It’s a general truism, if not a concrete fact, that a new television series will fully reveal itself by its third episode. (Throat clearing’s done. This is what I am. You in or out?) So we get, most recently, The Leftovers’ Christopher Eccleston–centric soul barer “Two Boats and a Helicopter.” Also Breaking Bad’s “…And the Bag’s in the River,” with its protracted, unbearably tense basement confrontation between Walter White and Krazy 8. And Homicide: Life on the Street’s “Night of the Dead Living” (aired ninth during first broadcast, but returned to the third slot for its home-video release), a single-setting masterpiece in which the Baltimore cop squad works a sweltering summer night shift. Additionally, The X-Files’ “Squeeze,” the first “Monster of the Week” episode, which was indicative of the many imaginative tangents that great series would take from its primary conspiracy arc. And let’s not forget the third installment of David Simon’s The Wire, “The Buys,” which lays out the five-season series’ interconnected microcosmos via a superb chess-game sequence, capped by drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale’s resigned statement, “The king stay the king.”
There are plenty of exceptions to this let’s-not-call-it-a-rule. But I think that the “The Busy Flea,” the third episode of Cinemax’s The Knick, quite conspicuously fits this pattern, thanks in large part to its fascinating opening and closing scenes, on which I’d like to focus the majority of this recap. (We’ll deal with other plot matters in the bullet points below.)
The opening first, which showcases what this period hospital drama does so well … and not: It’s the old former-lover-returns routine, as a woman from Dr. John Thackery’s (Clive Owen) past arrives at the Knick seeking his counsel. She’s Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin), a socialite still carrying the last name of her promiscuous husband (the only other man she’s slept with besides Thack) even though he’s skipped town and left her infected with syphilis. Because of the disease, she has a high sensitivity to light (“My eyes can’t bear it,” she says with thinly veiled misery) and a horrifying disfigurement — beneath a prominent facial apparatus, her nose has been eaten away.
Visually, director Steven Soderbergh is at the height of his powers, revealing Abigail’s condition in stations-of-the-cross-like stages. We first see her from behind, a blurred figure as she enters the Knick, then in shadow when Thack first catches sight of her in the hallway outside his office. (She’s escorted by Eve Hewson’s ever-curious Nurse Elkins.) Then a full-on shot as she walks toward her former suitor, that facial covering nestling itself inside our minds, portending something shocking, though Soderbergh allows the dead-air room tone (no musical score until the scene’s closing moments) to counteract the pruriently queasy anticipation. Every step the characters take feels like a walk across eternity. Then, after some strained small talk, the unveiling occurs in a side-profile shot that gifts Abigail’s mangled face the aspect of a weathered Greek sculpture: beautiful still, despite the olfactory absence.
Soderbergh handles the mechanics of the scene so well (especially as Thack dispassionately prods around in Abigail’s exposed nostrils) that it makes you all the more frustrated with the god-awful dialogue creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler have written for the duo. Among the more egregious head-slappers:
Abigail: “No one handles the unexpected like John Thackery.”
Thackery: “It’s where I live.”
Abigail: “In all the time we were together, I could never get used to what you called normal. But I suppose it’s only fair as you could never get used to what everyone else called normal.”
Thackery: “You know, from what I recall, you chose [your husband] because you wanted more calm than I could give you.”
Abigail: “It wasn’t that simple. Nothing with you ever was.”
It’s pretty appalling to watch these charismatic performers say such clumsily expository lines. (Their exchanges come off like the “Generic Greeting” sequence in Schizopolis played straight.) But I also think this is Soderbergh laying all his cards on the table, telling us where his interests, as well as the real intrigue of the series, lie. It’s not in the words, but in the world around them. At best Amiel and Begler’s dialogue is functional; at worst, it’s … this scene. (Since they wrote most of the installments, I’m bracing myself.) Frankly, though, the scripts tend to be one of the least important elements of Soderbergh’s projects, especially his more recent output. They’re mere templates, of highly variable quality, that allow him to exercise skills (as photographer, editor, etc) outside them. His movies (and I think we can safely say that The Knick is, for the most part, operating at a cinematic level) are a formalist’s dream, though whether this alone makes a truly great work of art is highly debatable.
