The horror continues in the latest installment of Dr. Soderbergh’s Tales Of Madness. “Not Well At All” takes its name from a line of Eleanor Gallinger’s as she stands in her kitchen preparing rat poison tea for her guest. A detective has come calling to investigate why Dr. John Hodgman died so shortly after dining there, and she matter-of-factly comes clean to her doting husband. He’s aghast. Admittedly, I assumed she was the second mostly likely culprit in the room. It was clear something was funny by Hodgman’s mad dash to the toilets, but as soon as I heard he died I recalled the camera sticking to Everett Gallinger, not Eleanor. I guess that should have exonerated him. He asks why she would have poisoned the doctor she was so defensive about—and here I confess to feeling cheated by all the writing contrivances that kept us in the dark about how Eleanor really felt about both her wellness and her ex-doctor—but she just looks at him in a medium portrait in the dark kitchen like he’s an idiot. “Oh, Everett, can’t you see?” she asks, before curling into a smile and letting out a ghoulish little laugh. “I’m not well at all.”
The next scene is a thriller. There’s probably poison in the cup. “This one’s for you,” Eleanor says as she hands it to the detective. Then she just stands back and beams at Everett. As he realizes what’s going on, he looks terrified and shifts his gaze to Dorothy, as if to ask what they should do. That’s when she gets it and looks back at the detective. An extreme close-up of a sip of the teacup gets us front-row seats to Mrs. Gallinger’s (probable) second poisoning. The Gallinger family plot is frightening, intense, and deeply sad. Now that’s (probably) at least two people Everett has let die, and as Algie discovers, his rap sheet goes up to 52 involuntary sterilizations of minors. This doctor isn’t only failing to heal people. He’s knowingly harming them. This is the story of a mad woman, but it’s also the story of a mad scientist.
As for the third wheel, it took her long enough, but Dorothy finally makes her move to usurp her sister’s position. From the moment she showed up, she’s been a Deadwood (as opposed to real-life, apparently) Martha Bullock waiting to happen. I’m surprised Everett didn’t take her to the charity ball. Dorothy has more patience than her sister. When Eleanor gets abandoned at a less obviously barbaric hospital than her last one, seen from a distance and surrounded by formidable orderlies, cutaways get up close and personal with Dorothy as she smiles that terrifying Walcott sister smile. She turns her back on her sister and walks off with her sister’s husband. What a cute couple. Like the Macbeths.
The Gothic horror has always been there for the plucking, and its effect is powerful. This year we don’t just wince at the violence. We worry about what it means. We feel terror as much as wonder about the future. In season one, there’s a cost to advancing knowledge, at least, doing it through the wild experimentation our favorite doctors are known for. And those surgeries are visceral. But the tone is excitement. It’s a season of wild innovation, on-screen and off-. Season two is heavy on horror so as to bring out the tragedy of all those corpses Thack created while high on coke in all those surgeries that were thrilling dances whose costs were further from home. The season strips away Gallinger’s wife, Bertie’s mom, Algie’s liberator, and Thack’s savior. It’s a season not just of consequence but of feeling that consequence. Lucy has to reconcile who she is with who she was when her father comes to town. Algie made a commitment, and Opal is damn well holding him to it. No wonder Harry had to suffer so much before arriving at the obvious destination. There’s no easy way out.
A perfect example is Abby’s surgery. The Knick is such a physical show—exploring outside-in—that the surgeries feel like a kind of Fantastic Voyage, human beings mechanically repairing a body. It’s a show where it almost stands to reason that you could physically pump a dead patient’s heart to resurrect them. So it’s not melodrama when a patient dies and the doctors looks like they’ve just been ambushed. They have been. In this particular instance, by the patient herself. I don’t understand why Abby would have wanted to kill herself. She’s incredibly shaken, also somewhat inexplicably, by the patient she counsels at Thack’s behest, but is that it? Maybe it’s an accident, but Soderbergh places so much emphasis on the draught of laudanum hydrochlorate she prepares for herself that it’s clear something’s up. Could she no longer live with that nose? On the hospital bed she looks funereal well before she dies. She’s pale as a ghost and her hands are folded across her lap. She weakly imagines a better future for herself. But as soon as Bertie administers the gas, Lucy loses her pulse. A few seconds later, and the triangle—Thack, Lucy, and Bertie—surrounds her dead body. Bertie can bring a bunny back to life with brandy and strychnine, but not Abby.
