The fourth episode of “The Knick” has an opener that nicely encapsulates the weird heights to which it can climb. In it, surly ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) is pulled away from boozing for what appears to be a very important development. He winds up in a basement packed with excited men surrounding a circle. He carries a burlap sack. He dumps the contents of the sack in the circle. They turn out to be rats. A player proceeds to stomp as many of them to bloody death as he can. After a handful of gory gets, we cut to the title card: “The Knick.”
The gradual reveal of this crazy — and possibly exclusive to 1900 New York City’s literal underworld — game is the show at its best. It gives us one step at a time, leading to a surreal, almost Bunuelian punchline we almost certainly couldn’t have seen coming.
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It’s a jolting way to set up what is for the most part a transitional episode — a chance to plant that which will pay off later, with a few less of the big, obvious highs that came in the three preceding chapters. There’s little with Dr. Edwards’ (Andre Holland) secret basement clinic, very little with harried but prim hospital director Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), and none of the hammy loan shark (Danny Hoch) who took one of Barrow’s teeth and refused to give the right one back when his bill was paid.
But there are plenty of loopy/funny/fairly insane highs if you look for them. Barrow even gets one of these: He realizes he accidentally had a dead patient cremated when his and his widow’s wish was for him to be buried. He has to make up a lie (the man told Barrows personally he wanted cremation on his death bed!), and then comfort her by saying he’ll only charge her half.
Steven Soderbergh, the show’s director/cinematographer/editor (but not, alas, writer, as is occasionally noticeable), has said he wanted each episode to have at least one gasp-inducing old-timey surgical folly. The one here finds the brilliant but drug-addled Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) whimsically slicing a slit into a patient he just lost, sliding his hand inside and pumping her heart, just to see if he can manually induce a pulse. (He can.) He’s perhaps not entirely sure how this can be applied (perhaps he’s just laid way for the artificial hearts of the future), but a surgeon needs to experiment, and you can see a twinkle in Thackery’s eye as he realizes this harebrained scheme works.
The centerpiece comes early, with Edwards — as planned last episode — talking his bigoted colleagues through a radical procedure he co-invented, because they don’t want him to do it himself. Halfway through Thackery and team hit a snag, at which point Edwards remains mum, blackmailing them until they let him help with the operation himself. Soderbergh doesn’t use close-ups often, but he gives one to Edwards, shooting him from a low angle so as to show the power he knows he after all has.
But it’s not just that: When his colleagues realize he has the upper hand, you can see a smirk, one that grows to Grinchian extremes once Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson), the surgeon most vocal about his racism, hurls out a pathetic epithet. As written “The Knick” isn’t exactly subtle about its exploration of 1900 racial relations. But as played, especially by Holland, it complicates our feelings by making Edwards not exactly always likeable. He’s a snob against his own race, visibly humiliated that he has to live in poor segregated housing. He’s prone to self-destructive outbursts, like the fight he starts in episode 3’s otherworldly finale. And now he’s willing to risk the life of a patient to get what is, admittedly, rightfully his. He’s easy to understand him but not always easy to empathize with or even like.
Soderbergh is, in a way, one of the show’s stars, and he does his usual detached, underplaying shtick that does its best to naturalize the sometimes hoary dialogue. There’s a flashback Thackery has when spying on Abigail (Jennifer Ferrin), the old flame who came in last week to restore the nose eaten away by syphilis, now confined to a bed with her right arm up, a chunk of the appendage’s flesh connected to her proboscis. In it, Thackery is boozing with his mentor, Dr. Christensen (Matt Frewer), as Abigail looks on in horror. He wants to go out to get further tanked. “You always want more,” she says. “I always want more of you.”
Such exchanges aren’t constant in “The Knick,” but they come often enough and they’re problematic. Soderbergh has spent the last several years sometimes attracted to scripts this reviewer would deem beneath him, as though he liked the challenge of making art out of mediocrity — much the way Orson Welles took on “Touch of Evil” because it was the worst script he was offered. (Though “The Knick” isn’t at all poorly written.)
All Soderbergh can do is play them down and move on to focusing on his real concerns, among them making the past seem present. There’s a scene depicting a public demonstration of record recording, with one person speaking into a honking microphone then having what he said played back, to the gasps of the plebeian visitors. “How fortunate we are to be living in these times,” one of the demonstrators crows. It’s a laugh line — meant to make modern viewers chuckle at the people of 114 years ago being so bowled over by a now defunct technology. But Soderbergh does such an exhaustive job making the past seem normal that it plays as both a condescending gag and as fairly exciting. After all, do many of us, today, even know the specifics of how they got that voice on a piece of wax? Incredible!
— It’s a pretty good joke that smirking Health Inspector Speight (David Fierro) comes across as rude when he refuses to shake people’s hands (or eat their snacks), fearing they don’t wash them and may pawn off diseases. As though he wasn’t the show’s most enjoyably hissable character.
— It’s also funny (sort of) that there are now two secret clinics: Edwards’ basement one and the abortion ring started by Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), who’s been blackmailed into splitting the cash with Tom Cleary (even though he seems to at least partly disapprove of the practice). The worst part: the money she made she donated to the Knickerbocker, some of which would then go to pay Clearly anyway.
— This is the episode where Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) goes from being a blank wallflower, hovering around scenes, not doing much (except inject Thackery with a dose when he’s in a really bad spot), to someone who seems mysterious and fascinating. Soderbergh loves letting his camera stare at people as they themselves just observe, and Hewson is becoming one of his better finds. Elkins has developed a deeper fixation on Thackery, but it’s not clear why, especially because she’s now visited the blood red Chinatown opium den to which he retires. She’s one of those people you didn’t realize was so interesting until you’ve known them for a long time — and then you still don’t know them. Surely she’ll have a bigger role in the coming weeks.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge