TNT’s luxe drama The Alienist is quickly becoming prestige TV’s answer to murder-y psycho-thrillers as we await the return of Mindhunter and the future of summer breakout The Sinner hangs in the balance. Monday night’s “Silver Smile” shockingly gave us some concrete possible clues about the identity of the serial killer currently terrorizing Gilded Age New York. We meet the mysterious, wealthy Van Bergen family in the cold open — their seemingly problem-causing son Willem was a loyal customer of Giorgio Santorelli’s — and even see a shark-smiled mystery man (Josef Altin) prowling a bathhouse filled with young men for what seems to be prospective victims.
And, yet, even with all of these apparent clues as to what’s happening in The Alienist, the closing scene left us with more questions than answers. The final seconds showed the apparent serial killer skulking around his lair, only this time he’s not toying around with the eyeballs of butchered children. This time he’s lovingly caressing John’s drawing of Giorgio’s dead body, which probably left a lot of fans wondering, “What is happening?” So, let’s figure it out.
The first question we need to answer is how the killer, who may just be young, rich, and still-unseen Willem Van Bergen, got his hands on the picture in the first place. The explanation is simple if you never let your eyes off of “Silver Smile.” Towards the end of the episode, Moore, Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl), Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the Isaacson brothers (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear), and police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty) investigate the latest serial killing, which looks identical to the Santorelli murder. In the middle of all the crime-solving, most of the motley crew has to flee, as to keep their investigation a secret from a corrupt police force.
Amid the chaos, John drops his drawing pad. This fact isn’t obvious, as the camera pans to a lost object during our heroes’ flight, but it’s not clear what, exactly, was left behind. My 21st century brain and I, for example, wondered if the item was a wallet. For everyone who’s not an 1890s artist, what John lost only became obvious at the close of “Smile,” when the illustrator realizes something is missing from his coat. That is when we see the killer fawning over the drawing, which was in John's sketch pad, in his own personal dungeon.
While that fact is already bad, it only get worse when you realize what it really means for Laszlo, Sara, and John. As we see during the investigation of the body, which was left on the roof of the old, abandoned immigration station, the killer was actually hiding directly underneath our crime fighters as they picked apart the so-called “fiend’s” psychology. That is how he ends up with the notebook by episode’s end. So, not only does he have John’s sketch pad — he knows everything the people trying catch him know.
This turn of events is especially problematic because The Alienist’s heroes made some major breakthroughs in this exact, unwitting moment of eavesdropping. The Isaacsons deduce the eye removal of the latest victim and the long-dead Benjamin Zweig are the same, and it is plausible the killers used the same knife. Before this scene, it’s unlikely the murderer even knew he had been connected to the Zweig twin slayings, which had been forgotten by police for years.
On top of that, Sara comes to some massive conclusions about the serial killer. Standing on the roof, right next to a former immigration port, the young woman realizes their suspect is fixated on heights, as well as water. After all, every body has been recovered on a tall structure with a view of water like a bridge, a building, or a water tank. Noticing the slain children are no longer hidden — as Benjamin and his sister Sophia were three years prior — Laszlo concludes, “He’s moved on… he’s evolved.” Finally, the group surmises the victims aren’t fighting back against their killer because asphyxiation is an established part of their sexual transactions.
Now that the murderer knows precisely who and what his investigators are searching for, it will be all the easier for him to cover his tracks.
After these developments, the remaining question is what the killer will do with all of his covertly-obtained information. While the trailer for next week’s purposefully opaque “These Bloody Thoughts” doesn’t suggest much, it’s possible the murderer will turn his sights on Laszlo, Sara, and John, since they’re the only people who could stand in the way of him and his twisted, horrifying passion: killing transgender-coded girls. As premiere “The Boy on the Bridge” proves, the killer can easily track Laszlo down, and that was before the doctor was even hot on the murderer’s tracks.
So, from this point forward, everyone should watch their backs.
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