The Knick remains one hell of a panoramic contraption, and Clive Owen’s starring turn as Dr. John Thackery is one of the show’s major draws. “The Busy Flea” opens ice-cold with a jarringly long scene wherein Thackery is confronted by a former lover, Mrs. Alford (Jennifer Ferrin), who arrives at the hospital insistent on seeing him without an appointment. Framed in cold blue daylight, the absent-minded nurse at the front desk responds more with a stinging awkwardness than revulsion: Her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, Mrs. Alford’s nose has been replaced by a prosthetic. Within minutes she’s managed to talk her way into Thackery’s office, broken him down in the way only a former lover knows how, called him out for shunning their past in conversation, and insisted that he’s the only one qualified to operate on her ravaged, empty nasal bridge. Instead of shrugging her off, Thackery meets her condition with a hardened, dispassionate stare, signaling to her that he’s not kidding around—and signaling to us how deep he’s sunk into his own isolation. It’s official: This is the episode that verifies he’s going to be The Knick’s Don Draper.
Part of the character’s appeal comes from watching, in essence, a high-powered junkie who’s also a master social strategist. Thackery fecklessly serves his superiors opinions that are, in their blending of personal and professional, stunningly brazen. One example is when he pessimistically chides benefactor Cornelia Robertson (Jennifer Rylance) for imploring him to operate on a six-year-old girl with typhoid fever. As he argues that she’ll either die in the risky operation or live a life so “grossly compromised” it’s not worth living, it’s clear he’s freshly raw from the encounter with his old flame. The Knick can’t help but resemble a Dickens-era E.R. when Robertson stares Thackery down and insists that “A chance she could live is better than doing nothing.” That he has a total change of heart later in the episode is predictable to say the least, but in some sense this surprise attack of exposition should be appreciated, if only because it fills out the decision-making contours of the show’s particularly beguiling central character. By the episode’s end, the only thing truly unsympathetic about him is his racist antipathy toward Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland).
Alongside Thackery’s conundrum, it’s revealed that Algernon’s mother is one of the many maids of Robertson’s father, August (Grainger Hines), who refers to Algernon as “a worthy investment.” Once again, it’s uncertain why the patrician tycoon needs a regular morning discussion about how much he loves being rich—specifically, how pleased he is to have financed his maid’s son’s medical career. It’s obvious The Knick is attempting an ever-widening discourse on capitalism and race tensions in American history, but it’s also so desperate to get there it saps at least half of its waking moments of real gravity or verisimilitude. Point-scoring is a totally commendable exercise as long as it lodges in the viewer’s memory without feeling, at the time, like point-scoring. Too often, the series reveals nothing more about its characters and their times than a better-detailed variation on what came before. Anyone who’s ever watched TV could tell Thackery had a capital-P past that would prove important; now, it’s clearer what happened. It was impossible not to notice that Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) was corrupt and in debt, but this is the first time he’s shown with a teenage mistress—at a brothel not unlike the one Thackery frequents. It lands as more of a curiosity than a game-changer.
Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s script for “The Busy Flea” stacks the deck as far against Algernon as they have yet, focusing less on his hubris or class issues, though they’re there, and more on how he operates at the Knick as a whole. For the first time, he has to conduct secret surgery in the boiler room, and the episode’s strongest moment comes when he blunders his way into the hospital’s official operating theater in search of equipment, mid-surgery. Thackery’s casual disinterest in the blood-soaked, hyperventilating Algernon is both caddish and pointed, because the scene had been collecting steam up to now by prodding the viewer to anxiously wonder what would happen if Algernon were “caught.” Gallinger, Thackery’s de facto number two, comes to view himself less as a rightful heir to Algernon’s job and more like a victim of something resembling turn-of-the-20th-century political correctness, as if summoning up visions of an anti-white conspiracy that landed Algernon the job. It’s a shrewd comment on male defensiveness, and it’s writ larger by a scene where Gallinger brings his evidence to Thackery’s office, and it’s broken to him that perhaps Algernon will be more essential to the upcoming operation than they thought.
After so many existential ruminations (via Thackery, Alford, and Robertson) on a doctor’s role in saving or abandoning a patient (in short, the question of when it’s really “worth it”), the episode ends with Algernon feeling the same problem in the marrow of his bones. Having failed to save his secret patient’s life in his makeshift clinic (and ordered the man’s body deposited randomly in Murray Hill, because “somebody will find it”), he finds himself in a bar late at night, and he scornfully picks a fight with another young patron for no reason. Scored to Cliff Martinez’s anachronistic, chopped-and-screwed digital bell chimes as Soderbergh’s frame rate slows to the point of both distilling and self-destructing the scene, the drunken showdown between the two men is as emotional a set piece as the series has formally conceded to any one character. It’s gripping, but also draws an irritatingly pat parallel that may or may not prove to be the show’s main gambit: While learning to love Thackery, we’re meant to watch him see the light regarding Algernon—and possibly toward integration at large. His ignorance is putting not just Algernon, but also the entire hospital, at risk.
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