“Williams and Walker” is another display of spectacular ingenuity from The Knick director Steven Soderbergh and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, wherein the show’s customarily airtight cross-cutting between narratives begins to spell clear doom for the empire of hospital benefactor Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines). But first, the episode features a solid three minutes of pre-coital—pre-foreplay, even—kidding around between Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) and his new girlfriend, Genevieve Everidge (Arielle Goldman). Unsurprisingly, Soderbergh’s masterful timing is what makes the scene work—which is to say, what makes it uncomfortable: The occasion wracks both Bertie and Genevieve with nervous energy, and the camera refuses to flinch as they laugh their way through one awkward false start after another. It’s a surprisingly warm moment given the death of Bertie’s mother in the previous episode, with little-to-no foreboding attached—a rarity among The Knick’s more intimate moments.
When we see Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visit the grave of the young girl who died under his scalpel in the show’s first season, it turns out that this is the morning of the day convened for the hospital’s latest all-hands-on-deck operation: to separate conjoined twins Nika and Zoya (Rebecca and Miranda Gruss). Minutes before the procedure, Thackery finds himself at wits’ end in what appears to be drug withdrawal—and instead of inhaling his customary cocaine-heroine cocktail, he calls his girlfriend, Abigail (Jennifer Ferrin), for emotional support—which she lends handily. In the character’s most decisive breakthrough yet in either season, Thack forgives himself just in the nick of time before striding into the operating theater—and his temperament remains surprisingly even for much of the episode’s remainder.
The operation makes for a nice confluence of multiple threads across prior episodes: Beyond Thackery’s obsession with the twins, Henry Robertson (Charles Aitken) shows up with his “moving-picture camera,” and Genevieve also sits in to document the event in writing. The narrative then leaps from the operating table to a darkened room a day or two later, where the surgeons are able to watch themselves on film—a new innovation that only augments the severity of their shared accomplishment. In flickering images hand-cranked by a projectionist, Nika and Zoya appear happy, healthy, and separate—and don’t reappear again in “Williams and Walker.”
Meanwhile, Cornelia Showalter (Juliet Rylance) discovers that her late colleague, Speight, was murdered for investigating a strain of bubonic plague smuggled into New York by none other than employees of her father’s shipping company, collecting cash patronage in exchange for undocumented immigrants. Making a bad situation worse, her father-in-law, Hobart (Gary Simpson), accosts her in her own dressing room, coming on strong with priceless jewelry, only to castigate her for failing to produce grandchildren and spending too much time on her own endeavors; it’s revealed that he paid somebody to follow her as she was investigating Speight’s death. Later, Cornelia begs her husband, Philip (Tom Lipinski), to move them elsewhere, but he explains to her that the Showalters are effectively bankrolling the Robertsons, stressing the need for harmony between their two dynasties. Cornelia is trapped, and it’s impossible not to feel for her, but her astonishment at these revelations—and Philip’s perpetual cognitive dissonance—suggest either an inexplicable depth of naïveté shared between the two of them, or that this is one of the worse-acted scenes in the episode.
The black orator D.W. Garrison Carr (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) attempts checking himself into the Knickerbocker, forcing the hand of Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) far sooner than intended. As Edwards was recently seen petitioning Thackery to propose the surgery to the hospital’s board on his behalf, Carr’s decision to impose himself upon the Knick sight unseen is as much philosophical as it is strategic. “You wanted permission,” he tells Edwards. “Now you have it—from us.” While Carr’s persona has so far remained frustratingly opaque (if compelling in the flesh), he puts a squeeze on Edwards—obligated to sate both Carr’s side and the hospital’s—that’s all-too-familiar to the character’s dignified exasperation.
Visually, the episode’s centerpiece is the Knick’s much-alluded-to charity ball, played at once as a sprawling comedy of manners and a jawdropping pictorial spectacle. Some shots are static, evoking landscape paintings and portraiture, while others are dictated as strongly—if not more so—by the lurching of the camera. What’s most interesting are the camera movements somewhere in between these two poles; as cinematographer, Soderbergh traces individual participants as they walk in and out of crowded rooms, hangs back during entire real-time conversations, snakingly encircles group discussions (as in one of Brian De Palma’s signature go-for-broke 360° dolly shots) and ultimately absconds to a higher-up corner of the ballroom, looking down on the masses in from a vantage point that goes way beyond third-person, while nonetheless retaining the wobbliness of handheld. In the absence of film grain, The Knick finds and recommits to a certain physical tactility in every frame.
By the time a pair of entertainers in blackface—the nominal Williams and Walker—have bounded down a staircase to perform for the ball’s sundry attendees, the show’s superfans may recall the pivotal seventh episode of the last season, wherein the hospital’s staff became ad hoc civil rights defenders as a crowd of black patients sought refuge from a hideous lynch mob. Real progress is fragile and often accidental at the Knick, and its employees tend to consider themselves as enlightened to their class differences as the ball demonstrates them as blindsighted. It can’t help but feel belabored, say, when slow-motion footage of partygoers waltzing in circles is intercut with Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) back at the Knick, poisoning one of the chemical compounds necessary for Carr’s hernia operation. Gallinger hasn’t just retained his bigotry; between sterilizing young male “idiots” at the end of the last episode and now this, he’s become a bona fide monster. Over-the-top stuff, perhaps, but it sets the stage for a hell of a coda.
Much of “Williams and Walker” explicates unintended side effects of compromises waged between characters in The Knick’s previous episodes: between Robertson and Edwards, Cornelia and the Showalters, Gallinger and Thackery. On the ballroom steps, an innocuous conversation between Algernon Edwards and Captain Robertson reveals—thanks to the indignant prompting of Algernon’s wife, Opal (Zaraah Abrahams)—that he can’t guarantee a staff position at the new hospital for Edwards, let alone a “prominent” one, confessing that his fortune is evaporating. (Anyone who noted the hospital’s hemorrhaging of money in all previous episodes must have known something like this monologue was coming.) But these ironies are all topped when Henry, the captain’s inheritor-in-waiting, finally manages to end up in bed with his date, Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), and she regains control of their dynamic by smearing his member with liquid cocaine—a trick she learned, of course, from Thackery.
Operating on Carr some days after the ball, Edwards applies the compound poisoned by Gallinger, and things go south immediately. Gallinger jumps into the theater to save Carr’s life while humiliating Edwards once and for all in the process—and it’s implied that the surgery succeeds despite his sabotage, haunting Algernon through to the episode’s conclusion. In the end, all Opal can do is clutch him tightly and swear that better days are ahead.
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