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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Knick: “They Capture The Heat”

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“They Capture The Heat” takes its title from a meme, a little packet of information that passes through Edwards to Thackery to Captain Robertson. The reason it’s so humid downtown is because all the tall buildings trap the heat. First off it’s an example of Thack’s willingness to learn from Edwards. Edwards might be too untouchable to be used physically except in a bind, but he contains information that’s perfectly good. It’s what Captain Robertson picks up on with the Edison X-Ray Photographic Apparatus. The first fortunes were made physically. The next will come from exploiting the unseen wealth all around us, like electricity, or information.

Time to call a Speight a Speight: Robertson is such a prick of a caricature, everything and everybody mere wealth to be extracted. You can feel him all over the episode: Interactions becoming transactional, lots of open money talk, extravagance in both money and time among the upper class. I didn’t think Robertson could surprise me, and then he leaned on Thack to deliver the message that Cornelia’s going to quit and start popping out little ones once she’s married. Thack admirably resists.

And back to Edwards’ untouchability for a second, there’s a moment in the opening surgery—some henchman shot in the leg—where Bunky Collier, the cathouse boss kneeling on Barrow’s neck, threatens to lynch Edwards if anything goes wrong. He’s been prattling on all this time while Thack and Edwards quietly assess the damage, but at this, Thack looks up at him. He doesn’t say anything, but he looks into his eyes and then goes back to his business. For five episodes we’ve been charting the contours of Thack’s racism, and I still don’t know exactly where he falls. When push comes to shove, he knows Edwards is a capable doctor and surgeon. Is this supposed to help us root for him? He’s not so bad after all?

The other thing about the title meme is it’s a symbol of confinement. Progress is supposed to set us free, if only from problems that are now more easily solved. But Thack feels trapped. He cokes up for another placenta praevia, gives Bertie a little pep talk, points to the innovations of their electric cauterizer and iron will. Cut to a melancholy montage of, well, still-lifes is probably not the right term but you get the idea: blood smeared below the cart, two and a quarter jars full, the impaled belly, hands relaxed and smeared with blood. The action is over. Nothing’s moving. Even the camera is trying its hardest to stay still. Thack performed the procedure in 72 seconds, faster than anyone, Bertie reckons. They were perfect and not good enough. Finally there’s Dr. Thackery’s head, a low-angle oblique close-up, and he’s the picture of defeat. Cliff Martinez starts wailing. It gets a little Ligeti underneath the screaming baby in the next scene, which leads us to Thack’s next bit of news: The Gallinger kid has meningitis probably. I’ve never been less sure of Dr. Thackery. He says it’s just another Tuesday at the Knick, and it sure is, if what we’ve seen is anything to go by, but he clearly doesn’t believe his own cynicism. Which is partly why I don’t take him at face value with Edwards.

So he walks out of the hospital to find Lucy on her bike. Lucy sees her bike as a way of connecting to the city, taking her place in the system of New York. But Thack sees it as liberation. So she teaches him to ride it, and all’s well again. Sure, Lucy bites her lip. She’s concerned about what’s happening. And why shouldn’t she be? This is a man who is clearly self-destructive outside of work, but she can’t help herself. She’s drawn to him. She’s got layers, man. Bertie asks her out to some museum with a winter garden where they can stroll and have an ice cream and listen to music. “I like the waxworks at the Chamber Of Horrors,” she tells him. But anyway, that lip-bite, that closing symbol of “I have a bad feeling about this,” is for Lucy. Thack himself gets rescued. Raising the question, isn’t Thack the least confined person on the show?

There’s more to The Knick than the standard cable drama stuff, but that’s exactly why you’d expect The Knick to have more perspective. Cornelia doesn’t even get to make decisions about her life. Edwards has no social life. Barrow has made tremendous strides in his quest to be less in debt to Bunky Collier, and what he has to show for it is the rest of his gigantic hole. The Knick’s so close to closing that Cleary and Sister Harriet are talking about it. True to Mr. Chickering’s words, Bertie even gets ordered around by Sister Harriet. More than ever, my reaction to watching “They Capture The Heat” is that the characters moved another inch. But Thack’s the one who stares out at the abyss.


I’ve seen more and more viewers give up on The Knick in the past week. (Perhaps not a great time, by the way, if you’re on the fence. Early reviews touted episodes 6 and 7 as biggies, and critics weren’t given 8 through 10. Make of that what you will.) The early episodes weeded out the squeamish and the “this is just St. Elsewhere” structuralists or whatever. But nowadays I see two main reasons for quitting or waiting to binge at the end: 1) I get it, and 2) I’m not interested. I’m sympathetic. I hate the argument nowadays that such and such gets good if you just stick with it for 20 hours, and I also do kind of think we get it, when it comes to TV shows, relatively early. The best evolve and surprise and reveal not just plot secrets but elements of a rich worldview, complicating and challenging itself. The rest either keep giving us what we expect, which can include surprises, or they collapse. I understand the feeling that The Knick is giving us what we expect by now.

