Halfway through The Knick’s handsome second season, I’m wondering if this is going anywhere. Where’s the drama? Thack’s addiction, work rivalry, romantic tension, Harriet’s plight, Cornelia’s investigation, even the threat of Algie being one of three doctors operating on the 124 victims of a subway excavation accident at the Knick fizzles out after a single worrisome moment. The biggest thing that happens in “Whiplash” is Barrow paying off his debt, and even that goes pretty much exactly how you’d expect (Barrow pays, Wu counts, there’s some ominous Orientalism). Where’s the surprise? Where’s the conflict? Where are the sparks? At this point in the first season, on top of the shock of the new, The Knick had delivered that impressionistic Algie fight scene. Season two has its showcase moments, like Algie’s aborted eye surgery and Elkins’ first sermon, but it’s tough to show off visually when there’s so little on the page.
Part of the problem is The Knick is so external and physical. The characters ought to have some interesting struggles. Thack’s still taking drugs, but he’s passing his needle-mark tests by snorting instead. How has that affected his life? So far it’s just given him shaky hands in the eye surgery scene. No wonder that scene leaps to mind as a standout. It’s one of the few scenes that’s complicated by characterization to that degree. Then there’s Algie, a man who has proven he can run that hospital but isn’t allowed to, a doctor still in danger of losing his vision, and a husband who suddenly has a wife blackmailing him into staying married. Almost none of which comes into play in “Whiplash.”
More often Algie is the black doctor. He’s smart enough to suppress his rage in polite society, after the Zinberg model of social hatred making one cautious. There are layers to his being the black doctor. But here’s an episode that tests his surgical skills, that puts him in public with the wife he seems to feel he deserves as punishment, and that once again finds him arguing openly with the resident racist of the Knick, and none of it reveals or challenges who Algie is as a person. He later attends a symposium by one DW Garrison Carr (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who cursory research suggests is fictional, about black life in America. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” How does Algie feel about that? Is he awakening, has he thought all this already, does he think Carr simplifies? Well, give or take an ambiguous shot of his reaction to the lecture, that’s apparently not important. The important thing in the scene is the lecture itself. The important thing here is that Algie is a black man in America, not that he’s Algernon Edwards.
Too often that’s what The Knick is like. It’s a chronicle of our characters trying out all these historical trends, usually as unconflicted willing participants: Henry getting into movies, Cleary getting an electric car, Lucy getting into cocaine. Remember in season one when Thack took an axe to the electric lights? The closest we get nowadays is a told-you-so from Captain Robertson when the subway collapses. If everyone’s so weak a character that they just go along with whatever historical trends arrive, the least someone could do is go whole hog. It takes Gallinger three episodes of flirting with eugenics to start donating his services to the sterilization of young Jewish boys at the “idiot house.”
Consider Bertie’s experimental procedure to cure his mother’s cancer with radium. He has to invite Algie to a bar to learn about it, he has to break into an office to steal the paper, and he has to get Algie to translate it from French. Those are what you might call obstacles, but they don’t really feel like obstacles on-screen. He isn’t worried about getting caught. He doesn’t have trouble getting in touch with Algie. There’s not even any awkwardness there. When he asks his dad about trying the “untested” procedure on his mom, the senior Dr. Chickering interrupts him: “Do it.” The Knick has always been procedural, but this is just connecting dots. And what do we learn about the Chickerings in the process? Just that they’re willing to try anything at this point to save the dying matriarch, which is about as generic as humanity gets.
I don’t mean to lay all this at the feet of “Whiplash.” The first episode of the season credited to Steven Katz just happens to be our halfway point, and looking back, the season is a few exciting scenes and a whole lot of waiting for things to detonate in the future. Maybe it will all cohere by the end. Maybe the broad focus on class and gender will lead somewhere specific. But so far the season reminds me of the new Knick. No matter how well made it is, you can’t get past how bloated it is on paper.
- “Whiplash” is written by Steven Katz and directed by Steven Soderbergh.
- All that said, the episode counterbalances with a number of terrific moments and scenes, especially Thack’s frontier surgery of the week. At the opening he tries to probe an addict’s brain for the part that’s stimulated by the sight of drugs. It isn’t just the idea and apparent success that excites. It’s the imagery of a patient wearing a hood of skin and forceps as Thack inserts a charged needle into parts of his brain, causing the man’s muscles to jerk on cue. Then the showmanship gets really wild: Thack makes the man laugh and cry just by poking parts of his brain. Eventually he finds it, the part of the brain that buzzes with electricity when the eyes spot morphine. “Gentlemen, it seems that X marks the spot.” After hammering out a surgical plan, Thack carefully excises that section of the patient’s brain. After surgery the man is locked in. He neither hears nor sees his doctor. And that’s that.
- Second best part of the episode: Henry’s porn. He shows Philip and another friend the footage of his girl stripping. The friend asks, “What I don’t understand is why you didn’t jump in there yourself.” “Well, somebody had to crank the camera.” The friend volunteers to be on-screen talent next time. Later Henry flips through erotic still photos at his desk, chuckling. Dude’s gonna be a movie mogul! Best reason I can think of to let The Knick run for several more seasons.
- Another good scene: Barrow says good night to his children, Leonard and Ethyl, and then humiliates his wife when she wants to get frisky for the first time in forever. He chooses business instead, by which I take it he saw Junia that day. When he leaves, she covers herself and cries alone in the room. Now that’s a scene we hadn’t seen before on this show.
- Harry gets one scene. I dare you to find anything surprising in it. So she’s hard at work scrubbing the floor of the group home with two other women, one of whom is having menstrual cramps. So Harry tells her how to heal it. The vicious old nun supervising them mocks Harry, deems the cramps a judgment from God, and basically points and laughs at Harry in the middle of the house while making sure everyone knows exactly why she’s there.
- One of Wu’s girls instructs Lucy on power in the bedroom. “When he’s in my hand, I control him. That’s when I can get anything I want.” Guess who’s gonna try that trick on the president of the hospital board.
- Edwards: “Well I suppose this is progress. In the antebellum South, they would cite the Bible as justification for Negro inferiority…Now instead you justify your racism using some asinine pseudoscience.”
- Thack interrupts Gallinger and Edwards while trying his experimental procedure. “For God’s sake, gentlemen, even his brain is getting bored of this horseshit.”