Steven Soderbergh’s naturalism has worked both for and against certain strains in The Knick’s first season, and “Get the Rope” may mark the first time his dazzling, inventive shooting style just can’t support the dramaturgy. On one hand, it’s ballsy that the episode barely covers 24 hours: The show’s acute gift for slowing down and speeding up time has made its exploration of individual characters consistently intriguing, and paid off abundantly in the anti-resolution of “Start Calling Me Dad.” But instead of lingering, the tensions that erupted when Thackery (Clive Owen) happened upon Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland)’s makeshift clinic for black New Yorkers have been impossibly smoothed-out overnight. Formerly the show’s walking embodiment of educated white racism, Thackery now champions Algernon to an almost magical degree, with the hospital staff firmly aligned in his sympathy. It’s altruistic, and if you like the characters, the resettling of loyalties makes for reassuring viewing. For this reason alone, “Get the Rope” grips undeniably, but it also goes down feeling like the most disingenuous episode yet. It’s soapy, morally charged, and Grand Guignol all at once.
The episode opens on another of Thackery’s flashbacks, wherein he wows a packed surgical theater, egged on by his mentor J.M. Christensen (Matt Frewer), by displaying a new technique for identifying a man’s appendix. Once Thackery is woken up in the opium den, he’s rushed into saving a man’s life, but the episode’s actual plot begins with an eye on the burgeoning underworld career of police officer Phinny Sears (Colin Meath). A side character who all but blackmailed his way into a racket involving the Knick’s administrator, Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), Sears is on screen the longest in what will be his last speaking scene. After he tries talking up a young black woman on the street, whom he repeatedly assumes is a prostitute, her boyfriend (immaculately dressed, and about a foot taller than Sears) confronts him. When Sears pulls out his club, switching from pimp behavior back to assuming the authority of a cop, the man stabs him repeatedly with a switchblade, and then he and the girl both run off. Sears is brought to the Knick, and an outraged mob (a mix of cops and workers, but all Irish) gather outside the hospital. As ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan) strategically keeps the crowd at bay, Sears’s mother (Mary Birdsong) clamors into the Knick, where her son barely continues to breathe.
Drunk, spiteful, and filled with colorful colloquialisms, Fionnula Sears is almost too extreme a character to exist within Soderbergh’s fragile ecosystem of class and race pressures. Both funny and genuinely unpredictable, she commands attention whenever she’s on screen, with elder cops and little Irish boys standing at her beck and call. She offhandedly tells the Knick’s staff that Phinny’s “got more pluck in the little finger than all of ye have got in all your sorry souls,” and the cops all take a swig of whiskey in solidarity, but it feels facile. Phinny dies, and she incites the crowd to “hang every one of them black bastards. Take down every one of ’em fuckin’ darkies. Rip their throats and grind their eyes down to jelly! Make ’em pay for what they done to my Phinny!” To which men in the crowd immediately comply, tackling and beating random black passersby at a moment’s notice. Maybe this is how it really went down in 1900, but the randomly plucked characters and easy incitement feel more like a complex story is being told in a cheap amount of time.
To wit, the assault on the Knick sees the entire rest of the staff suddenly finding out about Algernon’s clinic, but it passes too quickly to mean much of anything repercussion-wise. It’s not that Soderbergh flinches: The mob is truly vile, and the random severity of the white-on-black violence is as horrifying as any of the show’s surgery scenes. But the meticulously outlined, heartsick, and head-crazy contradictions of the show’s leading characters don’t apply to the people outside the hospital; it’s been just as true of the black characters before as it is for the Irish here. Thackery, Cleary, Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), and Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) all become freedom fighters on site, wheeling the black patients from Algernon’s clinic to a “Negro Infirmary.” (After the horses are stolen or scared away, Cleary hauls the carriage himself, an image as surreal as it is seriocomic.) It’s not unfair to presume that however many people the staff end up saving, worse things are happening to any black people caught in the Knick’s vicinity once Soderbergh’s camera has moved on; neither the partial ransacking nor the mob’s dispersal appear in this episode.
Instead, what happens is the confirmation of two long-running, unspoken romances. Fresh off her encounter with the world’s sleaziest prospective father-in-law, Cornelia is wowed by Algernon’s revelation that he delivered two babies in the Knick’s boiler room and, instead of shuttering the place, ends up flinging herself into his arms. “I was terrified for you today,” she says, “the whole city wanting to hurt you.” Their embrace has been a long time coming: They’ve known each other since childhood, and one could hardly have been blamed for supposing The Knick’s big reveal would turn out to be that they were siblings all along. The same night, Thackery escorts Nurse Elkins home, and they proceed to tenderly shoot up cocaine and have sex (her first time). Soderbergh captures the morning-after glaze on Elkins’s eyes, saying a lot without putting any of it in words. It confirms that Hewson’s performance has been strongest at its most minimal, which is also true for The Knick at large, making this episode the weakest yet.
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