If last week’s (nail-biting) episode of “The Knick” played like a home invasion thriller, this plays like another type of movie: the junkie drama. The main hook this round is the Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) is out of cocaine. In fact, all of New York is out of cocaine, the ships that carry the plants required to make it having been under siege. As so often happens in life, what was a bout of altruism — Thackery et al. tending to black patients who had been assaulted during a race war targeting them — has come to bite him in the ass. He gave what wound up being the remainder of his coke to those in need, unaware that that was all that was left.
What this means for Steven Soderbergh — the show’s director, cinematographer and editor — is he gets another chance to show off his filmmaking prowess. It’s a markedly different kind of showing off than the speed and efficiency with which he handled a race riot and its aftermath. Thackery has spent the entire show so far mostly able to function without betraying his demons to others; indeed he can only function so brilliantly as he does because he’s hopped up. (Any workaholic requires some vice to keep them going. Mine is buying Faberge eggs.)
This can’t be conveyed through dialogue; Thackery is a guarded man, and though his withdrawal is such that people are finally actually remarking on how crappy he looks, he’s not going to talk about it. That means Soderbergh had to find ways to convey Thackery losing it, succumbing to coke-fits, through image and sound, not dialogue. He doesn’t settle for one method. Sometimes he presses the camera close to Owen, watching him squirm in a meeting while trying, badly, to stay calm. One time he performs a half-circle around him. Another time he simply holds on him while people outside the frame speak to him. When he’s about to make a public presentation, Thackery sneaks to a basement and doses up with a secret stash. When his hopped-up self stands at the podium, confidently barking his speech, Soderbergh’s camera dollies quickly towards him to capture the rush he’s on, which is only bound to dissipate.
It does, and Soderbergh finds other varied ways to show Thackery’s coming collapse, which happens, as it happens, during a surgical procedure, when a sweaty Thackery, his hair a mess of wet curls, can’t even speak without slurring and suddenly has to excuse himself. The show understands the way workaholics, as well as full-on geniuses like Thackery, need that forward momentum — to always be in the moment, to never lose control. It doesn’t matter what it takes to maintain that. Surely it’s something Soderbergh himself identifies with: After he retired from movies, he found himself on a show that, as Matt Zoller Seitz broke it down in an excellent look at the show’s visual and directorial style, must have taken 70 consistently jam-packed days to shoot and edit, let alone what came before and after.
The details of what transpires to Thackery in this episode is not without its cold turkey cliches. But it’s really about getting you caught in the mindset of someone who’s not only in thrall to drugs but to his job as well. It’s not just the chemical feeling of having something vital to your biology no longer being pumped into your body that’s at work here; it’s the feeling of losing control and of no longer being able to do the thing that the drugs were taken to make happen. Thackery even has an enabler: He is now regularly shtumping Nurse Elkins (Eve Henson), who is so crazy about him she actually helps him get high as opposed to helps him get better. (The scene in bed when he chases a bonk session with dosing up is handled with an unnerving lack of fireworks. This is just how it is now.)
This episode isn’t like last week’s though; it’s not about one thing. There’s still work to be done, characters to drop in on, plots to keep moving. The hospital has largely recovered from the riot of last week, and we touch base with Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland) and Constance (Juliet Rylance), who are now officially a secret item, as well as Typhoid Mary, who charms her way back to freedom after four months of tests that have more or less proven she’s infected and contagious, if not overtly sick. The judge can’t see this and because everyone else was occupied, young Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano) had to testify on behalf of the hospital. He whiffs it by losing his temper and insulting the judge — something Thackery probably knows not to do. But he’s busy with his addiction, and so the world gets at least a little bit more of Typhoid Mary, who wouldn’t be properly contained till 1907. That little bit captures Soderbergh’s worldview at its essence: a mix of detachment, bemusement and horror. It’s funny how easily unimaginable tragedy works.
— Probably not a great time, this week, for an episode about Typhoid Mary cackling at her wouldbe medical jailers, skipping off to unwittingly infect probably loads more.
— The big stand-out scene — in terms of one that’s also dialogue, not just Soderbergh finding inventive cinematic ways of conveying Thackery’s biological rebellion — is his scotch-ridden encounter with Dr. Chickering’s father. He wants his son removed from the hospital, which he senses is a “carnival,” run by madmen. He’s not wrong, especially since Thackery at the time can just barely speak. Then again, through madness lies progress. As he says earlier in the episode, “Good is not enough.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge