The lurking anti-subtlety of The Knick’s pilot picks right back up in “Mr. Paris Shoes,” which leads by intercutting a day’s first stirrings at two polar-opposite corners of New York City: the mansion of hospital proprietress Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) and her filthy-rich parents, and the just plain-filthy flophouse where Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) is bunking. Waiting in line for the bathroom, he’s teased by another African-American man for the fanciness of his leather shoes. In juxtaposing Algernon’s basic struggle to get to a bathroom without being harassed with the pedantic musings of Robertson’s father, August (Grainger Hines), director Steven Soderbergh is able to unleash a barrage of socioeconomic tensions, but it happens with such manic energy it almost feels like he’s having too much fun with it. (Things are oversimplified, again, by the dialogue: The elder Robertson leads off by allowing, over the morning paper, that “They call our money ’new’—hmph—but it certainly does attract a crowd.” As if wealthy people spend their leisure hours talking about nothing except how wealthy they are.)
When Edwards condescendingly explains that his shoes are from “Paris. France,” he angers the other man while retilting the scene’s incipient sympathies against him. At which point Soderbergh cuts back to Robertson’s father, who tells her she’s in charge of the Knick because no man thinks the way he does more than her. It’s these finely tweaked power dynamics, and the threat/promise of their future eruption, that make the series exciting when all its characters converge in one place. Their independent arrivals at the Knick constitute the show’s first borderline-distracting dolly shot, tracing Nurse Elkins’s (Eve Hewson) path via bicycle, until she passes a bench housing doctors Gallinger (Eric Johnson) and Chickering (Michael Angarano), who then proceed to walk toward the entrance, and the camera finally pans backward in time for the arrival of Dr. Thackery’s (Clive Owen) carriage. The long take is wobbly and rough-hewn enough to feel spontaneous, but the blocking and timing are sublime, imbuing the day with menace before anything, really, has actually happened.
This episode expands on characters introduced in “Method & Madness,” but with particular focus given to a different handful, specifically Algernon (who arrived, after all, in that episode’s final 15 minutes) and the Knick’s smug poindexter administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). The hospital is plagued by an electrical outage; mid-surgery, a patient is nearly set on fire by a short-circuited cauterizer, and a nurse, ignoring Thackery’s exhortation, dumps water on it, immediately electrocuting the patient. (Soderbergh plays the moment out in uncanny quiet.) Following a browbeating from both Thackery and Robertson, Barrow demands a redo from the weathered immigrant contractors, who chuckle grimly and remind him that he skimped on proper installation in the first place. It’s revealed that Barrow—deeply indebted to a slimy loan shark named Bunkie (Danny Hoch)—pocketed some of the Robertsons’ money for himself, now barely able to afford getting the place wired correctly. How can he get this fixed without blowing his cover? The show’s organic, roving narrative attention seems contrary to the tightly proportionate standards of the format, and is one of the best things it has going for it.
That said, the diagramming of the staff’s hidden lives—first glimpsed via Thackery’s drug habits, which were a cornerstone of the first episode—also reaches heights that can feel absurd. Algernon, utterly sidelined by Thackery and Gallinger, establishes his own secret clinic in the hospital’s furnace rooms, presumably for the express purposes of helping black New Yorkers. Meanwhile, an Irish nun (Cara Seymour) is discovered by one of the Knick’s also-Irish peripheral employees, a boorish ambulance driver named Cleary (Chris Sullivan), to be an abortionist. Seeking a special procedure, Gallinger and Chickering conspire to dig up a medical journal Algernon worked on in Paris, but without outright asking him; instead, they break into a library with Cleary’s help, poring over indecipherable French medical literature. (What Chickering finds fascinating—a photograph of a man which giant testicles, for instance—Cleary cuts down with jaded, dirty jokes.) The multiplication of side stories is Altmanesque, but the stakes of each are high enough the series can suffer from having too much intrigue, because it’s so disproportionate to the cool-headedness of Soderbergh’s exercise. The technique continues to find ways of saying interesting things, even if the literal stuff (dialogue, plot, or both) sails beyond being merely on the nose.
Zeroing in on that discrepancy, the most involving scenes in “Mr. Paris Shoes” tend to be the ones that are—without being wordless, obviously—not what they call “dialogue scenes.” When Barrow, Chickering, Gallinger, and Thackery are surveying the Knick’s main ward, the electricity flickers out, and Barrow nervously—without giving up his pained, obsequious smile—rolls up the blinds on the windows in compensation. The camera floats behind him as he tends to each individual one; his effort seems to take forever, making it feel increasingly futile. Daylight doesn’t exactly flood into the room, and the doctors’ discussion (which happens, literally, behind Soderbergh’s camera) grows in acoustic volume, creating an audience-performer dynamic that ties Barrow to the show’s more prominent characters while beads of sweat formulate on his brow. And after he marches off in search of a more permanent solution, Thackery pulls a fire ax off the wall and takes it to the room’s fusebox in one fell swoop.
It’s an almost too-perfect encapsulation of what makes the two men so different: Barrow manages to buy time in pathetically small increments, while Thackery would rather risk sabotaging himself—and, apparently, the entire hospital—for the sake of some hard clarity. The episode comes full circle in two parallel acts of violence, the first of which is Bunkie (rather gleefully) ripping one of Barrow’s teeth out as a warning. When it’s followed by Algernon (exhausted from a day’s work, returning to the boarding house), this becomes a nifty alternative to the Robertsons’ self-caricaturing chat over breakfast: the exact inverse of what it takes to keep the Knick’s doors open, a triple juxtaposition. Taking apparent cues from Heraclitus’s dictum that “character is destiny,” Amiel and Begler find their strongest observations in these tense, uncertain situations: unspooling in near-real time, promising further complications to come. When he’s bullied by the same man as before, Algernon begs him off before abruptly felling him with one punch—a moment that initially feels crowd-pleasingly justified, but soon resembles asymmetrical cruelty instead. Emerging in a cross-eyed haze back in the Chinatown opium den, Thackery caps the episode, surprisingly, as its easiest character to identify with.
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