TV Review: The Alienist: “Hildebrandt’s Starling”

For most of The Alienist, Lazlo has had this feeling like he is the superior of the three when it comes to understanding the clues given to them. It is most likely due to his high education and work as a doctor that has driven him to that belief. It appears that the more he works with people who don’t quite have the same level of expertise that he does, the more frustrated he becomes. That’s certainly present in the miniseries’ fifth episode, “Hildebrandt’s Starling,” but it also appears that he might be easing back a little and understanding how those unlike him reach their conclusion.

In the opening sequence, the group examines a letter and determines that the killer is between the ages of 24 and 35. Lazlo believes it to be a male, while Sara believes it to be female. Lazlo makes the argument that no female could ever commit such heinous crimes, and that if a woman was present in the boy’s life, these murders wouldn’t be happening. He enrages Sara to the point of her storming out of the room.

John tries to calm Sara down and jokingly asks her to marry him. Although John has previously stated that he has no interest in Sara, and he meant this in jest, it does appear that there is a side of him that does like Sara more than he wants to think. I doubt the series will gravitate toward the two having a relationship, but the hints are there.

Lazlo later seeks help from an old professor, but doesn’t quite explain what he is working on. He just needs guidance in his next steps. The advice given leads him back to a project he did involving a type of bird known as the Hildebrandt’s Starling. His accomplishments with that assignment, and the approach he took with it, will help him in this current project.

The discussion Lazlo has with his old professor leads him and John on a train to meet up with Jesse Pomeroy, also known as the Boston Boy Fiend. As Lazlo explained to Sara in the previous episode, he empathizes with more people than the average person, even those who have potentially brought harm upon others. John is not as enthused about the journey as Lazlo, but he complies.

The meet-up doesn’t go as planned, and Jesse lunges at Lazlo with a weapon. For a brief minute, John started to empathize with Jesse and it appeared he was seeing him in a different light than reports had suggested. But once the attack took place, his thoughts reverted back.

It is here when Lazlo realizes that he may not know as much as he thinks he does. I’m curious to see if he’ll see more to the level of his colleagues and others around him, rather than continuously act stubborn and argue how he is right.

In this same scene, it shows John having a nightmare of some kind, and the design is done with a horrible green screen effect and some kind of cheap video effect. For a show like The Alienist, one that has such tremendous production value, you would expect a visual like this to look better. It almost looks like something that would come out of the ’90s, and instead of being intrigued by the nightmare, it turns into an unintentional joke. Although I question if John is starting to get PTSD, or if he’s had it and we’re getting more detail about it, it could have been handled better.

While The Alienist gives viewers this interesting look at how some fictional characters interact with those who were real, it also has some slight correlation to politics of today. Take, for example, when Teddy Roosevelt meets up with the mayor, who tells him that he’s heard some things about how law enforcement might have a deep connection with the murders, and it would look bad on their part. When the mayor says his source is just what he sees in the news, Teddy tells him to not believe everything he reads in the papers, as they are just doing what they can to get your attention. It’s almost a more intellectual way of saying it’s “fake news.”

During his meeting with the mayor, Roosevelt has this look of concern. At first, it looks like he might be hiding something, or he doesn’t want any bad news to come back and affect him or his department. But when he later talks to Connor, it almost looks like Connor is hiding something. And, as we’ve seen in previous episodes, Connor has deep ties with the brothel.

When it is determined that there are not even any possible suspects, Roosevelt calls for the Isaacson brothers to join them in the investigation and issues them firearms. He then tells Sara to go through the records and find anyone who might have the slightest connection.

As it has been discussed throughout, the killer is believed to have a “silver smile.” We thought the killer was shown in last week’s episode, but, after Lazlo talks to someone at an Episcopal church, that may not be the case. The boy is part of the Van Bergen family, and he’s spoiled beyond belief, but it may turn out that he is not actually the killer. Again, I haven’t read the book; I’m just basing everything on what has been explored in the series thus far.

Although Lazlo is stubborn and thinks he’s smarter than everyone, Sara seems to prove that she is a much tougher individual than he is. She has a preference for whiskey over wine, and she knows how to hunt and shoot a gun. She continually proves that she is not just some secretary, and that her gender doesn’t mean that she can’t do similar things that a man does. And Dakota Fanning is continually proving how great she can be in a more mature role.

This episode does kind of end on a cliffhanger, although it’s not as nerve-wrecking as the previous episodes that had people in peril. We do get more information about the killer that shows his motive and when he may kill again. But I have a feeling the Van Bergen boy is not the killer. He just seems to be some brat with affection for boys.

As much as I hated the green-screen nightmare sequence, the rest of The Alienist is still rich in wardrobe and production. The three main actors are still excelling each week. Some of the minor characters, such as the Isaacson brothers, don’t seem to add much to the story, and when the show does try to flesh out more of their background, that’s when it’s at its weakest. It almost seems like filler in order to get to that one-hour time limit. But the show still has legs, and I am curious to see how it all resolves in the end.

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David Wangberg

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