TV Recap: The Alienist – Look At Your Bird, Laszlo …

The Alienist
“Hildebrandt’s Starling”
February 19, 2018

Lots of great dialogue exchanges tonight, not only between Kreizler and Miss Howard, but also with Roosevelt and Kreizler, and between Miss Howard and Moore punctuated a night of real progress in our case to find the Silver Smile Killer and dig deeper into who our favorite Alienist really is and what makes him tick.   More on our thoughts after the recap at the bottom of this post.

Character development for the win!!

Without further delay, our deep dive recap of The Alienist‘s  “Hildebrandt’s Starling” (spoilers – be warned) … after the jump!

Photo by Kata Vermes

Team Alienist HQ.   Mr. Alexander MacLeod, an expert in graphology (“the study of handwriting, for example, as used to infer a person’s character”), is breaking down the penmanship in the letter received at the end of last week’s episode.  He narrows it down to someone trained in the United States under the Palmer Method in the last 15 years.  Based on when the Palmer Method of handwriting gained traction in schools across the country and 15 as the probable age the killer would have ended his primary schooling, the facts support a Killer who is no more than 35 years old in age (or younger than 24).  MacLeod goes on to say that he hopes the letter he’s been reading was done in jest or at best, as part of a training exercise. The Team gives him a fantastic, “suuuureeee, let’s go with that” blank stare in response before Kreizler dismisses him with his thanks.

Once he’s gone, the Isaacsons reveal that they pulled a print from the stamp on the envelope matched to the print found in the Zweig case.  Kreizler digs deeper into the words used in the letter, culling phrases including “dirty immigrants,” “Saucy Boy,” “19th of February” and “dirt and paint.”

Photo by Kata Vermes

Laszlo posits he is maybe mirroring something experienced or witnessed as a child which leads to a heated debate shouting match between Sara and Laszlo on whether a woman was involved in the Killer’s formative years. Laszlo, building up a head of steam as they go back and forth and she continues to challenge his obstinate denial of a woman’s presence, yells at Sara that if a woman was involved in the Killer’s life in anyway, they wouldn’t even be here, “these crimes would never have happened” Kreizler explodes, as he sweeps a set of papers off of the nearest desk.  Cue the awkward silence.  As you’re recovering from the awkwardness, I’d like to point out that Sara refers to Moore in this exchange as a “handsome yet indolent member of the Leisure class” and it, and the affronted look Moore makes when he realizes the insult, made me snort out loud in what otherwise was a very tense moment.

Title Card.

When we return, John has chased Sara outside to make her realize that Kreizler is an asshole with everyone and to not take it personally.  She will not be bullied.  A persistent shine boy convinces Moore to get his boots shined as an indignant Sara can’t believe he expects her to stand there waiting for him.  I do expect you to wait, Moore continues, because you find me “handsome.” “I said you were handsome and indolent” she reminds him.  This leads to a fun exchange on hard work versus a life of alcohol and slothfulness, each of them sitting on opposite sides of that particular fence.  Moore tells Miss Howard that she sounds just like his grandmother, “well maybe you should listen to her” Sara says.  Very well, John replies before proposing marriage to Sara right then and there for that is what his grandmother desires. he goes through a whole recitation of vows while she stands there and laugh and its best honestly the best moment between the two of them in the series.  What makes it art is that he’s getting the boot shine the entire scene and standing there like Captain Morgan.

She makes it awkward when she says she’d consider the offer if he had a sincere bone in his body.  She runs off claiming pressing work with Roosevelt and refuses to answer when presses the marriage question more seriously.  Everyone on this show is so awkward.

Police HQ.  Sara is typing up notes of the case in triplicate, maybe quadruplicate.

Photo by Kata Vermes

Harvard Club.  Laszlo meets his old professor, Professor Cavanaugh (David Warner), to discuss “what it means to be a student.”   They reminisce over a project the Professor gave Laszlo when he first began college, wherein Laszlo had to repeatedly return to a specimen of a bird, a Hildebrandt’s Starling, each time seeing more than he had the time before.  The lesson being not the bird itself but learning to see.  And now, Kreizler fears he can only see what he sees, what is already known to him. What can I do, he asks?  “Look at your bird, Laszlo. Look at your bird.” Which is pretty fucking vague.

