If there’s merit in the idea of pretending each season of The Knick is one 10-hour-long movie, “Not Well at All” more than matches the position staked by the first season’s eighth episode: a headlong plunge into bleakness that abridges and re-contextualizes earlier breakthrough moments—not that things were looking especially up in this season’s previous go-rounds. Three of the show’s main characters—Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), and heiress/socialite Cornelia Showalter (Juliet Rylance)—are thrown existential curveballs that render their respective ethics systems powerless. Meanwhile, the Knickerbocker’s administrative head, Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), manages to move apartments and purchase the freedom of his girlfriend, a young sex worker named Junia (Rachel Korine). While it’d be impossible to watch five minutes of The Knick without noticing the show’s (sometimes too-harmonized) juxtapositions of class structure, this episode sees its characters ground up especially in the gears of their own patriarchal systems.
The episode’s title comes from a rejoinder tossed off by Gallinger’s wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), who it’s revealed poisoned her former doctor, Henry Cotton (John Hodgman), when he came over for dinner in a prior installment. (Given the conditions of other asylums toured by Steven Soderbergh’s camera in The Knick, her reasons for revenge are left vague, but also largely explain themselves.) This means Gallinger and his wife have both poisoned people recently, which could be a real issue if, say, he were found out by his black colleague, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), whose highest-profile black patient was poisoned by Gallinger in the last episode, sabotaging an elaborate hernia procedure.
Edwards breaks into Gallinger’s office and finds proof of his sterilization programs at Randall’s Island, but hits a wall when he tries bringing the information to Thackery, who merely shrugs that it can’t be acted on if it wasn’t at the hospital or isn’t illegal. There are no whirligig set pieces in “Not Well at All”; to the extent that these characters’ control over their respective situations is reflected in Soderbergh’s decisions as cinematographer, Edwards—last seen looking utterly defeated in a rare extreme close-up at the end of “Williams and Walker”—is shown committing the break-in from a cool remove, the camera apparently fixed to one of the ceiling’s corners and pointed down.
Investigating the beyond-shady death of her former colleague, Inspector Speight, Cornelia breaks the news to her playboy younger brother, Henry Robertson (Charles Aitken), that their father, Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines), probably ordered Speight killed—and is also indirectly responsible for outbreaks of bubonic plague in both New York and San Francisco. This particular twist carries far more implication than the ostensible selective insanity of Gallinger’s wife: In terms of progressivism, Cornelia’s character is both an idealist and a Victorian-era idyll, finally discovering here the boundaries of her ability to change the way the world works. That makes her a by-now classic Soderbergh protagonist, as much of a piece with pawns depicted in Contagion and Traffic. Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s script leaves Cornelia and Henry little to do except hold hands in despair before cutting someplace else (the Robertsons’ true reckoning with their legacy will have to come later).
Ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) treats former nurse, Harriet (Cara Seymour), to a carnival, where they pop a coin into a miniature nickelodeon lightbox and affix their eyes on the viewfinder, only to see blotchy 8mm footage of a man slowly overtaking the camera and “eating it” by opening his mouth around the lens. Both Harriet and Cleary are spooked by the effect, another of this season’s ingenious explorations of image-making (and receiving) as a pursuit unto itself: Soderbergh and the writers have had fun examining early strains of public spectacle this season, with its attendant freak shows, rampant charlatanism, spurious “histories” of America, and fire-and-brimstone pedagogy.
The moment ends the instant Cleary tries to kiss Harriet, whose anger is red-hot to the point of feeling like vengeance. Cleary is more startled than hurt, but Harriet is the one who really feels betrayed—specifically, because she’s staked her life on the right to be independent of men. Previous episodes showed them becoming roommates and, later, business partners in black-market contraception. If the joke is that both have been living in an inversion of their stated principles, it’s gone on far too long for Harriet’s bitterness to make any rational sense—which is why, when it happens, it feels like a duly repressed trauma, the show’s most extraordinary moment between these two characters.
Thackery figures less into this episode than usual: First he has to deal with the return of an angry Brockhurst (Fred Weller), looking for his conjoined-twin slaves, only to be knocked out cold, and for the second time, by Cleary. In one single, unsteady take, Soderbergh traces Thack as he rope-a-dopes with Brockhurst, trying to buy himself some time so Clearly can sneak behind the man and knock him out with a baseball bat, a piece of old-school slapstick and an action scene all in one. Thack solicits the help of his girlfriend, Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin), in talk therapy as a bulwark against alcoholism; like so many of his ideas, it’s hard to tell if this is sound, the net result of some weird obsession, or both. If underdeveloped, the notion allows Abigail to function as a reactive presence for a drunkard at the hospital, and the acting Ferrin is able to do here—with her pursed lips and furtive eyes, forever reacting around the “nose” Thackery stitched together for her in the first season—is extraordinary.
In “Williams and Walker,” Abigail asked Thack if he’d be able to perform any additional procedures on said nose to make it look more normal; while characteristically proud of his accomplishment in giving her some semblance of a normal face again, he acquiesced. That surgery—during which, it’s implied, Thack will use celluloid for the first time as a cartilage substitute—is slated to happen at the end of “Not Well at All,” but Abigail, in a moment of silent melancholy that grows colossal in hindsight, commits suicide just before the operation by drinking two droplets of Laudanum, an opium-alcohol tincture. (It cannot be for nothing that this scene is, barring a cross-cut telephone conversation, the longest she’s ever appeared on screen without Thackery.)
As Abigail is wheeled out into the operating room, Thackery asks her if she’s ready, and her reply is as indicative as it can be of this show’s fascination with the internalized macabre: “To look like me again.” Before the operation has even begun, her body goes limp, and Thackery works in instant, frantic sync with Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) and Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) to keep her alive against the backdrop of the empty surgical theater, each step given its own claustrophobic close-up—subtracting essential time from the botched salvage. Again, the cinematography speaks to control: Thackery spreads his arms apart against the border of the operating room, his forehead centered in the frame. This is an angle Soderbergh has repeated over the last few episodes as the character has struggled especially with his addictions and manias, as if helping Abigail were reorienting Thackery’s psychological focus. For a time, his desperate trajectory appeared to be working, but no more.
The Knick is as enamored of its ensemble (and their corresponding jaunts into turn-of-the-century historical detail) as it is by Thackery’s character in total: his facile, compulsive analytic mania, riposte one-liners, and tragic cycles of addiction. Previous episodes were punctuated by dreams and nightmares wherein Thackery saw both Abigail and the young girl who died on his operating table in season one, but “Not Well at All” shows us Abigail’s suicide as utterly hidden from him, independent of his medicinal choices. He will feel guilty for her death in a broader, harder-to-define sense, having tried to welcome her back into society after reconstructing her nose, and failing, perhaps even showing her too much death and addiction for her to bear. The pall of Thackery’s incoming self-destruction lingers over the episode’s coda, wherein the action cuts back to Gallinger’s home: Having settled Eleanor at a newer (and presumably less abusive madhouse), the desperate eugenicist is finally propositioned by his young, beautiful and not-insane sister-in-law, Dorothy (Annabelle Attanasio).
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