There were two great jokes (and several other very good ones) in the fourth episode of “The Knick”’s new season. One had to do with someone being burned to death. The other involved the manner in which a serial abortionist was freed from jail. The first involved an older, minor doctor at the Knick — the one who two episodes ago became a little too excited when the prostitutes from ye olde Chinatown opium den swang by for the first weekly mass check-ups — propositioning a new nurse to become his own personal assistant. In the old days, he explains, doctors regularly had their own right-hand-(comely)-women. She agrees, and then a minor procedure ends with his entire head aflame.
The second joke was essentially a long con. Sister Harriett (Cara Seymour) has spent the season so far lingering in prison for aborting untold fetuses. Things have not looked good for her, and it almost seemed weird that the episodes kept checking back on this dead woman walking. But then came the surprise: the good abortin’ nun has been freed, thanks to the powers of connected allies (including Juliet Rylance’s reluctant society gal Cornelia) with money and influence, who themselves have their own connections to other people with money and influence.
One is a case of a freak, probably unpreventable accident suddenly ending a life as someone was doing that which they say makes God laugh: making plans. The other is a sudden windfall thanks to forces outside of one’s control. Steven Soderbergh is both “The Knick”’s director and cinematographer, but he is not the writer. And yet this presentation of blind chance — of one’s fortunes turning downward or upward without any effort on their part — is very much in keeping with his materialistic and deeply bemused worldview.
Soderbergh is an avowed believer in a godless universe driven by blind chance, a stance that occasionally bleeds into his work. “Contagion,” his ensemble pandemic saga, has a hilariously stark coda where all the death and frenzy and misery is revealed to have come from something beyond the control of anything in the universe. The world doesn’t care if we live or die or exist at all. Sometimes we don’t realize that until our head’s been set on fire.
But having money and connections certainly makes it easier. One of the big themes running through “Wonderful Surprises,” the darkly comic name of the fourth episode, is how money helps the unfortunate, be they sick or of a race considered, in 1900 New York, inferior. Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano) learns his mother is ill from a disease that almost always, in these times, ends in death. Luckily he knows some crazy, outside-the-box-thinking surgeons who may be able to help her.
Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland) too gets to enjoy the fruits of his labors, which is to say that sometimes, certain high society families will invite him over for a nice lunch. Last episode he received his own wonderful surprise, when his British wife, Opal (Zaraah Abrahams), up and appeared. She’s used to a more ethnically chill England, and thinks nothing of taking Cornelia’s family to task over their hypocrisies, such as pretending to be progressive while forgetting their employ a black maid.
Wealth and power provide the illusion of control in a world that doesn’t care what we have. Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson), for one, is getting worse in his bigotry, taunting immigrants and even coldcocking a street urchin who dared scare his fragile wife, on top of still hanging out with those smug eugenicists.
Those without power or money or any agency of any kind can find solace in becoming politicized. Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson — who, by the way, you know is Bono’s daughter, right?) is in a bad spot: recently beaten by her preacher dad; jilted by Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) and, what’s worse, forced to do periodic check-ups on him while he’s shirtless; and generally ignored and depressed. She reveals she’s retained quite a lot of knowledge about medical terminology, and when she confides in Sister Harriett about her state of mind, she reveals a proto-feminist, if one borne from her own bitterness. On the subject of gender inequality, she avers, “It doesn’t make any sense. And I’m sick of it.” This has been a fairly detached season of a very, shall we say, clinical show. But things are boiling.
Token stray observations:
— Sometimes “The Knick”’s dialogue isn’t too hot. At one point Thack drags Edwards on one of his mad scientist jaunts. “It’s over!” Edwards declaims as things get out of hand. “Not until I say it is!” Thack replies. What show are we watching again?
— A fair amount of prostitutes this episode. Chickering visiting one again proved he’s an adorbs standout: “I do, uh, know a thing about anatomy.”
— THE WIDE OPEN CHESTS OF SEVERAL CORPSES GAH