Every time I read or hear about The Knick my bile tube backs up again. Which is a personal problem but a cultural symptom. It may sound like serious structural spelunking to discover that beneath the period, beneath the viscera, beneath the nitty-gritty shot-to-shot construction of the show, this is just another House. The problem is that’s a lot of personality you’re throwing out with the bathwater. It’s like saying Deadwood’s nothing new because it’s just Gunsmoke but guided by David Milch and airing on HBO. That’s a big “but.”
Certainly The Knick isn’t breaking new ground centering on a badly behaved straight white male protagonist. The writers found a new drug (a cocaine solution) and a new sexual provocation (he sleeps with a Chinatown prostitute), but Thack’s not so different from the work genius/home slobs on all the other channels. Even the regular flashbacks to a mentor resemble Tommy Gavin’s hallucinations on Rescue Me. What “Mr. Paris Shoes” adds to the complaint mix is the frustrating serialization of the antihero drama. It launches a bunch of ships but only one makes anything like a journey within the episode. Steven Soderbergh told The Daily Beast, “I very much viewed [the season] as a 10-hour film.” More power to him (and creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, who wrote the episode), but this thing is presented in 10 installments.
That said, the list of ways “Mr. Paris Shoes” diverges from the average antihero drama begins in that opening scene, which cross-cuts between Cornelia and Dr. Edwards preparing for the day. There’s a comparison in the way they’re both slighted by their society. She serves at the pleasure of her father, he sleeps with roaches and endures harassment regarding his fancy-pants bootstraps. But there’s contrast in their stations. She was born into her position, while Dr. Edwards has earned everything he has. Cornelia obviously deserves an equal voice, but Edwards is the one who keeps pushing a rock up the hill, successfully, only to find himself at the bottom each morning. Both disempowered leads are privileged members of their classes, but that hardly soothes the injustice.
The point is that right beneath Thack on the chart of character prominence is a woman and a black man. The focus on a woman and more broadly women is hardly common, but it isn’t really so unusual for an antihero drama. The Knick comes closest in structure to Mad Men, which also devoted its second episode, “Ladies Room,” (in addition to the rest of the series) to exploring its female characters. What’s more, Cornelia is one of those ships that gets a start and isn’t heard from again. We don’t see Sister Harriet the entire hour, but both Catherine Christiansen and Eleanor Gallinger pay visits to the Knick, the former a grieving phantom, the latter an eager Trudy Campbell, both merely impressions. The episode instead lives up to that opening with a late scene involving an abortionist. Cleary seems to know her, and true to the show’s M.O., he’s our way into that scene, but he stays outside, and we go in with the abortionist to see a frightened baker’s wife named Nora. The scene’s typically unsentimental, but the dialogue’s not far from Tami Taylor telling a crying student, “No, honey, I don’t [think you’re going to hell if you have an abortion].” The difference is in the execution. No soft indie song, no warm portraits, no comforting resolve at the end. Instead it’s hushed, plainspoken, and dingy brown, and we cut before the procedure begins. Sure, in a sense, we’ve seen this before. But what a difference production makes.
The other characters just introduce some stories. Cornelia meets with Dr. Edwards about standing up for himself, Thack meets with Nurse Elkins about keeping quiet. Gallinger and Bertie are trying to figure out how to use a relatively successful surgical method that Dr. Edwards knows without actually picking his brains or involving his hands. Barrow’s in over his head getting the electricity fixed, getting cadavers for Thack and company to practice their relatively unsuccessful surgical methods on, and getting money to his creditor. The guy takes a tooth, so make that two stories that reach something like a clear ending point.
The other has to do with “Mr. Paris Shoes” himself, and does it need to be said that focusing on a black man is itself quite a disappointingly large leap for the antihero drama? Dr. Edwards starts his day getting picked on in line for the bathroom. (Cornelia, meanwhile, holds out her arms for her servants to dress her.) When he leaves his apartment, there’s this Altmanesque pan, complete with a little zoom, following him through the crowd, a kaleidoscopic hustle and bustle of black faces in the Tenderloin District, which will be the epicenter of a race riot that August. At work he endures. They’ve given him a shitty office, Thack tells him to speak when spoken to, Gallinger pretends he’s invisible, a nurse rejects a black walk-in. He endures because he expects it, he tells Cornelia, whereas she’s so privileged she doesn’t see race until she has to visit his cramped “office.” Instead he channels his energy into fixing up a basement room, tracking down the rejected patient, and under cover of night fixing her up. Both the black woman’s surgery and the pregnant woman’s abortion take place in a shadow world, both classes denied sunlight thanks to the social rules of the white male establishment. Edwards does make use of Dr. Thackery’s cocaine solution as a pain-killer, though. A miracle drug! (Whoops, that’s historical irony, a big no-no in the critical handbook.) So Edwards learns from his white colleagues, while his white colleagues are doing all they can not to learn from him. His patient is off to bring another walk-in to Dr. Edwards. Their patient is off to the morgue. It’s a little tidy, flattering our sense of justice over the show’s prevailing sense of surgical horror, but opening a secret black ward is an exciting plot development for an exciting time.
