“Wonderful Surprises” is so over-stacked with incident as to make each scene work purely as exposition. The episode allows for a number of one-on-ones between characters, which director Steven Soderbergh successfully plays out in longer, more fluid takes. The first of these opens the episode immediately where “The Best with the Best to Get the Best” left off, with Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) escorting his wife, Opal (Zaraah Abrahams), into what will be her new apartment, wherein she promptly goes about grilling him about his heretofore personal life. He confesses that he’s “met” somebody, by which he means Cornelia Showalter, with whom he grew up, but this disclosure has the curious effect of downgrading the intensity of Opal’s initial appearance on the scene. (Later we see them hanging out at a Harlem nightclub, and despite himself, Edwards looks to be having the best time he’s had on screen since mid-first season, maybe ever.)
Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) is more sober than usual in “Wonderful Surprises,” again putting the main thrust of his energy into the radical new syphilis treatment he and Edwards are preparing to test on his ex-girlfriend, Abigail (Jennifer Ferrin). After Thackery explains the prospective treatment (and the fact that his prior experiments, though successful, were on pigs), Abigail tells him she’ll consider it. Elsewhere at the Knick, Dr. Mays (Ben Livingston) is chatting up one of the new nurses mid-surgery: He offers to request her as his “favorite,” promising her a brighter future mere seconds before accidentally lighting himself on fire and dying on the spot. Soderbergh’s few forays into down-and-out slapstick have always been revealing, and Mays’s final scene is played in the same antiseptic, echo-intensive operating theater register—at least, until the money shot—as some of the show’s most tragic miscalculations. It all betrays the burgeoning, slightly Altmanesque notion that anything can happen at the eponymous hospital.
Beyond his gee-willikers eyebrow motions and (faux?) gallantry whenever a young woman was present, Mays wasn’t a thoroughly investigated character, but he served at least one vital plot point in the last episode: agreeing to sponsor hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) for membership in an ultra-chic men’s club. In the aftermath of his death, Barrow sets about dedicating a wing of the new under-construction hospital to Mays’s memory (and duly, collecting in-memoriam donations), to the potential consternation of the hospital’s benefactor, Capt. August Robertson (Grainger Hines). Ever the weasely bureaucrat, Barrow tries making his case to the club’s patrician claque despite lack of a sponsor—only to land his final gaze on Robertson, squinting back with inscrutable deadpan, to no avail. In a series with a special penchant for scene punctuations, this shot of Hines has to be one of the season’s funniest.
Captain Robertson convenes a long luncheon in Algernon and Opal’s honor, wherein recent/old flame Cornelia’s (Juliet Rylance) eyes nearly pop out of her head at the sight/mention of Opal, who is, in turn, quick to pick up on Algernon and Cornelia’s history together. As the captain showers him with indistinct praises, Algernon yammers something about his benefactor’s record of “progressive thinking,” whereby Opal challenges not just the captain, but the whole family, asking why Algernon’s parents (“the help”) weren’t invited. Nobody has an answer besides Algernon, who can barely conceal his rage as he tells her that’s just how it is.
There’s a new twist in the saga of Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson), whose wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), was just seen returning from an insane asylum still not quite anywhere near her original self. Left alone at home for mere minutes by her sister, Dorothy (Annabelle Attanasio), Eleanor escapes from the house and makes it handily down the street, until a pack of street kids chase her down and she falls face-first onto the pavement. (Here, Soderbergh’s disciplined, warp-speed production technique yet again risks packing too much visual information into a single shot, straining its gravitas.) Even though the attempt at escape gets Gallinger’s dander up, Johnson evinces a buried pseudo-relief at seeing his previously comatose wife up and at ‘em. Similar subtleties can’t be modulated during his latest late-night discussion on race with his bigoted alumnus friends; last week it was brandy and eugenics, so now we see Gallinger fuming on the necessities of sterilization.
Gallinger’s racism (or is it his racist upbringing?) continues to be the character’s enduring and worst trait, and it’s the crux of his every appearance in “Wonderful Surprises.” First he castigates an immigrant woman for asking if she can leave her remaining kids at the Knick. Police later escort him to a cell holding one of the little boys from the ghetto who scared his wife, and Dorothy and Eleanor are surprised at the cruelty with which Gallinger slaps the kid across the face.
Gallinger’s former contemporary, Dr. “Bertie” Chickering (Michael Angarano), sees a prostitute for the purposes of unburdening himself of his own inexperience, presumably in advance of dating journalist Genevieve Everidge. Later, he pays a visit to his perpetually disapproving father (Reg Rogers), who confides that Bertie’s mother is staring down a terminal illness. As he floats the idea of operating on her to his boss, Dr. Levi Zinberg (Michael Nathanson), Zinberg offers a warning against Chickering’s own biases in researching a procedure: He tells him, “Promise is not proof.” Bertie’s neophyte status at Mount Sinai yields small pleasures whenever the series invites the viewer to compare this much better-hinged hospital to the Knickerbocker.
Ambulance driver Timothy Cleary (Chris Sullivan) rallies a number of young aristocratic ladies—women who needed abortions back when he was assisting Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) in the first season. For whatever reason, the blocking and framing of this scene, with every cut as if to indicate Cleary’s hulking demeanor over his frightened audience’s, is some of the show’s worst yet. Nevertheless, the ruse appears to work: Harriet’s case is dismissed by the same hardliner judge introduced in the previous episode, from a number of the same camera angles. Cleary offers for her to move into his place as a roommate, but she demurs, opting instead to stay at a church-run home for “Fallen Women.” (Her reception is less than generous.) If the surprise exit feels under-considered, it’s nonetheless quite satisfying—admittedly, like everything else in this series, in part due to the lack of narrative portent in its swift resolution. Closure is tenuous at best in The Knick. Who’s to say Harriet’s acquittal won’t be a problem two episodes from now?
Finally, Edwards and Thackery perform their signature procedure on Abigail, and it appears to help, pushing her temperature close to the point of no return while killing off her syphilis. But not before Thackery has one of his visionary freak-out moments and stuffs Abigail into one of the hospital’s new iron lungs for exactly long enough, then shunting her into a bathtub and dumping ice water on her. Edwards manages to warn Thackery that he’s cooking Abigail’s brain, presumably prompting Thack’s nightmare that night: It’s a return to the same oceanic vista where we saw Thackery hallucinating the dead girl from the end of season one, but this time his passenger on the sailboat is Abigail, long before her nose fell off. It’s a strikingly sincere coda to an episode made practically serpentine with ironies, drawing Thack’s savior complex back to the irreconcilable mouth of his experimenter’s nihilism.
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