Endings are difficult. For its final first-season episode, “Crutchfield” (written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler; directed, edited and photographed by Steven Soderbergh), Cinemax’s period hospital drama The Knick attempts to tie off a number of lingering narrative threads, and this it does — though in ways that feel, in toto, extremely conventional. This has been a problem that I’ve remarked on through the run of the series: The scripts rarely live up to Soderbergh’s extraordinary craft. His constant inventiveness (finding new ways of seeing in almost every scene) only underscores the many flaws of the storytelling.
Consider that the emotional high point of “Crutchfield” comes early when Cornelia Robertson — having paid for a dead-of-night procedure to terminate her and Dr. Algernon Edwards’s unborn child — stumbles into Tom Cleary and Sister Harriet’s underground abortion operation. Cleary is tickled by this turn of events, but it’s the complicated beauty of the two women’s interactions that makes the scene sing. Soderbergh films Sister Harriet in full illumination (in almost every other abortion sequence on the series she’s been in angel-of-death shadow), and the two ladies’ words ache with regret: “We’re friends, Harry. You could have told me,” says Cornelia. “So could you,” replies the nun. “But then neither of us could, could we?” When they gently, silently embrace their shared empathy is palpable — it feels like a truly liberating moment, though the cloud of secrecy remains.
Nothing else in “Crutchfield” quite lives up to this scene. Oh, there’s plenty of to-do as Dr. John Thackery finally reaches his breaking point. But Soderbergh, Amiel, and Begler mostly treat our antihero protagonist’s quick descent as a prelude to an easy joke (the rack-focus shot that closes the episode — one of the few emphatic missteps on the series — should be accompanied by the “womp-womp” of a sad trombone). This is no fault of Owen, who goes full twitch as his character succumbs to drug-addled paranoia. Thack is convinced that Dr. Levi Zinberg is out to destroy him, angling to take over his position at the Knick and to show him up with new research that suggests human beings have more than one blood type. He sends Bertie Chickering into the lion’s den, as it were, where the young surgeon discovers that Zinberg is actually quite forthcoming with his research and genuinely wants to collaborate with Thack. But Bertie’s mentor is too far gone to see reason, and the protégé can no longer ignore the poisonous signs.
The breakdown of the duo’s relationship should pack a punch, but for some reason, every beat of it feels dutiful and overly plotted. Even when Bertie finally rails against Thack, it feels like we’re being held at too cool a distance. There’s more bite in the way Bertie talks down to Nurse Elkins toward episode’s end — his condescension is clearly resulting from his feelings of rejection at the hands of the woman he hoped to marry. “Why Thack and not me?” is the subtext, no hemming and hawing about it. There’s also something in Bertie’s changed demeanor — not to mention the subtle sense of self-satisfaction exuded by his father at Thack’s addiction finally being exposed — that suggests he could be something of an antagonist next season. That should be interesting to see.
Where the Thack thread is underwhelming (not even the botched transfusion scene, in which he finally recognizes the error of his ways, has quite the kick it needs), the end games for Dr. Everett Gallinger and Herman Barrow are exemplars of Grand Guignol overcompensation. Gallinger first, who goes to visit his mad wife, Eleanor, in Evil John Hodgman’s Hospital of Horrors, where he discovers her teeth have been pulled as a preventative measure to root out disease. For whatever basis this procedure has in fact, Soderbergh presents it like a gory jest as opposed to a horrific low point for the people involved. Despite keeping the camera focused on Eleanor’s bug-eyed countenance, the scene ends up being more about the Hodgman character’s goofball ignorance (“[The procedure] is not generally accepted,” he callowly explains), as well as the viewing audience’s ability to flatter itself with the knowledge of how far mankind has ostensibly come. This takes the sting out of the later scene in which a distraught Gallinger attacks Dr. Edwards in the Knick’s theater and confesses his disappointment in Thack. Since he hasn’t been sufficiently humanized (and despite Soderbergh’s breathtaking blocking), the scene comes off as little more than the latest childish outburst from The Knick’s resident punching bag.
Barrow, meanwhile, has had it up to here with Bunky Collier, who interrupts the hospital administrator during an intimate moment with his beloved prostitute Junia to scold him for missing another payment. One “cockpunch” later and Barrow is begging Thack to introduce him to opium-den proprietor Ping Wu so the Collier problem can be taken care of. Thack demurs, but Barrow heads down to Chinatown on his own and cons Ping Wu (or so he thinks) into murdering Collier. This leads to a scene that, for all its surface awesomeness, feels entirely out of place in the world Soderbergh has conjured: Ping Wu sneaks into Collier’s office and dispatches his henchmen (and the big bad himself) with some throat-cutting circular blades and a tomahawk to the head. It’s as if he’s auditioning for the lead in a Haywire sequel, and it all just feels pretty silly in context. Nonetheless, there is some satisfaction to be had in the scene that follows, as Ping Wu confronts Barrow in his office and makes him realize that he’s traded one debt collector for another.
Let’s close with the Robertsons and their respective travails. Having aborted their child, Cornelia has a tense meeting with Dr. Edwards, who frigidly speaks of “consequences” and leaves our poor heroine in tears. (We last see the Knick’s talented black surgeon lying bloodied and beaten on a cobblestone walk on Cornelia’s wedding day, finally having started a street fight that he could not win.) Cornelia later finds out from her brother, just back from San Francisco, that their father, Captain August Robertson, is losing his financial foothold on the West Coast. There’s a degree to which she understands this is one of the main factors behind her marriage to Phillip Showalter, whose father, Hobart, is again on hand with lecherous stares and a bridal-shower gift (his dead mother’s earrings) that suggest some unfortunate sexual peccadilloes will soon come to the fore.
I wish I could say that the wedding sequence that climaxes the episode (in a bit of Godfather-like intercutting, Soderbergh jumps between Cornelia’s nuptials and Dr. Edwards’s back-alley brawl) had quite the cumulative power that’s intended. Sadly, it feels pretty perfunctory, as does the subsequent scene in which the Captain and his board members, recognizing the dire straits the institution is in, decide to shutter the Knick’s current location and move uptown. Who knows, though? Maybe the change of scenery will be just what the series needs to get its blood pumping again.
- I’d rather not leave on a down note, so let me take this opportunity to thank all of you who have read and commented on these recaps for the past ten weeks. Despite my frequent criticisms of the series, I truly found it a joy to write about. Soderbergh is a frustrating case for me: He was one of the first auteurs I fell in love with during my formative cinematic education, and so I’m always curious to see what he’s up to, despite my feeling that, after The Limey (1999), he has more failures than successes. The Knick showcases Soderbergh at his best and his worst, and I hope I’ve done a good job examining and illuminating the full spectrum of his achievement here. Art worth writing about isn’t always exceptional from moment to moment. I often feel that the most rewarding works are those that force you to grapple with the highs, the lows, and the in-betweens. Maybe because they’re the most human. I look forward to The Knick’s next chapter.