[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Alienist” episode “Hildebrandt’s Starling.”]
Although it had been a week since “The Alienist” had shown a quick peek of its mysterious killer’s face, Monday’s episode “Hildebrandt’s Starling” allows him to own the screen for a significant amount of time. And the results are unsettling in a way that’s a credit to this significant departure from Caleb Carr’s best-selling period crime novel of the same name.
In the source material, readers must wait until Dr. Kreizler and his assembled team of investigators fully create a criminal profile before they start closing in on the killer, and even then, it takes most of the novel to actually meet him. In TNT’s adaptation, however, the killer’s presence has been teased out from the beginning as the show revealed glimpses at the man in shadow in the aftermath of a kill or as he corners his latest victim. Viewers also learned his identity early on: He’s Willem Van Bergen (Josef Altin), a privileged son of a high-society couple, whom the mayor and police have been secretly shielding.
On Monday’s episode, however, Willem’s proclivities are out in the open to everyone — his mother, the police, and even the viewers — except for Kreizler’s team. While they’re still trying to figure out his society connections and learn his name and patterns, the police have lied to Commissioner Roosevelt about Willem’s address. Willem is also deep in killer mode having wined and dined his chosen victim — another boy prostitute who dresses in girl’s clothing — and is about to make his move when his mother (Sean Young) arrives to spirit him away and save him from being apprehended.
Here are six reasons why the show’s decision to reveal the murderer early on is such a smart move:
This Tired Tale Needed to Be Refreshed
Carr’s novel had been published in 1994, but since then, the TV landscape has been riddled with serial killer shows, and some that have explored many of the aspects that had made this tale unique. England’s “Ripper Street” is set slightly before the events of “The Alienist,” and thus includes many of the same hallmarks, such as violence against sex workers, the dawn of new scientific techniques such as fingerprinting, and a stuffy society at odds with its more perverse underbelly.
Even Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” which is set in the 1970s, has nevertheless preceded “The Alienist” on TV in presenting the nascent stages of serial killer profiling. Since the period trappings and profiling are now so familiar, “The Alienist” had to distinguish itself somehow, and it’s doing this through the particulars of its central case.
The Villain Has a Face
While keeping the villain abstract in the novel may have worked, television is a far more visual medium, and thus it became imperative that as Kreizler & Co. began to form a picture of the killer, that the audience had a visual to match. Besides, the face isn’t a disappoint either. Viewers may remember Josef Altin as Pyp, one of Jon Snow’s Night’s Watch brothers when he first joined. The actor also recently made a memorable turn in Hulu’s “Harlots” as Princes Rasselas.
Bring on the Dramatic Irony
As numerous mystery novelists and filmmakers have learned, sometimes letting spectators in on the big secret of who the killer is can make the story even more compelling. Hitchcock did this often, most notably in “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” after which the audience was left guessing exactly how the police would be able to outwit the killer each time they were on screen.
Similarly, revealing Willem earlier has created more urgency every time we see him, especially with a victim. It ratchets up the tension also to witness just how frustratingly far behind Kreizler’s group is. As the team gets closer and closer to finding Willem, the intensity will increase.
Willem Is One Colorful and Twisted Character
Although the subject matter is grim, one can’t help being fascinated by Willem’s depravity, which is frankly one of the draws of serial killer stories. The killer in the novel was twisted enough, but the series gives him extra color, literally. His signature silver smile is the result of mercury salts used to treat syphilis.
Also, watching Willem with his doting mother in this most recent episode is downright horrifying. Not only does she lovingly enable the monster that is her son, but how he throws a tantrum like a spoiled toddler deprived of his favorite toy is absolutely terrifying, considering that toy is a human being. Who knows what additional revelations future episodes will bring.
Sara Was Right
Seeing Willem and his mother’s creepy bond provides some satisfaction that proves Sara Howard’s (Dakota Fanning) supposition about the killer being influenced by his mother was correct, despite Kreizler’s marked protest. It’s tangible evidence of how each person on the team is able to contribute.
It’s All a Misdirect From the Real Killer
Given that the show is still only halfway through its season, there’s a definite possibility that Willem Van Burgen isn’t the actual killer, but just another person who preys on boys. After all, the city is full of men who don’t have a problem frequenting these boy brothels. If that’s the case, then the show presenting Van Burgen early is still a savvy move to keep the interest alive while the real killer is still lurking in the shadows.
“The Alienist” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.