The “Get The Rope” of season two, “Williams And Walker” weaves every story and thematic throughline of the season together when a mob descends upon the Knick…charity ball. True to Mrs. Barrow’s hopes, this is an event, although the ball is just a portion of the episode. We also behold two momentous surgeries, the separation of the conjoined twins and DW Garrison Carr’s hernia repair. For the first time we get to see Cleary and Harry shacking up, which is a payoff 17 episodes in the making. And most of all we get to see sex disturbing these polite Victorians. Everyone’s so pent up that an accidental pre-toast glass clink is enough to send everyone into stitches. Passion is looking to escape wherever it can.
Bertie and Genevieve are the opening act. She’s lying in bed, apparently naked, and then Bertie strolls out of the bathroom with nothing but a towel around his waist and a top hat on his head. He puts his hand up on the door frame and strikes a pose. It’s a trip, but it’s kind of hard to tell if he’s being playful or just anxious. Apparently it’s both, although he clearly knows what he’s doing when he lets the towel fall and moves the hat to cover his privates with a showman’s sense of timing. It’s a delightful show, but then he climbs into bed, under the covers, never letting Genevieve so much as get a glimpse of his Charlie Browns. That’s how polite these people are. Genevieve has to say out loud that she wants Bertie to be forward when it comes to sex. Regardless, the two embark on an excruciating, endless exchange of giggles while trying to talk about sex instead of just letting their bodies take over. They’re that nervous. That’s the sense of the entire society: Cornelia looking down and away as her father-in-law pins on her brooch, Algie demurring when Opal gets too forward with Captain Robertson, Abby wanting to fix up her nose even more. These are enormous moments of danger and injustice and romance, and it’s all kept roiling beneath the polite surface. Nobody’s allowed to express themselves.
When Bertie can finally land a kiss without her cracking up, we cut to Wu and one of his prostitutes, maybe Junia. “Give it to me now,” he says and she puts a foot in his mouth. He thinks of Lucy. She’s learned a lot in a year. One of the thrills of “Williams And Walker” is watching her maneuver Henry Robertson, first at the ball and later in bed. After Cornelia tries to give her well-meaning advice in the closest The Knick has come to a Joan-Peggy scene, Lucy excuses herself, strides across the floor to Henry, and tells him she better like the drink he got her. Then she notices Thack, which must give her an idea. That night when she takes him to bed, she makes him stop his back-of-the-car thrusting. She reaches down to her bag and pulls out two vials of cocaine. “Now we can really fuck. Lie back and I’ll show you what I like.” There’s still something somewhat incoherent about Lucy as a character, but the way a transition to Thack and Abby serves to explain a later Lucy scene is some serious flow.
So is the resurfacing of the bit where Lucy tells her roommate she knows how much the dress costs because she paid for it. Later Thack corrects the cemetery worker on the cost of a headstone, letting us know he paid for it. The episode primarily relies on physical scene-to-scene flow but these moments of long-distance connection between Lucy and Thack spark.
Like “Get The Rope,” the episode races through its material, the editing controlling our experience of the story as much as the camera. There’s a relevant line in the scene when Algie stands up for Carr standing up for himself. Thack tells him he’s going to have to fight alone now, and Algie says he expected nothing less. Thack wheels around. “Is this a provocation?” “No,” Edwards tells him, “it’s the future. You think it’s here too early, and I think it’s here too late.” The smash cut to the next scene—Mrs. Barrow, I think (the camera wisely keeps its distance), complaining about how drab her ball is in the face of its obvious opulence—hammers the point home. The future is not waiting.
Many of the scenes smash into one another like this is a Nolan Batman movie, but with greater fluidity, like when Wu thinks of Lucy so we cut to Lucy or when Neely says she has a dress fitting and we instead cut to her appointment at the immigration office. In a couple of edits, the sounds beats the light to powerful effect. One is when Phillip asks if his father threatened Cornelia while we’re still in the scene where he is very much threatening her, just not in so many words. It’s like a cinematic defense mechanism, the image and sound dissociating to protect from the trauma. Later, after Gallinger successfully sabotages Edwards’ surgery, the horror motif paying off in this dastardly villainizing, there’s a montage of Algie licking his wounds where the fractured imagery finally catches up to him venting to Opal. Again, the effect is dissociative, but not because Algie’s been traumatized. In this case it’s more like he’s replaying his failure, trying to figure out how he could have gone wrong, obsessed with his game tape.
That was figurative, but Thackery actually does have a game tape. In addition to letting Genevieve report on his conjoined twin surgery, he also has Henry Robertson film it, putting the camera to better use, he says, than whatever Henry uses it for. Agree to disagree. In any case, Thack really builds up this surgery. One of the camera effects that helps hype it is Thack looking directly into it, or close enough, at us, as if we’re the patient. He’s actually looking at a chalkboard, but it feels like he’s our doctor. We’re along for the ride. There are a couple POV-ish shots, each used to different effect. In one scene, the camera catches Gallinger through a window and we hear a voice call for him. The camera follows him to the door and the voice asks, “My hernia doesn’t seem to like this bed. Would it be possible to get something for my discomfort?” Gallinger declines and then walks back, the camera following him back to the window, but this time it keeps doing on up to the patient’s face, that of DW Garrison Carr. It’s a punchline of sorts, and it sets in motion the next sequence, Gallinger alerting Thack and then Thack confronting Algie about Carr’s admittance, in accordance with the episode’s Rube Goldberg structure. Toward the end of the episode, a fist slams right into the camera, punching our lights out. Only we, in this case, are the hospital’s architect, whose contract is being terminated and whose silence on the shadiness of Barrow’s finances is being insured. It lacks the grandeur of the door of the hospital being yanked off by a zombie mob, but the adventurous way the visual evokes excitement by grounding us in the center of the action is similar.
