“I changed my routine and I suffered dearly for it,” says Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen). Then the kicker: “It won’t happen again.” Just like a drug-addicted antihero — certainties and justifications said with such charismatic confidence, they win you over. Even as you acknowledge, and quickly discard, that tingle of doubt in the back of your mind. (It won’t happen again. Yes … sure. I believe you.)
Thackery’s statement comes a little more than halfway through the terrific second episode of Cinemax and Steven Soderbergh’s period hospital drama, The Knick, as the not-so-good doctor explains to Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) why, just a few days (and one episode) prior, she found herself sticking the needle of a cocaine-filled syringe into her employer’s prick. She presses him further (that tingle of doubt): “Why do you need it?” His counter: “Lucy … there’s a life we live in the walls of this hospital, and one we live outside of it. And these two lives need not intersect.” That’s enough for her. For now.
One of the great joys of drama is that we’re frequently able to glimpse the disparate existences that are off limits to the other players. We get to see the disguises each character wears, the behaviors they affect and the habits they follow, even when hiding in plain sight. “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision,” wrote William James. And while there’s nothing indecisive about the moment (this episode’s first) when Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) awakens in his Tenderloin district flea trap to find a cockroach crawling across his pillow (he understandably recoils), his misery is still quite palpable. An easy contrast follows, as the black Edwards’s morning routine is paralleled with that of his rich, white patron, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance): He has to wait in a long line for a shared bathroom in which rust-colored running water is the norm; she has her every need attended to by servants who draw the curtains, serve the food, and dress her head to toe.
Yet some interesting complexities emerge. Edwards earns the ire of an especially hostile hotel patron (Rob Morgan) because his French footwear marks him as a snob above his race. (“I know where Paris is, nigger!” the man shouts during the most heated exchange.) Elsewhere, at a sprawling dining table, Cornelia listens as her father, Captain August Robertson (Grainger Haines) — one of the Knick’s chief board members — expounds on his reasons for using his daughter as a proxy for hospital business. (“No one … thinks the way I do more than you,” he says in a tone that comes off both forward thinking and patronizing.) Even within their respective stations, it’s clear Edwards and Robertson are outsiders at heart, each trying to be better, despite the world around them.
Still the world turns, though, with everyone in it. In the first of two bravura one-shots, Soderbergh shows all the series’ major players arriving at the Knick, rack-focusing from Robertson pulling up in her coach to Edwards sidling up a few steps behind, then to Nurse Elkins arriving on her bike, panning over to Doctors Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) and Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) smoking on a bench, tracking with them as they rise and walk forward until, finally, settling on Thackery as he strides into frame like a boss. Once you get over the breathlessness of the shot, it hits you how perfectly in tune it is with each character’s individual aura, and what an expressively beautiful sentiment it conveys. Despite their disparate realities, every character seems, for a moment, in perfect sync, like stars dancing in orbit.
The euphoria doesn’t last, but the intrigue increases: Over by the stables, a shady bit of business involving ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) takes place, as the two haggle over the price of seven freshly injured construction workers. The death of one of the procured patients lowers Cleary’s take. (“Looks like you’ll be buying one less pint,” Barrow says between giggles.) Meanwhile, Thackery has a melancholy recollection of the time he met his now-deceased mentor, Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer). (Exchange of the episode: Thackery quotes Shakespeare. A smirking Christiansen replies, “Never read him.”) Christiansen’s widow, Catherine (Melissa Errico), interrupts this private moment, toughly deflecting Thackery’s halfhearted condolences (the routine of grieving). Then, in what’s sure to be a constant descriptive refrain in these recaps, a surgery goes wrong after the newly electrified hospital’s circuitry shorts out. The score: one charred patient, one dead nurse.
