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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Guess who’s coming to dinner on The Knick

Illustration for article titled Guess who’s coming to dinner on The Knick
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That’s how you open an episode. You wave a disembodied eye in our face. Not an eyeball, mind. This is the facade of a single human eye, lids and all, somewhat resembling the Freemason Eye Of Providence, subtly suggesting an organized secret power. The uncanny likeness is lidded in stiff rubber at the end of a hypnotist’s wand, a festive string of lights in the background heightening the sense that something special is happening. The scene is punctuated by Thack’s reactions from the audience: amusement, expectation, delight. It’s aliiive! Last week Edwards sat in an audience just like this in order to play a generic statue, but “There Are Rules” gets specific and weird in both content and form. The episode is full of horror cues, not to frighten us but to excite us, to alert us that something might be up. Dr. John Hodgman surprises us with his ghoulish presence and later his un(der)explained absence. Strange bird. The color green doesn’t often stand out on The Knick, the cold usually flattening it to gray or blue, but tonight, ladies and gentlemen, the magical X-ray machine glows a bright green as it buzzes with electric charge like a mad scientist’s experiment. And just as the first sequence of the X-ray device working its magic on Mrs. Chickering’s throat loosely resembles The Bride Of Frankenstein, her hair nice and high and the equipment looking no less advanced than a Universal prop, the conjoined twins and their violent rescue gives off a whiff of Freaks. The signs aren’t scary, but they unmistakably point to a tragic outcome.

The reckless scientific ambition of Frankenstein leads Bertie to try an untested procedure on his mother. He’s going to try to use mercury and zinc to zap a tumor away. It makes remarkably less sense to this lay man than any of Thack’s wild ideas, including the one about size determining blood type, but there’s probably a reason Bertie can’t explain it to us as simply as Thack could. Just go with it. “I don’t have the luxury of two years of study,” he tells Algie, “so I was hoping you would help me. You have experience working in secret.” Bertie steals the scene, by which I mean he takes the camera off Algie and paces back and forth while flying through his thought process. Actually the scene starts with Algie putting on glasses, but when Bertie asks about his vision, it’s clear from Algie’s curt response and clipped delivery that he doesn’t want to talk about it, and Bertie doesn’t have any time to waste, so he physically transports the scene as he launches into a new topic. But now to ask his friend for help, he sits back down next to Algie, who once operated a secret laboratory where he could actually work and where he could help people who couldn’t be helped because of the rules.

Bertie’s adamant that he can’t wait, and when he rejoins The Knick, he talks about being too fast—ambitious, impatient, adventurous—for the slow and steady scientific method at Dr. Zinberg’s hospital. Hey, Zinberg brought this on himself when he assigned Bertie to study adrenaline. But there’s a big difference between Bertie’s operation and Thack’s placenta previa trials (and I do mean trials) and Algie’s illicit hernia repairs. The doctors are all in it for ego to some extent, but on a show known for surgical carnage, Mrs. Chickering’s operation is remarkably gentle. The light is golden, the talk is hushed, the score is a faint pendulum in the distant background. Algie’s glasses soften him, too. His very participation in the surgery adds some bonhomie and philanthropy to the scene, these two old allies uniting for a good cause. When Dr. Zinberg busts in, he and Dr. Chickering Sr. bicker in the background in the hole between Bertie and Algie’s heads as they tune out the nonsense and focus on the matter at hand. Whereas Thack’s placenta previa surgeries emphasize the risk and roughness of the frontier and Edwards’ hernia repair emphasizes the stealth and danger of his position, this surgery is marked by gentility, thanks both to Bertie’s sweet nature and the fact that the operation is for his family. It’s a scene not about how fragile the human body is or how much Bertie is risking with this subterfuge, although both are present, but rather the fact that Bertie is trying to save his mother and that he’s being as careful as possible with this unperfected procedure.

The surgeries on The Knick are dances, battle scenes, often the heart of the show, and Bertie’s operation lives up to the tradition. As a lay man, I’m as curious to know what will happen as these doctors. The close-up of the surgery crops out poor Mrs Chickering’s face, her expressions and personality. It’s not trying to gross us out or even remind us that this is a person. Instead it’s letting us see her as an anonymous flesh tube with a mass inside that needs to be removed. First Bertie injects it with the mercury-zinc, a few silver droplets escaping. Then he attacks it with electricity, the camera pulling back to the head of the table to reveal a crude looking battery. Suddenly the surgery doesn’t seem so serene. As Bertie prods the tumor nothing seems to be happening. What’s the goal here, again? Dr. Edwards reminds us: “It should shrink and soften.” But it isn’t. And then some staff member catches them. The senior Dr. Chickering evicts him, the camera flying toward the door to give him the hero shot as he wheels around and says, “You’re against the clock now.” Cut to the scalpel Bertie reaches for. Now it’s physical. We’ve regressed from the advancements of electricity to trumped up arrowhead knives. Credit to Dr. Zinberg: As soon as he gets a glance at what’s going on, he drops the scold and jumps in to help. But it’s no use and everyone sees it well before we do. We’re with Bertie’s father as Bertie’s mother dies. So we don’t know it’s over yet. We don’t know that Bertie’s fighting in vain, refusing to let go as TV doctors do. The camera follows Dr. Chickering Sr. as he calmly walks over to Bertie and tells him it’s over, and that’s when we see she’s dead.

