It should have been obvious from the start, but Tom Clearly, the surly ambulance driver played by Chris Sullivan, might wind up being “The Knick”’s most memorable character. He’s not anguished, like Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackery, or righteously angry, like Andre Holland’s Dr. Edwards, or fractured, like Eve Hewson’s Nurse Elkins. In fact, it’s taken till the eighth episode of the second season for him to show anything approaching a deep, wounded emotion.
“Not Well At All” is the episode when he finally breaks free from his meat-and-potatoes badassedness and makes a move on Harriett (Cara Seymour), the former Sister, his former co-abortionist and his current roommate. There’s been a fair amount of pairing off and breaking up on “The Knick,” but their platonic, will-they-or-won’t-they? relationship has been the cutest, in part because both have seemed essentially, for their own, different reasons, asexual.
While cavorting about at a carnival, swapping looks in Kinetoscope machines (this has been a great season for lovers of early-early film), he whimsically loses his cool and goes in for a kiss. Harriett doesn’t just recoil; she chews him out, accuses him of being base and storms off — to their flophouse home, as it were. The unflappable Tom is finally crestfallen — quite a contrast to both everything he’s done over the show thus far, and to earlier in the episode. Things began with him saving Thack, thanks to his trusty bat, from the carnival barker from a few episodes back, who showed up at the Knick drunk and armed, looking to reclaim his Siamese twins, who have since been separated.
At this point “The Knick,” with two episodes left in its current season — and with no sign yet that it will return next year — is threatening to become a show driven less by plot or even ideas than by characters. It’s definitely still a show about ideas, and it’s definitely still told in a chilly remove by director/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh. But I’d like to think we’ve come to, shall we say, enjoy its characters — which is not the same as saying we “like” or “care” about them, those dreaded, mushy terms we apply to nonexistent people more often than to real ones. Most of them have changed over two seasons — some hardening, some lightening up, some hills and valleys. But they’ve become enjoyable as an ensemble — as important a part of what makes the show work as Soderbergh’s direction, the period details, the examination of progress-vs.-tradition and the super gory operations (of which there were none this episode, alas). It will be sad to leave them, should the show end.
“The Knick” has even become great as a kind of detached soap opera. There were a handful of big, gasp-y hairpin turns this episode, and not just Tom’s failed moves-putting on Harriett. Things worked out not-so-swimmingly for Knick manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) — or at least for his wife, Effie (Molly Price). She accidentally discovers her husband has that secret, uptown pad, without realizing it’s actually housing his prostitute-ladyfriend. Caught in a lie no one could worm their way out of, Barrow suddenly busts out a Cheshirian smirk and announces he’s leaving her, and what’s more, she and, mostly coldly, even their kids need to find a new place to live. (Barrow seems to be trying to beat Gallinger in the run for the most hissable Knick employee.) Still, Effie fared better than Thackery, who wound up accidentally killing his current boo while trying to repair her ghastly nose skin graft — the second time in two episodes when a surgeon has wound up responsible for a loved one’s death on the operating table.
On the other hand you have Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson), whose sickly wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan), finally went off the deep end again. (Or, rather, she reveals she’s always resided in the deep end; Kazan’s delivery of the episode’s title is supremely, awesomely bone-chilling.) She reveals that when the quack doctor who took her teeth — the one played by no less than old-timey enthusiast John Hodgman — came for dinner two episodes back, she spiked his drink with rat poison, killing him. Gallinger should be more despairing when he deposits her back at the nuthouse, but he also realizes Eleanor's sister, who shacked up with them to oversee her re-entry into normal life, has taken a shine to him. Better yet: she shares his mad wife’s genes and looks, and to this budding eugenicist, that means Eleanor can effectively be replaced with a near-copy. This was an episode where women were punished but men came out OK (or at least alive) at the end. Also, it's telling of “The Knick”’s dark sense of humor that this was the subplot that scored the closest thing to a happy ending.
Token stray observations:
— Gallinger was a little occupied this episode, which means that Edwards was able to get the upper hand in the pair’s season-long chess-like feud. Gallinger was able to school Edwards last episode with some underhanded evil, but this time Edwards scored the hit, finding proof that Gallinger had severed the tubes of dozens of Jewish boys, so that their line could die out. “The Knick” is great at these cool-headed, long-con battles; even if it doesn’t end with Edwards tossing Gallinger off The Knick their shared storyline will have been satisfying and anger-making.
— Does anyone have a line on what film Tom and Harriett watch on the Kinetoscope — the one where a man opens his mouth and seems to swallow the camera lens? Gotta love Tom’s reaction: “Maybe it was a small camera.”
— At least things worked out at least sort of well for one female character this episode. Elkins seems to be going next level with aristo Philip Showalter (Tom Lipinski), and, this being 1900, that means getting married and being installed in his home. But Elkins is crafty at making sure she doesn’t just become a kept woman. As they talk jewelry, she keeps things racy. He brings up getting rid of her nursing uniform, i.e., giving up her job; she twists it so it means she’s wearing nothing at all. She’s using sex to maintain her independence and agency. And she’s doing it in a way that’s subtle for “The Knick,” a show that, especially when it comes to progressive thinking, can be fairly sledgehammer-to-skull.
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