Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Everybody’s just a body on The Knick

Illustration for article titled Everybody’s just a body on The Knick
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A detached retina, a bowl of teeth, a nose peeled back—the human body has been beaten down by 1901 on The Knick. Thack’s lower than ever, bouncing around the common room at his hospital when he doesn’t have enough stolen or bartered cocaine or heroin flooding his system. Fighting has Algie in danger of losing his vision in the literal sense just as he’s realizing his vision in the figurative sense. Cornelia’s finding her own life in San Francisco. She sells those Showalter family earrings she got last season in order to fund a food drop in Chinatown, which has been quarantined on account of bubonic plague, and the ensuing frenzy has her almost as shaken as when she finds her father-in-law waiting for her at home. Sister Harriet’s sequestered in jail, awaiting trial for administering an abortion that, conveniently but characteristically, Cleary was too drunk and indisposed to protect her from. When the Mother Superior all but asks Harry about the accusations, she responds, “The women just needed help. And I helped them.” The once and future staff of the Knick want to help those in need, but they’re just bodies themselves. They can be chemically manipulated, physically disintegrated, socially isolated. They can be beaten.

The men and women of the Knick are also cogs in a money machine, subject to class ceilings and bigger bank accounts and worse. Good old Hobart Showalter, purely out of generosity, arrives at San Francisco to throw his money around and wrap up that little sojourn. When Cornelia sees him, she stands up, walks backward, wraps herself around a bedpost, and hugs her folded overcoat, thanking god that she has something to put in between herself and him. In Steven Soderbergh’s view, Hobart is once again a behemoth black mass crowding in on her. Hobart wants to move Philip and Neely back home, where he graciously offers to put them up in two of his new apartments below Central Park. It isn’t until Neely gets there that she discovers the apartments are behind schedule, and she’ll be living with Hobart for four or five months. “It’ll be fun,” says Philip, but all Neely can think about is having to shut her eyes at night in close proximity to that pig. How vulnerable she is.

The connection becomes clearer when we find out how Cleary can afford a new car and a defense fund for Harry. He’s upgraded from rat-stomping to human fights, which is making him good money for now. As Wu says, “My customers trust me to provide a healthy product.” People are his product. Wu wants Barrow to arrange weekly check-ups for his girls. “Respectfully, Mr. Ping, a hospital, like this establishment [the brothel], is a business.” And don’t you forget it. Whatever good intentions are behind this enterprise—helping people, pioneering treatments, advancing knowledge—the Knickerbocker hospital is, as Barrow reminds the mayor, a privately-funded political object.

It’s also somewhat controlled (via its manager) by a Chinese pimp and drug dealer, so Barrow’s ahead on his payments. “Just some judicious scrimping and saving,” he says, but really he’s making all kinds of investments: renting the use of Cleary’s new electric ambulance, hiring new surgeon Dr. William Mays, and negotiating a debt reduction of two dollars per check-up on each of Wu’s girls. He’s keeping afloat for now, because he knows how easily debt can translate to a physical tax, like, say, a tooth that didn’t need pulling. He knows he’s just a body.

It’s absurd listening to Lucy’s letter to Thack. “Life just goes on. But not for me. Not without you. The days are so long.” Oh, are they? Thack can’t go five minutes without thinking about his next dose. That’s not poetic license, either. It’s empirical data. But sure, Lucy’s humdrum life at the Knick, emphasized by a floating camera and stoic actor, definitely compares. Thack’s off-screen a long while, but eventually he wakes up bound inside a boat. Gallinger has kidnapped him and tied him up to make him go cold turkey. Gallinger might be in this out of friendship and loyalty, but the only explicit reason he offers in “Ten Knots” is personal advantage: He wants Thack back at the Knick so that he won’t have to work for Edwards. I guess he doesn’t remember how things went last season among that trio. Anyway, Gallinger tells Thack he’ll take him home as soon as he masters ten sailing knots. Thack screams bloody murder, but Clive Owen (his body) betrays him. One moment he’s threatening to kill Gallinger, the next he’s crying into his bed, the next he’s looking helplessly, maybe even apologetically at his old friend. On the tenth knot, Thack starts sounding like himself again. “If I treat my desire for drugs not as a craving but as sickness, that means there must be a cure. And if there is, I’m gonna find it.” If the body can be chemically altered, surely it can be repaired.

