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The Knick: “Start Calling Me Dad”

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Why does “Start Calling Me Dad” end with that scene? It’s such a funny, exciting, sad hour—the most I’ve felt watching The Knick since the premiere—but then the final scene leaves us with a sense of intense revulsion and the title takes that feeling and applies it to the whole episode. It’s funny. The Knick isn’t a very interior show. In one scene you have movie star Clive Owen with two naked prostitutes and in the other you have young, horny Bertie Chickering, Jr. falling for Lucy, but you don’t feel even a reflexive twitch of arousal. It’s the opposite of melodrama. To use a word often applied to Steven Soderbergh’s work, it’s cool.


Emotional beats tend to play out in wide shots. It’s rare to get a close-up that invites us into a character’s head, but it happens, as in Dr. Thackery’s wistful watch on the bench last week. And then there are sequences like Dr. Edwards’ fight, which partly evokes a certain athletic headspace (the drowned out sounds, the tight focus) and partly functions as a photojournalism exhibit (portraits of the body in duress). But the general approach to The Knick in the writing and the directing is more surgical than psychological. When we do get into a character’s feelings, it can get reductive in that biopic way: This happened, so this resulted. Think about the way Lucy barely seems to think about anything other than Thack, or Harriet and the morality of abortion, or Cleary and his own damnation. When we laugh, like when Typhoid Mary screams, “You’ll never catch me alive!” and Cornelia tackles her and gets dragged off into the hallway, it’s funny to us as observers. The Knick is physical, external. The show collects data about these people and this place and tries to build as complete a map as possible from the outside.

Well, “Start Calling Me Dad” is exquisitely constructed, and it starts with the writing, courtesy of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. There are a couple Tek Jansen moments, as when Cornelia tells Algie a story they both know. Even his teasing of her for spending her days with Speight isn’t quite there, but then she girlishly kicks his foot as she leaves. Everything about their relationship, everything about that scene, is conveyed better by that unexpected friendly little kick. But the script is mostly one great line after another. “That’s why we’re gonna spend the rest of the night in here inserting these into our lady friends and testing all variables.” Isn’t that Thack in a line? The bit about how Abby sees a beautiful day and Thack sees rain is begging to be ripped apart by the “Mad Men is too obvious” crowd. “Don’t look at the clouds so much, John,” she tells him. But isn’t that exactly how these two speak to each other? I don’t think she’d say something so figurative, playful, and sincere to another friend. She speaks that way to Thack, excuse me, John because they have a romantic history, because he speaks in allusion half the time, and because their relationship is uncommonly candid: “I haven’t had occasion for vigorous movement in quite some time.” Ahem.


The script also establishes the structure of the episode, and it’s so close to coming full circle you wonder if the final scene was rearranged. It starts with Bertie and Thack sharing a passionate night of discovery together, which butts up against a reminder that Algie’s been there this whole time. Yada yada yada, we end with Thack and Bertie performing their procedure and Thack discovering Dr. Edwards’ underground black clinic. P.S. Cornelia gets home.

Thack’s been up all night for two days, running mainly on liquid coke and ambition, haunted by the placenta praevia problem, but now he has an idea, and he needs Bertie’s help. “These ladies work by the hour, and their rate is on the high side due to their cleanliness and good humor, so scrub in, Bertie The Wise, for I have many new secrets to reveal to you. Believe then if you please, that I can do strange things.” Before you can say, “As You Like It!” The Knick butts in. When we come to, we’re still in that room with Thack and Bertie, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the energy. Is this going to be the whole episode? Turns out no, and thankfully so. Otherwise we’d be deprived of a con man named Mr. Luff setting up Barrow with an X-Ray. He entices him to hold the plate to his head, then flips the levers. Great, now hold. “This should take about an hour.” Cut to the next scene. Great comic editing, by Soderbergh alias Mary Ann Bernard.


