So now “The Knick” is a cocaine show. There wasn’t even a token gory operation in the season’s penultimate episode, though there was one that was, shall we say, aborted. The big, swaggering star of this ensemble cast, Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackery, was officially too far-gone to work. Shipping problems in the Philippines have left 1900 New York without a key ingredient to make cocaine, and evidently the brilliant doctor is far from the city’s only cokehead.
The drug has been key to how Thackery lives and works; he’s a busy bee genius because he’s always on something. Without cocaine he’s just a junkie in withdrawal. When the episode opens he’s at what is at that point his lowest moment (though he’ll soon find new depths). Frazzled and red-eyed, he busts into a pharmacy to get his sweaty mitts on some cocaine vials. He’s quickly busted by a policeman who’s gotten used to nabbing druggies recently, many of whom have had the same idea. Thackery’s become just one of the derelicts, except he’s not: hospital director Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) is quick to bribe him out of the slammer and keep his name out of the morning paper, though few have trouble guessing which busted prominent doctor the articles allude to.
The bulk of the episode focuses on Thackery’s desperate, sometimes creative attempts to either find cocaine or create a rough simulacrum. Luckily he has a partner: Nurse Elkins (Eve Henson), his stalker-turned-ladyfriend, who is so bewitched by her beloved that she’s entered into one of those co-dependent crazy relationships, where the psychosis is carried by both, the delusion maintained by team effort. (Owen’s movie star charisma has perhaps never been put to better use than when Elkins asks how she can help, and he grabs her and calmly yet firmly replies, with a dastardly grin, “You can find me…an ocean of cocaine.” “The Knick” may go down as the greatest coke show ever.)
Elkins is pretty resourceful, though, while Henson is peerless at conveying innocent cool and faint insanity at the same time. With her Southern accent and tiny frame, she’s easy to miss in a crowd, which allows her to slip into a hospital, throw out some fake credentials and walk away — or, in her case, run madly, while giving pursuit — with some real deal coke.
In examining the show’s aesthetics, the critic Matt Zoller Seitz has compared how director/editor/cinematographer has constructed the show’s 10 episodes to Joan Didion's pared-down sentences. Seitz writes, “He often seems to be challenging himself to see how little he can get away with and still give the audience the information it needs to make sense of a moment.” The minimalism extends to lighting too. Thackery’s opening break-in is not only banged out in two shots, but with a mere few, faint light sources. In fact, this is the show’s darkest lit episode yet, fitting for one where its characters — and not just Thackery and Elkins — roll around in misery. Early on, Thackery treats Elkins to a strung-out, frothing junkie explosion, and the room is so dark you can just barely make out their faces. As Elkins lies on the ground, nervously hearing out his apology, she looks like she’s in a Rembrandt painting. Any darker and she wouldn’t be visible.
The other people not doing so hot are the other lovebirds who first hooked up in the incredible seventh episode: Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) and Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland). They’re in love, but — in a fairly melodramatic twist — she’s wound up preggers. Cornelia is clearly not happy with this. But after showing grave concern for her predicament, Edwards slowly allows a proud smirk to evolve into pure elation. Having lived abroad, in places far more racially progressive than America — which is to say, actually racially progressive — he thinks a mixed-race kid should not be a big deal, even though he has no way of knowing anti-miscegenation laws wouldn’t be deemed unconstitutional for another 67 years.
The society-bred (but still very progressive) Cornelia doesn’t even entertain this as a possibility, and when Edwards realizes this, he turns on her, treating her to the kind of self-righteous shaming he wouldn’t even bestow upon the hospital’s most racist colleague, Dr. Gallinger. Edwards agrees to perform an abortion on the fetus he helped create, but he does so while acting cold and hostile towards Cornelia, humiliating her by clinically ordering her to disrobe and refusing eye contact. This scene too is mostly in the dark, at first lit by a single, tiny bulb, then by a stronger light source that still mostly obscures Cornelia’s nudity, granting her the dignity Edwards denies her.
"The Knick" has been so smart about race that it hasn't been afraid to make Edwards unlikable at times, even arrogant. In this episode his actions are cruel, and he's far from sensitive about another mistreated minority: women. This scene doesn't end well.As with Thackery’s habit, the only way this storyline will get better in the season’s final episode is by a cheap happy ending.
Obligatory stray observations:
— Actually, no one this episode is doing so hot. After this week, Gallinger has arguably suffered more tragedies than anyone on staff, including Thackery, and he’s a mad junkie. Chickering (Michael Angarano), meanwhile, has been Ralph Bellamied — the term referring to actor Ralph Bellamy, who in the ’30s repeatedly played the nice guy women chose before they realized they really did want unreliable, dashing Cary Grant. Chickering’s run-in with Elkins, who he seems to think is his girlfriend, is heartbreaking stuff, but only because he’s too thick to catch on that she found her Cary Grant in Thackery (or at least Clive Owen).
— A spin-off, please, for Danny Hoch’s Bunky Collier, the pimp, loan shark and gangster who happily returned after a few episodes AWOL.
— Somehow couldn’t find room in the main for the best directed scene: Gallinger having his now totally bonkers wife committed, which is depicted as men coming in to straightjacket her while the soundtrack is commandeered by a woman singing strangely — Mrs. Gallinger, perhaps? Very spooky.
— Speaking of which, the one asylum official almost looks like John Hodgman. (UPDATE: It turns out Evil John Hodgman was actually John Hodgman. He presumably brought his own clothes.)
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge