So, Thack’s back, and not just at the Knick. For the one or two of you who might have worried the doctor would return to New York City clean as a whistle, fresh as a daisy, pure as the driven snow: Rest easy. The dope might be out of his system, replaced with a desire to find a cure for the disease of addiction (a radical notion at the time), but rehabilitated he is not. After one day back on the job, he’s pounding whiskey and banging a B-girl in the dingy alley outside a dance hall. The overseers at the Knick are right to worry. But we like our heroes messy, right? At least I do. Like Nurse Elkins, I’m addicted to the bad doctor.
But before we get to the hero’s return, let’s turn to a fleeting scene from the previous episode in which Inspector Speight visits the docks to investigate cases of bubonic plague that have been arriving from Ellis Island. It turns out the possible plague outbreak was the least of Speight’s worries. This week’s episode opens with his corpse bobbing in the East River. A game, it seems, is afoot, and Cornelia is its unlikely sleuth.
Distraught over the inspector’s death, Cornelia visits a detective who tells her that Speight tied one on in a bar on Water Street (I like to imagine him at the Bridge Café) before slipping off of the Brooklyn Ferry and drowning in the frigid river. His explanation, “Drunks slip in quieter than you think,” doesn’t quite satisfy.
To say that Cornelia, who’s aware that Speight was a teetotaler, is not convinced is an understatement. Her first order of business is to call Edwards — a slightly awkward first call to make to your ex-lover — and, to the dismay of tippling drivers worldwide, asks him if he can devise a test to determine whether there is booze in a person’s bloodstream. Her next move is to pay a visit to the police commissioner and demand he exhume Speight. But she’s too late, and she’s come empty-handed. The people who want Speight to remain six feet under got there first and, in an inspired bit of palm-greasing, gifted the commissioner with a prize bulldog to keep the health inspector soundly in his coffin.
But Cornelia is not to be deterred both out of her affinity for Speight and also because this amateur detective work gives her something to do besides keeping the Showalter name in the society pages — an imperative she’s been tasked with by her in-laws. (Speaking of the Showalters, that 11-bedroom apartment is still not ready. Either Mr. Showalter lied about its existence or is deliberately delaying construction to detain his daughter-in-law in his home.) Since Cornelia’s not the least bit content to plan charity balls and attend luncheons, she’s eager to get her hands dirty. Which leads her to Cleary, who, you might recall, used to be a gravedigger at Potter’s Field. You see where this is going?
Cleary, shoulder-deep in Speight’s grave, is tickled that in a life of underhanded dealings, the only times he’s transgressed from misdemeanor to crime were at the behest of society lady and nun. And on the subject of that nun, Cleary takes advantage of his time alone with Cornelia to appeal to her to pay for the Harvard lawyer he’s retained for Sister Harriet. (And boy, does Cornelia owe him for digging up all that cold, hard earth to get to Speight’s empty coffin.)
So let’s get back to the hospital. Now that Thack has agreed to the board’s mandate that he be regularly checked for track marks and justify any requests for “degenerative” meds, he’s back in the wards, surveying all that has happened in his absence and trying to steady his moral compass. He’s rightfully alarmed by several developments, especially the “fever cabinet” Edwards purchased — a large metal cylinder heated by gas flames that looks like a steampunk MRI machine and appears about as harmless as it sounds. We should watch that space.
Thack confronts Edwards about the cabinet, and also about why he turned a surgery over to Gallinger. Edwards comes clean about his detached retina and admits he’s been testing a procedure on rabbits to drain retinal fluid that he hopes (not believes, mind you) will fix him. And Thack — he’s the only man Edwards trusts to perform it. Well, between Bertie, Gallinger, and bumbling Dr. Mays, I guess his options are limited.