Moore House.  Grandma Moore is reading an article about who will catch the killer first, the Alienist or the Police … the jig is up I guess on the secret investigation.  Saved by the phone, John answers and we next see him and Laszlo on a train headed … somewhere.

Where are we going Laszlo, Moore asks his friend?  We’re going to see Jesse Pomeroy, the Boston Boy Fiend.   Moore is all twitches and ticks and explains he’s not anxious, he’s given up drinking.  For Sara presumably.

Charlestown State Prison.  The asylum looks like something out of Silence of the Lambs when Clarice has to walk the length of cells to get to Hannibal Lecter’s cage.  The guard, Officer Lasky (Colin Moody) informs them they have 20 minutes.

Photo by Kata Vermes

Kreizler asks Jesse (Stephen Louis Grush) if he remembers him from when he was arrested years ago. For his part, Jesse just wants Moore’s cigarette.  Jesse, FYI has a crystal blue, fake right eye and it’s disturbing.  Laszlo has some questions, wants to see Jesse’s progress.  Pomeroy scoffs at Kreizler’s envy theory and pokes at Laszlo’s own envy issues via his bum arm.  Laszlo persists, asking if the mutilations to his victims eyes were just a coincidence then?!?

And just like that, Jesse is back in his past, reliving his anger at the children of his past for judging him, as he saw it, for his freak eye. He breaks down in tears as he talks about how his father shunned him and his mother never even kissed him. His crocodile tears bring Kreizler close to him and then he cracks up into crazy person laughter.  He’s laughing at the thought he killed those kids because his mother didn’t love him and in a flash, he drives Laszlo all the way up against the cellar wall with a sharp object purloined from Kreizler’s pocket waving it just in front of Laszlo’s eye, hollering about why Kreizler wants to know why he cut up his victims. As the guard comes in and subdues Pomeroy via a good baton beating, Laszlo and John skedaddle though we hear Jesse continuing to yell that no one will ever know why he did what he did.  He seems well adjusted albeit not very helpful.  Its interesting to see genuine fear in Laszlo’s eyes.


The Train.  When we return, Moore is having a nightmare about him trying to save Kreizler from drowning except Kreizler turns into one of the boy whores dressed in white (Giorgio I think) right before he wakes up.  Frightened awake, Moore asks Laszlo if he got what he needed from Jesse and Kreizler admits, perhaps the truth – that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.  Growth!!

The Park.  Mayor Strong intercepts Roosevelt who is out for a horse ride.  He puts the screws to Teddy about not hearing anything new on the murders since Castle Clinton.  The 400** are too important to the city to suffer public embarrassment like a murder investigation. In particular, Strong continues, after Roosevelt plays dumb, a particular family (“the most important family”) that is under scrutiny is not to be touched and that under no circumstances should the law come into arresting a member of said important family. Strong tells Roosevelt that the family will “deal” with it.  Knowing when he is beat (for the moment), Roosevelt  acquiesces to this Strong arm (see what I did there) demand.

Police HQ.  Sara is still typing up autopsy reports when the Isaacsons appear for a meeting with the Commissioner. While they wait for him to finish with Captain Connor, Sara takes the opportunity to ask how, exactly, a sex act may be consummated between man and boy which leads to an awkward conversation about masturbation.  Luckily, screaming from Roosevelt at Connor about obfuscation breaks up the conversation. Inside, Teddy makes it clear to Connor that he will not brook the covering up of any facts no matter which important family they point to and dismisses him harshly.  Inside, Roosevelt hands the Isaacsons the new guns we saw him taking delivery of the other day. To Sara, Roosevelt tells her 1. the police may have a suspect; 2. Kreizler is falling behind the police investigation; and 3. as such, Roosevelt needs Sara to comb through the police records and generate who the mystery suspect is because he needs to know ASAP! Commercials.

Photo by Kata Vermes

Delmonico’s. When we return, a tuxedo’d Kreizler is dining drinking alone when Miss Howard arrives to tell him that Roosevelt wants him to know the police have a suspect and he wants Kreizler to put a name to it.  He insists again and she sits for dinner. She reveals she prefers whiskey over wine as that was how she was raised and tells the waiter to bring them two.  What else did your father teach you, Laszlo inquires?  To Ride horses, to shoot guns and to live without fear of my convictions, she replies.  Laszlo compliments her on the latter.  They drink their whiskey and clearly its not for Laszlo. She lobbies back his query, “was it not satisfactory?” with a smug smile on her smile.  Miss Howard is clearly Kreizler’s intellectual equal and he is attracted to her on multiple levels but he hasn’t a fucking clue on what to do about it.

