Warning, spoilers ahead.
As much as we admire the dexterity and nimbleness of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh,”The Knick” writers and showrunners Jack Amiel Michael Begler should be given credit for the bon mots and more of “Wonderful Surprises.” The duo crosscut, begin and end mini story lines and character arcs with their own gracefulness while still informing and driving the bigger picture.
While “The Knick” is a “serious” medical drama that’s occasionally gruesome for some, there’s a terrific gallows humor to it all and this week’s episode has a huge laugh-out-loud moment of hilarious horror. Of course, it’s at the expense of one of this season’s best new characters, who had a fleeting stay at The Knickerbocker hospital. The inept and lascivious Dr. Mays (Ben Livingston) meets his maker after his flirting is finally his undoing. Hitting on one of the younger new nurses, Mays is distracted, and during a routine tracheotomy surgery is lit up like Christmas in an explosive fireball when he and the nurse fail to remember to turn down the flammable ether given to a patient while trying to cauterize a wound he has exacerbated with his butterfingers. Up in flames Dr. Mays goes. R.I.P. to his droll and wicked source of short-lived laughs this character delivered. Like the recently departed health inspector (David Fierro), the show has a terrific knack for both the writing and casting of these delightfully obnoxious supporting characters.
But Mays’ death is a boon to the weasely hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), who is manipulating the construction of the hospital to line his pockets and pay off his debts. Tammany Hall pulls all the strings around town, and gets a slice of the action. And while Barrow’s dealings are ultimate peanuts compared to Tammany, he’s told he has to cut them in on the deal if he wants to ensure there are no hassles or bureaucratic issues with the new Knick. Meanwhile, what’s the deal with Cornelia’s brother Henry (Charles Aitken) and his penchant for softcore photos? One has to wonder where that little thread might be headed.
While “The Knick” completes some story elements — Harriet (Cara Seymour) is finally freed this episode after Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) cook up a brilliant scheme to convince well-to-do high society gals to throw their support behind the former nun; convince their powerful husbands to turn the screws on Harriet’s judge, or else she’ll sing — the show is building towards at least two, maybe three major beats.
One is a possible sexual assault. We’ve already seen Cornelia’s father-in-law, Hobart Showalter (Gary Simpson), behaving skeevily towards her at the end of season one. And he’s doing his best to keep Cornelia around as much as possible, going as far as to delay the construction of their new house so the bride can be close to “daddy.” He’s also suspiciously sending her husband Philip Showalter (Tom Lipinski) away on business for a few weeks; and the worried look on Cornelia’s face says it all. Additionally, as Cornelia continues her protracted investigation into the death of the aforementioned health inspector Jacob Speight, we see that an ominous figure is tailing her. Whether that’s daddy-in-law trying to keep tabs on her or the dockworker’s thugs who have learned of Cornelia’s suspicious meddling remains to be seen, but I’d bet on the latter.
Beat two that “The Knick” is building toward is a crescendo of Dr. Everett Gallinger’s (Eric Johnson) deep-rooted bigotry. Already reeling from playing second fiddle to Algernon “Algie” Edwards (André Holland), Gallinger has to deal with his shell of a wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan), who will never been the same after the one-two punch of the death of her child in season one and a debilitating sanatorium stay. This week, a group of young Italian thieves try and rob Eleanor while she’s out taking an unaccompanied walk and when one young boy is captured and jailed, Gallinger gives him a merciless pummeling inside a jail cell. His anger and frustration is building and as he’s fallen in with old school colleagues espousing the “scientific” virtues of eugenics — a set of beliefs and practices which aims at improving the genetic quality and purity of the human population — it seems only a matter of time until Gallinger’s racism and his eagerness impress Thackery coalesce in horrific ways.
The last little beat? After wiping his hands clean of the Knick and former mentor Dr. Thackery, Dr. Bertram “Bertie” Chickering, Jr. (Michael Angarano) looks as if he may eventually head back to his old coach. Bertie’s mom is suffering from a terminal tumor in her throat. He seems hellbent on saving her, but his Mount Sinai boss, the conservative and buttoned-up Dr. Levi Zinberg (Michael Nathanson) immediately disabuses him of the notion of holding out hope and warns that he can search for a cure or an operation that won’t kill her in the process as long as it doesn’t interfere with his Sinai duties. Already chafed by Zinberg’s methods, Bertie bristles at the doctor’s response to his dying mother. If he’s going to live on the edge and try and risk something to save his mother’s life, who better than to seek out than his often irresponsible, risk-friendly and maverick former mentor Dr. Thackery?
Speaking of Thack, the doctor finally finds a little redemption, though skirts ever so close to the razor’s edge of death in doing so once again. But he’s possibly absolved himself — or gotten even— with a former ghost and sin. Last episode we saw Thackery experimenting with ridding a pig of syphilis, but dangerously raising the animal’s temperature to overheat and kill the infection. As his syphilis-riddled former ex-girlfriend Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin) continues to be ravaged by the disease with death an inevitability, it’s when she starts suffering seizures that Thackery is compelled into action. He eventually convinces her to agree to the perilous experiment in a hail Mary attempt to save her life. Of course, there’s a chance that infecting her with malaria to induce a temperature-soaring fever to kill the disease will take her life too, but what other option does she have other than death anyway?
The risky experimentation is by most medical standards cavalier, unsafe and unethical — Dr. Zinberg would be apoplectic about such precarious measures that should go through years of animal trials first before subjecting a human to them — but that’s Thackery for you; a man living on the edge in every sense. Algie assists Thackery, but is eventually appalled and knows Thackery has crossed a line. But miraculously, it works; Abigail’s fever eventually breaks and she is cured of the disease. Thackery even has a dream of the two of them on a boat, presumably replacing the spectral visions of the young girl he accidentally killed in another similarly precarious experiment in season one.
Director Steven Soderbergh may be serving the material and taking a backseat to the story in these most recent episodes, but there are still many cinematic elements to admire. One of them is a breathtakingly good editing sequence that reminds us he’s not just a visualist but understands film grammar all too well. It’s a scene in Harlem with Algie and his wife Opal (Zaraah Abrahams), who is doggedly sticking around despite the fact that the surgeon has admitted to an affair earlier in the episode. There’s been nothing but friction between them so far, Algie doesn’t want her around and Opal wants what’s hers including the Doctor’s riches and stature, but up in Harlem in a bar, they eventually let their guards down and for a brief moment rekindle, or remind each other at least, of the spark they had for one another. Soderbergh shoots the same scene in two ways, once during a dance, another seated at a table drinking, and he effortlessly crosscuts the dialogue between the two sequences to incredibly dreamy effect.
There’s also a hilariously dry transition that is subtly rich. At the encouragement of fellow doctors, Bertie finally goes to a brothel to lose his virginity and start learning a little bit about women. And as one charming harlot goes down to on her knees to fellate the excited young Bertie, Soderbergh cuts to Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), rising off her knees having finished inspecting Dr. Thackery’s member for any traces of cocaine injection — her weekly task, to make sure Thack is staying clean from his former addictions. We don’t tune-in to “The Knick” solely for these clever visual cues, but man does it make it all the more delightful to watch.