The only time I saw Michael Cimino’s film maudit Heaven’s Gate (1980) — as a teen, with an adventurous friend, off of laser disc — I found it a bloated bore that I hoped to never again experience. (Now that time has passed and bias has mellowed, I feel like it’s due a rewatch given the many impassioned defenders, several of them friends and colleagues, who helped pave the way to the film’s recent Criterion Collection canonization. Someday…someday.) One of the few things that stuck with me from that single viewing, probably because it jolted me out of the tedium, was a violent cockfighting sequence, which lore has it was staged for real, and resulted in several decapitated fowl and the firing of bit player Willem Dafoe.
I thought back to that scene during the opening of this week’s episode of The Knick — “Where’s the Dignity,” written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler — as blustery Irish ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) presides over a similar bit of animal cruelty, though with rats in place of roosters. The game is simple: Man vs. Beast. A drunken lout named McTeague (Clarke Thorell) is tasked with stomping as many of the agitated rodents as possible. Place your bets, gentlemen.
More so than any of the show’s graphic surgeries, this gave me actual dry heaves, especially when McTeague slips on one of the creature’s bloody remains and falls among the surviving vermin. “Rat” meet rats. As in the superb back alley fight scene that closed the previous episode, director Steven Soderbergh (who, as a footnote to the above, recently edited his own shortened cut of Heaven’s Gate…for fun, ferchirssakes!) drowns out all the sound aside from Cliff Martinez’s oscillating electronic score. So we’re left with hellish imagery that functions almost subliminally — devoid of aural context, we wish even more that we weren’t seeing what we’re seeing.
As it turns out, this sequence happens after much of the main plot of the episode (Soderbergh does love playing with time). And so something seemingly throwaway gains added resonance much later on when McTeague is carried into the Knick with a severe case of rat-bite-induced meningitis — not so coincidentally as all the staff is in particularly tense headspaces. How did they get here?
Let’s go back to the morning when administrator Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) finally delivers that urn full of pig’s ashes to the widow of the dead man whose body he sold off. (“It was his final wishes,” Barrow fibs to the perplexed woman before shamelessly soliciting a cremation fee.) And, that same morning, to the Knick’s theater, where Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) is talking his arrogant white colleagues through the galvanic procedure he helped pioneer in Europe. All goes smooth, until, at a crucial moment when the patient is most vulnerable, Edwards stops speaking, a sly you-in-trouble-now smirk crossing his face. “We don’t have time for your nigger games,” says the charming-as-ever Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), as his patient begins bleeding out. But Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is thrilled by this turn of events. Bit of a rat-fight all its own. Who will break first? “Care to wager, Bertie?” asks Thack of Michael Angarano’s timid surgeon-in-training.
Gallinger eventually succumbs, handing Edwards the scalpel, and letting him save the day. But once the patient is out of harm’s way, he drops Edwards to the ground with a sucker punch. Thack scolds Gallinger, but soon shows where his real sympathies lie. “Next time, kick the man instead,” he says to much laughter from the gallery. Nonetheless, it feels like Thack and Edwards have crossed a threshold — respect is trickling in through the levee of intolerance.
Courtesy is in short supply, however, between the Knick’s board of trustees proxy, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), and portly health department inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro), who begin their investigation of the typhoid epidemic winding its way among the New York gentry. They start with the mother of the young girl, Cora Hemming, who Thack helped save in the third episode. Speight ingratiates himself upfront, refusing to shake the woman’s hand “owing to the disease and not knowing your hygiene habits,” and offending her further by nonchalantly discussing the ubiquity of bowel movements. He gets his comeuppance, though, when Robertson notes that that delicious-looking Peach Melba he’s about to dig into is a potential virus factory. His look of dismay and the ladies’ shared glances of bemusement are broad, but very funny. Interesting that this plotline about a potential decimating contagion is the thing Soderbergh and his collaborators use for easy laughs.
Things take a not-so-humorous turn for Cornelia at a party thrown by her father Captain August Robertson (Grainger Haines), during which her fiancé Phillip (Tom Lipinski) offhandedly states that they’ll be moving out to San Francisco after their wedding. “Your father wants someone there on a more permanent basis,” says her soon-to-be-spouse, and it’s clear that Cornelia is being used as a kind of bartering chip for the Captain to shore up his business dealings with Phillip’s hilariously named paterfamilias, Hobart Showalter, played by Gary Simpson with a transparent unctuousness that no one openly acknowledges.
