“The time to invest is when there’s blood running in the streets,” said young tycoon Henry Robertson (Charles Aitken), quoting Baron Rothschild in “Whiplash,” episode five of the second season of The Knick. In the season finale, “This Is All We Are,” the chickens of the Robertsons’ gilded-era capitalism come to roost in as many configurations as are possible.
Following the fiery death of Captain August Robertson at the end of the last episode, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) appears ready to finally accept the socialite-housewife role expected of her—until her husband, Philip (Tom Lipinski), casually mentions that Henry has been supervising the family’s port business for years, meaning he ordered the murder of Cornelia’s colleague, Health Department Inspector Speight. It also means it was Henry who torched the new Knickerbocker Hospital in the last episode, resulting in their father’s death. That he, and not the captain himself, was responsible makes a hell of a lot more sense, but the same cannot be said for Cornelia’s years-long lack of awareness of her brother’s position within the family business.
Director and cinematographer Steven Soderbergh is generous to his actors throughout: Cornelia’s moment of realization comes at the end of a long, slow track-in on Rylance as she hears the news—her line of sight unmatched to her husband’s, as the gazes of so many of The Knick’s sundry couples are. The inevitable confrontation between Cornelia and Henry sees him justifying his conspiracy on the grounds that the captain was too focused on his legacy, not on making money—and so, one generation swallows the other.
Just as Cornelia is on her way out, having been threatened with murder by her brother, she sees Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) heading up the stairs, utterly unaware of what’s been going on. Lucy’s trajectory this season has been disappointing: While her evolution from a naïve Southern belle to John Thackery’s (Clive Owen) accomplice in the first season was gripping, her main function in recent episodes has been as arm candy for Henry, or to provide cheap audience thrills. Lucy, who came from nothing, endeavors to scale the class pyramid, but it’s an ambition that’s never been reconciled with her side hustles, or her elaborately detailed rejection of her religious upbringing.
On bended knee, Knickerbocker ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) pops the question to Harriet Dolan (Cara Seymour), but she initially refuses him. Tom then attends confession at a Catholic church, in what would appear to be the episode’s most extraneous passage—until he reveals a betrayal that constitutes yet another mind-blowing twist. He tells the priest that, while helping Harriet work as an abortionist, he orchestrated her arrest and subsequent excommunication from the church, with the endgame of their marriage in mind. While this appreciably complicates their narrative, Tom also submits he was unprepared for how hard the law would come down on Harriet—another rather unlikely oversight—and the possessiveness of the endeavor puts a damper on one of The Knick’s few through lines that could have been considered marginally uplifting. Nevertheless, the prayer works, and Harriet assents to the marriage proposal .
Co-creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler aren’t positing religion as any kind of end-all be-all, but as a temporary solace from the cruel world that The Knick inhabits. When Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) has to explain the latest injury to his face—handed down to him by the racist Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) at the end of the previous episode—to his father, Jesse (Leon Addison Brown), he finds himself begging the question of why his father settled to be “another man’s coachman.” Jesse replies: “If I hadn’t learned to turn to God, I wouldn’t be here, and neither would you.”
Elsewhere, hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) finds himself pestered by an NYPD detective, George Tuggle (Joe Hansard), over the fire at the new Knickerbocker, having received a tip from the construction foreman fired by Barrow when he found out about the latter’s embezzlement. Barrow has quietly emerged as one of The Knick’s more compelling characters, or, at least, one of its cruelest: His fraudulence has gotten the hospital(s) deeper and deeper in trouble, but his sense of respectability has only grown, matched with little more than the occasional jeer from the patrician higher-ups he strives to rub elbows with.
By the end of the episode, Tuggle has had an off-screen change of heart, which is at once a testament to the power of Barrow’s society connections and, possibly, another red herring from Amiel and Begler. A certain just deserts would appear in store for Barrow, as one of his last scenes shows welts beginning to appear on his hands—presumably from his overuse of the Knickerbocker’s X-ray machine.
“This Is All We Are” gets its name from an utterance made by Thackery, in the midst of a surgical operation he performs on himself via mirror—another “innovation” on which the deranged surgeon refuses to budge, greasing the episode’s buildup for a tragic conclusion. His intestines ravaged from his heroin and cocaine abuse, Thack’s auto-operation is frowned upon by everyone—Gallinger, Edwards, Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano), and his former supervisor, Zinberg (Michael Nathanson). But Thack plows ahead, injecting cocaine moments before appearing before a crowded surgical theater. Woozy, he begins to lose his ability to make the proper cuts, and soon a clumsy incision causes him to hemorrhage. The rest of the staff jumps in to save him, but it appears too late.
Thackery’s refusal to let himself be operated on is perhaps the last of The Knick’s brilliant examples of un-hindsight, wherein the hubris of the moment—to say nothing of the doctor’s longstanding self-destructiveness—make for tragedies that the audience knows full well were avoidable. Within the halls of medical reason, his apparent death would appear a kind of seppuku, as if admonishing his audience for their faith in science while exposing an inventory of what his addictions—indeed, his much-lauded brilliance—have left him with. But if the show is renewed by its network for a third second, and as such almost necessitating that the doctor return in some form or another, what this act truly signifies will remain to be seen.
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