Even the form-busting Steven Soderbergh can enjoy a little bit of formula from time to time. “The Knick” usually begins with a kind of a smash cut. This isn’t a show that softly eases into things. It’s: black, boom, picture, and the throbbing, anachronistic electro pulsations of Cliff Martinez are off and running, compelling the narrative forward with here-and-now vitality and portentous mood. As episode two, “You’re No Rose,” kicks into high gear with its typical form of picture, no dialogue, and few sounds outside of music, we discover a body. One of the most interesting supporting characters (and one of the most compelling actors who hopefully gets more work) is dead. It’s Jacob Speight (David Fierro), the health inspector, floating face down in the Hudson river, body swollen and ravaged by rigor mortis. The writers of the show, Jack Ariel and Michael Begler, then unveil a kind of mystery in reverse, where the audience knows what transpired, but the characters are in the dark. Speight was obviously killed by the dock manager (or more likely one his cronies) who shooed him off last episode when the tenacious health inspector discovered stowaways from a ship likely teeming with some kind of contagious malady — disease of any type being Speight’s all-consuming bête noire as we learned in season one. Obviously someone didn’t take kindly to the inspector sniffing around.
And so story B develops. A suspicious Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), not buying the story that the teetotaling inspector drowned while drunk on a bender, begins her own clandestine investigation after being stymied by the police — who have been bribed to keep Speight’s case closed — that ends up embroiling Dr. Algernon “Algie” Edwards (André Holland) and scalawag ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan, another one of the show’s excellent, scene-stealing supporting actors). But the main story, that stops the entire cast of characters in their tracks, is the surprise return of Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen). Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) who rescued (read: kidnapped) Thackery from the Cromartie Hospital where he was recovering from cocaine and heroin addiction, has returned the wayward prodigal son to The Knickerbocker hospital much to everyone’s shock — Edwards and Dr. Bertram “Bertie” Chickering, Jr. (Michael Angarano) literally freeze up like they’ve received mild electric shock when they see the doctor return from afar.
Thackery has to convince the Knickerbocker administrative board that his addictions have already seen their worst days and he’s fit to resume his duties, but everyone, aside from Cornelia’s brother Henry Robertson (Charles Aitken), is highly skeptical. And Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines), The Knick’s leading benefactor, clearly wants him on a short leash. Thackeray does himself no favors by declaring his intentions to move away from surgery and devote his time solely to addiction research. Meanwhile, the brilliant surgeon has to try and mend the don’t-shit-where-you-eat broken glass of his past life. This means devastating Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), who actually believed the two were in love, and having to navigate the hatred of Bertie, his former protege and admirer that now loathes his guts for “stealing” Lucy from him.
Two more smaller splinter stories run through this episode: Algernon trying to hide his detached retina problem — which prevents him from performing surgeries — from the rest of the staff, and Cleary attempting to help Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour). The former nun has been imprisoned, her clandestine abortion scheme uncovered, but Cleary, who was in cahoots with her operation, is doing his best to help and has hired a fancy, but all-too-expensive lawyer to provide a defense.
Lucy’s father, preacher E.D. Elkins, comes to New York for a surprise visit and his introduction provides the show with its most arresting shot and scene — a long one-take, where Soderbergh gracefully weaves around the room while Elkins preaches up a fiery storm of old-time religion (Martinez’s score, which dials up weird and wonderful spooky theremin notes as the scene becomes feverish, is fucking brilliant).
As grim and brutal as some of the surgeries are on the show — seeing an eyeball getting injected with cocaine with no cutaway is deliciously twisted — “The Knick” is not without a sharp sense of mordant humor. There are at least two laugh-out-loud moments, the first being the inept Dr. Mays (Ben Livingston), more than happy to inspect the vaginas of Chinatown druglord Ping Wu’s (Perry Yung) whores for signs of STIs (no really). The second is a hilarious bon mot from Cleary, who notes that he’s broken the law several times in his life: it’s part of the survival method in New York. But “The two people who dragged me into [bonafide] malfeasance are a society lady and a fucking nun,” he says, while illegally exhuming the body of inspector Speight for Cornelia (and guess what: there’s no body in this grave).
Later in “You’re No Rose” — named after Cleary’s discovery of Harriet’s real name, Rose — Thackery, still not 100% and yet still sharp as a tack, sees right through Edwards’ obfuscation about his eye. The jig is up and Edwards, with no recourse, asks Thackery to perform an experimental surgery that may hopefully repair his eye (or horribly blind him for life). But Thackery has blood on his hands and it’s manifesting psychologically. That girl he saw visions of in episode one? She’s the little girl that Thackery inadvertently killed in season one with a botched blood transfusion he performed under the delusion of cocaine psychosis. Clearly consumed with guilt, her ghost haunts the surgeon with ill-timed appearances, and her presence during Edwards’ eye-surgery is distracting enough that the alarmed patient quickly aborts the procedure.
Elsewhere, the episode ends with a tantalizing tease: Thackery meeting up with his new whore buff Kate (Alexandra Roxo) at a local booze haunt. He notices her track marks and she introduces him to the concept of the speedball — heroin and cocaine mixed together. She explains how to not die from the concoction, the right mix of the two, and as she’s alive and kicking, the devilishly intrigued look on Thackery’s face is the perfect oh shit alarm that smash cuts to black.