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Is this it for The Knick?

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It’s not right to say the horror story is over in the season two finale of The Knick, only that it’s relinquished its grip on us. “This Is All We Are” is a dark episode, especially for a finale, and very especially if this turns out to be the series finale now that the show has dropped in the ratings, lost the shock of the new, and says goodbye to its movie star lead. “This is all we are” is almost a mission statement for The Knick, or so it has seemed. Those are Dr. John Thackery’s last words, uttered in a stupor after attempting to perform surgery on himself without anesthesia and accidentally nicking his aorta. Here at the end he says in words what The Knick has been showing in some of the most powerfully choreographed images on television from the get-go: We’re just physical bodies, a mechanical arrangement of organs around a skeleton structure. That’s all this is.

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Physically, fittingly, the episode is dark too. It opens in the night, sirens wailing under the opening bumper, as Cleary races to rescue Thack, the camera crawling along the floor of the dingy room where we first met him in Wu’s brothel. During another high point, Cornelia climbs the stairs half bathed in shadow and passes an unlit lamp on her way to confront her brother. The lingering final images are of Algie’s bruised and bloody face in a dim, almost deserted ward. Emptiness is another motif. Shots of an apparently empty church and an apparently empty operating theater play during emotional high points. The combined feeling is resignation, not just in the strivers like Algie and Cornelia but in the episode itself, like it’s trudging to conclusions it has no ability to circumvent.

Here at the end of the horror story, the villains win. The scene on the Robertson staircase is a Gothic thriller. It may have never happened if Cornelia were smart enough not to threaten a powerful murderer-arsonist-bubonic-plague-spreader when she’s alone with him, but we humans do like to repeat our patterns. She can’t help herself. It was such a rush the first time. The really cartoonish thing is Henry’s mustache-twirling confession. The whole plot is probably far-fetched, but it certainly brings the show’s themes to a fine point. He marches her back to the head of the stairs, telling her how he controls the family’s finances and thus the family, and then his act of mercy is to put his filthy wharf rat paws on her neck, violating her personal space to intimidate her. It’s exactly what good ole Hobart Showalter is doing when he puts his hand on her shoulder. Cornelia tearfully agrees to keep quiet, but the scene isn’t over. In a simple, beautiful payoff to their last conversation, Lucy passes Cornelia on her way up the stairway to high society. She comes off like some kind of evil interloper in this scene, blithely joining her wicked future husband just after he threatened his own sister, which is a little overstated if you ask me, but then Lucy is a murderer now. She’s earned her ticket to the monstrous class.

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That’s not just a joke, either. The crimes of the upper class this season most notably include spreading bubonic plague, sterilizing whoever the state classifies as mentally ill, and plain old murder. Meanwhile this season in general and this episode in particular emphasize the value of human life with the failed operations on Mrs. Chickering, Dr. Carr, and Abby and their traumatic aftershocks. That’s probably our first clue that this isn’t all we are. Yank on that thread a little and survival of the fittest, or survival of the wealthiest, or survival of whomever Dr. Gallinger decides, unravels pretty quickly in a civilized society.

The real gut-punch is Cleary’s non-confession confession. After Harry rejects his marriage proposal, he decides to go to church to see if he needs to confess before she says yes. Not that he’s seeking spiritual or moral absolution. He’s seeking a magical solution to his problems. He sees the sacrament of confession like a superstition. In fact, he isn’t even trying to confess. He wants the priest to say a prayer to get God to make Harry say yes. He’s seeking love potion number nine. Along the way, however, he tells the man he orchestrated Harry’s arrest, because he knew she wouldn’t let herself love him while she was in the church. The priest is thunderstruck. “You manipulated a nun’s excommunication?” Well, when you put it like that. Even the way Cleary describes it sounds awful. He deprived her of everything and everyone except for himself. All season long Cleary being the only one for Harry hasn’t just felt accidental but noble. All that good will suddenly turns to shit. The thing is, Cleary’s magic works. He confesses, and when he gets home, Harry’s wearing the ring. They giggle in delight at each other’s company, but all the tremendous pleasures of this relationship are gone for the audience. She’s voluntarily throwing in with the man who most seriously betrayed her, and she has no idea. It’s like there’s a bomb under the table but only the audience knows.

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The dastardly Dr. Gallinger continues practicing his evil unopposed. In fact, with the new Knick being abandoned and the old Knick being taken over by the city, he’s in a perfect position to take eugenics on tour. First stop? Germany. It’s this season’s version of a bottle marked with fanciful lettering spelling out “Heroin.” Oh and he gets to take a companion with him. So long, Eleanor. There’s a new Mrs. Gallinger in town.

Finally there’s Barrow, whose new friends at the Hellfire Club are really something. Not only do they get him off arson charges, they get the officer who’s been hounding him to personally apologize, hat in hand, in front of the others at the club. Now, it turns out Barrow really didn’t set the fire, but that hardly excuses the rest of his crimes.

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On the other side of the ledger are the do-gooders, the ones who seek to heal the sick, increase knowledge, fight for criminal justice, stand up for equality, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity. Harry, as mentioned, is unwittingly taking up with her enemy. Neely is frightened into keeping her trap shut and ultimately fleeing all the controlling men in her life to Australia with pocket change (which for her is quite a bit, but still). Algie’s eye is now too far-gone for him to continue practicing surgery. What finally did it is that sucker punch from Gallinger, which came after Gallinger lured him into a feud by sabotaging his surgery, which happened entirely because Gallinger was unhappy working under a black man. Racism, plain and simple, is the final nail in the coffin of Dr. Algernon Edwards’ livelihood. “This Is All We Are” is a battle between the selfish and the selfless, the selfish win every time.

