The third episode of The Knick’s second season, “The Best with the Best to Get the Best,” immediately snubs out whatever mystery was engendered by the finish of its predecessor, “You’re No Rose,” showing Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) up late at night in one of the hospital’s offices, cooking up a sniffable hybrid of heroin and cocaine. He’s fallen back off the wagon, and hard.
The episode’s first dialogue scene finds Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) establishing himself at Mount Sinai Hospital, under the tutelage of sharp-elbowed surgeon Levi Zinberg (Michael Nathanson), the indirect recipient of Thackery’s drug-fuelled bigotry toward the end of the first season. (Just as an episode late in the last season hinged on Thackery’s bleary-eyed assessment of Zinberg, the camera remains at a distant remove from the Jewish doctor, playing up his much-commented-upon intensity while betraying as little about his inner workings as possible.) Chickering is entering into a situation drastically different from the Knickerbocker (or so Zinberg would want us to believe, anyway); there are three scheduled staff meetings per day, and he’ll have to earn the trust of his colleagues before being setting foot in the surgical theater. Chickering also meets a comely journalist named Genevieve Everidge (Arielle Goldman), embedded at Sinai to work on a story about Zinberg for Collier’s. She toys with him, faking indignation at his assumption she’s his secretary, only to ask him out on a date.
Back at the Knick, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) continues her search to figure out who killed Health Department Inspector Francis Speight; the episode’s one conversation on the matter is between her and her old paramour, Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland), leading one to wonder if the man’s murder was merely a device for these two to resume sleeping together. Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) is seen attending to sick patients, being hit on (without much success) by Henry Robinson (Charles Aitken). In a hint of things to come, she asks him: “Are you a praying man? Do you read the Bible every day?” Elsewhere, a young woman dies of a drug overdose, and we next see Thackery bargaining with the bereaved parents by calling the mother out for showing signs of a cocaine addiction—in effect chastising the father both for being a hypocrite and a bad liar. “You won’t cut her face?” the mother asks, to which Thackery replies: “I’ll protect it with my life.”
Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s dialogue is perhaps best suited for the stuffy turn-of-the-century milieu’s public gatherings and social comminglings, which require director Steven Soderbergh’s camera to stand as much on ceremony as do the show’s characters. Soderbergh’s pictorial project sometimes appears to be seeing how wide he can get the frame without a boom mic elbowing into the shot: Chickering’s introduction to the Sinai staff is one example, and a pretrial hearing convened by the lawyer representing Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) in a municipal court is another. Bathed in pools of natural blue light, the judge announces his intent to prosecute not just Harriet under the full letter of the law, but Irish immigrants at large: “I will use this courtroom, and the strength of my God, to sound a warning against the people now flooding our shores, and let real Americans know exactly what you are.” It’s a shellacking, and all Cleary (Chris Sullivan) can ask Cornelia is, “What the fuck just happened?”
From one indignity to the next: Eleanor (Maya Kazan) comes home from the insane asylum with a mouth full of new teeth, but her husband, Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), after a brutal confab with her sister, Dorothy (Annabelle Attanasio), opts to visit a gilded alumni dinner alone. There, he happens upon one of his former classmates bloviating about the scientific importance of eugenics. “It’s the future,” he bellows, “and it’s happening just in the nick of time.” His spit-flecked diatribe is where “The Best with the Best to Get the Best” receives its title, a phrase which manages to be one of the least cumbersome things about the scene at large.
Building off of his appearance in New York in the previous episode, Lucy’s father, A.D. (Stephen Spinella), is seen this time soliciting confessions from his evangelical flock. Lucy herself is moved to open up for forgiveness, and A.D. beseeches her to “Open up that medical kit, Lucy! Take out that medicament and cast the devil out!” It’s presumed that she then confesses her first-season exploits with Thackery (and cocaine) to the congregation, but before that can happen, the scene cuts elsewhere. This decision gives the passage a certain sweep, an emotional granularity, only to feel disingenuous later when A.D., back at his lodging, wheezily berates and viciously pummels her. It’s implied that his uncontrolled “religious” rages are part and parcel of Lucy’s childhood.
