It’s hard to tell whether our beloved Dr. Gallinger is uncomfortable or insecure in the company of eugenicists. Is he politely opposed to the process of breeding the best with the best to get the best, or is he suddenly painfully aware that he doesn’t have nearly the education his old Penn chums do on the matter. As much as his 2015 writers might want us to hope for the former, I suspect it’s the latter. Not as a matter of philosophy. Gallinger’s racism is opportunistic. Which brings us to his state of insecurity in general, which brings us to his state of insecurity in this specific circumstance. He doesn’t have all the facts on eugenics, but he knows his stock is falling in both high society and the Knick. There’s nothing he can do to take back Eleanor’s asylum stay, but he can certainly try to get back to the way things were before Dr. Algernon Edwards leapfrogged him in Dr. Thackery’s eyes.
At any rate, I think we can all agree with professor Drexler. Eugenics is the future! At least, as of 1901, eugenics has many of its biggest accomplishments ahead, such as state-sponsored sterilization programs and the Holocaust. It’s hard to hear eugenics talk as party chatter and not have an outsize reaction. It’s an over-the-top signal of the worthlessness of these men and their ideas. And these are the people running the world. These are the best of the best.
“The Best With The Best To Get The Best” gets at the heart of The Knick, or maybe its skeleton, with a panorama across a rotten establishment: educators teaching eugenics, a judge taking the law into his own hands, a preacher putting on a show, socialites pretending they’re role models, and life and death decided by Tammany Hall. This isn’t just the usual, say, racist bullying at work and brutal mistreatment of the poor. This is a look at all kinds of people in power, building on the season’s discussion of wealth as a symptom of character. The rich and powerful are rich and powerful because they are the best—morally, intellectually, pigment-ly—people. So here’s a good look at them running the world in everyone else’s supposed best interests.
First of all there’s a strong sense among them—and only them—that immigrants are ruining this country. In their discussion of the waves of lesser people sullying our shores, Drexler and his colleague recall The Shield season four, when the melting pot boiled over on the cop thriller, or more recently AMC’s Humans, although there’s no comparing an underground non-sentient android demolition derby with the oligarchy-mandated extermination of certain genetic lines from the human species. There’s also a strong whiff of Mr. Robot’s boring parties for the wealthy interests who are secretly running the world. That’s why Drexler isn’t just an object of ridicule. He has too much power. Witness someone with similar ideas wielding that power in Harriet’s judge: “You have shown the true, murderous nature of your people,” the Catholics. “I will use this courtroom and the strength of my god to sound a warning against the people now flooding our shores and let real Americans know exactly what you are.”
When society girl Cornelia Robertson Showalter stands up for Harry, paying her lawyer and standing behind her in court, the young Mr. Showalter throws a tantrum. He forbids Neely from seeing Harry again and refuses to pay her fees. He then pulls away to the edge of the bed, showing his naked back to the screen before turning to look over his shoulder in an image that makes him look beastly. Probably because of his angry eyebrows. Bad genes.
Mt. Sinai gives us more successful ways for immigrants to fight back and allies to stand up for them. Bertie’s the only Presbyterian doctor at a Jewish institution, choosing to mix somewhat like Algie choosing to work at the Knick. There he meets Genevieve Everidge, the reporter who wrote that article he drooled over exposing the inhuman operations of an asylum. Only it turns out Ms. Everidge is a pen name. As a person she’s Jewish. But, she says, “When you read Genevieve Everidge, she’s anything you want her to be.” She has mobility as a WASP. The Everidge name also gives her cover to write a positive story about a Jewish doctor, Dr. Zinberg, without being accused of “bias.” The problem is Bertie’s just one person, and the Zinberg story is just one story. Lower class Lucy can only reject so many upper class Henrys Robertson. The enemy is talking about exterminating whole populations over cigars.
As for the deterministic moral character of the upper class, check out another running theme of the episode. The Horner girl overdoses, and Thack wants to autopsy her for his research, but the Horners don’t know how to reconcile that with the cover story that she’s studying in Virginia. Poor Eleanor Gallinger is so deeply ashamed she’s nervous about her looks, her color, her weight, her teeth, and most of all what she’d even tell people when they ask what she’s been doing. So Gallinger goes stag and says she’s visiting relatives on Long Island. Thack gets high and stumbles to his old flame Abby’s house, where he insists he’s both sober and cured. Herman Barrow, that unfortunate middle-manager trapped in the middle class (and the middle of the line for Junia), has a story for both the architect and Bunky Collier’s vengeful associate Jimmy, now Mr. James Fester of Tammany Hall. And the episode ends with the stunning return of Mrs. Algernon Edwards, Opal (Zaraah Abrahams). Algie’s parents pretend they’ve heard of her before, and Opal pretends she’s here because she loves her husband and not because she’s running a scam. Not that it’s a surprise, but the episode is thorough: These paragons of virtue are facades.
Preacher Elkins isn’t wealthy, but he is powerful. Lucy’s neither, and their showdown is the hardest part to watch, give or take a cut to a close-up of an open human body. See, he’s encouraging confession to free the soul in public. The camera’s trained on Lucy once again, and at last it makes sense. The church scenes are egging her on to confess, and the tension is in how her father will react. Well, it was heartening for a moment, anyway. He’s not taken aback to see her stand up and volunteer. “I have a heavy heart. The heart of a sinner,” she says. He tells her loudly for the audience that the only cure is confession, but then he sweetly whispers, “Go on, Cricket.” We don’t get to see how he reacts in the moment. It would have been a lie anyway. The mask comes off that night at home. Lucy tells him how much better she feels after asking God for forgiveness and unburdening her soul. Father Elkins has some stricter ideas of salvation than Preacher Elkins. “You think God is just gonna forgive a stupid girl like you?” That’s the most paternal moment in the scene, which goes on to include a corruption of that sweet Cricket moment, several slaps strong enough to knock Lucy to the ground, and eventually the old man smacking his belt across his daughter’s bare behind. That’s power. It reaches out its hand to lift you up, and then it throws you to the ground. And it says it’s for your own good.
- “The Best With The Best To Get The Best” is written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh.
- Neely is dying to get it back on with Algie. It’s almost too much that they’re simply holding hands, and then all of a sudden they’re kissing, the camera nervous with excitement as it swoops in on them. Then Algie pulls away, and when we cut back to Neely, in close-up against a woozy gold-tinted background, she’s totally punch-drunk. Reminds me of the look Don Draper gives after Megan flashes him in his office.
- Mr. Wingo (Andrew Rannells) summing up the episode, followed by Barrow summing up his lot in life: “I have to be hard on these men. They have to know who’s boss.” “Of course. I have always said a little bit of fear can be a very good thing.”
- “It’s not your fault that you ended up here,” Barrow tells his favorite prostitute, Junia (Rachel Korine). See? Barrow just doesn’t have it in him to be wealthy.