Director Steven Soderbergh’s gift for unfussily blocking The Knick’s scenes is made awesomely apparent in the opening of “The Golden Lotus,” wherein Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen)—deep in the throes of his ongoing, beyond-gnarly cocaine withdrawal—breaks into a Greenwich Village pharmacy in the dead of night. After busting a glass cupboard to retrieve the drugs, he crouches into a shadowed patch of floor space to shoot up, only looking upward as policemen shine their light through the front door. Thinking he still has enough time to make a quick exit, he bolts for the other passageway, only to open the door and find a cadre of New York’s finest beaming their lights directly into his face. In the space of mere seconds, Soderbergh’s camera has followed Owen from entrance to exit, and the intuition of the scene transitions the audience’s sympathies from Thackery back to the world at large, while casting one hell of a pall over the rest of the episode.
It’s so gripping, in fact, that when Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines) and the Knick’s administrator, Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) bail Thackery out, it feels almost disingenuously comforting. That this is the penultimate episode in the show’s first season inevitably means its every turn is saddled with even more dramatic significance than usual; since Thackery’s withdrawal constituted the bulk of last week’s “Working Late a Lot,” it wouldn’t be entirely insipid to hope the episode’s follow-up would feature, at least for him, a miracle remedy for a graceful exit. But “The Golden Lotus” adds up to the opposite: It’s uniformly devastating, with every single character’s heretofore virtues either tested or perverted to the point of a draw, notwithstanding either ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) or Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), neither of whom have figured into the series heavily since “Get the Rope.” Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) makes an earnest stab at looking after Thackery, but it makes little difference; he’s so far out, their relationship has been reduced to whatever she can do for his habit. (To which she happily acquiesces—and that Thackery will probably never repay the favor is one of The Knick’s incipient tragedies.)
Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) is told by his lover, Captain Robertson’s daughter, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), that she’s missed her period by three weeks, and thus that she’s expecting a child: his. For Algernon, who spends his nights either in a flophouse or drunkenly brawling in back alleyways, it’s the best of all possible news, but the scene turns sobering immediately as Cornelia insists she can’t keep it. He disagrees, but it’s to the credit of writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler that this contradiction exposes Cornelia as, in Algernon’s eyes, something of a racist while making both of their points of view entirely sympathetic. Which is to say, she’s in a bind that very few people would manage to weather gracefully, patrician stock or not: Cornelia’s refusal to have his child brings Algernon as much suffering as he had to deny, prospectively, when they started the affair in the first place. The two hookups that ended “Get the Rope” (Thackery with Lucy, Algernon with Cornelia) have curdled badly, with enough swiftness that their supposed catharsis has given way to something much harder and more painful to navigate.
In that episode, it was hard to parse what The Knick honestly wanted to do in its sweeping, New York-centric context. But when the episodes are centered on the intrapersonal dynamics of the hospital staff, Soderbergh and his cast never run out of character riches; “The Golden Lotus” sees Dr. Chickering (Michael Angaro), at long last, betraying his disappointment with Lucy for not returning his affections, but it only lasts a second. Meanwhile, the erstwhile heel Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) drifts further from his wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), who pulls up to the hospital with their adopted baby daughter utterly lifeless in her bassinet—horrifying every single person in the Knick. The corporeality of the episode, which contains zero centerpiece surgery scenes, reaffirms the high-stakes living of everybody in 1900 New York, whether poor or rich, and imbues scenes like Eleanor’s commitment to a mental asylum with the necessary coldness of fact: For her to be taken away is a load off Gallinger’s back, even if it harkens to both the collapse of their marriage and the only progressive, humane solution to her post-partum insanity.
But Barrow’s corruption, Thackery’s drug problem, and Lucy’s likely doomed relationship with Thackery all pale in comparison, pain-wise, to what this episode lays on Algernon. In a single, sterile wide-angle take, Cornelia meets him in the Knick’s underground clinic, undresses (with her back to Soderbergh’s camera), and lays on a dingy mattress, anticipating for Algernon to perform on her a hush-hush abortion. Under the glaring boiler-room lights, the pair reach a kind of rapprochement, but it’s of the more doomed variety: It’s as if one wrong move on either party’s part will cripple the other, maybe for the rest of their lives. Algernon’s breakdown in the face of the task is maybe The Knick’s most unabashedly raw moment, securing that, if Thackery is the face of the show’s discourse on tortured turn-of-the-century mores, he’s its heart. If Algernon can survive this, his character will become either a more callous monster than the worst the series has offered thus far, or a guiding moral force for the hospital long after Thackery has (inevitably) burned out. Even if Soderbergh’s cut away from a weeping Cornelia feels ever so slightly like a narrative copout, it’s looking likely to be the former.
For more recaps of The Knick, click here.