Throughout The Knick’s first three episodes, the majority of its individual plot components have been progressing at a pretty steroidal clip. This is the first wherein director Steven Soderbergh and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler truly manage to let the hospital’s staff members come and go on their own time, passing one another in the Knick’s hallways for reasons that aren’t always determined by plot exposition. Not once is Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) seen shooting up his signature liquid cocaine concoction, nor do we see Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) in his makeshift underground emergency clinic. The point isn’t that these activities are over; they’re just being allowed, for the first time, to happen off screen. Instead of having more piled onto the Jenga-like plot trajectories of the past two episodes, the central characters appear between crises, interacting with one another like real co-workers in a way that feels, ever-appropriate to this show’s founding intent, novelistic. “Where’s the Dignity?” doesn’t lack for drama or tension; it’s just much better stacked than its predecessors.
The episode leads with a one-two punch of historic indignities. The cold open shows ambulance driver Timothy Cleary (Chris Sullivan) cutting loose after work by MCing a game of recreational underground rat-stomping. The camera floats into a dimly lit late-night hovel stuffed with giggling, dirt-covered men hanging off all edges of the ring, all diegetic sound vacuumed out and replaced with Cliff Martinez’s pulsating synth score. This abrupt side-digression for the eye only lasts a handful of shots, too quick to be hypnotic, but lying itself out smoothly enough to feel intuitive. Not unlike Algernon’s drunken bar fight that capped the third episode, it looms taller in the memory than pretty much any of the copious dialogue scenes, maybe because it manages to suggest the alien-ness of an entire world in one tiny, wordless glimpse. Soderbergh’s Cornell-like cataloguing of the era’s grotesque contradictions becomes a study in tempos and rhythms; the intro is capped by a brief, music-free scene with hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). After selling a patient’s corpse to pay off his loan shark, Barrow exited the last episode while incinerating the legs of a pig to make the man’s “ashes.”
Here, he’s seen delivering those ashes to the man’s widow, who blinks disbelievingly, informing Barrow her husband bought a funeral plot before his death. Feebly, he tells her that being cremated was the man’s “final wishes,” with the caveat that he’s cutting her a special discount…and that’s it. A subplot that saw Barrow scheming and lying across two contiguous episodes ends here, with a last financial hardship for an innocent immigrant woman lacking anything close to a better option. It turns out his (heretofore bumbling) corruption actually still works to his advantage. The gradation of social Darwinist cruelties the episode suggests between these two asides is vast, and as a warm-up it makes the heart palpitate with potential flashpoints when Algernon, Thackery, and Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) walk into the surgical theater. Originally invited to guide the white surgeons through the operation, which he performed exhaustively in Europe, Algernon ends up performing it himself, saving the patient’s life and humiliating Dr. Gallinger in front of a full house. After he decks Algernon in the face, Thackery admonishes Gallinger: “Idiot! A surgeon needs his hands. Next time, kick the man instead.” Algernon rears up in disbelief as the audience cackles at him.
Within the episode’s first minutes, all viewers with a spine for human (or animal) dignity will have been mortified at least twice. Thackery’s ex-lover, Mrs. Alford (Jennifer Ferrin), continues to recover from the operation, re-growing a flap of skin (an intended substitute for her nose, lost from syphilis) from the tissue in her arm, which keeps her chair-bound but not incapable of teasing him. Thackery has yet another flashback, showing him in much happier times with both her and his dead mentor, Dr. Christenson (Matt Fewer), by his side. Soderbergh’s touch is again palpable, especially when Thackery, Christenson, and Alford burst through a pair of swinging doors and proceed out of the hospital’s main entrance, leaving in their wake a vast, meticulously realized staff Christmas party (complete with Cleary dressed as Old King Cole) that lasts a single shot. But it makes little difference; these flashbacks have grown counterproductive as backstory, because The Knick thrives on tangible, flourishing tensions—moments like Algernon’s first operation. The Christmas party finds a worthy counterpoint in a gala held by the Robertsons, where the Captain (Grainger Hines) introduces Algernon to another fatcat by saying, “You will never meet another Negro with as much ability and ingenuity as this one.” Honor, humiliation, and respectful deference all play out on Holland’s face at the same time.
Cleary finds a woman who’s attempted to abort her own baby and is hemorrhaging blood, and speeds her to the hospital. Thackery, Sister Harriet (Cara Seymor), and Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angaro) receive her in the operating theater, with Bertie’s father— following his son around the hospital for the day, for reasons refreshingly unexplained— watching from the audience. The woman dies quickly, but Thackery takes a methodical fascination in the fact that he can keep her heart pumping with his hand, a bit of scientific discovery that feels utterly beside the point to an outsider, even if it may save lives in the future. The elder Chickering scolds his son as they leave for the night; he even accuses Bertie of practicing at the Knick for “the idea that there’s some sort of nobility in poverty and struggle.” Something about the character’s random entrance from stage left gives the speech a weight by virtue of its privacy, the sensation that Chickering’s father may not, in fact, determine the outcome of future crises. It’s just one of the episode’s many pocketed stories.
The last of those is a pact between Cleary and Sister Harriet, who give the woman, an anonymous immigrant, a proper burial, whereby he agrees not to rat her out for her illegal abortions in exchange for a cut of the take. Their discussion is where “Where’s the Dignity?” gets its title, and it’s telling that, after featuring most of the show’s characters in equal proportion, the episode ends with Cleary sounding the most compassionate. Embedded within crosscurrents of class, racism, and weary personal history, everyone responds to the crisis in their own telling way. It’s the most breathtaking cross-section of Amiel and Begler’s often club-footed historical observations yet, and the show’s finest episode thus far: proof that, however irritating the procedure, Soderbergh’s experiment is still working.
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