There were two great jokes (and several other very good ones) in the fourth episode of “The Knick”’s new season. One had to do with someone being burned to death. The other involved the manner in which a serial abortionist was freed from jail. The first involved an older, minor doctor at the Knick — the one who two episodes ago became a little too excited when the prostitutes from ye olde Chinatown opium den swang by for the first weekly mass check-ups — propositioning a new nurse to become his own personal assistant. In the old days, he explains, doctors regularly had their own right-hand-(comely)-women. She agrees, and then a minor procedure ends with his entire head aflame.
The second joke was essentially a long con. Sister Harriett (Cara Seymour) has spent the season so far lingering in prison for aborting untold fetuses. Things have not looked good for her, and it almost seemed weird that the episodes kept checking back on this dead woman walking. But then came the surprise: the good abortin’ nun has been freed, thanks to the powers of connected allies (including Juliet Rylance’s reluctant society gal Cornelia) with money and influence, who themselves have their own connections to other people with money and influence.
One is a case of a freak, probably unpreventable accident suddenly ending a life as someone was doing that which they say makes God laugh: making plans. The other is a sudden windfall thanks to forces outside of one’s control. Steven Soderbergh is both “The Knick”’s director and cinematographer, but he is not the writer. And yet this presentation of blind chance — of one’s fortunes turning downward or upward without any effort on their part — is very much in keeping with his materialistic and deeply bemused worldview.
Soderbergh is an avowed believer in a godless universe driven by blind chance, a stance that occasionally bleeds into his work. “Contagion,” his ensemble pandemic saga, has a hilariously stark coda where all the death and frenzy and misery is revealed to have come from something beyond the control of anything in the universe. The world doesn’t care if we live or die or exist at all. Sometimes we don’t realize that until our head’s been set on fire.