As immersive as it is overstuffed, The Knick’s season finale opens on the anxious face of the hospital’s secretly pregnant benefactor, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), just days away from marrying her fiancée, Philip. In the dark of night, the Knick’s ambulance driver, Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), pulls up on his carriage, and Roberston is astonished that he’s the one with whom she made arrangements for her abortion: “You?” Cleary sighs and responds, “You know, it’d be nice if just once in my life, a lady wasn’t disappointed to see me. Climb in the back.” He takes her to an enclosed apartment where the Knick’s resident nun, Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), is waiting for her in medical scrubs; the two women embrace with a sad tenderness, each one acknowledging the unspoken burden that had been weighing the other down all this time. Robertson tells Harriet, “You could have told me, you know,” to which Harriet responds in kind, followed by the lingering thought, “But we both couldn’t, could we?”
In the following scene, Drs. Thackery (Clive Owen) and Chickering (Michael Angarano) are de-scrubbing after a successful, if precarious-looking, bit of brain surgery. Hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) meets them in the washroom behind the operating theater, bringing with him Dr. Levi Zinberg (Michael Nathanson). Chickering is a fan of Zinberg’s, but Thackery meets the man with unbridled skepticism and, for reasons unexplained, gives him the brush-off. It’s hardly a surprise given Thackery’s cocaine withdrawal, but what’s interesting is how director Steven Soderbergh has managed, in the space of two preceding episodes, to slope the supporting cast’s sympathies away from Thackery, even if he still retains the capacity for medicinal brilliance. The man’s addiction has been as unsolvable a problem as The Knick has presented to its audience, arguably the most pressing dramatic crisis across the first season, while the show’s overall approach counterbalances historical ironies (radiation poisoning, casual drug abuse) against what we today know as science.
Speaking of which: Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) is seen next, visiting his wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), at an insane asylum, and it’s revealed that the doctor (played, curiously, by John Hodgman) who Gallinger asked to take care of his wife has had her teeth removed, claiming mental illness thrives in high-bacterial areas of the human body. (For comfort, he assures Gallinger he’s performed the same procedure on his young children.) Meanwhile, Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch) bursts in on Barrow mid-coitus at one of his brothels, and doubles Barrow’s fee, while demanding an extra $1,000 for the late payment. (As whenever Collier shows up, it’s a comedy scene with an effectively swift sense of brutality, but probably didn’t need to be capped by Collier’s goons attacking Barrow while he claims, “Nothing breaks a man like a good cockpunch.”) Soon Barrow is throwing himself at the mercy of, of all people, Thackery: “Every minute that we stand here, I’m incurring more debt than any man could fairly pay in a lifetime…”
With a syringe in his hand, Thackery hears Barrow out, but doesn’t act on his request to hire Ping Wu (Perry Yung) to kill Collier; the conversation ends with Thackery’s comment that Wu “doesn’t believe he can die—and from the scars on him, he might be telling the truth.” Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) visits Cornelia before her planned luncheon (a kind of turn-of-the century bridal shower), and their scene together is about as good, for sudsy melodrama done right, as The Knick can get. Seated on an uncomfortable-looking parlor chair, it’s Algernon’s word against Cornelia’s, played out in a single take, the tension all concentrated in the darting eyes of the young black doctor—who hasn’t forgiven, and probably never will, his former lover for refusing to have his child. When Cornelia tells him “I think we made a mistake,” he assents, but with the added brio, “You were looking for a risk to take. I just happened to be it.” Algernon withdraws as Cornelia stares, tearfully, before returning her gaze where it was when the conversation started: out the window.
Cornelia’s capricious decision seems out of leftfield, but the staging and performances are so expert that it registers as one of the few unambiguous closures in “Crutchfield,” an episode heretofore closer to another ordinary day at the Knick. Thackery and Chickering sit in on an operation performed at the hospital by Zinberg (to Thackery’s chagrin) and he spends the rest of the day fuming, obsessed by the idea that Zinberg is some kind of information thief. While he’s lost the prestige of his colleagues’ trust, Thackery retains his title and thus promotes Algernon to acting head of surgery, sends an ever-irritated Chickering to infiltrate Zinberg’s operation, and sets himself to the study of blood types, obsessed with one-upping the Jewish doctor’s game. If Thackery’s problem is cocaine withdrawal or unspoken anti-Semitism or both, it’s a nebulous motivation Owen nevertheless plays brilliantly, introduced in a pair of Altman-style zooms as he watches Zinberg in action. The jarring reframing of images whenever Thackery is around Zinberg promises interior mysteries to be explicated, one can only hope, in season two.
“Crutchfield” climaxes in a lofty juxtaposition, the likes of which can only be called Coppola-esque. While Cornelia is getting married, Algernon returns to the dive bar he’s frequented in earlier episodes; against soaring Protestant wedding arias, Soderbergh intercuts the ceremony with Algernon getting the piss beaten out of him by a much bigger man in a cold, industrial space. Both Algernon (who, in a bit of laborious audience goat-getting, is never seen getting up after he’s been pummeled into the ground) and Cornelia have consigned their fates to destiny, a point made explicitly clear by the oh-so-sinister curl of Cornelia’s father-in-law’s smile from the church pews. Thackery, extremely fucked up on drugs, convinces himself he can successfully execute a blood transfusion, and picks a little girl from the hospital to use as a guinea pig. She dies instantly, and his mind goes to swift pieces; Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) contracts a grudging Chickering to help register Thackery in a rehabilitation center uptown.
The Knick’s board of directors finally votes to relocate the hospital, while Ping Wu accosts and kills Bunky Collier, making short work of his cadre of henchmen, only to turn the tables on Barrow after reading Collier’s loan books. (Unless you count Algernon’s impressionist-edited boxing matches in the back alley, it’s The Knick’s only real action sequence.) Right up to the finish line, Soderbergh fudges the show’s tone to the point of emotional misdirection, with “Crutchfield” signing off on a note that’s both grimly hilarious and which sucks most of the pathos out of Thackery’s downfall. In keeping with the rest of the season, it strains (sometimes painfully) to guarantee a good time while preserving its in-hindsight moral outrage. Many scenes in the finale feel included solely for the purposes of either tying up a loose end or opening up a new one for the second season.
For more recaps of The Knick, click here.