Even Sister Harriet’s story, which you might expect to be about spiritual isolation, emphasizes the physical: guards denying her outside food, Mother Superior taking her in as an abandoned infant on the train, abortion as a matter of biology rather than spirituality. “I should have let you die,” she tells Harry, provoking all kinds of moral questions nobody asks. The kicker is when Mother Superior returns a book Harry once gave her on the day she decided to become a nun. Mother Superior says that all she loves about Harry anymore is that book, making it an effigy, and then she knocks it onto the ground and walks away.


Nobody’s body betrays them quite like Algie’s though. He’s been acting chief of surgery in Thack’s absence, and he’s done well: The doctors average 40 surgeries a week with no increase in complications and a decrease in mortality now that Thack’s no longer experimenting on human beings high on cocaine, and they’ve perfected four new procedures right there at the Knick. Yet the board members want an outside hire. You understand. They want to put a lighter face on the Knick. Henry Robertson (Cornelia’s brother, so essentially Algie’s brother) is an ally, but at first it’s hard to see what good that is. Henry tells him, “The other board members have neither the progressive mind nor the courage to make the sort of change that you and I want. The world may not be moving fast enough for us, but it’s likely moving much too fast for them.” Bully for them. Algie still deserves this job. Then at the end of their conversation, Henry says they’ll get Algie what he wants, and Algie turns and says with a stone face, “I’m gonna trust you to do that.” The way André Holland says it, it’s almost a threat. But when it’s time for the ground-breaking on the new Knickerbocker hospital, scheduled to open in 1902, Henry just happens to have one too many shovels and publicly invites Dr. Algernon Edwards, the black chief of surgery, to join him right there in the center of the photo op. There’ll be no denying Algie’s centrality to the Knick now. It’s Thack’s discovery all over again. It’s Eleanor combing through remains to find a new set of teeth. If the body can be used against you, why couldn’t you figure out how to wield it yourself?

Stray observations

  • “Ten Knots” is written by creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed, as always, by Steven Soderbergh. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece from the set about how Soderbergh shoots the show.
  • As for that title, I couldn’t help but notice the orthographic similarities between ‘Ten Knots” and The Knick.
  • The episode begins and ends with Thack seeing a vision of a woman. Any ideas?
  • Right before we see Thack peel a nose back, the camera’s trained on his face, and Clive Owen ever so slightly twitches this spot between his nose and cheek, a little higher up from an Elvis-style lip raise. He eventually reconstructs her nose by turning her earring into a metal frame, the tentpoles to her nose.
  • Eleanor’s sister Dorothy is visiting to help her out now that she’s out of Dr. John Hodgman’s “care.” I wonder how that’ll go.
  • Barrow’s new doctor isn’t just interesting for sharing a name with Willie Mays. He’s also old. So at first Bertie is intimidated by his elder. He hesitates on the surgery, doublechecking the appropriate method. But Dr. Mays isn’t a venerated surgeon. He actually has no idea what to do. Based on the evidence of “Ten Knots,” I’d say his value to the hospital is entirely in his wealthy social connections. Another money body.
  • Another subtle facial moment: When Hobart tells Neely the plan, she says in a daze, “Leave San Francisco? But Philip loves it so,” and somewhere in there she inconspicuously wipes a tear from her eye.
  • Love the cut from a red close-up of Barrow’s anticipating face to a blue shot of the sailboat. There’s a similar effect in the cut from a tremulous shot of Thack looking at the knots he’s going to have to learn in his sorry state to a much steadier, smoother shot of Algie applying eyedrops.
  • Is that Andrew Rannells as the new Knickerbocker hospital architect?
  • Cornelia surprises her brother in New York. “Guess who!” “Uh, Daisy?” “No…” “Constance?”