In one of the highlights of the episode, Algie and his father Jesse talk about Algie’s eye. Jesse doesn’t understand why his son is so angry all the time. Look at him. He was acting chief of surgery at a mixed hospital in 1901! Algie says he’s angry because Jesse is the smartest man he knows, yet he’s been consigned to being some rich white guy’s coachman. “I’m angry that they made you turn your eyes to the ground. And that they made you too scared to look up.” Algie’s left eye is in focus, a ring of blood surrounding his iris. Jesse musters all his gravitas to say, “Boy, you have no idea what I’ve seen.” Sight is a major subject, what people (and gods) witness, what clouds their vision, how they see the world. Nobody’s sure how damaged Thackery’s bowel is, because they’ve only seen a portion. Thackery wants to make a spectacle so an audience actually watches his performance and hopefully transmits what they saw. Thackery’s death comes in three stages of sight. First he stares off into the middle distance, then his vision blurs on the chandelier, and finally he starts seeing things.

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More than any of the other characters, Dr. John Thackery straddles the line between the selfish and the selfless. No wonder he had to do battle with himself. He’s genuinely motivated by the philanthropic possibilities of scientific achievement, but pride clouds his judgment. So does cocaine. So does love. Even in death, Abby continues to pull him through the season. His crusade against ether is a direct result of her death. When he announces that he won’t be using anesthesia to operate on his own bowel, Bertie shouts, “It’s overwhelmingly safe!” Thack says, “That’s what I told Abby.”

He bursts onto the stage like a ringmaster, giving everyone a good story about the patient, himself. “…And that that same man can perform the operation,” he says, jerkily dropping his backless white gown and stamping for emphasis, “himself!” He all but “ta-da!”s and the show hasn’t even begun. Well, I suppose some viewers are probably enjoying the show so far, but you know what I mean. It goes okay at first, but eventually he nicks his aorta, his hands stop moving, and he says, “This is it.” Then the title line. “This is all we are.” Its’s the last thing he says before his head rolls back and he loses consciousness looking up at the lights.

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Like I said, it almost makes a fitting mission statement for The Knick. Maybe for season one, anyway. But “This Is All We Are” doesn’t stop there. Edwards decides to spend his inheritance keeping Thack’s addict ward open. In the final scene Algie takes Abby’s chair in the ward and begins to interview her patient. “I can’t sleep. I’m having bad dreams,” says the patient. “Really?” asks Algie. He looks down and slowly looks back up, his face still battered and bruised. “Tell me about them.” He’s here because he says he owes it to Dr. Thackery, who has been his occasional champion and collaborator. In a way this is Thackery’s legacy. But it’s also a rebuke to his “This is all we are” philosophy, his mechanic’s approach to surgery, his penchant for the physical, all of which have been complemented by the external, data-collecting, system-charting filmmaking. This flesh sack isn’t all we are. We’re also minds and personalities and emotions. The patient refuses the physical solution of medication, and instead he and Algie embark on a psychological course.

Perhaps that’s why the horror of season one is so rooted in physical violence—slicing and poking and gore—and the horror of season two is so psychological—Algie’s aborted eye operation, Cornelia’s confrontations with accused murderers, the sickening knowledge of Cleary’s confession, Lucy tormenting her father, and of course Eleanor Gallinger’s, “I’m not well at all.” The Knick has gone from splatter to thriller.

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That’s also what accounts for the spread of evil in “This Is All We Are.” Persuasion and manipulation and intimidation are the avenues through which evil asserts its will. Barrow’s cop is intimidated into that apology. In fact, all it takes is Barrow telling the right man the right name and it’s taken care of for him, as if Barrow now has access to some super hypnosis mind control, except instead of an uncanny eye wand he just uses the intangible power of connections. And Gallinger will be able to cover much more territory by preaching eugenics than practicing it. Give a man a patient sterilized against his will, he’ll have a single sterilized patient. But teach a man to sterilize patients against their wills…

The use of magic, with its intangible powers of change, is somewhat related. As Dr. Thackery delineates earlier in the season, there’s a difference between testable science and bullshit magic. But stage magic is just showmanship. And Thack, like his director Steven Soderbergh, is a great entertainer. After Thack passes out and the others take over, Bertie runs off to try his adrenaline experiment on Thack. Of course! That’s Bertie’s contribution to the narrative! The one character who doesn’t clearly fit into the puzzle! He slams a needle into Thack’s chest and we cut to later in the day, the operating theater empty, narrative tidiness be damned. Science isn’t magic, but filmmaking is. Now you see him, now you don’t.

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Stray observations

  • “This Is All We Are” is written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Here’s some of Soderbergh’s data on the season.
  • To the end Barrow is hilarious, in both calculation (“I feel I owe it to your father to provide my wise counsel”) and exasperation (“…in the sanctity of the bathroom at his own club!”). He tells Tuggle, “If you have any further questions, you can refer them to my attorney.” “You have one?” “I WILL SOON!”
  • No word on season three yet. The ratings have fallen, and the buzz seems to have tapered off (although I expect that has something to do with year-end lists being due before the second half of the season was available in addition to the general onslaught of peak TV), so in the words of Ron Howard, tell your friends about this show.
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