Despite the fact that this episode contains a man accidentally setting himself on fire, Cornelia’s new secret nighttime activity, and the unexpected survival of Abby, the patient who swallowed malaria to catch the syphilis, “Wonderful Surprises” technically refers to whatever pleasant exercises Opal might have dreamed up for Algie come bedtime had he not pretended for months now that she didn’t exist and isn’t his wife. The line is that Algie shouldn’t expect any wonderful surprises. The episode is named for its negative. The episode is named for a woman wielding power.
“Wonderful Surprises” is similar to “The Best With The Best To Get The Best” in its focus on who has power and how they wield it, but it shifts perspective slightly to focus on gender. It’s an episode about a bunch of men making decisions for women. Before you say you could say that about every episode, note that gender isn’t the main obstacle in Genevieve’s career or Lucy’s family life. And while there are cases where the dramatic power imbalances of the episode are somewhat muted by the advanced knowledge the male characters have—the climactic sequence of Thack putting Abby’s body through such outrageous trials isn’t the best demonstration of a chauvinist society—this one is in your face with its priorities. The logline says Lucy laments her lot in life. That isn’t quite right What Lucy does in this episode is get promoted (by way of Mays’ death) to the doctor role in the prostitute check-ups, bone up on medicine, and then realize she isn’t getting what she deserves from a world that privileges disappointing men.
Opal is pointedly an outsider to this particular society, and she’s the woman who’s not lying down for the status quo. Not just in Algie’s bed. At dinner with the Robertsons, she asks the captain to reconcile his professed progressivism with the fact that Algie’s parents serve his meals and drive him around. They aren’t even allowed to attend this momentous brunch except in their capacities as servants. From her introduction, Opal seemed like a troublemaker for our beloved Dr. Edwards. He welcomes her to his, well, their humble abode, and she walks around turning on the lights and opening his boxes, the better to convey her intentions to figure out what he’s hiding. The camera is energized by her, swooping in as she steps forward to give her this action hero portrait. At the end of the scene she stands face to face with Algie, hers lit in gold and his barely visible in shadow, and she tells him, “I’m staying, and I’m keeping what’s mine.”
Cornelia has to be sneakier. She does everything but yawn while checking her watch at the party planning committee meeting. The Office is subtler. Later she’s surprised by her brother and husband and would-have-been baby-daddy’s wife at lunch, forced to express herself mainly with glares and a jaw clenched in rage. She only really gets to exert power on the sly, like in her secret meeting with Cleary and all the women who have used Harry’s services to terminate a pregnancy. Phillip has forbid her from joining Harry in court and funding her lawyer, but she finds a way around that, and it works out. She helps get Harry off. That night she waits out Mrs. Showalter the same way Eleanor waits out Dorothy, and then she leaves the mansion to go on a hunt. How fortunate that a Law & Order witness to the Speight family move just happened to be quitting the house next door as Cornelia arrives. And all after a proper woman’s bedtime! In addition to the fact that Cornelia only has power when the men aren’t looking, we’re constantly reminded throughout her final sequence that the men are always looking. Even when she seems to be on her own, on the case, taking matters into her own hands, she’s still a part of someone else’s scheming. It could be Tammany Hall keeping tabs on the Speight affair, but the fact that her tail was waiting for her outside her own house makes me think it’s a Showalter investigator. Maybe Phillip’s starting to wonder why they rarely have sex. Maybe Hobart’s curious why Neely’s never in her room when he checks on her before bed.
Harry takes control of her life in what ways she can. The case is dismissed under cover of entrapment after Cleary leans on his old customers to lean on their powerful husbands to do something, lest they get named on the stand for all the drooling reporters. To put a very fine point on it, the women are powerless except over their men. As always, Cleary has quite a way with words. “I doubt you was letting penniless shine boys put the bat in the cave.” No, indeed. Rather Cleary hopes just one of “these powerful fellas who emptied their bags in ya” is in the right position to come through for him, and it works. He has a whole life lined up for Harry, at least for the time being, but she rejects him. She stands up for her own values and takes a worse and decidedly less entertaining (we were this close to a turn-of-the-century Odd Couple) life at a home for fallen women. She’s notorious, the rules are strict, and she has to sleep on a mattress on the floor with no sheets or pillows like the beds for the other women. It’s not much, but at least it was her decision.
Abby’s the other main woman in the episode, and like I said, there’s a difference between a doctor-patient relationship and the general man-woman dichotomy in this society or even the doctor-nurse relationship. As the delightful Dr. Mays tells a new nurse in a scene that’s exciting not least for starring no regulars, “I could be very helpful in securing a long future for you here at the Knick.” Then he lights himself on fire and she just screams. I’m not sure she has a very long future as a nurse anywhere. Lucy would have doused him in water and muttered, “Amateur,” in time to save the patient. But as for Abby, she’s an educated woman who knows the malaria treatment is insane. Thack would have to raise her temperature nine degrees to kill off the virus. “How can you be certain that won’t kill me in the process?” she asks. “It’s a risk,” he replies. But after a seizure, she decides it’s worth the risk. She consents to this highly experimental procedure. Hey, it worked on a pig. So, despite the fact that he probably sees some kind of award at the end of this, Thack taking a woman’s body into his own hands and deciding what’s best for her isn’t in the same ballpark as Neely’s life being so often out of her hands or Henry persuading Daisy to get naked on film or Gallinger and his eugenics bud brainstorming the revolutionary possibilities of mass sterilization for dark-skinned people.
Thack’s treatment is also about his own ego and his little-challenged prerogative to endanger lives in his experimental procedures and thereby possibly violate the Hippocratic oath, but Abby was never just some patient to him. He’s obsessed with her. She’s the woman on the boat. He sincerely wants to do what’s best for her. She might have rescued him on Gallinger’s boat, and now he’s rescuing her from syphilis. Except that, to this lay man, she’s almost certainly going to die. Thack drifts off to sleep at her bedside and remembers the woman on the boat, and I remember Mad Men’s “The Suitcase,” when Don Draper imagines one last vision of someone near and dear to his heart right before she dies. The wonderful surprise: Abby wakes up. Now that does make for a broad conclusion. Lucy, Eleanor, Cornelia, Harry, Abby—the women endure.
- “Wonderful Surprises” is written by Jack Amiel and Michel Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh.
- Among the lines Henry tries on Daisy: “I dare you.” Well, in that case.
- Bertie, under the alias “Tom, Thomas, Tom,” visits a prostitute for the first time, leading to the best joke of the night. “Well, to tell you the truth, this is my first time too.” “Really?”
- A mother wants to leave her gaggle of children with her sick one in the hospital while she goes out for the day. As usual Gallinger takes the opportunity to bore everyone to death with his callous politics. “They’re your responsibility, not anyone else’s.”
- So Barrow has squirreled away 12 thousand smackers from the construction of the new Knick so far. How much could he possibly owe Wu? Regardless, the noble and instructional protection racket of Tammany Hall comes to his aid for a small 15 percent kickback.
- Opal was cool until she said the Eiffel Tower was “a stain on a perfect city.” Someone loves attention.
- The Chickering family dinner is so stiff it’s no wonder Bertie would wind up awkwardly bragging about his anatomical knowledge at a brothel.
- Bertie’s mother has an esophygeal mass. Well, let his father explain. “If it comes out, it kills her. If it stays in, it kills her.” Bertie asks, “Does she know?” “I haven’t told her yet.”