Speaking of perspective, there’s a kind of magic trick in the opening, a close-up of a glass of whiskey being poured on a hospital table. There’s a stick in the frame, but we’re too close to see what it is. After the camera moves around some, now you see it: it’s the hypnotist’s wand with the freaky eye. Given how skeptical Thackery was of the conjoined twin mythology, I don’t know why he’s so gullible here. Doesn’t it just feel unscientific? Doesn’t the fact that it took no training for him to allegedly learn how to guide a patient’s behavior with something as slippery as rhetoric suggest maybe this isn’t actual medicine? Nevertheless, it seems to work. His patient snaps out of it and immediately vomits at the sight of the whiskey, which may as well be his mother’s feces. Magic isn’t just decoration though. Part of Thackery’s enterprise is about turning magic into science. He even makes a mention of that in his big pre-surgery speech. Meanwhile Gallinger demonstrates such expert sleight of hand that nobody will ever catch him violating the Hippocratic oath by sabotaging Edwards’ surgery and letting Carr die. There’s a divide here between scientists and magicians, doctors and tricksters, and Gallinger’s on the other side. Here I almost felt sorry for him skipping the ball.
Before the surgery, at the ball, there’s a wonderful moment that connects Algie and Carr. Mrs. Barrow has just introduced the main event, Williams and Walker, a vaudeville duo that saunters out in full blackface. They wave their hats and skitter down the stairs, and then they put on a dance and comedy routine for the adoring philanthropists in their audience. And also Algie, who points out earlier that he and Bertie might be the only working men in the room. Unlike Carr’s big sermon, this time there’s a pointed effort on behalf of the production to understand Algie’s reaction to this routine. We cut directly from the performers to Algie and Opal in a self-conscious moment. They’re laughing, not entirely out of politeness, and then he looks back to scope out the audience and she looks down in something like embarrassment if Opal had the capacity to feel embarrassed. Then we cut back to the stage to see the smiling minstrels, and then we cut to Carr, asleep on his hospital bed. That editing connection feels like a circuit, charge flowing from the uncomfortably assimilating black couple to the profiteers of black stereotypes to the preacher of black liberation. Already Carr’s had an influence on Algie, hence that grave moment when Carr calls Algie out on waiting for permission followed by Algie’s confession that he knows Carr’s right. Now that Carr’s dead, and in a way that profoundly impacts Algie personally, we’ll see if his spirit doesn’t live on in a new host. Without it Algie might be out of a job.
- “Williams And Walker” is written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh.
- Harry gets dressed behind the curtain in her “room” of the apartment, and then we follow her through the curtains to the main stage of her buddy comedy. She tells him she’s going to church, and he says he’ll tag along. Cleary: “I figure why the hell not?” Harry: “Because you scorn God every chance you get.” “Ah, in fairness, he scorned me first.” Then he puts her mind at ease. “The only thing cleaner than my mouth will be my fuckin’ shirt.” She goes back to her room as he gets dressed, and she can’t contain her smile.
- Just before the surgery, Thack’s nervous. He’s leaning on a table, and we’re looking straight up at him overhead, diagonally upward across the frame. Come to find out he’s trying to resist taking drugs before the operation. A cut to a straight ahead shot of him catches his sudden jerky movements, first to grab the bottle, then to resist doing anything with it. But here’s the best part: The whole time, the sound is that clinking chain music from the boat. Even without the visuals, we get the cue that Thack’s back on the boat. He calls Abby. “I need you…to tell me…that I can do this.” “If I hadn’t believed in you,” she says, “I wouldn’t even be here.”
- The next scene is just as expressive. We’re in the operating theater, but nobody is in the shot and the camera’s out of focus. So is the sound. It’s just a din from the audience. After a few moments, Dr. Thackery steps into frame in a close-up. It’s like the camera version of a spotlight. He hits his mark in focus, and then he launches into a dramatic speech about these slave girls and his liberation of them. All of the doctors and nurses are frozen with their washed hands in the air, unactivated, like actors waiting for their cues. “This is their last day as a sideshow attraction and you their last audience. This is no magic trick. No illusion. No sleight of hand. It is scientific knowledge and rigorous experimentation that will finally allow these two young ladies to live the humane life of which fate has so far robbed them.”
- Turns out the Robertsons are overextended. They live by the grace of the Showalters. So there is no escaping Hobart for Cornelia. “So, what do we do?” she asks her husband. “What did my father ask of you?” “To make you happy.” “Then make me happy.”
- Cleary gets home to find Harry talking to some girls from her former place of residence. He says, “Pardon me, didn’t know you was having tea.” “We’re not. We’re teaching em how to protect themselves from men.” “Ah, well, three swift boot heels to the scrotum, he’d rather be home on a beehive than ever come near you again.” Actually, Harry’s teaching them about contraceptives, specifically the useful art of soaking a sponge in vinegar and using it as a diaphragm. Which gives Cleary, ever the entrepreneur, an idea. They’re going to educate men and women about how to prevent pregnancy and sell lambskin condoms and sponge-and-vinegar diaphragms. “This city is full of customers.”
- Captain Robertson has no defense, but he does have a sharp rejoinder for Opal. Speaking of the money he gave to the hospital, he says, “I could have done a hundred other things with that money, but I wanted to help people. As far as I can tell, you’re not helping anyone.” He tells Algie he’ll do whatever he can to get Algie a position at the new Knick. Then he gets into his chariot, telling the driver, Algie’s father, “I’m going to do what I can, Jesse.”