“Get The Rope” is a giant bucket of popcorn kind of episode, a ‘90s television event kicked back a century. The riot that we knew was coming the moment Edwards mentioned the Tenderloin District (and we Googled it to see what it was) begins exactly as imagined. The cop, Phinny Sears, was halfway through accosting that black woman before I realized what was about to happen. From that moment on The Knick is on fire. Scenes don’t end. Everything is happening at once. Cliff Martinez rolls out a fresh carpet, surprising from the heartbeat horror in the halls to the sublime romance at the end. Steven Soderbergh gets extreme with distance and duration. The entire main cast is holed up in the Knick trying to come up with a solution like they’re the senior officers of the Enterprise. Outside there’s a Romero zombie mob pounding on the doors, which the camera swoops in on for extra eeriness. When the mob yanks the door off, it has all the force of when the watchers on the Wall in Westeros let their freak scythe fly.
It’s easy to get swept up in “Get The Rope” is what I’m saying, and as an emergency episode it succeeds wildly. The plot keeps moving from one problem to the next, then branches into various little problems. Six episodes of charting the system really pays off. We get the chains of command, the geography of the Knick, the connections among characters in- and outside. As soon as we hear the rumor about prostitutes being assaulted in the streets, we know exactly what’s going through Barrow’s mind.
Many of the season-long tensions bubble over in this crucible, which gives everyone a little moment. Barrow walks in on his mistress with another man. “I’m nearly done if you’re next,” says the gentleman. Gallinger shows up for work mid-surgery and squeezes Bertie out—to which Bertie can just stand there with his thumbs in the air—and then stares in disbelief from Edwards to Thackery, both heads only partially visible and on either side of him, stewing in their unconscionable rapport. Cornelia and Algie finally share a moment of casual conversation. Lucy and Thack come to a head, as it were. Cleary and Harry both prove heroic in their own ways. In fact, all the good guys get to show off their goodness, and meanwhile all hell is breaking loose. Like I said, it’s an E.R. you won’t want to miss.
But about that. About “the good guys.” How does Thack go from “I am certainly not interested in an integrated hospital” to “Help him, goddammit” in a few weeks? I buy his appreciation of Edwards in specific. I’ll put more stock in Thack’s love of science than in any other relationship on the show. It follows that he and Edwards are getting along famously now that he actually has to spend some time with his deputy. But here Thack’s such a Great Man that he pushes through an angry Irish mob to stand over a beaten black man outside the hospital and chide the fighters. Even the rest, the stuff that fits under the Hippocratic Oath, feels like it’s above and beyond the call of duty for him. A crisis does have a way of simplifying things. It’s just that this gets network-procedural-simple.
At least the good guys being good comes as a surprise. Thack standing over that man, Cleary personally hauling the ambulance, Lucy outwitting the gang, all of these feel like character-defining moments for characters who might have gone either way. Never mind the fact that they’re all valorizing our heroes. The fact is, when push comes to shove, this is who these people are. Gallinger and Barrow are petty, and everyone else is the away team I’d send on any mission that comes up. (Except Bertie who will hold down the ship.)
On the subject of surprise, there’s a neat feint at the end where Lucy wakes up after a night of Drugs! and Sex! with a strapping man who looks like Clive Owen. As expected, she sits there in a sad brown-yellow room with an uneasy look on her face, the camera on the floor with her dignity. Everyone’s laying it on thick. No repression here. When Lucy has regrets, she is self-aware enough to confront them head-on, apparently. And then at last she starts to smile a little bit. The morning light hits her. Her roommate walks in and asks why she’s looking at her like that, and all Lucy can do is cover her giggle with a hand. It’s a long way to go for a fake-out, but what a relief that it is one. It’s no more complex than if Lucy had regretted the encounter, but it’s less predictable. In the words of Liz Lemon, Lucy got some and felt good about it. I’ll take that over Mr. Rapenheimer any day. That irrepressible delight at the end is the kind of high Looking goes out on so expertly.
