The third episode of “The Knick” opens with old flames reunited. But the circumstances are far from ideal, and it doesn’t go the way these things tend to go, in movies and life. Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is none too happy when he’s interrupted by Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) with a visiting friend. “I assure you that my social circle is sufficiently small that I would know anyone foolish enough to call themselves any such thing,” he growls before recognizing the visitor, even from afar and with her back turned.
She’s Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin), and it’s instantly clear — before the dialogue starts faux-coyly dropping hints — that they were once an item. Abigail is wearing sunglasses that hold up a case to conceal her nose, which we can assume has fallen on bad times. Thackery drops everything to examine her. Turns out an STD, received from her husband (wherever he may be) via a lover, has ravaged her proboscis into something gnarly indeed. She insists — even after Thackery suggests a colleague who counts early plastic surgery as a specialty — he perform the procedure himself.
But this isn’t a bitter lovers’ reunion, or even a particularly strained one. It doesn’t even get nasty (save the gruesomeness of Abigail’s ailment, of course). In “Getting Away With It,” his interview book with filmmaker Richard Lester, “The Knick” director Steven Soderbergh pores praise over a scene in the director’s brilliant 1968 film “Petulia.” In it, lead George C. Scott — playing a surgeon, no less — gets a visit from his ex (Shirley Knight) that goes from faux-polite to strained to nasty to passionate. It’s a scene that feels very modern, in that it is motivated entirely by specific, sometimes “immature” feelings that mostly stay internal.
No such fireworks here — which is what makes it so remarkable. Thackery, who is prone to eloquent, write-this-line-down threats when prodded (as he does later in the episode to a nurse), is on his best behavior. He’s not clinical per se, but actually doting, even as he refuses to cross the Hippocratic line. He says things like “what’s past is past” and “you don’t owe me explanations.”
And yet there’s a sensuous way the scene plays out because of that light tension, made more palpable for the way Soderbergh lets the shots play out unhurriedly, and with no artificial light. He introduces her deformity in dimly-lit profile — her face caving in just at the tip — before actually showing it head-on. Once we can see it clearly, Soderbergh doesn’t shy away from it, and is casual about letting us see it without trying to goose watching gorehounds. Like much of the way the show is handled, it’s done with a fascinated cool that’s perhaps even cooler than Clive Owen himself (which is saying something).
Thackery’s calm and gentle touch here shows that, after the embarrassing incident in the first episode in which he had to be drugged up by Nurse Evans, he’s gotten control over his demons — for now, of course. He arguably has the biggest problems: He’s an addict who regularly crashes at a Chinatown opium den. But even a scene where he rolls up his sleeve to dose himself and has to search hard for a clean spot suggests he’s got it covered.
Only few of the others at the Knickerbocker Hospital can say the same. Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), the prim administrator, has been strolling around with a hand to his mouth, caressing the tooth that was ripped out by fearsome mobster (Danny Hoch). (His attempt to get it back — that is, the right tooth — is very amusing, with the henchman sitting behind him, barely able to contain their laughter.) We learn he has a regular prostitute with whom he plays giggle-inducing sex games. He can barely keep it together, and by the end of the episode he’s taking his frustration out by doing something Thackery only does for scientific research: He’s pointlessly gutting pigs.
Doing much worse, it could be argued, is Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), the black surgeon forced upon the casually bigoted Thackery and team. Edwards has come from progressive Europe to Dark Ages New York City, where he’s constantly undermined by his colleagues and stuck in a fetid tenement house. His only outlet is opening a makeshift clinic in the Knickerbocker’s unfrequented basement. But the conditions aren’t great; his “nurses” include a laundress who, when asked about an ailing patient’s pulse, replies, “He’s still got one.” By the episode’s finale things have gotten so bad for him that he’s taken to picking fights at bars, which luckily he can win. Soderbergh shoots this tussle from uncomfortably close to the back of Edwards’ head, witnessing his “triumph” in alien out-of-focus.
So much of “The Knick” is serious and detached that it’s worth noting its very unique and very Soderberghian sense of humor. Despite the psychic damage the other doctors’ treatment of Edwards does to Edwards, the subplot in which Doctors Galligner (Eric Johnson) and Checkering (Michael Angarano) try to learn a radical procedure co-authored by Edwards is downright hilarious. For one thing, the paper — which they’ve gotten by breaking into Columbia and stealing it — is in French, and neither speaks the language well. They don’t want to just ask Edwards to teach them the procedure, but they clearly will kill anyone they try it on. It’s the most overtly comedic part of the show, though everything — including the accidental electrocution from last week’s episode — has a heavy touch of the funny. Even at “The Knick”’s darkest there’s something at least faintly amusing afoot.
— It’s not getting a ton of screentime (yet), but the typhoid scare — allegedly springing from immigrants living in poor housing — has shades of Soderbergh’s “Contagion.” There’s a touch of indifferent nature coming for all: “Sickness isn’t a reflection of one’s bank account,” Thackery muses, though he’s missing that the smirking, hissable health inspector (David Fierro) is glad to take bribes rather than enforce any change that may quell the disease. (The show’s timing with the real-life Ebola outbreak, as well as race talk tied to Ferguson, is eerie.)
— The simple one-take shot of Thackery at night zonking out a pig on which to experiment while a black patient walks down to Edwards’ secret clinic is very Soderbergh: Even we may not immediately catch on that when she asks about “the cleaning job” that it’s code. In Soderbergh’s work, different worlds coexist, sometimes without knowing of the other.
— Thackery’s coiled threat to a gabby nurse: If she talks about anything not medically-related again, “I will you sow your mouth and nostrils shut and happily watch you asphyxiate.” Damn.
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