Last season, the seventh episode was when “The Knick” busted out “Get the Rope” — not only the peak of the series thus far but one of the best things show director/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh has ever done. An episode with a single, sustained fit of action, it was more than just electric. It allowed all the tensions and relationships and themes building over the course of a very detached show to explode. It was only fitting that it ended with a bunch of the characters knocking bedposts; the episode itself was basically a sex act.
There was no such release with “Williams and Walker,” the seventh episode of the second season, although there was a party. Otherwise it was a fairly typical episode, advancing chess pieces slowly rather than going in for the kill, yet again building incrementally on its ideas of race and scientific progress. The dialogue, not written by Soderbergh, could even be more on-the-nose than usual. At one point Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland) and Dr. Thackery get into a fight over the former slipping a black patient into the Knick, thus enraging the hospital’s more backwards members (well, just Eric Johnson’s Dr. Gallinger). Thack thinks Edwards should be moving slower when it comes to racial advancement. Edwards disagrees: “It’s the future: You think it’s here too early and I think it’s here too late.”
Not underlined, italicized and bolded (though pretty hard to not get) is that Thackery is all about wild, reckless scientific breakthroughs but cagey about race relations. He will accept someone like Edwards making great vocational gains, but only because he’s a genius. Still, while people will accept Thackery’s findings (when they prove right, that is), most people are hesitant to accept Edwards and what he stands for. This episode, as in recent episodes, he finds warm acceptance from certain parts of high society. But having a fun night out at a society ball with the Robertsons only stresses how much he’s an outlier, and not even as accepted as he’d like to be.
Edwards and Opal’s confrontation with Captain and Mrs. Robertson outside the ball was one of those grand, reckless volleys that Thackery tends to make, but only with medical research. And it didn’t go so well. Still, it was a beautiful scene: a one take where the camera didn’t move, allowing Captain Robertson’s nervous body language say even more than his unsure responses to Edwards and Opal’s accusations. The entire, lengthy exchange between the two parties bounced madly between social decorum, genuine warmth and honest accusations, and by the end all four people seemed smaller than when the scene began.
Everyone found themselves either lost in complicated predicaments, like Edwards, or taking control of situations, at least for the time being. Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) is still acting like a confident rogue, taking rock star command in bed with artisto Tom Showalter (Tom Lipinski). Gallinger works a long con, with a ruse that at first seems like his racism has finally turned psychotic but which ends on a genuine (to this writer, anyway) surprise. On the less happy side, there’s Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), who learns she’s more trapped than she realized in a world of men — that her and her hub’s families are more of a business corporation at this point than legally bound, and part of the arrangements is her getting pregnant.
In other words, it was business as usual. That’s fine, but shows — especially emotionally remote shows like “The Knick” — every now and then need to take a break from slow and steady world building and blow things up real good. They need an episode where characters cut loose or get caught up in a mad adventure. “Get the Rope” served that beautifully. The party scene here, which dominates the episode’s second half, sort of serves that, but we’re still doing the usual “Knick” business of following as plot threads slowly develop. In that sense it’s closer to Thackery’s take on racial progress than his stance on medical research: stay conservative, not wild.
Token stray observations
— The second season has been busting out early movie cameras since it started, but this was the episode when Thackery finally got his mitts on one, all to film a surgery that probably shouldn’t have gone well but did: his severing the Siamese twins he stole last episode from a carnival barker with the help of Tom and a crowbar. Soderbergh threw in a brief, gratuitous exchange about how celluloid can easily be burned down and reconstituted as a substance that passes for ivory. This, mind you, was on a show that is shot entirely on digital, from a filmmaker who says he can’t stand shooting on actual film.
— Soderbergh is really great at sex scenes! The one in “Out of Sight” — really a foreplay scene, with only a bit of hanky-panky — is a classic. The one early on here, between Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano) and his new ladyfriend, is touchingly awkward. Neither is experienced — or, in the case of Chickering, who enlisted a prostitute a few weeks ago to give him some experience, that’s his line, anyway — and they laugh together as they fumble through their first tryst.