A nugget of wisdom, from his memoir On Writing, by Stephen King: “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.” “Start Calling Me Dad,” the sixth installment of the first season of Cinemax’s The Knick (an Amiel/Begler/Soderbergh joint as per usual), is all plot, akin to watching chess pieces moving around the board, readying a future attack. There can be suspense in this kind of storytelling, but the episode feels more like housecleaning for the inelegant way it resolves certain narrative threads while awkwardly setting up others.
I’ve been vocal about how Amiel and Begler’s writing isn’t up to their multihyphenate collaborator’s directing, photography and editing. But I usually find Soderbergh is able to tame the words with his visual conceits (and a shout-out here, also, to the impeccable sound design of Larry Blake, whose work is essential to making the series’ period setting live and breathe). This week, the story machinations mostly subdue Soderbergh, so he compensates in the better moments by visibly stretching out time.
My favorite scene is a single-shot conversation between ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour). Fresh from one of their clandestine abortions, they walk along a bustling city street, having a smoke. Cleary tells “Harry” about his past in a prosaic way that—beyond introducing me to the hilariously profane descriptor “cuntable”—made me long for David Milch’s poetic vulgarity (Cleary’s got nothing on Al Swearengen’s blowjob-accompanied orphanage reminiscence from the first season of HBO’s Deadwood). Still, the fact that Soderbergh gives the actors visual breathing room—and provides plenty of atmospheric distraction—allows the subtext of the scene (the deepening friendship between Cleary and “Harry”) to come through loud and clear.
Soderbergh also does well in two scenes involving Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), mainly by focusing them through the character’s feelings of euphoria, anger and awe. Thack isn’t even onscreen at the start of the episode, but his presence is felt when a late night/early morning call comes in at the Chickering residence, summoning Bertie (Michael Angarano) to the Knick, much to the annoyance of his father (Reg Rogers). When Bertie arrives, the urgency quickly becomes intoxicating, and not just because two naked women from Thack’s beloved opium den are sitting around like bare-breasted stoics out of a Kubrick movie.
In short, Thack’s close to figuring out a way to finally conquer that troublesome placenta previa operation. He’s clearly high out of his mind. But the way he (and the ever-charismatic actor playing him) leaps around the room like a sprightly buck, spouting hypotheticals that will hopefully lead to concrete answers is too exhilarating to scrutinize too closely. You might say this approximates watching The Knick itself—when Soderbergh is firing on all cylinders, the many problems of the show dissipate.
Thack and Bertie eventually hit on a solution: a deflated rubber ball, inserted vaginally and filled with water, will slow the patient’s bleeding to a trickle. When they get a chance to try it out later in the episode, it goes swimmingly. Mother and baby survive, and Thack names Bertie (along with Matt Frewer’s deceased J.M. Christiansen) as a coauthor of the new placenta previa standard. Then comes the other big sequence, in which Thack finally discovers Dr. Algernon Edwards’ (André Holland) underground clinic.
This has been a long time coming, and Soderbergh lets the two men’s confrontation play out through all the necessary beats, contrasting Thack’s fury with Edwards’ resigned composure, letting the personalities clash and resolve as the full scope of Edwards’ deception-cum-achievement is revealed. It feels like we’re stuck in the ring with two gladiatorial combatants relentlessly circling each other. But instead of trading blows, they come to a place of mutual respect. Thack finally sees Edwards as a kindred spirit, but mainly based of the evidence of his inventions (the vacuum suction machine) and his medical accomplishments (the hernia procedure that he’s written out and illustrated in meticulous, ready-to-publish detail), all of which Thack is clearly ready to leech from for his own advancement. (Edwards, no slouch himself, seems equally ready to return the parasitic favor.) Skin color and social placement are, and always will be, obstacles. When Thack shakes Edwards’ hand and officially instates him as the Knick’s chief of surgery, it’s not a resolution between races so much as an exception to the rule.
And so, plot: We have the death of Dr. Gallinger’s (Eric Johnson) meningitis-affected infant (the last-ditch effort to bleed the child healthy is terrifying). We have the first “date” between Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) and Bertie, both of them upstaged by a pretzel. We have the resolution of the typhoid epidemic B-plot involving Inspector Speight (David Fierro) and Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) in a too-slapsticky sequence where patient zero is revealed to be…real-life asymptomatic disease spreader “Typhoid” Mary Mallon (Melissa McMeekin).
Gallinger and his wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan) pose for a death photo with their child. Cornelia and Dr. Edwards share some increasingly intimate small talk. And Thack sees off his former lover Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferin)—her eaten-away nasal cavity still attached to her arm flap—with some more cringingly purple dialogue. (“It was looking like rain.”/”It always looks like rain if you only look at the clouds.”)
But the scene that’ll really have ’em buzzing around the water cooler (if that’s still a thing), is the episode’s last, in which Cornelia is happened upon by the spectacularly-named Hobart Showalter (Gary Simpson), who proceeds to act not-so-spectacularly to his future daughter-in-law. The emphatically incestuous overtones of their interaction (“Why don’t you start calling me dad?”) makes it abundantly clear that Cornelia is a concubine of sorts, sold to the Showalters to shore up her father’s business dealings. This is a ridiculously soapy twist that Soderbergh desperately tries to sell by upping the cr-e-e-e-e-e-e-py factor, so much so that it negates any trenchant critique of patriarchal/capitalistic excess, which seems to be the underlying point. It reminded me of another Deadwood scene, actually—the one from the series’ first season in which the widow Alma Garret’s scheming, dice-throwing dad, Otis Russell, monologues about his manipulative nature (choice quote among many: “And if you inhale and expel pure righteousness, my olfactories are keen to the smell of shit”) before being beaten to a pulp by former sheriff Seth Bullock. (Fat cat meet fist.) One offers resonantly multilayered storytelling, the other a cheap, plotty goose. Soderbergh’s breathtaking formalism can only elevate so often.
- A note of apology to eagle-eyed viewers last week who pointed out that Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) refused to share a flask with Edwards, not a cigarette. My mistake.
- Ragging on the writing though I often do, I quite liked the scene between Thack and one Mr. Luff (Tom Papa), a snake-oil salesman who gets hilariously rebuffed by our antihero after he tries to get Thack to lend his image to a fraudulent cure-all. “Away you moldy rogue. Away,” Thack says, with deliciously Shakespearean pomp.
- Luff also sells Barrow a used X-ray machine that causes an immediate stir among the staff. (The nurses can’t get enough of the new toy.) Love the way Luff nonchalantly says the results will only take an hour. That’s progress.