It’s only logical that The Knick begins to deconstruct its mystical antihero, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), following the twinned breakthroughs of last week’s much-ballyhooed “Get the Rope,” wherein Thackery both atoned for his prior racism and finally hooked up with the taciturn Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson). Their coupling is the very first scene of “Working Late a Lot,” given passion and ferocity, but also seen at a slight remove from director Steven Soderbergh’s camera. Thackery gently coos into Lucy’s ear about how God doesn’t exist, a thought that scares her even as it gives her pause. Soderbergh shoots them together with cramped, candlelit close-ups in an otherwise pitch-black room, kept warm apparently by nothing more than the bed sheets and each other. Throughout the episode, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the risk of pregnancy; it’s kept unclear whether they’re using a condom or not. He’s unfailingly strung out on cocaine while she’s, it’s implied, pining after a more serious commitment. Albeit seven episodes in the making, their getting together can’t help but appear cast in something of a grim pall; months have passed since the last episode, and suddenly it’s winter.
The change in seasons is a terrifically smart maneuver, even if it allows for some fairly obvious hopscotching. “Get the Rope” had some of The Knick’s widest and most heavily color-graded frames to date, most memorably a languorous dolly shot tracking Cleary (Chris Sullivan) as he hauled a carriage full of wounded black patients down the street, capped with a surprisingly summery lens flare as his co-workers took up the rear. And yet the bulk of “Working Late a Lot” takes place indoors, in rooms that are either dour or claustrophobic or both, a jump both surprising and frustrating to the senses, as though Soderbergh is tonally refuting the hope and change of last week’s episode, while conceding plotwise that the riot outside the hospital simply left too many narrative bases to be adequately covered. If jumping forward three months is true to the show’s artistic spirit, it also means accelerating some plotlines and disregarding others. So, for instance, when Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) greets Thackery at the opening of another day at the Knick, it can be taken for granted that they are, finally, contemporaries.
The main dramatic thrust of the episode is what happens to Thackery when the hospital runs out of cocaine. The requisite coca leaves had been sourced from the Philippines—now in the grips of its War of Independence, with Knick benefactor Captain Robertson (Grainger Hines) funneling money into the anti-insurgent American offensive. It makes for another inversion of last week’s episode: Instead of an epic ensemble piece that tests each character’s camaraderie and resolve, we spend an uncomfortable amount of time watching Thackery stumble from one obstacle to the next, his bug-eyed, sweat-drenched withdrawal apparent to pretty much everyone around him. He derails an important meeting with the hospital’s advisory board over the cocaine question, creeping out his superiors and coming off as more than a little desperate. What Owen gives Thackery isn’t in his elocution, but rather his nervous aggression—his speeding and halting flow of speech, and his ability to state an opinion over and over again without realizing how bad he sounds.
The storyline is also noteworthy for the subtle, usually unspoken hints it drops about how developed Thackery’s colleagues and subordinates’ sense of his addiction really is. After giving a lecture at the Metropolitan Surgical Society, Thackery sits for a presentation on a new “illuminating intrascope” from a Dr. Levi Zinberg (Michael Nathanson). Soderbergh cuts between a medium close-up on Thackery, sitting in a pew near the stage, and his personal vantage point as he watches Zinberg. Through sheer cutting alone, the scene ups its own tempo to queasy effect, and it appears Thackery is on the verge of…what? Collapsing? Vomiting? An outburst? It’s among the most nail-biting sequences in the whole series, surgery scenes included. Zinberg’s appearance allows writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler to tackle, for the first time, anti-Semitism, with Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) wisecracking to Thackery that it’s “the last time you’ll ever be outshined by a Jew.” One of the interesting things about Thackery’s withdrawal problems is that they give Gallinger his first-ever patina of credibility, idly watching his boss ever-so-slightly spiral out of control.
Speaking of Gallinger, the crisis he and his wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), faced in prior episodes only seems to escalate further. At the urging of Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), he adopts a baby girl abandoned at the Knick, but Eleanor is incapable of moving past the death of their daughter, Lillian, and forgets the baby exists. The Gallingers’ misery does, from time to time, resemble a form of karmic screenwriterly punishment for his imperious racism toward Edwards (also curiously abated, here), but Soderbergh’s technique for making their pain real keeps it open-ended. Dr. Chickering (Michael Angaro) finally confesses his love for Lucy to his stiff-upper-lip father, who hates Thackery and views his son’s announcement as a means to get him out of the Knick once and for all, under the presumption that a formal marriage plan is imminent. Thackery breaks down (at first appearing to suffer a minor stroke) in the operating theater, and retreats, dog-tired, to the opium den, but he finds scant comfort at the other end of the pipe, pulled back again to the memory of his mentor J.M. Christensen’s death. If the old crisis was Thackery’s handling of Edwards, the new crisis may well be a Knick without Thackery.
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