Bearing witness to all this uncivil civility is Dr. Edwards who receives an invite to the gathering from his own father, a coachman for the Robertsons. (As we learned previously, Edwards’ mother is also a maid for the family.) The Captain, of course, treats him like a sideshow display: “You will never meet a Negro with as much ability and ingenuity as this one,” he says to Showalter, and Edwards blanches at the condescending compliment. Later, he reveals a heretofore concealed intimacy with Cornelia, calling her “Neelie” and inquiring after her well-being while the rest of the guests are preoccupied with a visiting gentleman named Edison (yes, that Edison), who demonstrates his new wax recording device. “How fortunate we are to be living in these times,” says the Captain, oblivious to the unrest that is brewing within his own family.
There’s more clear-cut discord in the Chickering household, which we finally get a look inside. It turns out the soft-spoken Bertie is at odds with his father, a physician himself who can’t understand why his son is laboring at a riffraff-attracting institution like the Knick. At the end of what surely must rank as one of the more awkward take-your-dad-to-work days, a seething Mr. Chickering speaks of his own time in a similar hospital. “I climbed out of there so that you could have options I only dreamed of,” he says. “And I choose the Knick,” replies Bertie, which instigates a scolding diatribe from his elder about illness, poverty and the showman-like nature of Thack. Our mustachioed antihero particularly gets Mr. Chickering’s goat after he uses the body of a woman freshly dead from a botched abortion to graphically demonstrate how to manually administer a pulse. (“We’ll find a use for it,” says Thack, a slight hint of the soothsayer about him.)
That poor woman is more than a guinea pig for Thack’s experiments: She’s also the catalyst for Cleary and abortionist nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) to mend their fences. Earlier in the episode, Cleary lets on to the fact that he knows what activities the Knick’s not-so-holy orphanage runner gets up to at night, and quickly blackmails her into a 60-40 split (in his favor) of all of her future earnings. But when he witnesses the end results of that bungled feticide, something close to compassion stirs in him. Dramatically, this is a bit of an unbelievable turnaround, but it leads to a beautiful scene at Potter’s Field between Cleary and “Harry” (as he now affectionately calls her) in which they come to a mutual understanding: “I find the girls needing services,” he says, “and you do the job on them. Good and safe.” She asks, clearly knowing the answer, “Still a 60-40 split in your favor?” Of course. There’s still a bit of the rat in him.
- An acknowledgment to the commenters: It was correctly pointed out by several of you that I missed what Barrow actually did with his wife’s earrings in “The Busy Flea,” which was gift them to his prostitute mistress. To “YarnGuy,” who wondered why I didn’t get that: Call it a combination of my attempting to juggle a plethora of plot threads; of Soderbergh’s choice to emphasize Barrow and his lady’s exchange in a more inventive way than via the typical insert shot; and—more to the point—of a general brainfart on my part. I will note any similar (hopefully few) errors going forward, and appreciate the correction all around—except from the gentleman (joseph.krajewski) who called me a “silly fool.” Language, sir!
- Some Thack matters: After a flashback to happier times (Matt Frewer’s J.M. Christiansen once again in attendance) as well as some prompting from Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), Dr. House 1900 visits with the noseless Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin) who’s recuperating from her reconstructive surgery. There’s a reprise of that cringeworthy dialogue from the duo’s first meeting (“Ah, but I’m not just any patient.”/“No you’re not.” Tell us something we don’t know.) But Soderbergh once again tempers any bad writing by making the scene more about Elkins—watching the whole exchange from a distance—and her own curiosity about the maverick Thack. Later, Elkins follows Thack to his Chinatown opium den and is shocked by his off-hours life. This doesn’t lead to any melodramatic blowout. Instead, Soderbergh visualizes the sudden distance between them in the episode’s poetic final scene, as Thack leaves the hospital going one direction, and Nurse Elkins the other. For now, at least, she knows not to dig deeper into his life than necessary.
- “There’s harm in everything you do,” says Gallinger to Edwards. Well, M.D. Bigot, we might say the same thing about putting your unwashed fingers in your 9-month-old infant’s mouth—a moment that Soderbergh appears to portentously lean on.
- Speaking of Edwards, his discomfiting encounter with the Captain and Hobart Showalter (I’ll never tire of typing Hobart Showalter) at least gives him an in with a company experimenting with vacuum technology. Edwards has some ideas about how to use this new suction method surgically, and despite all the shenanigans during the galvanic procedure, I’m willing to bet Thack will be a bit more receptive to the idea. Just a bit.