Right on cue, this being the penultimate episode of the season, the big problems come to a head. We’ve known about Thackery’s withdrawal and jonesing, but “The Golden Lotus” adds breaking and entering, indignity on top of indignity, and an ocean of rumors. Cornelia comes to work with a problem, but it’s not, thank Amiel and Begler, an assault. She’s late. Three weeks late. And Algie wants to keep it. Finally, the “wait and see” position on Eleanor’s depression for the past couple episodes has yielded results. She interrupts her harried husband at work with baby Grace, whose “brain fever” she treated by holding the child’s head in an ice bath. Even Barrow’s quicksand debt to Bunky Collier comes up, although it’s not an emergency. That’s just the natural state of things. And so, like Dr. John Thackery in the middle of a cocaine shortage, we find ourselves without an upper. For the most part.
“The Golden Lotus” is at last all about the women of The Knick. Thackery’s useless, driven to a point of almost total hermitude in which he leaves the house only to stoop even lower (for instance, he’s ready to hawk Dr. Thackery’s miracle cure, but Dr. Peter beat him to it). Edwards has his scenes with Cornelia, but his feelings take a backseat to hers, in part because he’s living in a fantasy world where they can run off to cosmopolitan Europe or non-colonial Liberia and everything will be okay, and in part because he’s too buttoned up and hurt to really dig into the racial component of Cornelia’s shame. As usual, Gallinger is just bad medicine and worse hair. But it’s not about him. It’s about helping Eleanor. It’s about what Cornelia is going through. It’s about Lucy, not Thack, finding a way to get her hands on some cocaine. And it’s about what all of the women think and feel about their situations.
“The Golden Lotus” is no lugubrious slog through perfectly ironic misery like other cable dramas. For one thing it’s funny, and in ways that I can’t quite capture with transcription because the jokes are so character-based, like Bertie, so desperate to believe his hero isn’t the doctor who broke into several pharmacies last night that he wants to keep another doctor in the rumor mill on account of his very weird laugh. I also chuckled when Thack asks if Lucy’s alone. “Course I am. Who would I be with?” There’s a great rat-a-tat between Barrow and Lucy when she tells him that the drugs he bought were saline. The scene even begins with a joke about racism. Cleary says of the Germans there’s “never been a race better at squeezing the life out of a dime.” Barrow says, “I thought that was the Jews.” They better get those stereotypes sorted out, or the world will stop making sense.
Almost the whole hour is shot in some combination of golden light and midnight blue, separately at first—Thackery lighting match after match in what turns out to be not our enterprising hero’s first pharmacy break-in of the night, then Captain Robertson and Barrow enjoying an early morning carriage ride back to their houses after bailing him out—so that when the colors meet, there’s a sense of clash and complication. For instance, after Thack scares Lucy to a seat in the shadows like it’s an old-fashioned iris portrait, she stands up and meets him head-on. The yellow lamplight is on her side, the deep blue of the morning is on his, and he tells her how she can help in that singular Thack poetry: “You can find me an ocean of cocaine.” It feels like a crossroads, but Lucy is in his thrall. It’s Dracula.
Then Cornelia walks down the hall, camera on her the whole way through the blue light. When she steals Algie away for a chat in his office, the blue and gold come together, this time in an X, with her face and his coat soaking up the yellow lamplight and his face and her coat taking the heft of the deep blues. They’re opposites. Which is actually pretty subtle on-screen despite literalizing their positions: He wants to have the baby, and she wants to have a “procedure” (a dilation and a curettage, they call it, helpfully explained as a dilation of the cervix and an insertion of a curette to remove the tissue).
On the subject of motifs, “The Golden Lotus” gives us plenty: anxious low-angle leading shots of women walking down halls, men all up in women’s vaginas including various references to unwanted pregnancies, lamps and light fixtures and lanterns. The first two are connected. If you want to get reductive about it, you could, I think, reasonably say Thack gives Lucy sexual pleasure and liberation, and she runs errands for him, both of which result in her willingness to trade sex for opium. Cornelia’s also alone in that hall with her worries, which are bound up in her relationship with Algie. Let’s not forget Lucy’s walk down Thack’s hallway in “Working Late A Lot,” either.
But as for the light sources prominent wherever possible—Edwards’ lantern in the basement, the fire for the opium, the overhead bulb singlehandedly tanning poor Cornelia—that runs through the whole season. At first it’s just about the newfangled electricity. Get a load of the incandescent light bulb! But now the lighting is hard to ignore. Is it just because Soderbergh’s a cinematography geek, and he’s playing with lighting schemes for variety’s sake? Is it just part of the great system of the Knick, i.e. this is how doctors lit up the basement at night, and this is how someone would be able to see labels at night? Surely both. That opium den rack focus in “Working Late A Lot” both shows off a cool trick and demonstrates a simple process for the show. But there’s something about that overhead shot of Cornelia crying on a mattress on floor of the basement with the light in the sky burning up half the screen that feels symbolic, like she’s naked before God.
