Midway through “There Are Rules,” the sixth episode of “The Knick”’s second season, Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano) gets a good chewing out. He’s just sneaked his dying mother into his new digs at Mt. Sinai for an after hours operation. Mt. Sinai, as head surgeon Dr. Zinberg (Michael Nathanson) has crowed, is not The Knickerbocker, which is to say it’s not the kind of place run by a brilliant junkie like Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen). Zinberg caught Chickering in the act, and even though the procedure was not a success — i.e., Chickering’s mother died — the reliably cold Zinberg does not find it an inopportune time to lay into his new employee, to remind him that there are indeed rules and that high-wire, Thackeryesque acts are not tolerated at Mt. Sinai. (As a sign of his condolences, Zinberg allows Chickering to quit rather than be fired.)
You can call “The Knick” cold too, and we have: It is, it can be fairly objectively said, a detached show, told from a cool remove by director/cinematographer (though not writer) Steven Soderbergh. But it’s not Zinberg-y. It’s not quite Thackery-y either, which is to say it never goes crazy. It remains clinical. But it’s also about pushing limits, trying outside-the-box things, maybe even things that don’t work. As we’ve said before, this is a period show that’s trying to re-think how to present the past. It’s shot digitally and semi-guerilla-style. It has a moody electronic score (by Cliff Martinez). It doesn’t hide (or try to apologize for) racial or gender issues, but it’s also not about merely flattering its contemporary audiences for being more advanced. If anything, it reminds us that we haven’t advanced enough.
These experiments have all worked, and really well. But its more forward-thinking characters don’t have the same batting average. “There Are Rules” begins with Thackery — presumably permanently super-high again, which means he’s calm and prone to potentially brilliant thoughts — getting really into magic. He’s at a carnival, where he’s hypnotized by hypnosis — not by an actual hypnotist himself, but the act of seeing his victims falling under his sway. Thack’s mission this season has been to find a cure for addiction — which, you know, good luck. But he’s been open-minded, experimental, prone to ideas that may lead only to dead ends, as any scientist must be to make real progress. Last week, Thack toyed with performing partial lobotomies. That didn’t work. Neither does hypnosis, which he discovers in ways far less grisly.
Still, he’s not going to effect change if he did things the Zinberg way — if he played by the rules. The most fascinating characters on “The Knick” grow and change and experiment and sometimes fail then try again. Thack’s former partner-in-crime, Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), has dramatically changed about three times in this season alone. She tried returning to the religion of her preacher father, which ended disastrously. She tried being remote. Now she’s trying to be forward and in-charge. She’s been gallivanting about with aristo Phillip Showalter (Tom Lipinski), and this episode she tried her own move, sidling up to him and calmly jerking him off while whispering demands, like a total badass.
Chickering too has changed. Gone is the nice guy routine. Now he’s anguished, maybe even a loose cannon. But he can still keep the lid on. He and Elkins have a brief pow-wow late in where they reunite while crossing paths in The Knick. Chickering was devastated to learn Elkins, on whom he was crushing, had been knocking bedposts with Thack. He burned bridges with both of them. Now with some time he’s chilled out, and so has she.
The exchange that follows is only a few sentences, but every one counts, and it shows that “The Knick” isn’t completely remote. Still, it does emotion its way. Neither actor is emphatic, but you can sense the heartbreak in their lines, which play as deep feelings they’d otherwise like to keep buried. “I’d give anything to be friends again,” Hewson’s Elkins says, with the same quiet, unplaceable inflection with which she says everything. It’s like she thinks she’s playing coy when she’s actually spilling out her guts. And both are doing what few would like to do: admit defeat and repair a broken relationship with someone who’s become estranged. That mix of the clinical and the messy — as we’ve said time and time and time again, ad nauseum, really — is what makes “The Knick.”
Token stray observations:
— Firstly, hear hear to the return of John Hodgman! He popped up last season as the doctor who removes the teeth of Dr. Gallinger’s (Eric Johnson) unstable wife (Maya Kazan — yes, a relation), because he thought teeth spread mental illness. We actually thought it was just a guy who looked like John Hodgman, who tends to dress and wear his mustache like it was 1900 anyway. But it was him and, despite forcing Gallinger to buy dentures for his poor wife, his character showed up at his house anyway, sitting down for a tense dinner. The dinner was made even more uncomfortable by the way Soderbergh shot it — not just his usual “I’ll shoot this from one location, trained on one actor and watch his or her face during the whole thing” thing, but from above the ground, behind Hodgman’s head. Gallinger was sitting across from him at the far end of a table, and he’s in such a bad place right now — the drunken, smarmy eugenicists did not appear this round, alas — that we watch the scene waiting for him to explode and unable to get a good look at his face to see when. He sat there still, then suddenly, at one point, got up, walked to the other side of the table and, instead of producing a blunt object and caving in Hodgman’s head, he fixed himself another drink, and returned. That was enough to cause Hodgman to fake feeling sick and bail, and it was enough to make this one of the episode’s best moments, of several.
— Another one-take wonder: Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) retrieving/kidnapping the Siamese twin ladies from their carnival owner, with the help of his trusty crowbar. Even better: his courteous goodbye to his not dead victim.
— Speaking of Tom: He and Sister Harriett (Cara Seymour) are the cutest.
— One more case where careful lighting, or lack thereof, added to the emotional richness and even suspense of a scene: The final one, where Thack revisits his old flame, the one who got the, er, nose job. Thack bounces in and out of the frame, while her face is mostly covered in shadows, which makes her confession about how he treats her — “You only come here to talk, you go elsewhere for everything else” — all the more touching because the darkness on her face conceals how uneasy she feels about being so emotionally open. Then that spontaneous, episode-closing kiss.