Speaking of Dr. Mays, the GP Barrow hired after consulting exactly no one, Thack wants him gone. But Mays, who has the bedside manner of a senile grandfather, has his uses to Barrow. Remember those hookers Ping Yu threatened to ship over to the Knick for their check-ups? Well, they’ve arrived. And when Mays accidentally stumbles upon an exam room filled with a bevy of dollymops fixing to spread their legs for free, he rolls up his shirtsleeves lickety-split. In a charming bit of doctoring, Mays laughs off Nurse Elkins’s suggestion that he use gynecological stirrups and instruments. Hell, why not have the ladies fling their legs over his shoulder, just like he used to do in his private practice, so he can use what God gave him, “a good nose and a pair of eyes,” to check them out. Cornelia, it appears, is not the only one eager to get her hands dirty. Ping Yu is losing money on this bargain.
While the Knick just got a lot more inviting for Dr. Mays, Bertie Chickering, no longer the milquetoast of season one, has no intention of working under Thack. You might have thought atop his list of reasons for quitting was the fact that his boss’s unhinged passion for research led him to transfuse a patient with his own cocaine-laced blood resulting in her death. But no, the young man is still sore that Thack cut his lunch and squired away Nurse Elkins. Thack makes a strange plea for Lucy by telling Bertie to cast aside his Victorian notions of purity and not consider Nurse Elkins damaged goods just because she and Thack got carnal. Turns out Bertie didn’t know.
As for Nurse Elkins, she might be the only person at the Knick who is actually happy that Thack is back in rotation. But she quickly falls victim to the doc’s strengthened moral fiber when he her cuts her loose for her own sake. Ironic — the one person to whom he makes amends is the person who doesn’t want an apology but something else. Lucy’s breakup coincides with a visit from her father, a southern preacher. Mr. Elkins is unimpressed by the hospital and urges Lucy not to be “distracted by what men can do” and interest herself in godly miracles. Lucy tells her father, “The things we can do, I think they might even impress you.” Well, perhaps not all of them.
Lucy accompanies her father to a prayer meeting where Mr. Elkins’s eerily quiet delivery and nonchalant glossolalia are heightened by the soundtrack’s layers of dissonant noise — the Knick’s trademark piano-synth heartbeat, a choral chant, and ultimately, the joyless voices of the congregation joining in a hymn. It’s creepy and disturbing and, if not for the fact that this show is capable of far greater horrors, would be the most wondrously unsettling moment of the episode. But that follows.
It’s time to operate on Edwards’s eye. Now, there’s been a lot of gruesome surgery on the Knick. A lot. But this threatens to be worst. First of all, it’s taking place in the hospital after-hours (creepy), and second, it involves Edwards’s eye (his eye!). I can only tell you what happens because I “watched” once with my hands over my own eyes to make sure I could watch at all.
Thack gets off to an inauspicious start when he’s scrubbing in and sees the girl he killed with the bad transfusion. But no matter. Off to surgery. Edwards has devised this little doodad to prop his eyelid open. He begins talking Thack through the procedure. Yup, he’s going to be awake. Maybe the cocaine he instructs Dr. Thackery to inject into his eyeball will take the edge off. But my sense is that a shot of coke in the eye might have the opposite effect. There’s a nifty little close-up of Thack holding the syringe over Edwards’s eye (his eye!) that makes you wonder how many times he can do that before turning the needle on himself.
So Thack’s holding the scalpel over Edwards’s eye (his eye!), and his hand is skittering up and down like a needle during a polygraph taken by Robert Durst. I’m sitting on my couch screaming, “NO!” as loud as I can because this is Edwards’s eye. And that scalpel’s getting closer, and Edwards’s eye is flickering side to side like maybe he’s made a mistake trusting Thack. Now Thack’s turning away, distracted by a strange noise somewhere in the OR, and Edwards is looking more and more concerned, and I’m screaming louder, and the scalpel is coming closer, and Thack is looking like he has a bad case of the DTs combined with a worse one of the heebie-jeebies. I’m still screaming. Thank God Edwards hears me because he leaps off the table and pulls that little 1984 device out of his eyes and calls the whole thing off. Did I say thank God?
This debacle sends Thack back to the barroom, not that he needed much encouragement, where he’s joined by the same B-girl he screwed in the alley, who lets him know she injects cocaine into one arm and heroin into the other because “Cocaine takes the bottom off the heroin, the heroin takes the top of the cocaine,” which, suffice it to say, piques the good doctor’s interest. Let’s hope it’s in the all in the name of his research.