Tonight’s episode of The Knick, “Do You Remember Moon Flower?,” is bookended in flashbacks to Nicaragua, six years before the series takes place, that finally reveal the meeting of Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) and the Knickerbocker hospital’s benefactor, shipping magnate Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines). Director Steven Soderbergh wastes no time establishing the stakes: Thackery arrives at an encampment where people are suffering from smallpox, having been called in under the impression he would be treating yellow fever. He encounters the captain handcuffed to a post, held hostage by the Nicaraguans after his form of compensation—“trinkets and blankets”—apparently started the outbreak.
Trading his medical expertise for the captain’s freedom, Thack figures out a way to treat the patients, each receiving their own longish take from Soderbergh’s camera while it surveys Thackery at work. It’s another instance wherein a sparse framing device suggests multitudes, but Soderbergh’s aesthetic attention to the quotidian is also of note throughout these early scene. The Knick has always deviated from showing off its impressive production values for their own sake, which is a lamentable trend in feature films and shows that take place within capital-h History.
The action then jumps to the hospital circa 1901, where Thackery remains devastated by the suicide of his girlfriend-cum-patient Abigail at the end of the previous episode. Technically, he should be coasting off of a triumph, as the conjoined twins, Zoya and Nika (Miranda and Rebecca Gruss), he separated are finally able to walk independent of one another, as well as fit to be released from the hospital. But the sendoff is delegated to Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), who then gets into a fight with Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) over the operation the latter sabotaged.
After Thackery comes outside, he collapses to the ground—and Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano) opts to slice him open to see what’s wrong with him, calling in the expertise of his former boss, Dr. Zinberg (Michael Nathanson), a bizarre (and subdued) twist that goes unexplained. And don’t be surprised, given how each episode’s fast pace and economy of storytelling runs the risk of abridging a narrative though line like this, if we never see or hear from Zinberg ever again.
For a spell, things are looking up for the episode’s heretofore bad guys: The corrupt administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) has finally been admitted to the Metropolitan Club, and Soderbergh telegraphs volumes in one medium close-up of the man after his $2,000 entrance fee has been accepted. But then his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Effie (Molly Price), turns up with incriminating documents in hand, effectively promising to blackmail him if he doesn’t pay her half of everything he makes. The majority of the scene plays out in one long shot with Effie behind Herman, both parties facing forward, so only the viewer can see his reactions while she speaks; once again, Soderbergh is devising not just pretty pictures or “bravura” shot lengths, but the most economical solutions to each scene’s dramatic prerogatives.
Just how soap-operatic are Soderbergh and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler willing to go?
Gallinger is visited again by a New York City detective, who tells him that the death of Dr. Cotton was by incremental arsenic poisoning, confessed by Cotton’s sons. It’s a ridiculous McGuffin, but it allows for Gallinger’s later triumph, which comes when Edwards attempts to petition the New York Board of Medical Examiners to get Gallinger’s credentials revoked on the basis of his sterilization of teenage “idiots.”
Johnson has never made Gallinger sound prissier than when, afterward, he chides Edwards: “You realize you’re just proving my entire thesis!” Edwards is too angry for words, and, not for the first time, Holland is masterful: As the character rolls up his sleeves for a proper fistfight with Gallinger, his eyes remain measured while a seemingly impossible frustration overtakes his physical being. Nearly every word out of Gallinger’s mouth should be just cause for Algernon to strike first, but in fact, Gallinger does—and then punches him again after he’s down—all for the sake of eugenics, which Gallinger has taken to calling “intellectual reason.”
Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) has been up to all kinds of insane extra-curricular activities this season, a few of which she whispers to her bedridden father, A.D. (Stephen Spinella), felled by a stroke and admitted to the Knickerbocker in the previous episode. While Lucy’s exploits have featured prominently in the series, the monologue she delivers clarifies her intent in a way that’s almost jarring, telling her father just before injecting him with poison: “This world offers too much, and contrary to what you think, I’m too smart to let myself turn out like that. If that means sinning to get what I want, so be it.”
Stirring words on paper, but Lucy’s monologue makes the scene dramatically lopsided to the point of didacticism—complicated only by Soderbergh’s decision to juxtapose two fixed perspectives at play. The main angle belongs to Lucy’s vegetative father, staring up at her as Hewson whispers directly into the camera; the other is from her point of view, looking to him repeatedly for a response and finding none. The interplay of these two angles gives the scene a low, husky intensity.
Finally, the episode climaxes with a meeting between Captain Robertson and his daughter, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), on the top floor of the nearly completed new Knickerbocker. She lays it all out: how she uncovered her father’s bribery of port officials, and how she determined that he had Health Inspector Speight murdered for discovering a strain of bubonic plague smuggled into the city by Robertson. Thanks in no small part to the aristocrat characters’ dulcet tones, the dialogue is as operatic as The Knick has gotten, but the scene is nevertheless fraught with suspense.
It, too, plays out in a long take (with both actors in profile), and Robertson seems legitimately surprised at the accusations. Before he can address them, however, he notices a smoldering fire on the hospital’s ground floor, and helps Cornelia clamber down a ladder to safety—only to jump to his own death from the top of the inferno. There’s a very good chance the fire was started deliberately, but it’s unclear the show’s makers could keep that a mystery in the one remaining episode without explicitly withholding crucial details—in effect, betraying the omniscience of the show’s adopted aesthetic. Which points back to a question that’s haunted The Knick for its entirety: Just how soap-operatic are Soderbergh and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler willing to go?
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