“Get the Rope” was the euphoric high. “Working Late a Lot” (the eighth episode of the first season of Cinemax’s medical drama The Knick) is the lull before the fall — like being perched on the edge of an abyss into which you know you’re about to plunge. It’s the awareness of the predicament that gnaws at you the most. Maybe there’s some way to put it off? How do you defer the inevitable?
“You’re here with me now,” says Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) to nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) after some fearfully heavy postcoital small talk about absent and judgmental fathers (of both the earthly and heavenly kind). The shame of sex is palpable between them — a far cry from the senses-altering dreaminess of their initial erotic encounter in “Get the Rope.” Nothing can ever compare to that first taste of the apple; it doesn’t matter if it’s a person, a drug, or an idea that you’re hooked on. And it takes all the effort in the world not to think beyond where you are. Much easier to reflect on past regrets and wallow in all the ways things can and will go wrong.
And go wrong they do, for almost every character. No sooner does Thack walk into work the next morning — passing by Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) as he continues his futilely chaste wooing of Nurse Elkins — than a problem arises: The hospital’s stores of cocaine (Thack’s drug of choice) have been exhausted, and there’s none forthcoming because of a war in the Philippines. Suddenly, Thack’s selfish problems have gone global. And so a slow breakdown begins.
Owen has been consistently terrific on the series, but I think he outdoes himself here, in large part because of director-cinematographer-editor Steven Soderbergh’s choice to keep the camera intently on the actor’s face for large portions of the episode. This is good writing: keeping dialogue to a mundane minimum and allowing Owen’s pained expressions to convey Thack’s internal monologue. We can fill in the words for ourselves.
Soderbergh works in brilliant concert with his performer (he might be filming operatic arias): The camera circles stealthily around Thack at a hospital board meeting during which we hear all the bureaucratic minutiae off-screen. (This setup is repeated later when Thack and his physicians attend to a patient in the Knick’s ward.) During a doctor’s assembly where Thack presents his and Dr. Algernon Edwards’s (André Holland) “co-authored” hernia procedure, Soderbergh emphasizes our increasingly jittery antihero’s paranoia by cutting jaggedly between him and the Jewish doctor, Dr. Levi Zinberg (Michael Nathanson), who he sees as a rival. And when Thack finally loses all his bearings — in the Knick’s theater during an abscess operation — Soderbergh films Owen’s face in Passion of Joan of Arc–esque extreme close-up, attuning us to every trickle of sweat and every anguished hesitation. (And those horrifyingly dead eyes — it’s amazing what great actors can do.)
The people around Thack seem similarly infected by impending failure. Still they try to maintain and prolong the (dis)comforts they know: Hoping for a fresh start, Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) brings home an adopted child to his grieving wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan), who summarily rejects it. (Soderbergh approaches these scenes with a merciless lack of sentiment.) Bertie continues to defy his father’s (Reg Rogers) wishes that he leave the Knick even though he’s starting to recognize how unhinged Thack is becoming. Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), denied funds by both Captain Robertson (Grainger Hines) and a usually philanthropic church monsignor (Richard James Porter), resorts to desperate measures to keep the Knick afloat and his own debts at bay. Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) and Dr. Edwards giddily continue their affair — she’s been sneaking down to “Algie’s” hotel many nights after work — though their erotic bliss is tempered by the fear, as she says with a conspiratorial smile, “that we won’t be able to stop.”
There’s self-knowledge in that statement: This can’t continue, so enjoy it while it lasts. The only character that ends the episode in a better place than where they started is “Typhoid” Mary Mallon (Melissa McMeekin), set free by a judge despite the protestations of Inspector Speight (David Fierro), Cornelia, and Bertie. And even this, as extra-narrative history tells us, is doomed to end in more innocents falling ill and a lifetime quarantine — all because of a lack of foresight, an inability to see clearly beyond the fog of the present.
It’s so much more desirable to stay lost and unawares. As Thack says in the final scene to his comely opium-den attendant, Lin-Lin (Ying Ying Li), “I want to go out and stay up. If I wake up, you shove this pipe in my mouth and you fire it up again … and again … and again.” Concerned, Lin-Lin asks, “You do want to wake up sometime, right Johnny?” He doesn’t answer. Clearly, he’d rather not. But even drug-addled dreams aren’t a safe haven: Once Thack goes out, he flashes back to that terrible day he discovered his mentor Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) lying similarly prostrate, his brains splattered by gunshot. It’s a thin line separating distraction from death. And Thack finally seems to recognize — to his doped-up horror — that the devil’s coming around to collect.