Isaacson House.  Awkward family dinner! Marcus’ nice Jewish girl tries to make small talk asking about the boys’ non-Jewish sounding names to which Lucius reveals they were based on  Shakespearean plays their parents used to teach themselves English after immigrating.  When she tries to engage Mrs. Isaacson, Mama Isaacson ain’t having it.

Delmonico’s.  Sara reveals that her digging pinged two names of possible men of wealth and privilege with questionable interactions with children; one is an unnamed man, age 29 and unmarried, name redacted on both complaints on record; and the other name is the head of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Henry Potter, who Sara is positing covered for the “unnamed man.” This leads to some banter about Roosevelt being disagreeable and how Laszlo is similar or maybe worse being stubborn and intractable. “Intractable?” “You’ve a gift for it,” Sara defends. This cuts Laszlo as it shows on his face, which was totally her intention, and she takes her leave.  Commercials.

Episcopal Church. When we return, Laszlo is watching Bishop Potter (Sean McGinley), some younger priests, and lots of choir boys playing a good old game of Red Rover.  Laszlo introduces himself to the Bishop as a friend of their mutual friend, Roosevelt.  Laszlo says he is there about a member of Potter’s congregation, one that had problems with police.  He presents the complaint received from Sara and the good Bishop denies having seen the boy in a long time.  He goes on to say that the boy “lived a life of the flesh”  and lets slip Mrs. Van Bergen, er, the troubled boy’s mother, sent him to Switzerland. But, what was in the complaint was all a misunderstanding, in any case.  So, you don’t think the man capable of murder? Subtle, Laszlo, subtle.

Inside, as Bishop Potter gets dressed in his vestments, he questions Laszlo how an Alienist is different than as alchemist or basically, a film flam man?  Kreilzer defends psychology as a new but well respected field of medicine. “Without God, man’s nature is to seek not good, but evil. Everyone is born in sin. Salvation is required by all.” Never one to let someone else have the last word, Laszlo replies that if the need for salvation did not exist, the church would surely find its invention necessary.   Sick burn, Doc. Sick burn.

As he is leaving the church, Kreizler notices an ornate calendar with highlighted Holy Days, including February 19th. He asks the Bishop about the 19th’s significance and learns it was Ash Wednesday. One last question, Kreizler asks the Bishop, “Was Willem devout?” As people begin to enter the church for services, the Bishop non-answers that as he said before, the boy lived a life of the flesh.  Outside of another church, this one in Five Points (e.g., lots of immigrants, not high society types like the Bishop would entertain in his congregation), pieces begin to fall into place for Laszlo as he watches parishioners shuffling out of services.

Team Alienist HQ.  Late at night, Roosevelt arrives at HQ so Kreizler can give him the as requested, high society family name, Willem Van Bergen.  Are you certain, Roosevelt asks?  Kreizler is certain that Willem and their killer share certain dubious traits but that’s not really an answer to the question, Laszlo. Sheesh, people are evasive on this show. “Evasive and Awkward” that should be the subtitle name of this show!

Roosevelt says the Mayor has told him to look the other way and Laszlo agrees that maybe he should.  In any case, Laszlo doesn’t believe Willem actually is the killer since Bishop Potter and his golden-haired choirboys are a worlds away from where Santorelli would have gone to church.  Which goes against Kreizler’s “similar upbringing theory.”  Roosevelt accuses Laszlo of treating this like a game instead of caring about actual lives. “Its time to take action, Roosevelt says.”

Photo by Kata Vermes

Roosevelt pulls Connor out of his card game and inside Connor’s office, questions him on what he knows of the Van Bergens.  Connor plays dumb but Roosevelt isn’t having it.  He demands Connor get an address for Willem Van Bergen … the “or else” is implied.  Commercials.

Willem’s Apartment.  When we return, Willem is giving a new boy a milk bath.  “What happened to your teeth?” the boy asks.  “Too much candy,” the unseen man says. But we know its Willem … I think.

Police HQ. Connor tells Roosevelt the men are ready and Roosevelt surprises him by saying Roosevelt is going with and will do the arresting personally.

