So far “The Knick” has distinguished itself as a show that knows a killer opening (sometimes actually). The set piece that kicks off the fifth episode is nearly as sharp as the one that kicked off the third — the one where brilliant druggy surgeon Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) was visited by an ex whose nose had been partially eaten by syphilis. This one’s funnier: pimp and all-around nogoodnik Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch) — the one who ripped hospital director Barrow’s (Jeremy Bobb) tooth out and wouldn’t’ return it — is back. One of his men has been shot in the leg and, not wanting to have to deal with Barrow, Bunky takes him to an old-timey barber, who’s really just a drunk with a saw.
Series director/editor/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh shoots this encounter in a single, still shot, lit with a single, solitary light bulb. It doesn’t take too long for Bunky to cave and drag him to the Knickerbocker, thus agreeing to severely cut down Barrow’s evidently astronomical debt in payment for an operation. But Bunky won’t do it happily. Tapping on a tiny gun in his belt, he promises to shoot all present staff — including Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland) — in the face if the leg isn’t saved.
“The Knick” likes to frontload its best material so that it’s free to root around in its world, which is getting deeper and deeper with every episode. Having gained confidence by one-upping Bunky, Barrow soon proposes he get into business with him. Barrow is now widely straddling all across diverse social strata: dining in fine restaurants where he talks Delmonico’s one minute, fantasizing with his go-to prostitute about running off together the next, and now actually getting into bed, so to speak, with a pimp who deducts red hair dye from his staffers’ pay.
In fact everyone’s pairing off, as though this were a drunken party. Abortion-performing nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) is now firmly in bed (again, so to speak) with disreputable ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), who have become a most entertaining odd couple. Thackery himself is finding himself increasingly drawn to his sometime stalker, Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), who may have finally bewitched him by showing off her bike — then, as now, the best way to get around New York City.
The only prominent characters who are still alone are benefactor Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) and Dr. Edwards. The show still hasn’t fully figured out what to do with the former, while the latter continues to absorb humiliations both subtle and overt while trying to maintain a dignity that sometimes borders on the snobbish. Treating a man early on the show, he winds up condescending to him, first trying to dumb down his hospital-speak, then assuming he’s a blue collar worker with some kind of construction job. Instead he rolls Cuban cigars and owns a handsome suit. Later Edwards will smoke one in the grimy blacks-only hotel, out of defiance for the living conditions he doesn’t deserve.
The writing for Edwards character and the racial issues his presence constantly brings up hasn’t always been subtle. But it’s getting better at making them hurt more — and, as I’ve said in previous recaps, it’s smart to make Edwards sometimes a bit unlikeable and arrogant (see: his condescension towards his patient this episode). He suffers two major heartbreaks this week. First, after he and Thackery save Bunky’s man, the two sit outside in the morning hours, bitching about the humidity and generally sharing relief and, it seems, a final moment of mutual respect. Then Barrow swings by, passes Thackery a flask and then unthinkingly doesn’t pass it to Edwards, who snarls and excuses himself.
The other one finds Edwards whisked to his visit his mother, who’s been ailing. He thinks he’s there to treat her but finds Thackery is already there. He can’t even tend to his mother. Without offering a spoiler, the racial angle will, in a couple episodes, boil over in a way that’s even more interesting and productive than it is already.
Token stray observations:
— Just going to assume that the gratuitous talk about Nurse Elkins biking in New York City is a subliminal advertisement for CitiBikes. And this is a great New York show. I’m with Thackery: The humidity in this town is just the worst.
— One of “The Knick”’s better obsessions is with money and budgets. It doesn’t get a ton of room, but the business about getting an X-ray machine that will cost a lot of money but make them stand out as technological and progressive fits in nicely with talk in episodes past about fitting the joint with fancy electricity.
— Speaking of which, this remains one of the prettiest lit shows, or even things, in memory. When digital video first became widespread, there was a fear we would all have to get used to butt-ugly images. Those of us who thought that were wrong. Soderbergh, who shoots this as well, creates imagery as striking as it would be were it on film. There’s a great low angle shot of Edwards tending to a patient in his secret underground clinic lit with a single lightbulb, which keeps distorting our view. It’s nearly as gorgeous in its abstraction as the jaw-dropping fight from episode three, in which the camera was perched right behind Edwards’ head.
— Clive Owen’s movie career has more or less stalled, which is a shame because on this show he is such a movie star. He’s mesmerizing by doing next to nothing, oozing old school cool. It’s insane that movies — and movie audiences — don’t know what to do with him, and great that he’s so terrific on “The Knick.” Future montage editors: Be sure to grab for your Clive Owen clip reel the part in this episode when, awoken way too early to stitch up a gangster, he fumes out, “Whoever the hell this is, go to hell.”
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