Meanwhile, Chickering and Genevieve attend an indoor carnival, complete with barkers, token Native Americans, and violin-playing Siamese twins. Between mad cackles about her last piece of reportage, wherein she stayed at the same halfway house as Thackery, disguised as a madwoman, Genevieve appears capricious, even manic—which would make her a perfect foil for the buttoned-down Chickering. “When you read Genevieve Everidge, she’s anything you want her to be,” she says. “I doubt people would feel the same way about Esfir Coen, a shirtmaker’s daughter from Pittsfield.” (Chickering insists he would.) It’s interesting to see the series dip explicitly into the subject matter of anti-Semitism and the fear thereof. That said, Genevieve joins The Knick’s long roster of characters who may prove, for all their genius, way too indiscreet in conversation for their own good.
The same could be said for Cornelia: After having sex with her husband, Philip (Tom Lipinski), which we’re led to believe doesn’t happen that often, she offhandedly tells him about her visit to the courthouse that day, which freezes him cold and prompts him to ask her if she knew Harriet was executing abortions. The camerawork and lighting are beyond imitate, but his scolding—and her pained, overcompensatory smiling in response—ground the scene in underwhelming, overwritten drawing-room drama.
We next see Thackery soliciting Cate (Alexandra Roxo) for a back-alley sniffing session, followed by fervid, animalistic, drug-fuelled sex. In a daze, the surgeon wanders to the home of his ex-girlfriend, Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin), bearing up under the circumstances (he reconstituted her nose from her arm in the first season) while slowly dying of syphilis. Like a flashback from the first season, we see Gallinger get bitterly jealous at Thackery’s choosing of Edwards as a medical collaborator, only for Thack to respond, unimpeachably: “If you want to collaborate with me, jealousy won’t serve you a tenth as well as ambition and effort.” Edwards and Thackery set about a cure for syphilis: The two men agree that it can be killed by inducing extremely high temperatures, but how? Thackery tells Edwards a story about a syphilis culture dying under hot lamps while he was working, but he may or may not be remembering the heroin-cocaine mixture we saw him cooking up in the episode’s prologue. They agree to try inducing malaria to a pig, so as to generate organic fever.
Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), heretofore unseen in this episode, continues his uneven-keeled supervision of the new Knick’s construction. After lecturing one of his contractors that “I have always said a little bit of fear can be a very good thing,” he promptly runs into Jimmy (Happy Anderson), one of the loan sharks left over from Barrow’s deceased bookie, Bunkie Collier—now working, irony of ironies, for Tammany Hall. Cleary is seen next sweet-talking drugs from one of the nurses, which proves to be a terrible idea when his protégé wrestler dies of an overdose after his first injection. Barrow, meanwhile, reunites with his sex worker of choice, Junia (Rachel Korine), who manages to convince him that she’s actually in love with him and wants to escape the brothel. Soderbergh shows us a plan firming up in Barrow’s mind, but it’s as out of leftfield and naïve as any character decision this season.
A clear effort is being made by Amiel, Begler, and Soderbergh to make the new season as dense as possible, and it’s hard to tell if The Knick is novelistic, soap-operatic, or a mess of preachy subplots. It’s also hard to tell if you’re witnessing bad acting or trenchant commentary on the characters’ sundry delusions; in the instance of a Gallinger or a Junia, the answer may be both.
Things are ratcheted up further still in this episode’s finale, wherein Edwards is summoned to the manor where his parents live as domestic help—only to find that his British wife, Opal (Zaraah Abrahams), has turned up in New York, looking for him. His parents humoring her while aghast at him, the scene carries both menace and formality, concluding the episode in a blatant bit of audience-baiting with a shriek of anxiety from Edwards’ mother: “I know exactly what that girl wants. That girl is determined!” The end credits roll before more details can be revealed. Until this moment, the show’s only protagonists without lurid double lives have been Chickering and Edwards; the count is now down to one, promising things will, as ever, get more lurid and intriguing in equal proportion.
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