Even if the at-times unbelievable density of The Knick’s second season has felt thus far like no accident, it’s a welcome change to see Steven Soderbergh digging his directorial heels deeper into fewer subplots in this week’s “There Are Rules.” For the most part, the episode bounces back and forth between two narrative through lines: Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) investigating the possible medical benefits of hypnosis, only to become obsessed with a pair of conjoined Belarusian twins (Miranda and Rebecca Gruss), and Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) performing an after-hours, radiotherapy-assisted operation on his dying mother (Linda Emond) at Mount Sinai Hospital.
The Knick is best when it’s most focused, and “There Are Rules” sheds particular light on writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s gift for slowing down and speeding up the passage of narrative time where necessary. With the consent of his father (Reg Rogers), Chickering solicits the covert assistance of Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) in performing the rare experimental procedure on his mother. They’re caught by an orderly, things go from bad to worse in the surgery, and soon word has gotten back to Bertie’s supervisor, Dr. Zinberg (Michael Nathanson), who shows up in the middle of the night berating the two surgeons, only to jump in and attempt saving Bertie’s dying mother.
The scene plays out in a single long take, and this is as intimate as The Knick’s harrowing surgery scenes have yet gotten for the show’s characters. By maintaining a single, and handheld, frame, Soderbergh grounds the operation’s moral weight within the scene and duly adds to it, where a flurry of edits or overemphatic cutaways would risk draining the moment’s verisimilitude. Soderbergh’s control in shifting focus from Edwards/Chickering to Zinberg and back without sacrificing the moment’s tension—or, indeed, the fast handwork of the two surgeons—is simply breathtaking. In figuring things out, and depicting people figuring things out in the moment, Soderbergh is simply peerless.
Thackery, meanwhile, has drifted ever further to the fringe in his pursuit of new treatments and cases, as is made clear by his dealings with the twins’ beyond-sinister keeper, Brockhurst (Fred Weller). Commensurate with the show’s revisionist streak, The Knick’s second season has seen Soderbergh turn his camera on different strains of pedagogy afforded by the turn-of-the-century milieu: the scientific, the pseudoscientific, and the quasi-historical.
Brockhurst is a straight-up charlatan, spinning a bogus narrative about rescuing the girls from a Siberian forest when, in fact, he bought them in Europe and forces them, as his slaves, to do wretched things (including incestuous sex work) to make money for him. When Thackery “hires” the twins for an x-ray session at the Knick, Brockhurst immediately presumes he wants them to take their clothes off. When Thackery argues that the girls could potentially be separated for the purpose of living “a normal life,” the idea is odorous to the point of ending any communication beyond the two men for good. In the very next scene, Thackery has hired Knick ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) to knock out Brockhurst and escort the girls back to the hospital, where they’ll be kept safe for further treatment (experimentation?) by Thackery.
On the one hand, to have such a narrative develop and peak in the space of 45 minutes should run the risk of feeling lurid or rushed; on the other, the show’s investiture in its vision of the New York underworld is so total that one feels Soderbergh’s camera can go anywhere without breaking plausibility. And just because Thackery does the right thing doesn’t mean his intentions aren’t paternalistic or, indeed, motivated by what his late mentor once called “an insatiable desire for fame.” Every episode this season has included his hallucinations of the little girl he accidentally killed at the end last season, so it’s hard not to read morbid potential into his vigorous adoption of the twins. Even when Thack would believe he’s on the up and up, the aforementioned flashbacks (and Cliff Martinez’s melancholy, droning score) would suggest otherwise.
Tracing these two bigger arcs across the episode allows a flurry of smaller ones to interlace in the final 20 minutes. Bertie’s operation is a failure, resulting in one of the show’s few unequivocal tearjerker moments as his father literally pulls him away from his mother’s body on the operating table. In defending himself to an irate Zinberg moments later, Bertie reveals a deep-seated aversion to Mount Sinai’s stuffier, more protocol-ized way of doing things; Zinberg accepts his resignation, and he heads back to the Knick. Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) welcomes him back, wisened from their earlier falling out by her budding relationship with Henry Robertson (Charles Aitken) and, reciprocally, Bertie’s with Genevieve Everidge (Arielle Goldman).
Cleary finally manages to persuade Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) to leave her Catholic home for fallen women and move in with him, after it’s discovered her keepers have been stealing money he’s sent her. Cornelia Showalter (Juliet Rylance) makes headway in investigating the murder, and subsequent cover-up, of Inspector Speight, conducting an interview with a plague-ridden Italian man. (Again, Soderbergh’s economy of shot choice—entirely cutting between an extreme close-up on the bedridden man’s face, a wider point-of-view shot that includes both Cornelia and her interpreter—is the scene’s bedrock, stressing the editing of their conversation to dramatic effect.)
Having distanced herself tellingly in previous episodes, Thackery’s live-in ex-girlfriend and former patient, Abigail (Jennifer Ferrin), tells him: “You only come here to talk. You go elsewhere for everything else. Please, just leave.” But before she can fight him off, he begins kissing her and she, against her will, reciprocates. The on-and-off nature of their relationship punctuates the episode, as cyclical an addiction as Thackery’s own relationship to heroin or cocaine (glimpses of which were surprisingly absent from “There Are Rules”). So many of these breakthroughs—Harriet opting to leave the home, Abigail opting to sever ties with Thackery—have been a long time coming, yet their implementation remains sluggish or stalled entirely. By itself, this speaks volumes about the show’s project: where hindsight allows easy solutions to announce themselves, only to be blocked in agonizing logjam. While things in The Knick’s world tend to augur badly for the characters, if, at times, in service of medical science, the way Soderbergh and his ensemble manage, week after week, to inhabit and embody a tangible historical present that’s as bracing to watch as it is impossible to forget.
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