Not that I’m unhappy that John is still alive and sketching. There’s something perversely amusing about the way the show repeatedly subjects him to seemingly life-threatening peril that somehow dissipates sometime between the closing credits of one episode and the opening of the next. The actor Luke Evans’s charmingly wide-eyed way of portraying Moore’s naïveté is genuinely charming and offbeat — moreover, it makes him a terrific opposites-attract match for Dakota Fanning’s Sara Howard. She’s intimidatingly flat, he’s endearingly flustered. Indeed, I’d rank Moore second only to Ted Levine’s Chief Byrnes in terms of sheer fun in a performance. It figures he would encounter horror after horror yet somehow emerge unscathed, like the Fool in a tarot deck.
And yet, when we’re presented with the sight of Mary’s sightless eyes, staring out from a head that’s attached by a broken neck, John’s nine lives start to feel false.
To its credit, “The Alienist” always treats the deaths of the children upon whom its serial killer preys as a series of tragedies. It is equally respectful, and properly outraged, about the grotesque class inequities that help enable the murderer to operate with impunity, or even under outright protection. The conditions to which the mentally ill are subjected by the institutional options of the day, the routine dismissal and degradation of women by men, the barbarity of white America’s genocidal war on the indigenous population, the cycle of sexual abuse that turns victims into victimizers ad infinitum: This episode alone exhibits fist-on-the-table fury about all of it. Moore’s PG-13 “Perils of Pauline” routine can only cloud this moral clarity.
It also betrays a lack of confidence in good old-fashioned detective work to hold our interest. That’s a shame, because these most recent episodes have been a bonanza of breakthroughs for our Gilded Age Scooby Gang. In Washington, Moore studies the pathology of so-called “Indian massacres” (many of which, he implies, are scapegoated imitations) and discovers an outlying case in New Paltz, N.Y., in which a Rev. Dury and his wife were killed and their youngest son, Japheth, was abducted. An older son, Adam, survived.
Also in Washington, a chance encounter gives Laszlo a lead on a new suspect: a man named John Beecham, who was deemed unfit to serve, sent to a government hospital for the insane, and is said to have had a severe facial tic around his eye. As important, he was born in New Paltz.
On Kreizler’s instructions (as conveyed by Moore — Kreizler and Sara still aren’t speaking), Sara travels to New Paltz and learns that the slain minister was a vicious racist, recently returned from the frontier, who paraded pictures of slaughtered settlers before the local children as a warning against godlessness. She also discovers a secret stash of animal remains, most likely left behind by Japheth, and spots the local mountain where he loved to climb as a boy.
The Isaacson brothers travel West to talk to Beecham’s former commanding officer, who discharged him after discovering him naked and sexually aroused atop the mutilated corpse of a young striker during the Haymarket Riots, in Chicago.
Finally, Kreizler and Moore meet Adam Dury, the minister’s surviving son, who tells them that his abusive mother drove his kid brother Japheth close to madness and into the hands of a local farmhand, a grown man who befriended Japheth.
Japheth also, it seems, had a severe facial tic that made him an outcast among his peers.
That farmhand eventually raped Japheth, Adam explains. He was also, we learn, later found dead, having “fallen” from the mountain where he and Japheth liked to climb together. His throat had been cut, his eyes gouged out. And he shared the surname Beecham with the disturbed soldier with the facial tic. His first name, though, was George — not John.
And there you have it: On one hand, we have an abused son of former settlers, who was a gifted mountaineer, had a facial tic, and was raped by a now-dead man named George Beecham; on the other, we have a soldier with a history of mutilating bodies, who also had a facial tic and was named John Beecham. Their connection isn’t certain, but it seems reasonable to imagine that the young Japheth might have killed his rapist, killed his parents, faked his own abduction and then stolen his rapist’s last name.
In any case, it appears that the New York millionaires were probably a red herring, and Chief Byrnes’s animus toward the alienist’s newfangled ways are probably a distraction.
Rich or poor, however, the murderer is a reflection of America’s violence against the vulnerable, and our heroes’ meticulous labor in putting it all together — when no one else in the world seems to care — is impressive, even moving. Adding Mary’s body to the pile does nothing to deepen our understanding of these issues, and it threatens to turn Kreizler’s quest for truth and justice into a revenge-driven grudge match.