Like its preceding episode, “Start Calling Me Dad” starts with a phone call in the dead of night, this time in the household of Dr. Bertram “Bertie” Chickering (Michael Angaro), whose buttoned-down father picks up the receiver. It’s Thackery (Clive Owen), and he summons Chickering to the Knick for “experiments.” When the flustered young physician finally makes it to the hospital, he finds his boss strung out on drugs, workshopping, with a pair of comely Chinese sex workers (Ying Ying Li and Pei Pei Lin) from his opium den of choice, alternative approaches to the doomed placenta praevia operation that’s haunted The Knick’s first season. As his work-bender winds down, Thackery commissions Chickering’s help in testing a new invention: a type of uterus-pump-sheath that pressures the womb from the inside, allowing pregnant patients to die slower, and the doctors more time to save the prospective baby’s life.
Eyes bloodshot, pacing in circles, bouncing up and down, Thackery is as unhinged as he is brilliant, and Angaro’s depiction of Chickering’s response—bemused, impressed, a little frightened—is his finest piece of acting yet on the show. The whole scene is terrific, not least because it rather abruptly connects Chickering—a heretofore shy, peripheral character who can rarely get more than a few words out at a time—to Thackery, whose prior exploits have involved nearly every Knick staffer but Chickering. There are hints of a love triangle between Chickering, Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), and Thackery, but it’s dubious she’ll reciprocate either man’s affections. The hug Thackery gives Chickering after he recommends filling the valve with water instead of air is simultaneously awkward, heartfelt, and a long time coming—and adds a layer of cruelty to the saga of Thackery’s previous right-hand surgeon, Gallinger (Eric Johnson).
After accidentally infecting his baby daughter with meningitis, things have gotten much worse for Gallinger and his wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), as she drifts into obsession, convinced the child will get better despite the sad prognoses of both her husband and Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour). The Gallingers had previously been glimpsed together almost exclusively at home, the majority of the shots done with a zoom lens flattening the image and keeping them at a distance, particularly Eleanor. As she pleads to Sister Harriet that she’ll “take any chance” to save the baby’s life, Eleanor is for the first time photographed in extreme close-up (with her husband in the background), the pale contours of her anguished face nearly filling up the screen. It’s one of many ways the show’s depiction of illness and its consequences is anything but salacious.
Even though Gallinger is the closest The Knick has had to an outright villain, director Steven Soderbergh’s handling of the meningitis case is both technically and dramatically virtuoso, inverting audience’s sympathies if only by placing the couple in a position which, by today’s standards, nobody should ever have to go through. The baby dies and the Gallingers are photographed with her corpse—an ice-cold scene in a single take that seems to go on, to its haunting credit, forever. Soderbergh juxtaposes their suffering with an encounter between Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) and an unctuous x-ray salesman, who brokers him a used machine from Johns Hopkins, offhandedly commenting that “my children were taking dozens of x-rays of themselves on it the other day!” When Barrow has his own head x-rayed as a test, it’s a winning comment on both his own vanity (“It’s like staring into my own soul…”) and technology’s unforeseen later consequences—one of the show’s major themes. Barrow, after receiving the go-ahead from the Knick’s benefactor Captain Robertson (Grainger Hines) to spend $3,000 on x-ray machines, agrees after some haggling to buy this one for $2,000.
Escorting his ex-girlfriend, Mrs. Alford (Jennifer Ferrin), out of the Knick, Thackery tells her to avoid “vigorous movement,” to which she replies, “Sadly, I haven’t had occasion for vigorous movement in quite some time.” He offers to call a cab, but she claims she’d rather walk. He protests that the weather was looking like rain, to which she incomprehensibly replies, “It always looks like rain if you only look at the clouds. Don’t look at the clouds so much, John.” Whatever their relationship was intended to do for the show’s narrative, the paperback-romance dialogue has never been even the tiniest bit congruous with the realism of Alford’s injury, or the macabre spectacle of her recovering nose-flap bound together with her arm arched over her head. It feels like filler designed to make Thackery a more likeable character, but that’s the show’s predisposition even without it: When the same salesman tries to persuade Thackery to lend his name and image to a new “miracle liniment tonic,” the surgeon wearily entertains the idea before, of course, all but throwing the man out of his office.
Health Inspector Speight (David Fierro) and Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) continue their quest to map out a typhoid outbreak within the New York City elite. Speight narrows it down to a single path of origin: the cooking of a woman known as Mary Mallon (Melissa McKeekin), who he immediately dubs “Typhoid Mary.” The duo—plus the corrupt Officer Sears (Collin Meath), who latched onto Barrow in the last episode—arrive at a wealthy townhouse just as a tableful of bluebloods are about to tuck into Mallon’s custom-made ice cream, and Robertson ends up tackling Mallon herself as she tries to escape. The clinical nature of Soderbergh’s camera, hanging back as the ladies (and men) pile up on the floor, gives the scene an added, waking surrealism; it’s probably the best approach for shooting the scene, but betrays The Knick’s occasional over-reliance on broad comedy alongside its better-developed considerations of health and history. (That said, Speight’s use of terms like “twat” and “bitch” to describe Mallon are knowing evidence that he is, on some level, a little boy playing dress-up with his city badge.)
Chickering receives a call from Bellevue announcing that he and Thackery have a pregnant patient. For the third time, they perform a placenta praevia operation in the Knick’s operating theater, but with the newfound procedures developed over the weekend, and Thackery manages to deliver the baby and save the mother’s life. After the room erupts into applause, Thackery tells Chickering his name will be published for the first time, and they toast the memory of Thackery’s mentor, J.M. Christensen. When Thackery hears coughing late at night in the hospital’s corridors, he follows the noise downstairs, and the inevitable finally happens: He finds the underground clinic of Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland). He’s furious, calling for Algernon’s resignation, and Algernon replies, “Full disclosure, it is much, much more than just a clinic.” This grand showdown between Algernon and Thackery has been a long time coming. Thackery can’t believe Algernon would dupe the hospital like this, to which Algernon replies that he was left no choice as the benefactors installed him at the hospital and the (white) staff ostracized him. It is, on paper, a little bit much for an episode already bulging with breakthroughs and turning points, but it works nonetheless, because both actors brilliantly step to the task, switching from hot-blooded emotion to begging their own respective definitions of decorum. The moment is painfully tense with potential narrative implications, but it will surprise none that Thackery is swayed once he discovers Algernon’s invention of a vacuum tube for surgery, and his notes on alternative procedures.
Racism prevented Thackery from taking Algernon seriously, but now his work speaks for itself, and the two men strike an agreement that feels almost too magnanimous. But the episode’s resolution is no resolution: Cornelia Robertson returns home to a card game between her father, fiancée, and future father-in-law, Hobart Showalter (Gary Simpson). As she retires into her room, Soderbergh offers close-ups on the bric-a-brac of Robertson’s female strictures as a member of high society, painfully detailing the removal of her corset and her boots - before Showalter barges in and all but propositions her, telling her that he “always wanted a daughter” and that her joining his family is a “wonderful thing that will provide rewards and pleasures for all of us.” Trapped, she all but shudders as he kisses her on the cheek and saunters off. In some ways, the scene is an ominous inverse of Algernon finally being accepted by Thackery: Despite having found Typhoid Mary, despite running the Knick, Cornelia’s wealth is no guarantee of freedom.
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