It should have been obvious from the start, but Tom Clearly, the surly ambulance driver played by Chris Sullivan, might wind up being “The Knick”’s most memorable character. He’s not anguished, like Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackery, or righteously angry, like Andre Holland’s Dr. Edwards, or fractured, like Eve Hewson’s Nurse Elkins. In fact, it’s taken till the eighth episode of the second season for him to show anything approaching a deep, wounded emotion.
“Not Well At All” is the episode when he finally breaks free from his meat-and-potatoes badassedness and makes a move on Harriett (Cara Seymour), the former Sister, his former co-abortionist and his current roommate. There’s been a fair amount of pairing off and breaking up on “The Knick,” but their platonic, will-they-or-won’t-they? relationship has been the cutest, in part because both have seemed essentially, for their own, different reasons, asexual.
While cavorting about at a carnival, swapping looks in Kinetoscope machines (this has been a great season for lovers of early-early film), he whimsically loses his cool and goes in for a kiss. Harriett doesn’t just recoil; she chews him out, accuses him of being base and storms off — to their flophouse home, as it were. The unflappable Tom is finally crestfallen — quite a contrast to both everything he’s done over the show thus far, and to earlier in the episode. Things began with him saving Thack, thanks to his trusty bat, from the carnival barker from a few episodes back, who showed up at the Knick drunk and armed, looking to reclaim his Siamese twins, who have since been separated.
At this point “The Knick,” with two episodes left in its current season — and with no sign yet that it will return next year — is threatening to become a show driven less by plot or even ideas than by characters. It’s definitely still a show about ideas, and it’s definitely still told in a chilly remove by director/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh. But I’d like to think we’ve come to, shall we say, enjoy its characters — which is not the same as saying we “like” or “care” about them, those dreaded, mushy terms we apply to nonexistent people more often than to real ones. Most of them have changed over two seasons — some hardening, some lightening up, some hills and valleys. But they’ve become enjoyable as an ensemble — as important a part of what makes the show work as Soderbergh’s direction, the period details, the examination of progress-vs.-tradition and the super gory operations (of which there were none this episode, alas). It will be sad to leave them, should the show end.