The throbbing, syncopated tick-tock of Cliff Martinez’s electronic score is the sole intentional anachronism of The Knick, and it’s against it that the show’s latest episode opens. A pair of dirt-encrusted young men find a bloated, blue-pinkish corpse floating in the East River and pull it to land, only to roll it over, revealing the body as none other than New York City Health Department inspector Francis Speight (David Fierro). Speight’s brief appearance in the previous episode, “Ten Knots,” saw him discovering a potential bubonic plague outbreak on a steamship, via the dead bodies of two immigrant stowaways, all but invited to his own murder by the owner of the boat’s shipping company.
A just-detoxified Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) returns to the Knick with Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson), direct from the latter’s family yacht, and the hospital’s board decides to allow Thack his old job, under strict conditions. He’s told he’ll need approval for any removal of “degenerate medicine” from the dispensary, and his skin will need to be checked for needle marks on a periodic basis. The board’s skepticism toward Thackery’s recovery, which seems to have taken practically no time at all, allows for him to launch into a brief monologue about his intent to research addiction strictly as disease. This idea is utterly contemporary to The Knick’s making, but nonetheless of a piece with Owen’s character, precisely because it’s impossible to tell whether it’s bullshit or not—at least until one of his superiors calls addiction “a failure of morality,” to which Thackery replies: “I’d happily inject you with cocaine and heroin for a week and see if your morals and character are still intact.”
Quintessentially, the board agrees—or half-agrees, at least—once Thack has mentioned the number of addicts from well-heeled families he encountered during his stint at the asylum. Naturally, Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) appoints Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) as Thackery’s caretaker. For much of the series, Hewson has appeared to act exclusively with her eyes (and a pasted-on but nonetheless effective Southern-fried accent); in her unresolved reunion scene with Thack, she begs and pleads for him to tell her she loves him, while all he can do is stare agog, effectively blaming their relationship in the prior season on his addiction. She weeps, and director Steven Soderbergh cuts elsewhere.
Per his agreement with Barrow in the previous episode, pimp and opium-den owner Ping Wu (Perry Yung) arrives at the hospital with a coterie of sex workers (which he refers to as his “inventory”); despite Barrow’s fluster, the newly added Dr. Mays (Ben Livingston) appears all too ready to assist with the examinations. The dialogue in The Knick’s hospital scenes is as drenched in patriarchalism and classism, while the scenes themselves lilt with a sense that anything can happen, courtesy of Soderbergh’s omnipresent, floating camera. Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) continues his jealous vendetta against Thackery, tendering his resignation at the thought of his former mentor, fallen from glory, being reenlisted to the hospital’s staff as if nothing had happened. We’ll see.
Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) begins to dig into Speight’s death, visiting a city detective in his offices who tells her bluntly that the investigator must have fallen into the river off a Brooklyn-bound ferry: “Drunks slip in quieter than you may think; we hardly hear ’em over the steam engine.” Ever-betraying her patrician upbringing, Cornelia calls her former paramour, Dr. Edwards (Andre Young) to ask for his help in assessing the alcohol levels of Speight’s corpse—because, it’s revealed, Speight was a “zealous” teetotaler. The Knick is such a well-constructed series that the characters’ dialogue can’t help but reveal one prejudice thrown at the expense of another; just as Cornelia has no problem asking the black Edwards for help after she aborted his child at the end of season one, he sees fit to insinuate to her that Speight was more-than-likely lying about his temperance. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to get through the scene thinking anything will happen other than Edwards helping Cornelia.
Growing desperate for funds to help with the legal defense of Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), Cleary is seen with Otto, one of his underground wrestling protégés, during and after a miserable performance. “I saw you beat this shloke three weeks ago—pinned him faster’n he did you!” The opponent wrestler tells Cleary, offhandedly, that the previous match was fixed—that Otto’s old manager “wanted to unload this chump on some dumb sap. I guess that was you.” (The match appeared in the prior episode without dialogue or sound effects, just Martinez’s clanging synths. No detail can be taken at face value in The Knick.)
Formally, nothing invigorates “You’re No Rose” nearly as much as the random appearance of Suzy’s preacher father, A.D. (Stephen Spinella), in town from West Virginia on a surprise visit. Following some rote observations between A.D. and Lucy about man’s progress versus God’s will (Nurse Elkins is sure that even her preacher-man father will be impressed with what goes on between the Knick’s walls), we’re treated to an all-in-one-shot scene of him delivering a sermon at a Pentecostal church. The camera sidles from around A.D., backward into his clergy, and then trudges forward to the front of the room to wrap around him while he speaks in tongues (first Latin, then impenetrable) before swinging back around into a traditional hymn, as if possessed. The scene serves as a reminder—as unsparing as any of The Knick’s surgical tableaux—that before cinema, all mainstream society had to stoke the imagination was raw, human gesticulation. With the score trilling ethereally as if the show were a giallo, slowly draining diegetic audio of the choir entirely from the soundtrack, it would appear to be the most explicit comment on organized religion in Soderbergh’s entire filmography—ghoulish and compassionate in equal proportion.
It’s no surprise Thackery’s broken reunion with Nurse Elkins was wrenching. But when he and Edwards have a heart to heart about the latter’s damaged cornea, Edwards asks him to assist with an operation to restore vision in his right eye—and it’s even more effective, if only because Thack’s heretofore racism (which magically subsided overnight in the show’s first season) makes him horrible to Edwards whenever other people are looking on, held in impossible parallel to his otherwise social intelligence. When time comes to perform the operation, Thackery begins to hallucinate—the same dead girl from the end of the first season, and blood flowing from the Knick’s wash basins—and Edwards has to abort the procedure after Thack appears too shaky. Hot on the heels of the sequence with A.D.’s sermon, it’s hard not to feel, again, like Soderbergh is flexing the kind of aesthetic muscles typically reserved for a horror film.
Albeit “clean,” Thackery remains a character on the brink between libertinism and self-destruction; much of this episode finds him hunched over whiskeys at a dance hall or flophouse, where he makes the conjugal acquaintance of a young woman named Kate (Alexandra Roxo). The first time they have sex, he finds—in its raw, back-alley grime—a certain cleanliness of transaction. After they bump into one another again at the conclusion of “You’re No Rose,” he can’t help but notice the marks on her arms; she tells him, “Cocaine takes the bottom off the heroin, and the heroin takes the top of the cocaine. And they dance beautifully together.” Thackery tells her he agrees—until the cocaine wears off, and the miscalibrated amounts can be fatal. Kate replies: “But if you get it right…,” and all he can do is ponder. Thackery’s withdrawal is just beginning. Or, as the cut-to-black implies, perhaps about to end sooner than expected.
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