But the editing has dramatic power too. Later Bertie and Lucy take a walk in the park (alas not the waxworks I was hoping to see), and they take a seat on a bench. They’re chatting about how they each remember when they first saw the other. “Even the hardest people can surprise you,” she says, which really doesn’t describe Bertie, but whatever. She’s staring off into space and we watch from the outside of their two-shot. Then we cut to a medium sot from the other side, from almost inside the chat, her head still in the same fixed position. “That’s where Dr. Thackery lives.” Oh, that’s what she was staring at. She wasn’t lost in a dreamy moment prompted by Bertie. She was thinking about Thack this whole time.


That scene sort of trails off after a certain point. Bertie bought a pretzel at the start, and then realizes he doesn’t even like pretzels. So he just tosses it over his shoulder. Both of them start giggling, Michael Angarano darting his eyes back and forth but not really at her, Eve Hewson in profile sort of bobbing up and down in little fits. I started giggling too. The joke isn’t funny, because the premise is so hard to buy. Was he that nervous? And their giggling isn’t really infectious exactly, although as a viewer I do root for underdog Bertie (big episode in that respect). It’s more that the way this giggling just keeps going, living in the tension between the show and reality, between the final scripted line and someone yelling, “Cut!” Maybe that was all scripted, maybe Soderbergh kept them hanging for a few moments, but like that little kick Cornelia gives to Algie, this bit contains so much real life. The choice to let it play pays off in spades.

The camerawork is as electrifying as the score is usually. After the formalities have been dispensed with (“Do you realize the hour, sir?”) and the title card has announced itself, we’re back in the lab with Bertie and Thack, and it’s just this long shot following them back and forth as they toss around this potential treatment. The camera’s buzzing, in tune with Thack drunkenly coaxing Bertie to expand his mind, and it’s below their heads looking up at them, in tune with Bertie and his idol. What’s the problem with the placenta praevia procedure? The patients bleed too quickly. So what if the patients died more slowly? They come up with an idea to insert a bladder through the vagina and into the womb where they inflate it with air. No, water, Bertie suggests, and Thack just about kisses him on the lips.


Toward the end, there’s an unfamiliar woman on her sixth pregnancy, but this time she’s bleeding. Her doctor knows just who to call. Cut to doors bursting open—see?—and Bertie walking through with force. He tells Thack and then goes off to scrub in. The camera holds the shot, only racking the focus to Thack’s head in the foreground as he center himself and takes a moment, perfectly still. He and the camera come alive at once, both diving for the paraphernalia drawer. The actor and cameraman are so in tune with each other it’s galvanizing.

The procedure itself is all very scientific method, with a shot of the bladder, then the fluid, the valve, the weight. An observer in the theater is on the edge of his seat. Out comes the baby, an outstanding effect, and only minimal blood. And then Dr. Thackery announces that both the baby and mother shall live. I was ready to stand up and cheer it’s such a thrill. After all that brainstorming and prostitute practice and excitable camerawork, the Christiansen-Thackery-Chickering Placental Repair is ready for publication.


And then Thack goes down to the basement that night. Dramatically speaking, we’re going from the biggest success of the series to the blow-up that’s had the longest time coming. And it is huge. Thack growls at all the patients to leave. He has a question for Edwards. “Have you lost your fuckin’ mind?” We’ve seen and heard a lot of shit on this show, but “fuck” is still a rare bird with a rare power. Edwards protests that it’s much more than a clinic, and Thack immediately snaps from rage to curiosity. “What do you mean?” He’ll always care more about innovation than race, but the more he sees of Edwards’ setup, the greater his fury. He makes explicit that Edwards is fired, so Edwards makes explicit that Thack’s racism goes from personal to systemic in his position of power at this hospital. Thack’s only defense is “Whatever, man.” They have it out for about three lines each, and Edwards is as good as done at the Knick up against this immoveable wall.


