Anyone who had an allergic reaction to the hokey old-flame subplot between Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin) and John Thackery (Clive Owen) in The Knick’s first season will be let down by the opener of “Whiplash,” which offers yet another meandering push-and-pull conversation between them, this time about how much care Abigail needs in recovering from her syphilis treatment. For Thackery, there’s no such thing as too much. But after a wordless encounter between him and Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), who’s appointed by the hospital to check him for needle marks, the episode opens in earnest, with one of those scenes that make The Knick pretty much unlike any other TV series right now.
To a packed operating theater, Thackery introduces a morphine addict who’s had the top of his cranium knocked off, allowing the surgeon a rare entrée into the man’s brain. He prods individual areas of the exposed organ to yield (literally) nerve-wracking effect. The scene culminates with Thackery, after having injected morphine into the man’s brain and pinpointing the exact nerve center of the patient’s addiction, smiling back at the rapturously applauding audience. Even if his final discovery—that addiction can presumably be traced to the brain—runs the risk of feeling anticlimactic, it’s a sublimely eerie moment: ghoulishly macabre, narratively tense (as it is, now, anytime Thack takes to operating on somebody), and vaguely informative.
Drs. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) and Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) have a surreptitious meeting over whiskey and peanuts at an African-American bar, where Bertie asks Edwards for (potential) help in treating his mother’s lymphatic cancer. Reflecting on his experiences at Mount Sinai, Bertie speculates that his Jewish higher-ups are so battered by bigotry that they’re afraid to take scientific risks, and the look on Edwards’s face is priceless. Edwards tips him off to a journal published abroad, and in the next scene, Bertie and his new squeeze, Genevieve Everidge (Arielle Goldman), breaking into a research facility for the documents in question.
Behind closed doors, Knickerbocker Hospital benefactor Henry Robertson (Charles Aitken) is seen projecting for a few friends a brief ribbon of smutty celluloid we saw him filming in one of the previous episode’s seemingly throwaway scenes. One of Henry’s oligarch friends calls the footage “inspired”—yet another Easter egg of the show’s reverse-epistemological project: As long as there have been movie cameras, there’s been porn. Henry is next seen in his office at the Knick, chuckling to himself over some nude images printed on plates (don’t be surprised in future episodes if he hasn’t gotten into the business officially yet).
Henry receives a phone call (the identity of the speaker on the other line is withheld) and his mood dampens considerably, as it’s revealed that there’s been a horrible subway accident. The hospital jolts into motion, and Henry, having covertly invested some of his family’s fortune in the new rail system, has all patients admitted into emergency care as “John Doe.”
Following each individual player (Thackery, Barrow, Robertson, Elkins) through the hospital corridors, director Steven Soderbergh’s camera seamlessly stitches the hospital’s constituent parts together in what appears to be real time. To the dismay of hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), Henry decides these operations will be performed pro bono—wherein saving lives and ass-covering are rendered one and the same in the service of public utility. It’s as canny a comment on the history of American philanthropy as has appeared in The Knick, and the accident itself makes for a sprawling set piece, the likes of we haven’t seen in the second season.
The next day, after receiving knocks (over oysters) from his father, August Robertson (Grainger Hines), for having so much as suggested investing in the subway system, Henry replies with a quote from Baron Rothschild: “The time to invest is when there’s blood running in the streets.” Things get better for him when Nurse Elkins finally takes him up on his offers of a date, a decision which seems spurred (on her part) from a conversation with Lin-Lin (Ying Ying Li), one of the hospital’s sex-worker patients, who tells Lucy she can get whatever she wants from a man once she’s taken his member in hand.
Bertie’s mother’s condition worsens, and his father (surprisingly) okays his proposal to perform a rare and risky operation on her—presumably with Edwards’s help. Cornelia Showalter (Juliet Rylance) continues her quest to figure out what happened to Inspector Speight, and finds—with the help of a detective—that Speight had caught on to a boat carrying the bubonic plague.
Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) has, by this point, existed entirely on screen for the purposes to spewing his pro-sterilization line to whoever will listen—which very briefly included Thackery—to no avail. At yet another banquet, his still-unnamed college friend introduces him to another old eugenicist, who runs an “idiot house” on Randall’s Island, and asks Gallinger what to do with the fact that his patients are released to society once they’ve reached manhood, and it’s not hard to tell where this particular subplot is going.
Thack gets kicked out of Abigail’s house, not just for doing drugs (though she, too, catches him doing that), but also because the thrill is gone; she can tell he’s reliving their long-since-expired relationship in taking care of her post-syphilis treatment, but it’s a relationship both unconsummated and on his (admittedly, wracked) terms. After multiple episodes wherein Thackery and Abigail have talked circles around each other to no apparent result, Abigail putting the skids on their non-relationship is a surprise, and even a little inspiring.
At Barrow’s house, his wife, Effie (Molly Price), makes a desperate appeal for him to come to bed with her, decked out in burlesque-house lingerie. He declines frigidly, rushing off to take care of “some work,” and the camera drifts down to the couch as Effie bursts into tears. It’s queasy and tragicomic, made all the more so when Barrow visits the Chinatown opium den of Ping Wu (Perry Yung) and sets into motion the process of freeing (or, if you like, purchasing the freedom of) his favorite prostitute, Junia (Rachel Korine). Toward the episode’s end we see Barrow renting a spacious new apartment, and Gallinger escorting the aforementioned “idiots” into the Knick’s wood-paneled offices after hours—a sly and tragic inversion of Edwards’s secret clinic for black patients in the first season. Both are power moves, and “Whiplash” is the best episode of the new season for its delineation of capital (and the myriad second chances it affords) in New York City.
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