The plots may not resolve, but a thematic bow belts “Mr. Paris Shoes” instead. It’s about how people respond to abuse. No wonder Edwards takes center stage. And no wonder Cornelia doesn’t do much after smiling and nodding at the breakfast table. The episode ends in a three-part crescendo testing three of its protagonists. First Barrow meets his creditor “like a man,” he says. Then Edwards revisits his tormentor at their hotel. And in a woozy epilogue, Thack squares with the pimp at his home away from home, the Chinatown brothel. Barrow gets manhandled and just submits. Not that he could have done anything to save his tooth, but the fact remains. Edwards gets beaten at first but then fights back and knocks the guy out. And like the smooth hero he is, he leaves the guy some medicine. Thack doesn’t take any guff. The pimp tries to intimidate him into paying for the orange he’s peeling, so Thack just sets the orange and its peel down on the table and walks away. Barrow and Thack behave pretty much how I’d expect after the premiere, but Edwards is a king. Time will tell how the blacks and the whites respond to his actions here, and how much he can endure without abandoning all of them, but he’s still the unwitting hero of Thack’s eulogy, the man standing on the brink of the future.
Speaking of that future, “Mr. Paris Shoes” reaches back to barber surgeons to show how far the world has come. Meanwhile the electricity’s going haywire. Like Dr. Edwards, who’s tied to the hospital lighting, it’s going to take some work to find its place in the Knick. The Robertsons laugh off the “new money” label, suggesting they too are in a whole new world. Eleanor Gallinger has a new baby and a newer camera. The most interesting cultural touchstone, though, comes in the montage where everyone arrives at work to the sounds of Cliff Martinez’s electronic wind chimes. Nurse Elkins, that teary West Virginia tyro, shows up on a bicycle. The bicycle was quite a fad in the gay ‘90s, but it has a special symbolism for women. Susan B. Anthony said the bicycle did more to emancipate women than anything. Nurse Elkins hasn’t cut such a modern figure before, but it certainly takes something to go to the world’s second biggest city to start a life. Maybe she’s more independent than we were led to believe.
And best of all, “Mr. Paris Shoes” is funny. To lump The Knick in with the dour macho melos and the sullen murder mysteries is to ignore the comedy. Clive Owen’s straight-shooting delivery, during surgery, of the obvious punchline, “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss that dog,” is still making me chuckle. “Mr. Paris Shoes” is even funnier. The best example is the business with the corpse Cleary tries to deliver. He very nearly gets away with it, but then an orderly we’ve never seen suddenly walks through the scene telling Barrow the patient’s already dead. “The fook?” Cleary rhetorically asks his assistant. Then he pockets the body’s ring before dispensing with him. There are punchlines—and sight gags like Cleary presenting the photo of the man with the giant scrotum—but most of the humor comes from the expanding mix of personalities, the life contained in The Knick. Even more than a steady hand at the helm or period excavation, that is what separates the greats from just another antihero drama.
- In case anyone’s wondering, I’m watching week to week, so there will be no spoilers in this space.
- Update (8/16/14): In the original version of this article I referred to Mr. Barrow’s debtor when I meant his creditor. I have since corrected the mistake.
- That said, I’m very curious if that Tenderloin District name-drop comes of anything, especially given Ferguson (joined by cities all over the country) is still in protest against police brutality. In short, what happened was a white plainclothes officer accosted a black woman for alleged solicitation, but she was just waiting for her boyfriend. When he showed up, the office made it physical with his baton, the man fought back with a knife, and the officer died. In response, both the black neighborhood and the white Irish police force dug in. Mad Men obliquely skipped over Stonewall with a story about two struggling, closeted men in flight from a police crackdown a month earlier. But The Knick is much more tightly embedded in the “right” time and place for this.
- This Week With Dr. Christiansen: Jules gives Thack a tour of his state-of-the-art laboratory. Turns out Jules didn’t bring Thack on as deputy. Captain Robertson did. Jules also makes reference to the Robertsons’ infinite pockets. Someone help Barrow out, wouldja?
- Not very graphic this week—the worst, with apologies to the gut-soddering, is the tooth yank which plays out in wide—although now that we’ve met Chekov’s abortionist, I’m anxious about that shoe dropping.
- Speaking of the consumer camera in 1900, I’m drooling with anticipation for a movie. Here’s a relevant possibility: “Turn-Of-The-Century Surgery” from the same year by Alice Guy, the first female director and a pioneer of narrative film. Maybe Mrs. Gallinger can take us to a movie exhibit?
- Catherine asks, “How will it not take hold of you the way it did Jules?” Thack says, “I have ways of getting through.” So did Jules, though.