It turns out the wiring job was half-assed, and administrator Barrow promises to take care of the problem. What he’s not telling anyone is that the problem goes all the way to the (criminal) underworld. Barrow, you see, is in deep to a gangster named Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch), a creepy, squeaky-voiced hood running his empire from the back of a cigar shop. By the end of the episode, Collier’s holding one of Barrow’s teeth for collateral. Despite his best efforts, the administrator’s life outside the Knick is starting to leak in.
Then there’s Edwards, whose second-tier status among the surgeons — he’s consigned to a basement “office” and his recommendation for a surgery he performed many times abroad is summarily dismissed by Thackery and Gallinger — pushes him to create his own hospital within the Knick’s hallowed Caucasian grounds. It begins as a fluke: After a woman is refused admittance to the Knick on account of her skin color, Edwards sets up an underground clinic and clandestinely seeks the lady out. Impressed with his skills (as well as the cocaine that pleasingly numbs the arm she needs stitched up), she asks if one of her relatives can come by. And so Edwards becomes the Harriet Tubman of the early-20th-century medical profession.
There’s still the matter of that flophouse belligerent, who corners Edwards after he returns from a very long day, scuffs the doctor’s Paris shoes, and prepares to give him a beating. Edwards seemingly relents before any punches are thrown … then unloads on the man, knocking him to the ground with a few well-placed jabs. A pointed exchange between Edwards and Robertson from earlier in the episode encapsulates the not-entirely-surprising revelation that the doctor can defend himself: “I expect these things,” he says. That doesn’t stop him from being Hippocratically true and leaving the man a vial and some bandages with which to patch himself.
And where do we end up? Back in Thackery’s preferred Chinatown opium den, though this time the red lighting feels less womblike and more oppressive, perhaps because we’ve seen it in the previous episode (the addict’s familiarity breeding contempt), perhaps because Soderbergh, quite cleverly, uses this same shade in that crucial scene between Thackery and Nurse Elkins. (This isn’t a color of primal comfort but of sense-deprived numbness.) Unlike administrator Barrow, Thackery is in control of his demons, but his grasp is tenuous. After he takes a piece of fruit from a bowl — and despite paying his bill — he earns a vaguely menacing scolding from the den proprietor: “Dr. Thackery thinks that oranges are free here.” Silently, Thackery puts the fruit down on the table, peeled but uneaten. Almost had him there.
“You coming back soon? Tonight maybe?” asks Thackery’s favorite whore. “Where else would I go?” he sighs.
It’s all routine. It will happen again.
- That other shot: A seemingly routine (there’s that word again) sequence in which Thackery, Edwards, Chickering, and Gallinger examine a patient in the main recovery ward is photographed by Soderbergh in a sublime single take that gains in tension as the electric lights flicker, a nervous administrator Barrow flicks up window shades, and a beyond-frustrated Thackery finally takes an ax to the main circuit box. This series truly looks like nothing I’ve ever seen.
- B-plot matters, part one: The case of typhoid fever that affected an immigrant woman in the last episode makes it way into an upper-class household in this one. Seems an epidemic is in the making, and it’s got Cornelia Robertson’s attention.
- B-plot matters, part two: We meet Dr. Gallinger’s doting wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), and the couple’s infant daughter in this installment. Eleanor makes her snooty disapproval known about Gallinger (technically) losing out on the assistant chief surgeon position. She and hubby seem like a perfect match.
- B-plot matters, part three: After — say it with me, folks — another surgery goes wrong, Cleary helps Gallinger and Chickering, at Thackery’s urging, break into an office to steal a medical journal describing the procedure Dr. Edwards performed abroad, rather than ask the actual assistant chief surgeon for his expertise. White men can’t jump into humble pie that easily.
- B-plot matters, part four: While Cleary is having an off-hours drink at the local rock-’em, sock-’em Irish pub, he spots Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), the nun who runs the Knick’s orphanage, sneaking around a back alley. Turns out this woman of god is an abortionist in her spare time, and it’s apparent from Cleary’s expression that this isn’t a secret he’ll be keeping to himself.