For me, the tension between Soderbergh’s aesthetic doodling and the strictures dictated by his screenwriters can be interesting, and occasionally glorious. A good friend and colleague swears up-and-down that the 2013 thriller Side Effects is a chef d’oeuvre, and I’ve kidded him plenty about that because I find that film’s screenplay (by Scott Z. Burns) to be lurid and offensive — one man’s hysterical killer-dyke fantasy writ humorlessly large. Soderbergh’s detached style only serves to point up the narrow-mindedness of the writing, and it feels like he’s marking time. Style and (no) substance are at complete odds. But then he’ll go and do something like the incredible Liberace movie Behind the Candelabra (2013), which has a pretty standard then-this-happened biopic screenplay by Richard LaGravenese that Soderbergh uses to his advantage. He makes you feel the accumulation of the cold, hard facts of Liberace and Scott Thorson’s tortured relationship, until emotion bursts forth in a climactic funeral-production number that’s at once tacky and transcendent. Tears each time.
It’s these rushes of feeling that keep me coming back to Soderbergh, even when I believe (as I often have) that he’s lost it completely. One thought of the melancholic final exchange between Andie MacDowell and James Spader in sex, lies, and videotape (1989), or of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez canoodling in the trunk in Out of Sight (1998), or the tender dinner scene between James Carville and Mary Matalin in a late episode of the severely underrated HBO series K Street (2003), or the entirety of 1999’s The Limey (the revenge film as memory palace) and I’m fully back on the bandwagon.
The funny thing about The Knick, at least so far, is that the emotional highs are much more prevalent than usual for Soderbergh, perhaps a result of refocusing his priorities for episodic television. As let down as I am by the writing in the scene between Abigail and Thackery, Soderbergh’s sheer formal mastery nearly negates the problem. I’m just happy to watch him invent new ways of seeing in a medium that, historically, tends toward the banal. And when the words are purely functional (which is most of the time) or, better, go away completely, the work is often sublime. Which brings us to “The Busy Flea’s” final scene, a spectacular, dialogue-free altercation instigated by Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland).
Some background: Edwards spends much of the episode finessing the underground clinic he opened in the prior installment, hiring two of the Knick’s male stokers as waiting-room attendants and two female laundry-room laborers as nurses. (One of the ladies has a special talent for stitching, which comes in handy when post-operational sutures are required.) The clinic quickly gains a (secret) clientele: From 11 p.m. on, prospective patients wander past the Knick’s pigpen (Thack and his colleagues use the animals for test operations), knock on the boiler room door, announce that they’re “here about the washing job” and enter what, aside from the subterranean locale, is as fine a doctor’s office as one could hope for.
You can sense the black Edwards’ glee at pulling one over on the white bigots upstairs. But being a physician — wherever and however you practice — is no cake walk, as Edwards discovers when one of his patients dies on his operating table. (It’s the man’s second visit: He neglected Edwards’s advice for strict bed rest after a hernia operation because he couldn’t afford to lose his construction job. Day-to-day survival trumps long-term health.) A perfect storm: When Edwards runs upstairs to the Knick’s theater to procure some stitching to try to save the man, he comes across Thack and is informed his services will be needed the next day. But he’ll only be talking the other doctors through the galvanic operation that he performed many times before in Europe. To add to the insult, he even co-authored a French paper about the procedure — not-so-coincidentally the same article that Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) and Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) stole from the files of a rival medical office in last week’s episode.
Understandably angry, Edwards drowns his sorrows at a Tenderloin district bar where he insults one of the patrons and they both step out back. What follows is a fight sequence that (as with much of the imagery on this series) is like none I’ve ever witnessed. The sound is completely drowned out except for Cliff Martinez’s droning score, which recalls the massively slowed-down version of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Aria” that played over the penultimate scene of the season-two finale of Hannibal. And the camera assumes two alternating positions on Edwards — from the back and above, and in front and below, pushed in so close to his head that, with every punch he lands and every blow he avoids, he (and we) become increasingly disoriented.
