Now, desperation. When last we saw Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), he was trying (and failing) to neutralize his emotional and physical downward spiral with opium. But an addict’s an addict — he needs his drug of choice. And so he pays a late-night breaking-and-entering visit to a pharmacy in search of cocaine. Unfortunately, he’s caught in the act and is bailed out by Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines) and Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). “So I think this makes us even, don’t you think?” says the captain to the disheveled doctor, hinting at the same distant incident Thackery mentioned a few episodes and a much clearer head prior. The mystery remains intact: Though the slimy Barrow tries to dig further into the men’s shared past during a faux-polite conversation with the captain, he is quickly rebuffed.
Yet there is one secret revealed in the very uneven ninth episode (entitled “The Golden Lotus,” written by Steven Katz and directed, edited, and photographed by Steven Soderbergh) of Cinemax’s The Knick: our protagonist’s middle name. He’s John Wilkinson Thackery, according to the arresting officer whose palm is crossed with the captain’s silver in exchange for all charges dismissed. Lucky for Thack. Or maybe not, since his withdrawal symptoms are worsening by the minute.
Soderbergh’s color palette seems to reflect Thack’s dire state: Where the series has typically favored warm oranges (usually cast by lantern light), it now emphasizes icy blues. A chill has descended, which is especially evident when Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), having deduced from a morning newspaper article that Thack was arrested, goes to visit her lover and finds him distant, scattered, cold, and violent. He stalks toward her like a feral creature (Owen excels at scenes that bring out his inner caveman), shouting her down until she’s collapsed in a chair. Soderbergh keeps the camera on her shocked face, emphasizing the surprise and the hurt, but also allowing us to witness her eventual epiphany. “What can I do to help?” she asks. His answer comes as no surprise: “You can find me an ocean of cocaine.” Thack is addicted to drugs, and Nurse Elkins is addicted to Thack, or at least the idea of him that both have built up during their increasingly codependent intimacy. If things could just be as they were — maybe the drug can get them there? It’s a vicious circle now.
After one false start involving Barrow — who’s tricked by loan shark Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch) into buying (on credit) cocaine vials that only contain salt water — Nurse Elkins finds herself in Ping Wu’s (Perry Yung) opium den. (Perversely, it’s the one place in the episode that Soderbergh films as warm and inviting.) The silky-voiced Chinese gangster apologizes to Elkins, but cocaine is impossible to get. However, he does have a few grains of opium lying around, and then proceeds to tell her a suggestive story about “The Golden Lotus,” a sex act during which a woman arouses her male lover by putting her foot in his mouth. His meaning is obvious (you do to me, I do for you), though Soderbergh elides any graphic display, showing us only the aftermath: Elkins returns to Thack with the opium (he’s so desperate he’s trying to get high by distilling the remnants of discarded Coca-Cola bottles), helps him light up, and lies about how she got the narcotics. “How did you pay for this?” he asks. “My bicycle,” she fibs, followed by a smash cut to her rolling her beloved two-wheeler into her apartment.
The opium, of course, isn’t enough for Thack, and despondency sets in. He returns to the snake-oil salesman Luff (Tom Papa) to try and rekindle the “Dr. Thackery’s Miracle Cure” offer from a few episodes back. (No dice.) It gets so that Nurse Elkins finally sneaks into a German-run hospital and robs the cocaine stores. She brings the bounty back to her lover like an animal returning from a kill, and they proceed to hungrily fuck. (Composer Cliff Martinez reprises the same track from episode four’s rat-stomping teaser to drive home the animalistic nature of the scene.) “Let’s douse your sex with it,” Elkins says, referring to the aphrodisiacal “ocean” she’s procured. “No,” Thack replies, “Let’s douse yours.” The dead-eyed expression on her face as he does so is a ghastly counterpoint to her perkily innocent aspect at the end of the great “Get the Rope.” Everything is habit now, and love has been fully overwhelmed by lust.
- The biggest plot turn of the week comes courtesy Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), who reveals that she’s pregnant with Dr. Algernon Edwards’s (André Holland) child and wants it terminated. I’m sorry to say that this thread is playing out, at least on a script level, in much the way I feared after the duo got together two episodes prior. Soderbergh and the actors do their best with material that seems written at the level of a bad soap opera: Issues of social and racial iniquity are cursorily explored, and even a great performer like Holland can’t make the self-consciously melodramatic dialogue (“I can’t kill my own child!”) resonate with the hard truths intended. Soderbergh’s compositions are, no surprise, still striking — I especially like the frigid mood he conjures when Edwards has Cornelia strip for the abortion that is ultimately not performed. But this is one of those cases where the director’s ample craft feels disconnected from deeper meaning.
- Poor Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) has officially become the Knick (and The Knick’s) go-to punching bag. In the midst of a fiery conversation with Edwards, Gallinger spots his wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan) wheeling in a baby carriage containing the dead body of their hastily adopted child, Grace. (The grieving Eleanor, now gone entirely off the deep end, silenced the child’s cries by drowning it in an ice bath.) The scene has a “For god’s sake, not again!” vibe that’s a bit too black-comic Monty Python, and it gets kookier later on when Eleanor is carted off to the madhouse … by friggin’ John “I’m a PC” Hodgman, whose bug-eyed manner and handlebar mustache (ready, willing, and able to be twirled) are utterly ridiculous. I’m guessing the humor is somewhat intentional, but the scene feels like it’s been beamed in from sketch-comedy land.