And then Thack sees what Edwards has done: electric suction, silver wire, a new hernia repair. “It has incredible holding power,” Edwards says as he stands up a little straighter, his essential move. (Endurance is the subject of that story Cornelia tells Edwards about Edwards, by the way.) This is what earns Edwards not just a reprieve but a promotion. The terms: He will be Thack’s actual, not just nominal, deputy, and his innovations will be implemented upstairs. Oh, and they’re going to co-publish a paper on Edwards’ hernia repair. Which would be an interesting point to end the episode on after Thack has thrown out Mr. Luff and his snake oil, saying something like, “My name is my name.” So his name matters when it comes to swindling people, but he’ll slap it on a successful medical procedure he had nothing to do with?

But that’s not the question we’re left with. Instead we get to see Cornelia laughed off-stage by three walking cigars and then intimidated by her future father-in-law. Granted, some time passes between the two scenes. By the time we see Mr. Showalter, he’s a little drunker, maybe a little poorer, and a little meaner. Cornelia’s in a state of undress when he enters her room, walks over to her, puts his hand on her face, tells her to call him dad, kisses her cheek. He’s always wanted a daughter. “Now I have one of my very own.” It’s all about ownership with these men. And what’s really fucked up is he’s always wanted a daughter apparently so he could have available, subordinate pussy. “I believe our coming together is a wonderful thing that will provide rewards and pleasures for all of us.” Then he leaves, but not before standing in the doorway and saying, “Sleep tight.” Whether he would rape his own daughter is an open question, but he’s unquestionably announcing a new and sexual relationship with Cornelia whether she likes it or not. It deepens neither character. It only exaggerates Cornelia’s powerlessness and Hobart’s rapacity. It’s a sickening end to a marvelous episode. Instead of thinking about an internal question like why Thack would do that, we think about the external question of what Cornelia can do. And the answer, as The Knick has made abundantly clear, is absolutely nothing.


Stray observations:

  • Fantastic opening at the Chickering residence. “Bertram! Phone!” Bertie waddles out in his nightgown. And on the subject of Bertie, how long until he’s paying visits to the Chinatown brothel on his own?
  • Thack gets into sexual role-play: “She pretends, we pretend, a good time is had by all.”
  • Poor Lillian Gallinger succumbs to typhoid, even after being bled. “I’ll take any chance,” Eleanor says in a worried, animated close-up. Then she looks up to Sister Harriet, and we see her, looking down in this austere image, just the nun and a yellowish background, her face a picture of concern.
  • Cut to Thack and Bertie walking-of-shame with the prostitutes into the morning light, hair all tousled. Oh, and did we know the pimp’s name is Wu? I’m taking it as a Deadwood shout-out regardless.
  • Among Mr. Luff’s tried-and-true brands are Dr. Wordsley’s Female Pills. Thack ousts him from the room and then limply says, “Away, you moldy rogue, away,” his second Shakespeare line of the night, shutting the door. The shot holds, looking in through the window as he takes his seat, and the curtain pull swings back and forth over his body like a pendulum.
  • Sister Harriet might have found an adoptive mother for the baby on her doorstep in Eleanor Gallinger. Poor woman’s praying for the Lord to resurrect Lillian.
  • The doorman at the estate where Typhoid Mary is currently serving lunch: “You’re welcome to join us.” Speight: “I’d feel safer bitin’ into a bag of horseshit.” When they get to the room, every bite is excruciating. Why aren’t they telling these guys to stop eating peach melba?!
  • There’s a lot of life in the episode, which is the best argument I can come up with for the grossness at the end. There’s the technology parade: the phone, the X-Ray, the camera for capturing a portrait of the Gallingers with Lillian. There’s the medical innovation and the thrill of success. And there are two outdoor scenes that evoke a whole carnival around the Knick. The first is Bertie and Lucy’s walk in the park, with actual carnival music in the background along with the chirping of other happy couples but not many on-screen. Very economical. The other is a scene with a ton of people, the tracking shot of Cleary and Harry walking through the market street. They’re on the other side of the carts from us, so we’re seeing them through the apples and bread and chickens and vendors and buyers. It really places them at the center of this whirl of activity.
  • If Thack refuses to accept Edwards’ terms, what then? “Well then I’ll take my future discoveries elsewhere, and you will miss out on all the fun.”

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