Willem’s Apartment.  Willem is preparing the end game for the boy (who is in full girl dress – white of course).  He’s holding a silk ribbon, twisting it in his hands and breathing heavily.

Photo by Kata Vermes

The Streets. The Police close in on an address, making their way up stairs to a door on which Roosevelt begins to bang.

Willem’s Apartment. In a grand bedroom, Willem and the Boy are dancing when a banging on the door disrupts them.

At Willem’s door is his mother.
At Roosevelt’s door is an old woman named Miss Effie.

In Willem’s room, his mother barges in and has the boy in the dress removed by a man.
At Miss Effie’s door, Roosevelt talks with the old woman and learns he’s been had by Connor.  Who, by the way, has just come up behind his boss and asks innocently, “This … is not the right place, Commissioner?”  The tight lipped smile Roosevelt was giving Miss Effie drops and his eyes turn ice cold as he turns towards the Captain Its the most terrifying or intimidating Teddy has ever looked in this series.

Willem’s Apartment.  Mrs. Van Bergen tells Willem that they need to leave this place, just for a little wile.  She tries to sooth him but Willem throws a Grade A+ tantrum.

Photo by Kata Vermes

Outside Miss Effie’s house, Roosevelt has it out with Captain Connor and when Connor says he paid good money for that address, Roosevelt, already steaming, says “apparently, not good enough.”  He strips the badge right off of Connor’s chest and demands his weapon.  In front of Connor’s men for an extra dose of humiliation.

Roosevelt leaves Connor standing there, stripped, in the pouring rain and its fucking amazing.  Before Teddy left, Connor whispered that Roosevelt will regret this and maybe he will Captain Connor, but not tonight motherfucker. Not tonight.

Team Alienist HQ.   Laszlo has summoned John to walk Moore through the murder pattern. Laszlo explains how humans are creatures of habits and patterns and so it made sense to Kreizler that that the Killer had been working on a numerical date pattern (January 1 (1/1); February 2 (2/2), etc.) but it wasn’t until he figured out what “dirt and paint” meant from the Killer’s letter … Ash Wednesday, that it all became clear. John hits on it too, the Killer is following the Christian calendar of Holy Days.  All the murders have occurred on Holy Days.  And, the next Holy Day coming up is very soon, May 14, The Fest of the Ascension.

The most significant clue to date has come into their hands! Moore notes that just a few days from now as he slams the Holy Day Calendar close.  And scene.


Thoughts.  The game is afoot.  With each passing episode, the urgency of the case, and the feeling of the need to make headway to solve it, has increased but tonight’s plotlines really made you feel the adrenaline rising. Not only did we have Roosevelt actively thrust himself into the case and into action mode but also Kreizler, facing his own fallibility issues, finally recovered his swagger just in time to make the most important of connections and provide the team with a solid clue of when and maybe now, even why, the Killer acts as he does.  We got key action sequences tonight with the down fall of Captain Connor, Willem’s Mother acting as Killer Interruptus, and Laszlo seeing his bird (metaphorically).

A few stand out scenes tonight contributed to peeling back that ever shrouded onion that is Laszlo Kreizler; first with his explosive exchange with Sara in HQ and then also, his interaction with both his old Harvard Professor and with the convict Jesse Pomeroy.  Something lurks in Laszlo’s past which is making this Serial Killer hunt far more personal that professional pride and curiosity and if the show continues to follow the book as closely as it has been, we are in for a treat next week as I suspect Miss Howard will take a break from the Silver Smile Killer and dig into the past of her favorite Alienist.

A last thought. I continue to be impressed at the fluid writing on this show; in particular, how it incorporates real NY and National people, places, events and themes into its universe while making its fictional characters interact with them in a seamless and therefore, utterly believable, way. Historical fiction is hard to write and hard to depict on screen in a way that doesn’t take the viewer, especially one that is a fan and therefor more prone to be a critic of artistic license, out of the action but rather, more fully immerses the viewer into what they’re seeing.  The Alienist provides believable escapism every week in their fully immersed universe and I can’t ask for a better hour of television than that.


** The 400.  “The Four Hundred” was a phrase first used by the social climber and influencer, Ward McCallister, to describe the most upper echelon of New York’s highest society at the end of the 19th Century; the 400 people who really mattered as it were.  You can find the actual list of “The 400” in this article from the NY Times from February 16, 1892.


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