Earlier Sister Harriet joins Cornelia sitting on the steps in the courtyard. Sister Harriet would make a great critic. She gives hard truths, even to herself, but she has hope, and it’s seriously considered hope. She assumes Cornelia’s upset about Grace, the talk of the hospital now that Thack’s headlines are old news. So they get on the subject of babies, aborted fetuses, unwanted pregnancies, pretty much everything short of flat-out discussing Algie’s champion sperm. Harriet tells her that all children, born and not, are given souls by God, and she hopes that in his infinite mercy, he accepts them all. Cornelia hadn’t even considered that some fetuses and babies might not be granted eternal communion, but she takes the prospect seriously. Add that to everything else: cheating on her fiancé (whom she has never slept with), concerns about what people would say, and, though she can hardly admit it, shame about sleeping with a black man.
She needs to feel reassured. Instead she’s naked all alone in that wide, cold basement. Not only does Algie barely touch her, but he barely looks at her. At last she asks why. She’s asking for support, and she’ll settle for a conversation about why he can’t even look at her. “I can’t kill my own child,” he says. Of course not. And now there are two totally legitimate positions at an impasse such that neither can even offer a hand to the other. Neither of them even has another option. That’s what’s going through Cornelia’s head as she lies there sobbing before God.
And then, as if to give Cornelia some space, the sound of humming takes over well before we cut to the next scene. It could be Lucy singing a song for Thack, but you and I both know it’s gonna be Eleanor. The sound of Eleanor humming to a dead baby is all we hear through the entire interlude of Gallinger coming home with the 1900 equivalent of men in white coats (black coats but nice ones, with coattails and the like, led by John Hodgman). Gallinger is given some privacy too. He collapses onto a chair and puts his hand over his face but it’s all out of focus. Like Cornelia drowned out by the light and the sound, or Edwards’ fight focusing squarely on a portion of his head, it’s like The Knick can’t bear to show us these people at their lowest.
With the notable exception of Dr. John Thackery, that is. Whether all paranoid at home or at the point of, let’s say, forceful begging at Luff’s office, Thack is still front and center, pale and sweaty. He hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in days. You want symbols? He rummages through his own trash and combines the dregs from all his used vials to see if he can’t cobble together a potent solution. We’re looking up at his head, oblique as usual, and Clive Owen just fidgets, rocking his head ever so slightly, narrowing one eye, jutting his lips. He’s hurting.
Robertson wants to help him. He wants one of the doctors at the Knick to get him over his addiction. Barrow takes that suggestion and, naturally, decides the path of least resistance would be to maintain the status quo and restore Thackery’s cocaine supply, with Lucy as his delivery girl. Perhaps Barrow’s authority contributes to her decision to find Thackery some damn cocaine rather than see him get clean. Regardless, that’s what she does. Well, first she tides him over with some opium, and then she brazenly steals the cocaine supply from the German hospital in the guise of a new employee, Nurse, uh, Nurse Thackery. Surely that won’t raise an eyebrow.
How interesting to see a woman trade sex for something on TV and not immediately start wearing a scarlet letter P. Good for Lucy. She got 100 damn yankee dollars, which I believe, adjusted for inflation, comes to approximately the price of Philadelphia. She certainly seems happy with her choices. I don’t completely understand her thrall to Thack, or rather, I think her thrall to Thack goes beyond the physical and emotional pleasures of a sexual relationship into some fantasy of coupledom. At least, that’s what it seems like from the shots of her thinking about him and the plots of her going out of her way for him. But maybe it is just that Lucy feels liberated in bed with him. At the end of “The Golden Lotus,” named for Wu’s description of Lucy’s dainty foot, she and Thack sit there like near silhouettes in the dim middleground, conspiring over a box of cocaine. It’s a stopgap. That box isn’t that big. But he takes some—or rather, notably, she gives him some—and then, high for the first time in a week or more, he gives her some down below. The episode closes on her face, an ecstatic rush that could pass for terror. Sounds about right.
- Score! A lot of long, slow notes this week to go with the tragedy, and then at the end, another spin on the cocaine party beats.
- Mad Men memories: Remember when Don crashed his car and called Peggy to come pick him up? And remember when Peggy had a hospital stay after having a baby?
- “We’re even.” Is there something more to the deal between Robertson and Thack that we should be thinking about?
- Wu’s opium den is an exotic place, but the way it’s presented sure steers into the skid. What do y’all think?
- The flashback is unnecessary from a plot perspective—we can be pretty sure Lucy didn’t pay Wu with her bike—but it does let us see Lucy’s face in the aftermath, and that’s some valuable information.
- Bertie: “You’ve been awfully solicitous of Dr. Thackery lately. Should I be jealous?”