Midway through “There Are Rules,” the sixth episode of “The Knick”’s second season, Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano) gets a good chewing out. He’s just sneaked his dying mother into his new digs at Mt. Sinai for an after hours operation. Mt. Sinai, as head surgeon Dr. Zinberg (Michael Nathanson) has crowed, is not The Knickerbocker, which is to say it’s not the kind of place run by a brilliant junkie like Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen). Zinberg caught Chickering in the act, and even though the procedure was not a success — i.e., Chickering’s mother died — the reliably cold Zinberg does not find it an inopportune time to lay into his new employee, to remind him that there are indeed rules and that high-wire, Thackeryesque acts are not tolerated at Mt. Sinai. (As a sign of his condolences, Zinberg allows Chickering to quit rather than be fired.)
You can call “The Knick” cold too, and we have: It is, it can be fairly objectively said, a detached show, told from a cool remove by director/cinematographer (though not writer) Steven Soderbergh. But it’s not Zinberg-y. It’s not quite Thackery-y either, which is to say it never goes crazy. It remains clinical. But it’s also about pushing limits, trying outside-the-box things, maybe even things that don’t work. As we’ve said before, this is a period show that’s trying to re-think how to present the past. It’s shot digitally and semi-guerilla-style. It has a moody electronic score (by Cliff Martinez). It doesn’t hide (or try to apologize for) racial or gender issues, but it’s also not about merely flattering its contemporary audiences for being more advanced. If anything, it reminds us that we haven’t advanced enough.
These experiments have all worked, and really well. But its more forward-thinking characters don’t have the same batting average. “There Are Rules” begins with Thackery — presumably permanently super-high again, which means he’s calm and prone to potentially brilliant thoughts — getting really into magic. He’s at a carnival, where he’s hypnotized by hypnosis — not by an actual hypnotist himself, but the act of seeing his victims falling under his sway. Thack’s mission this season has been to find a cure for addiction — which, you know, good luck. But he’s been open-minded, experimental, prone to ideas that may lead only to dead ends, as any scientist must be to make real progress. Last week, Thack toyed with performing partial lobotomies. That didn’t work. Neither does hypnosis, which he discovers in ways far less grisly.
Still, he’s not going to effect change if he did things the Zinberg way — if he played by the rules. The most fascinating characters on “The Knick” grow and change and experiment and sometimes fail then try again. Thack’s former partner-in-crime, Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), has dramatically changed about three times in this season alone. She tried returning to the religion of her preacher father, which ended disastrously. She tried being remote. Now she’s trying to be forward and in-charge. She’s been gallivanting about with aristo Phillip Showalter (Tom Lipinski), and this episode she tried her own move, sidling up to him and calmly jerking him off while whispering demands, like a total badass.