It is early in the series, which is why last week’s reveal of that silver toothed smile felt like a shock. Would they really unmask their killer so soon? Is Van Bergen a different kind of high society creep? Did the police department set Van Bergen up as the suspect to cover for someone else? Are we meant to take Kreizler’s observations as truth? It’s confusing, even more so after the interaction between Mrs. Van Bergen and her son. How exactly do they intersect with the killer, if we haven’t actually met him yet? How is Willem’s profile different from the killer’s, if there are so many similarities between them? It’s confusing, but it’s the type of confusing that pushes the narrative into its second half.

Reeling from the misdirection, Roosevelt confronts Connor, not buying his oblivious act for a second. Channeling all that rage, he rips the badge from Connor’s uniform and demands his gun. By far, watching Roosevelt tear Connor down and leave him like a piece of trash in the rain is one of the most satisfying scenes of The Alienist. There’s probably going to be nasty repercussions from this as long as Byrnes is still close to Connor, but for now we’re just going to enjoy Roosevelt’s victory.

In the closing scene of the episode, Kreizler shows Moore a series of dates that line up with the victims. He reveals that the killer is following a pattern: the Christian calendar. Each body was discovered on a Holy Day, with the exception of Giorgio Santorelli. However, in the letter the killer mentions watching Giorgio outside of the church on February 19th, Ash Wednesday, so the pattern still fits. The next Holy Day according to their calendar is The Ascension on May 14th, giving the team only a few days before the killer strikes again.