Now each of the four surgeons at the Knick has lost someone important. Thack’s recovery was precarious as it is. Without the woman he credits with saving him, how long can it be before he’s really back to his old ways? The board summarily cuts off funding for his addiction study when a patient overdoses on another’s prescribed drugs in the night. Spooky images of Knick patients bookend the episode: It starts with Thack talking about a half-embalmed corpse and ends with Abby’s metamorphosis into a ghost. That’s the atmosphere at this place.
Algie may not have a position at all at the new hospital. Neither will the less comely nurses if Henry Robertson has his way. There’s distance between us and Captain Robertson spreading a medieval plague around the world, but with the addict getting bounced we see some of the costs of wealth running the hospital, and with Lucy we see what it takes to get ahead in that system.
The Barrows are practically a comedy. A seeming miscommunication gets the wife all excited for a gift she’s not supposed to know about. The husband is totally blind-sided. She negs him for never delivering any grand romantic gestures, and we know this isn’t one. Is he going to have to let her have the house? Something so small messing up Barrow’s various plans right when he finishes climbing out of his money pit and frees Junia would be pretty cosmically comic. His reaction is funny in its own right.
“No, Effie, you need never see the house…because, I intend to live in it with another woman. I’ve also taken the liberty of selling this house. You may stay through the end of the week, but then you and the children must go. I’ve rented you an apartment downtown, two bedrooms and a walk-up. Was that a grand enough gesture for you?”
Classic sitcom spouses.
But there’s an element of horror there, too. When he pays Wu the last of his embezzled money for Junia, Wu says, “May I give you a piece of advice? Take to heart the words of the wise man who said, ‘Who being loved is poor?’” If that isn’t foreshadowing, I don’t know what is, and before you can chalk the one mystical element of the Barrow plot entirely up to Orientalism, Wu corrects Herman. That’s not Confucius. It’s Oscar Wilde. Regardless, Barrow leaves his family for his favorite prostitute just like that. He sells his soul to the devil, by which I mean he sells his family’s house to pay dues to the upper crust, like he’s joining some secret occult society. He picks up Junia in a delirious haze—unfocused, slow-motion revelry, this john buying his favorite prostitute amid a room of people trading sex for money—and then the camera follows Barrow and Junia out the door as they evaporate into colors. It’s an intersection of the season’s horror and its feminism. Junia’s embracing her power just like Lucy, and Herman’s going to learn to be careful what he wished for.
- “Not Well At All” is written by Steven Katz and directed by Steven Soderbergh.
- Brockhurst, Fred Weller’s unsavory carnival barker, returns to model for a couple terrific shots—first a headless torso shot showing some guy taking a swig from a flask and then drawing a gun and second a standoff at the Knick where Thack distracts him so Cleary can knock him out with a bat—and that’s it. I suppose it adds to the idea of consequence (and danger), but the moment sure fizzles out quickly.
- “Blood flow is important, but so is a snug fit.” That’s Harry talking Cleary through a condom test. Their partnership is everything I hoped it would be (“Make yourself useful so I can…maintain myself here”), at least until Cleary plants one on her and she freaks out. I hope she comes around. These two make such a great team, romance or no.
- Thack has been getting stabbing pains that cause him to double over, and Algie’s concerned. “At least allow me to look at your stool.” “Not even if you went up there and got it yourself.” I’m concerned too. That’s two surgeons physically deteriorating. Bertie can’t save everyone himself, and lord knows Gallinger’s no healer.
- Cornelia tells her brother about their father. “He’s violating maritime law.” It might even be considered light treason.
- Preacher AD Elkins returns! In fact, he never left. He’s been frequenting some New York brothel where he gets tied up. Only this time he has a paralytic stroke. He provides some of the most effective horror imagery of the episode. The look of terror on his face is permanent.
- The movie that frightens Cleary and Harry at the nickelodeon? That would be James Williason’s “The Big Swallow.”