But I also think Steven Soderbergh is cannier than that. Take the scene where Edwards, fresh off an all-nighter in the basement, walks into work, and Thack drafts him for the surgery on the henchman’s leg. The action of the scene is out in front as Barrow protests and Thack swats him away. But we follow Edwards well behind them. Instead of playing up Thack’s, I don’t know, pragmatic progressivism, we stay with poor, bleary Edwards. After all, he’s the one who really takes the fall if anything goes wrong, at least until Collier ups the stakes to all three of the present Knicks. Then Edwards and Thack talk Darwin, surgery, the heat. They balance a composition in two different shots, first in the washroom and then on the bench afterward. And when Barrow bursts in and punctures whatever progress Edwards felt like he was making, we stay on Edwards’ face. The other characters aren’t here for Thack’s journey to the future. Everyone gets a perspective, and I mean a real, thorough point of view. Soderbergh doesn’t just document Cleary and Harriet at the grave. He reflects on them.


That said, Thack is the main character. I see a lot of resentment lately toward the straight white men at the center of the shows. By all means, knock the walls down. I’m just not sure Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery is responsible for much real-world oppression. (Now, The Leftovers, on the other hand…) Andre Holland’s the breakout, agitating against Thackery and the establishment, building a character often in opposition. There’s some of that with Owen, defining Thack against his peers at moments. But while I can’t quite put my finger on it yet, Owen is a star.

Recall any close-up of Barrow. You get his sweatiness, whether or not he’s actually sweating. You get his calculation. His snivel. That eyebrow. He has a type to play with, and he’s perfect at it. But Thack watching Lucy ride that bike is magnetic. The wind loosens up his hair. We get a new score, I think, amping up through the ride as Thack watches and then wrapping up as quickly as he looks away satisfied. He’s head-on in a close-up. And the look on his face, part longing, part curiosity, part exhaustion—it only hints at what’s going on in his head. Not because he plays everything close to the vest, although I think some of that’s going on with respect to his feelings about Edwards. That would be easy (hello, again, The Leftovers!). It’s because he’s a flesh-and-blood character with experiences and passions and dreams. Watching him watch that bike, you think of all the curt nods he’s given to her on her bike before, you think of his old flame and that Christmas party, you think of his short-term anxieties with the Knick and that brothel and his long-term dreams of, what, settling down? I don’t know what’s going on in his head, but I know there’s an actual brain at work. And I can’t look away.


Stray observations:

  • This is the first episode not written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Instead the credit goes to Steven Katz.
  • Early Cinema Of The Day: George Albert Smith’s 1897 comedy, “The X-Rays.”
  • Meanwhile Edwards treats a hernia with silver wire. “They say every cloud has a silver lining,” says his patient. “Now I will, too.”
  • Thack to the henchmen standing over their fallen comrade. “Thank you, nurses. We’ll take it from here.”
  • Cornelia and Speight are still investigating typhoid, now at the Cooks’ place. Mr. Cook doesn’t want to be disturbed, but Speight tells them he’s still at risk of infection “unless he’s got a servant who wipes his ass for him.” The housekeeper, in front of an army of attendants: “Don’t think for a moment he doesn’t.”
  • The Edison X-Ray Photographic Apparatus costs $3,000, which Captain Robertson tells us is exorbitant. He’ll take two.
  • Check out the Monsignor reading from The Gospel Of Wealth: “Medical advice is as much a commodity as bread and to give either one or the other to the unworthy is wrong. It encourages irresponsibility and reckless use of valuable resources.”
  • So what exactly happened to Barrow’s money is he invested embezzled funds in a stock that couldn’t lose, which lost, and then he chased it with more, and then the crash of 1898 took that.
  • Cleary and Sister Harriet get their first patient. She has cold feet, or at least her upset husband does, but Cleary steamrolls him. Sister Harriet is a nun. That’s basically God telling you to have an abortion! Alas, the mother doesn’t. She was 7 months along, which Harry says would have been a sin.
  • Meant to discuss this further above, but thinking about how Gallinger’s kid got infected—his feud with Edwards—is revealing. Hard to call that karma, though.
  • Also, after weeks of Captain Robertson threatening to have a talk with Thack about Edwards, that was the chat they have?
  • As always, great comic cutting, in this case from Barrow oozing, “Always a pleasure,” to Edwards in the shower trying to get clean.