What kind of show is “The Knick”? For one thing it’s now, with the penultimate episode of its second season, a show where three separate people wanted John Hodgman dead. The writer, humorist and bon vivant popped up on Steven Soderbergh’s old-timey hospital drama a few times as a mad doctor who treated madness by removing teeth. A couple episodes back he was poisoned by Eleanor (Maya Kazan), the unwell wife of Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson). He died, but we learned this week the doctor’s two sons had already been dosing him, bit by bit, with arsenic as punishment for removing their teeth. All Eleanor did was speed up the process. Killing The Deranged Millionaire: that’s more messed up than the episode with brain surgery.
“The Knick” is also, as we well know, the kind of show that’s cool and detached, borderline clinical. “Do You Remember Moon Flower?” put that to the test. Stuff really came to a head: There was a courtroom battle, a fistfight, a murder and a five-alarm fire. This was also the episode where brilliant junkie surgeon Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) got operated on, while wide awake and grouching over the instruments being shoved, sans latex gloves, inside his person.
But as is the show’s wont, it did it all its way. Most of these scenes were largely banged out in one, exquisitely judged shot, maybe with a few cutaways. Even the big fire that engulfs shipping tycoon and Knick benefactor Captain Robertson (Grainger Hines) happened, at least at first, in real time, the flames bursting out right on queue after a testy tete-a-tete between he and his daughter, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), who finally found evidence of her daddy’s shady doings. The scene involving another dying pops — in which Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) gifts her bully pastor father with a lethal injection — was mostly a POV shot trained on her face as she confesses/brags about all the un-Christian business she’d gotten up to with Thack and others.
The writing on “The Knick” doesn’t always match Soderbergh’s temperament, sometimes nudging us too much in the ribs, sometimes letting plotlines sag. (The stuff this season about Cornelia’s investigating her father has encouraged some pretty athletic thumb-twiddling.) But the way it handled the season-long pissing contest between Gallinger and Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland) was every bit as level-headed as the direction. Edwards finally thought he triumphed over Gallinger when he nicked proof, by way of sneaking into his office, of his severing the tubes of a legion of Jewish boys. Then they went to a hearing and Gallinger was able to convince the board that he was in the right, and worse, that eugenics is a budding scientific practice.
It’s always tempting to watch shows about history with a smirk on the face, congratulating yourself on getting right today what everyone got wrong back then, in the backwards before-time. But the way this thread ended was closer to tragicomic. Gallinger was able to use misleading arguments and a cool temperament to make what seemed like a sound case in his favor. He says as much to Edwards afterwards, when the latter rolled up his sleeves and prepared himself for one of those beatdowns he deployed (and received) so often last season.
Gallinger’s response was surprising: first, he said his actions prove that his race is made of animals, only to suckerpunch him himself — and then, worked up, run home to pound away at his new boo right there on the stairs. And surely he did while telling himself that he’s no animal either, that he’s totally in the right, that his victory means he’s justified in racist, bigoted, unscientific opinions we, the viewers of 2015, know are wrong. Well, some of us.
Token stray observations:
— The very ending is one of this tense episode’s rare missteps, using flashbacks to Thack’s dalliances in Nicaragua six years prior into a cheesy origin story on How Thack Got to The Knick. But Soderbergh, as usual, films dodgy writing beautifully, and the other parts of the flashbacks are less shticky, more obscure about its intentions and what it has to do with the rest of the episode. It also allows Soderbergh to a) strap on his beloved urine-yellow filter; b) do some outbreak business again, after “Contagion” and c) watch smart people work. Brought into the jungle to treat smallpox without the proper supplies, Thack MacGyvers a cure right before our eyes, with a perfectly timed cut from action to the show’s title card. And it’s beautiful.
— Last week was the episode I realized how much I adored Chris Sullivan’s Tom Cleary, the surly ambulance driver and former part-time abortionist. His scene with ex-Sister Harriett (Cara Seymour) was as heartbreaking as his rebuffed kiss last week, though this time the scene was about her. She launches into another steely defense of why they can’t be together. (“Believe me: With a gorilla like you there wasn’t the least bit of temptation.”) But Soderbergh holds the camera on her face while he’s in the background, out of focus, and we can see her wrestling, deep down, with her feelings. Like Gallinger, she’s struggling to convince herself that she’s right.
— Feel like I should expand a little bit more on Hewson’s work in this episode, which was next level, even for her. But this recap is already pretty long. So let me just say holy crap and please make the actress, also the daughter of someone named “Bono,” a star.
— Lastly, you know this is Barack Obama’s favorite show, right? Four more years!