The Knickerbocker Hospital’s putative mission to help New York City’s neediest gets its most interesting stress test yet in “They Capture the Heat.” An earlier episode of The Knick showed hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) getting his teeth plied out by his loan shark, Bunkie (Danny Hoch); now, one of Bunkie’s lieutenants may need his leg amputated in the dead of the night, putting his boss in Barrow’s debt for once. After seeing Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) scrub in for surgery, Bunkie tells Barrow, “That black bastard better not get too familiar with my man if he don’t wanna find himself hanging from a lamppost,” and both Algernon and Thackery narrow their eyes in unspoken disgust—a flicker of solidarity between the two men never before seen in the hospital’s surgical theater. It’s a collision of two of the show’s up-to-now isolated environs, and even Clive Owen’s haggard, seen-it-all drug addict Dr. Thackery manages to be appalled by the stench surrounding Bunkie. It’s been a pleasure watching Steven Soderbergh stress Thackery and Algernon’s unspoken shifts in opinion of one another, and “They Capture the Heat” skirts it on the margins.
In terms of words not spoken: Algernon has commented more sharply on the lopsidedness of his professional treatment at the Knick to Thackery than he has to any other doctor, even after being decked in the face by Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) in the last episode, and Thackery consistently fails to measure up in his responses. It’s an unfortunate bit of character development; Thackery is presumably reserving the right to watch events unfold in due time, frustratingly unwilling to concede that his well-to-do deputy Gallinger is, despite its being belabored by his every scene in the series, a delusionally entitled prick. (Gallinger’s scenes at home with his blank slate of a wife, played by Maya Kazan, are some of the least complex in the series.) There are times when The Knick risks becoming an exercise in pitting good guys—the characters with political opinions that are retrospectively laudable—against their opposites, typically criminals or Gilded Age fat cats. Soderbergh’s visual exploration of the era’s upper-crust glitz has run through the preceding episodes in meager proportion to the suffering and pain of the hospital, and it works out, as the dialogue whenever rich people turn up on screen is consistently terrible.
A discussion with board members about whether or not to get x-ray machines becomes a litany of unwieldy historical clichés: one of the board members naysays to Thackery that “Medical advice is as much a commodity as bread, and to give either one or the other to the unworthy is wrong! It encourages irresponsibility and reckless use of private resources.” Despite their heavy-handedness, lines like this are actually elisions, shortcuts to delineate the Knick’s position in the show’s substrata of New York circa 1900 and, one can’t help but feel, to make the issues of the past sound noxiously closer like the present. To that end, there’s a looming possibility—first introduced, along with the fiancée of Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), in the last episode—that the hospital may need to move uptown, where the “smart money” is, and abandon its social welfare mission. Halfway through the season, the series hasn’t once shown anybody subsidizing what goes on at the Knick other than Robertson’s father (Grainger Hines)—who does, in fact, spring for the $3,000 x-ray machines—and the immigrant woman who paid Barrow five bucks for her husband’s “cremation.”
Without abandoning these wider historical concerns, “They Capture the Heat” proceeds along the lines of three characters’ double lives. Algernon continues his makeshift emergency clinic in the hospital’s boiler room, giving the episode a scene of lurid ludicrousness when his surgery is paused—and the staff turns the lights out to avoid being caught—after a male and a female Knick employee come downstairs for a brief, drunken conversation about, naturally, whether or not he brought a condom. The show’s interest in also being a down-and-dirty comedy, as glimpsed previously via characters like David Fierro’s bottomlessly corrupt, bumbling Health Inspector Speight rarely finds the show’s writers playing to their strengths. A soft-spoken cop named Phinney (Colin Meath) introduces himself to Barrow and strong-arms his way into Bunkie’s network of brothels, which portends much, but adds little other than allowing Soderbergh to plunge his camera further into the city’s underbelly. Bunkie’s ascendancy to a main character has been a long time coming, but his swift introduction, via Phinney, to two new hookers feels either queasy for its churlishness, or like a new frontier in the show’s perspective on the awkward dehumanization of the era. He pawns them off to a henchman, telling them he’ll now “test their enthusiasm.”
Ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) carry on with their makeshift abortion service, but not to the perilous lows of the last episode: Their one visit is canceled because the woman in question is too far along in her pregnancy, so the pair head to the bar instead. The characters’ wisecracking Irish brogues generate a warmth that’s uncommon to the surgical theater’s antiseptic chill; let’s hope Soderbergh doesn’t overplay it. Cleary’s fascination with the pregnant bodies of the woman Harriet is supposed to be assisting is one of The Knick’s murkier points, but her expertise in her field is not: She summons Dr. Chickering (Michael Angaro) to work on a woman experiencing placenta praevia, in need of urgent care. Harriet explicates that she’s only calling him because, unlike her, he has the authority to order the woman into surgery; it takes him a moment to certify, and suddenly the episode morphs into a race against time to save her life—a daunting prospect, as placenta praevia is the same condition that compelled Thackery’s mentor to suicide in the first episode.
The series does something interesting here: After shooting up, Thackery disarmingly attempts to sell Chickering the idea that the operation will be a breeze, and he’s as persuasive as ever. In the next shot, the woman and the baby are both dead, and all Thackery can do is stare. In terms of his professional self-image, it’s the most devastating blow the series has yet dealt, but his new job demands that he survive his own mistakes; by sundown, he can sigh that it’s been “just another Tuesday at the Knick.” That also includes Gallinger’s baby daughter howling in agony with meningitis, which she caught after her father treated a man for rat bites in last week’s episode. This is one way the series stresses the frailty of its ecosystem: Across two episodes, the disease has lurched from the gutter through the hospital to the drawing rooms of the elite. It grants credibility to the disease-mongering of prior episode, reinforcing that, despite its benefactors’ progressivist talking points, the Knick fails the weak and the poor far more often than it manages to save them.
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