Aaaand, nothing else happens in “Get The Rope,” just Algie and Cornelia hooking up. One of the best parts of the episode is when the whole cast finds out about the secret clinic, because it’s a chance to see them all react to the same new info. Mad Men practically runs on scenes like that (for instance, everyone reacting to the letter Don gets in the season finale). The Knick is way less complicated than Mad Men, but still, what a treat to see Thack stick up for Edwards with a joke, the laundress tell Barrow that down there she’s a surgical nurse, and Cornelia stunned with admiration for what her friend has accomplished. She acquits herself well in the hospital, too. “I’ve seen a buttock before.” And so, at the end, Neely and Algie start making out. Now that’s a complicated moment, inciting as much excitement as anxiety. This can’t end well for anyone. And just when Edwards was finally making strides at work.
- The cold open is a two-parter. First Dr. William Halstead comes to watch Dr. Christiansen and Dr. Thackery perform an appendectomy. Then Thack gets woken up at the brothel to perform a field tracheotomy on a client. Both are as strikingly visualized as everything else, from the long take of Halstead to the extra filter of the red lace curtain. But could the opening be any more seamful?
- The weird outdoor lighting accounts for at least a third of the episode’s power. The whole thing starts in this tense yellow sky (not, I hasten to add, the glorious “piss-yellow” of Contagion and other Soderbergh films; something wheatier). As the mob builds, the sky is this blown-out blanket of orange, and everything looks yellow-green. It’s so sickly and unnatural.
- Thack proudly introduces Gallinger to the Edwards Suction Machine. Edwards: “I’m building another one.” Thack: “For my birthday, I presume.”
- What a perfect real-life choice to have a baby screeching in that staccato way where he’s just making noise while Mrs. Sears incites a riot.
- Gallinger’s trying to vent about Edwards. “And that contraption—” Bertie willfully misinterprets. “It’s ingenious, I know.”
- Still laughing about the full-body wince Mrs. Sears gives when she first lays eyes on Edwards. Later she tries to pour liquor down her son’s throat even though he’s physically resisting and wailing.
- Thack diagnoses internal bleeding and asks for three things from Nurse Elkins. Without cutting, the camera follows her out of the room to the desk just on the other side of the wall. She throws a bunch of stuff in a bowl and walks back around the wall into the room, still in the same shot, and he’s already dead. Because we were in the moment the whole time, it hits that much harder. That’s how quickly things turn.
- “Harry, I got one for you.” I still can’t get enough of the quiet mutual respect between Thack and Harry. When she comes up with a plan to harbor the black patients who can walk at the church, Barrow gets snippy. “Are you volunteering then?” she asks. “No!” “Then I’ll thank you not to interfere.” Cut to an amused Thack.
- Another great moment for Mrs. Sears is when she drunkenly reports on the location of the black man who killed her son by way of a small kid. “Damn kid saw her with her own eyes.” The kid’s a boy.
- The door coming off is a spectacular stunt. The doors engulf our field of vision, and then all of a sudden half the background flies away, and from there it’s an embedded Cuarón-style action shot. I physically recoiled.
- Cleary shouting at a cop, “Whose side are you on?” is surprisingly cathartic.
- Everything about the transport scene is magical, especially the sneaky way we get stuck with Edwards during the confrontation. Soderbergh cuts early, just hopping from person to person, and he “just happens” to be on Edwards at that moment, so we see it all play out on his face.
- Lucy tells the fellas not to look beneath the sheets because of a leprosy outbreak: “You can look but about a week from now you’re gonna be down on your knees trying to find where your testicles rolled off to.” I see why Thack likes her.
- And still The Knick finds time for ample disgusting surgery stuff, most notably Lucy standing there holding a goddamn arm while it’s being sawn off!
- While everyone else is assisting at the overrun black hospital, Bertie’s holding down the fort. Turns out that means having a nurse read him Edwards’ procedure and then improvising a solution to an obstacle.
- Thack is so great that when the black hospital runs out of anaesthetic, he sacrifices his personal cocaine vial. Hero.