That’s what brings Bertie The Departed back into the fold of the Knick. Zinberg makes him resign. Bertie’s too fast a doctor, what with his extraordinarily low-key surgery. Imagine how chill Zinberg’s operations must be. Thack doesn’t just welcome Bertie back. He stresses that he’s changed, and not in a protesting too much kind of way either. He all but apologizes for his behavior. Then he goes and hires Cleary to beat a man with a crow-bar, but that’s none of Bertie’s concern. There’s a lot of tenuous reconciliation this week. Dr. John Hodgman comes to dinner at the Gallingers’, and Cleary and Harry are finally moving in together. No word on a sitcom spinoff, but I expect to hear about it before the season is up. As predicted, Lucy takes her sexual power into her own hands with Henry, but far more interesting is her ambiguous chat with Bertie. Is she into him? Is he into her?

Speaking of sexual power, Lucy’s got nothing on Junia. Barrow has just bought her this apartment, and he asks what she thinks. In one breath she says, “It’s beautiful,” and in the next she says, “Would have been nice to be able to see the park.” She walks through the place not visibly impressed. “I understand, Hermy. You’re doing the best you can, I suppose.” I suppose! Girl got game. At last she pulls Herman into the baby-making room, a place with baby blue walls and a ladder symbolizing construction, the two of them bold, dark figures against the window. She arouses him simply with her imagination to the point that he owes her yet more money. The episode cuts to the front view to milk their facial expressions for all the comedy they’re worth, and suddenly Wu appears in the background. He doesn’t move and he isn’t noticed for a few moments, long enough to worry something bad might happen, but he’s just keeping an eye on the merchandise. In between thrusts, Herman grabs his wallet, pulls out some money, and throws it back in Wu’s direction. “I want her for another hour.”


Back to the subject at hand, the episode ends on the strongest note of tenuous reconciliation. Thack’s standing on the right, just a pair of legs that’s slowly receding from the frame as the camera pushes in on Abby, seated on her couch and explaining exactly why she wants Thack out of her house. The camera anonymizes him just as it does the patient in Bertie’s surgery. This is Abby’s scene. She accuses him of cheating and herself of willful ignorance. But he hasn’t been cheating, at least not to our knowledge, anyway. In fact he’s been dreaming of Abby, so enraptured is he. What he was actually doing that night, though, was liberating some conjoined twins from a circus act so he can liberate them from each other. Science is a means of salvation for Thack. But they’ll wait until next week. More pressing is Abby, who’s convinced the man who cured her of syphilis is having an affair. Suddenly he enters the frame by squatting in front of her and gently grabs her head. They both lean in for the kiss, during which she feels his arms and holds on tight. At last they let go and sit there looking at each other. What now? Who knows? The episode ends in flux. Thack’s waiting to see if his procedure took.

Stray observations

  • “There Are Rules” is written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh.
  • The conjoined twins’ ringmaster, Lester Brockhurst, consents to let Thack study them for a price. “We’ll need transportation, and a meal afterwards, at a reputable place.” He adds that last part like he’s been taken advantage of before.
  • Lucy charges into Henry’s office, unbuttons his pants, and goes to town. He just gasps and moans, flabbergasted. She mocks him. “Usually you have so many clever things to say.”
  • DW Garrison Carr needs a hernia repair, so his doctor brings him to Algie to check out the Knick’s facilities. We hear Algie say, “I was thinking,” as we’re still watching him in the previous scene, thinking. It’s as if we’re watching him get the nerve to say what he’s about to say, and then we jump ahead to the result, where he asks to perform the surgery, only they happen simultaneously. As the other doctor acquiesces, the camera swings from one side of the doctor’s head to the other, Algie’s face emerging from the eclipse as wind chimes play.
  • Dr. John Hodgman brings with him the inspiring tale of the paranoid hypochondriac he cured by removing his teeth, tonsils, gall bladder, spleen, colon, and testicles. Cured! We watch him regale the Gallingers from behind the back of his head as they surround a dinner table. It’s like a campfire tale, and we’re watching the audience’s reactions. The only times we stray from this master shot are to follow Gallinger to the bar for a drink, highlighting his refusal to engage with Hodgman.
  • It’s dark brown and deep red in the room as Bertie hangs his head and resigns. Zinberg chews him out and then lays a hand on his shoulder and says supportively, “Now go be with your family.”
  • There’s a surprising moment when Bertie sits with his dad after the surgery. Dr. Chickering Sr. says, “You had the courage to try. I couldn’t even look.” It’s true. I just assumed, as a doctor, he knew his place in this surgery. I assumed he was looking out the window to set the mood, to bring the worry of the waiting room into the scene itself. But on top of that, this was a failure of nerve. He was actually afraid to watch. Bertie looks up at his dad and we cut away, searing the afterimage into our heads. For the first time Bertie is seeing his father as a mere mortal.
  • Brockhurst introduces Thack to the conjoined twins, Nika, and Zoya respectively. “She’s the dumb one.” Thack doesn’t know what to say, so he says, “Excellent.”