Our theme for this week’s recap comes courtesy Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines): “This,” he says to hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) over a sumptuous dinner, “has demonstrated to me that the next great fortunes will be the result of the immaterial.” The this he’s referring to is the X-ray Barrow has brought along to the meal, the end result of a demonstration at the Knick by Thomas Edison’s people. Their new invention allows physicians to literally gaze beneath the patient’s skin to the bones beneath — a game changer for the field, but in no way a bargain at $3,000 per machine. That’s an earthly matter, though. Let’s consider the other part of the Captain’s statement — namely the immaterial, the intangible, the ethereal space between that which has solidity and substance. What power we’d have if we could master that.
This burning desire to play god seems especially suited to the world of doctors (David Duchovny even made a terrible movie about it). But “They Capture the Heat,” the fifth episode of Cinemax’s The Knick — written by Steven Katz and directed, edited and photographed, as ever, by Steven Soderbergh—views this ambition as quintessentially, free-floatingly human. Consider the scene that gives the episode its title: Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) and Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) are sitting outside the hospital having a rare friendly moment. Unforeseen circumstances forced them into working together, performing an early morning, fortunately successful operation on one of the henchmen of gangster Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch). So they’re both in that kind of reflective, philosophical mood that results whenever you’ve dodged a bullet (an actual one in this case, per the gun-flashing Collier). “Christ, it gets so humid in this town,” says Thack. “It’s all the tall buildings,” replies Edwards. “They capture the heat.”
A potent image — these man-made structures, stretching ever-higher, seizing the celestial. So of course Thack desecrates Edwards’ observation later on, passing it off as his own while in conversation with the Captain. The episode is filled with such little profanations, or setups for them: Barrow refusing to even offer Edwards a cigarette. Collier showing that pistol to a terrified Barrow in the Knick’s theater, an instrument of death defiling a room meant to prolong life. Even the moment when Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) finally asks Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) out — in absolutely adorable early 20th-century patois — is polluted by the knowledge that there’s a growing attraction between her and Thack. Confrontation and cataclysm (of a very mortal sort) is inevitable.
But my favorites of these visions of decay come in two other scenes, both of them moments where Soderbergh strongly asserts his photographic acuity. Each are single shots: The first captures ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) in the apartment of a Chinese woman in need of an abortion. You can imagine this scene done in any number of standard shot-reverse shot combinations. But Soderbergh keeps the camera focused on the Chinese woman the entire time, leaving Cleary and Sister Harriet out of focus and emphasizing the woman’s sheer unspoken terror (over her physical being and her soul). Only after all this registers does one of the familiar characters, Sister Harriet, move forward, and then only into face-obscuring shadow. This grants her an angel of death aspect and hints at her own grappling with what she considers a righteous transgression.
The second shot involves the Gallinger family, Dr. Everett (Eric Johnson), his wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan) and their infant daughter, who was unsurprisingly infected with meningitis by her careless father in last week’s episode. Now come the consequences, and they are truly terrifying, in no small part because there’s a degree to which we can’t believe what we’re seeing. Soderbergh starts close on an ice water bucket that Sister Harriet is filling, then slowly pulls back to reveal Everett and Eleanor holding their child, who is twisted at an odd angle, her head horrifyingly enlarged, and screaming at the top of her lungs. There’s no way an actual child could have been used to accomplish this, so what we’re seeing is clearly fake—likely a combination of practical model and digital airbrushing. But photorealism isn’t necessarily a be-all, end-all. And how I wish more filmmakers would recognize that it’s often the very falseness of an effect that gives it its power.
That’s the ultimate challenge — taking that which is by its nature incongruous with human existence and contextualizing it so it becomes tangible. Think of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963): Why do those creatures, despite their often-transparent phoniness, terrify as they do? Because they are inextricably wound up with the psyche of Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels — they seem like projections of a mind coming undone, and we believe in them because it is of one of life’s great struggles to maintain sense and sanity. Here, Soderbergh gives us an imagined vision of every parent’s worst nightmare — a helpless child, its humanity degraded by illness—and we believe it because of the very palpable fears every element of the image (from composition to performance) taps into. The length of the shot is especially key: just long enough to register how off that baby looks, then a quick-cut away so that it lingers like a visual aftershock, possessed of the quality of a delusion. Surely, we didn’t witness that.
An episode filled with terrors closes with a tender scene between Thack and Nurse Elkins as she teaches him to use the bike she rides to work every day. “I saw you on it this morning,” he says wistfully. “You didn’t look like you were part of anything. You looked free.” An immaterial vision herself, and Owen plays the scene in a charmingly desperate way, as if trying to look deeper into someone who has, thus far, maintained a hazy air of mystery about them. The subtle tension underlying the earlier sequence between Bertie and Elkins is nowhere evident because this seems like a moment out of time, a blissful vision that won’t be interrupted beyond the end credits and a week’s respite. This is love, and…“You’re thinking too much,” says Elkins when Thack nearly takes a tumble on the two-wheeler. “Why don’t you try singing a song? It’ll help distract you.”
In other words, use art as counterpoise to life. The material and the immaterial exist in tandem, and, often, are thrown out of whack. But how wonderful it is when they harmonize, however fleetingly.
- Some medical matters: Both Thack and Edwards get another go at surgeries they’ve performed previously with no success. In his underground clinic, Edwards heads a hernia operation on a Cuban man who rolls cigars for a living. (Edwards takes a euphoric puff on one of those stogies later in the episode.) This time Edwards uses silver thread for suture, which prompts a very funny pre-operative jibe from the patient that “every cloud has a silver lining.” Thack has less success with another placenta previa procedure; the patient dies even though he and Bertie have gotten the slice-to-suture time down significantly. I suspect this is going to be a season-long arc, with surgical success, hopefully, to come by the finale.
- One thing Thack does succeed at is saving Edwards’ mother — maid to the Robertson family — after she complains of intense internal pain. Edwards is in the room during the tail end of it all and is convinced an appendectomy is required. Thack insists it’s merely a cyst that needs to be popped since it’s blocking the bowels. Our racist antihero turns out to be right, to Algernon’s chagrin and Mrs. Edwards’ visible relief as she runs to the bathroom.
- Another of my favorite ephemeral moments occurs when Barrow daydreams his way through a Knick board meeting. You can tell he’d rather be anywhere else, and when Soderbergh finally cuts away to the beleaguered administrator in the arms of his prostitute mistress it seems, for a few moments, like a fantasy. “It’s nice in here,” Barrow says, earning a rare instant of total sympathy, until he unloads about some of his pathetic financial dealings — sure to come to a head in subsequent episodes.
- In the meantime, Barrow seems to have earned a temporary respite with Bunky Collier. This is thanks not only to the successful operation performed on the gangster’s henchman (Collier’s brother-in-law, as it turns out) by Thack and Edwards, but because of a proposition Barrow makes to his blackmailer with beat cop Phinny Sears (Collin Meath). Sears has been lurking around in prior episodes and he comes to Barrow with an idea that Collier can act as pimp to the streetwalkers he arrests on a nightly basis. Sears will get a finder’s fee and Barrow will get several dollars shaved off his debt for every girl arrested/recruited. They seal the deal by bringing along two whores to their meeting with Collier, who is enthused by this influx of product and now seems to regard Barrow with some meager level of respect. Somehow I doubt their détente is going to last.
- Lastly, a little more movement on the typhoid epidemic B-plot. Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) and health inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro) determine that patient zero is most likely a servant who has been jumping around from job to job. An immaterial antagonist is finally starting to take form.