Darren Aronofsky used similarly abstract subjective imagery in his 2000 addiction fantasia Requiem for a Dream. (I’m also presuming that a similar camera rig — strapped to the actor, giving the visuals an all-axis steadiness — was used.) In Requiem the effect was more leering, an invitation to gloat at suffering rather than move deeper toward empathy. Here, Soderbergh’s technique is married fully to Edwards’s character, a man who every so often needs to drop the mask of civility he affects among the white people who are either openly hostile or (just as bad) politely condescending. Aggravating the cold-blooded tragedy, he takes his frustrations out on those who the world at large has denoted to be his own, inferior kind. The scene gives us an incisive view of the circumstances that have shaped Edwards to behave as he does, and it’s not a pretty picture because no one of any race or social standing is absolved. Those thick beads of sweat on his face aren’t just a physical exertion, but an involuntary reflex — oozing the contagion called humanity.
It’s a bleak revelation, thrillingly declared (without words), and key, I think, to the series’ overall intentions. The world of The Knick is an organism poisoned beyond healing. And its slogan is simple: Sickness unto all, viewers included.
- The episode gets its title from one of Administrator Barrow’s (Jeremy Bobb) preferred sexual practices, which is better seen than described. He’s one of the primary supporting characters this week, hilariously holding a hand to his swollen cheek — a result of last week’s violent tooth extraction — and stealing a body from the Knick’s morgue so he can pay off his debt to gangster Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch). (At episode’s end, Barrow saws off the legs of one of the Knick’s pigs so he can have some ashes for the widow of the missing corpse. Classy.) It’s also revealed that Barrow has a fashion-challenged wife who shows up every now and again to get some cash. On this visit, she tells him some pearl earrings are missing from their house (obviously one of his many pawns) and Barrow quickly blames the maid. “You need to fire her,” wifey says. Barrow agrees, his guilt easily cast aside, though it’s clear he can’t keep up his various ruses forever.
- A scene at the Robertson home offers further insight as to why they so cherish Dr. Edwards: His mother works for the family as a servant. Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines) is quick to snootily sing Edwards’s praises in her presence (“I have always known a quality investment, and he has proven himself to be worth every penny”) … in between helpings of creamed potatoes, of course. That Soderbergh lets this exchange play out in a single, static wide shot only exacerbates the unchecked antipathy — cloaked in decorum — between races. Mention is also made of Cornelia Robertson’s (Juliet Rylance) fiancé, Phillip, on his way to New York via Chicago. So another character is soon to arrive.
- More plot gears turn on the apparent outbreak of typhoid fever among several of the Robertsons’ wealthy friends. Young Cora Hemming (Victoria Leigh) is one of the afflicted gentry, on whom Thack decides to perform a risky procedure after sharing an inspiring (and subtly amorous) moment with Nurse Elkins. (Bertie probably won’t like being romantically usurped by his mentor.) Also, Cornelia teams up with officious health department inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro) to investigate the situation since, as she insists, “You’ll need an ambassador to get through the door” of the rich and private. We should probably expect some corset-vs.-blue-collar head-butting.
- Bertie and Gallinger, especially the latter, do their darndest to avoid approaching Edwards for his advice about the impending galvanic procedure. They experiment on a pig (“It does smell pleasantly like breakfast,” says Bertie in an effort to lighten the mood). They downplay their ignorance to Thack. Even Gallinger’s wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), gets involved, using her meager grasp of the French language to try to translate Edwards’ paper. (It does not go well.) Gallinger is perturbed when an agitated Thack, who’s in need of his afternoon cocaine dose, says Edwards will be in attendance at the surgery. But he’s quickly satiated (as much as a flagrant racist can be) after Thack explains that Edwards will just talk his white colleagues through the procedure. Smooth sailing is assuredly not assured.
- Two testy scenes between ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and orphanage-nun-by-day/back-alley-abortionist-by-night Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) hint at a larger confrontation to come. (“If they only knew,” he cryptically says in her presence, like a lion circling his prey.) We also discover that the good sister puts the money she earns from her clandestine activities into a hospital donation box. Doing the Lord’s work, of a sort.
- Thack performs the main surgery this week on Abigail Alford. It involves making a flap of skin from her arm, attaching it to her nasal cavity, and keeping her arm in place over her head for several days so blood can flow through the flap and a healthy covering can be sculpted. Yes, it’s as horrible as it sounds, though not as much as the meddlesome commentary during the procedure by one Nurse Baker (Ylfa Edelstein), which inspires a particularly memorable comeback from Thack: “Another word from you about anything other than the job at hand, and I will sew your mouth and nostrils shut and happily watch you asphyxiate.” Did I say the writing on this show was weak?