Recap: The Knick, “Start Calling Me Dad” (1×06)

Mr. Luff, the slick medical supply salesman, is absolutely right about one thing: in 1900, the future lay with the miracle makers, the men (and women) developing and using technology to shape the future of a world changing with a rapidity exciting to some and terrifying to others.

A brilliant mind with a spirit of innovation. That, above all else, is what Dr. John Thackery values. It’s the thing over which Thackery bonds with others, as he did with the late Jules Christiansen and as he does with young Bertie Chickering. Passion for invention and creation burns inside Thackery, giving him the brightness and energy of a massive, glowing sun. People can’t help but be pulled into his orbit: Bertie, Lucy, once Abby, and yes, Edwards. Even the huckster Mr. Luff knows that Thackery’s rising star would guarantee more sales of his company’s useless ‘rejuvenating lineament’. Thackery shows no signs of slowing; his cocaine-driven brain churns through more ideas before breakfast than most people have in a lifetime. But remember, the larger a star gets and the brighter it burns, the faster and more spectacularly it implodes.

Whereas the last several episodes of The Knick have moved the characters around, setting up their tragedies and confrontations, it’s in this episode that the show kicks back into gear. There’s more forward progress, more resolution in this episode than any since the pilot. Plus, any episode where Cornelia tackles Typhoid Mary can hardly be called bad.

Thackery begins the episode by summoning Bertie the Wise to the hospital at the crack of dawn to conduct research (no, really) on two stark naked Chinese prostitutes. You see, Thack thinks he’s found a way to save women with placenta previa, not by working faster but by making the woman die slower. Bertie, still dumbfounded and trying to make sense of the tableau in front of him, nevertheless manages to join right in on Thackery’s thought process. There’s a device that might help slow the bleeding from within the uterus, but Thackery deems it unsuitable because “it’s French and I didn’t invent it!” Instead, drawing inspiration from a basketball (and no small amount of blow), the two doctors set down to the task at hand, because after all, their test subjects are paid by the hour.

Bertie’s frequent bewilderment at Thackery’s behavior doesn’t stop him from being in perpetual, worshipful awe of the mad man’s genius. Bertie’s father, who Thack dismisses as practicing medicine like it’s 1885, wants his son ensconced beside him in his tony, boring Columbia practice. Bertie, however, hardly belongs uptown, because he has the same nascent talent for innovation as his boss does. Bertie is the one to suggest using water rather than air in the bladder – a key to the apparatus’ later success, putting the holy grail of surgical triumph within reach. It’s no wonder that Lucy Elkins is drawn to both men, and although Bertie seems like the sweet and safe choice right now, it isn’t impossible that Bertie may eventually end up like his wild-eyed mentor.

After all, it was Thackery’s mentor that set him on his current trajectory by inspiring him, empowering him, and hooking him on cocaine (notice how Thackery offers a pick-me-up to Bertie in this episode). The ghost of Jules Christiansen looms large over this episode, in Thackery’s methodology and even in the name he gives the procedure: the Christensen-Thackery-Chickering placental repair. Note that Thackery’s name is sandwiched in the middle. Thack has many flaws, but refreshingly, failing to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of others isn’t one of them. “Brilliant! Fine work today!” he crows to Bertie, hugging the younger man. Thack craves progress, but needs collaboration.

Now, by accident, he may have found his most fruitful collaboration yet. Edwards, still running his basement surgery, still channeling his frustration into fighting random men in bars, gets caught. By Thackery. To his credit, Edwards fails to back down in the face of Thackery’s fury. Indeed, Thackery’s anger seems to simply feed Edwards’ pride in what he created, as he shows his supervisor one thing after another. When it seems like his career at the Knick is done, and he has nothing left to lose, he drops a bomb that sucks all the air out of Thackery’s rage: his hernia innovations.

From this moment on, the power shifts. Thackery may be addicted to cocaine, yes, but his real addiction is the rush of discovery, and now he knows that in Edwards he has a potential goldmine of a partner. The vacuum suction device piques his interest, but Edwards’ brilliant documentation of his new hernia procedures proves irresistible to Thackery. And if Thackery adopts the hernia procedure, why shouldn’t the world? Edwards squeezes all he can out of his moment with the upper hand, suggesting the two co-author a paper and demanding a spot in the operating theatre or he’s gone. (Although Edwards demands credit on the potential paper, he’s shrewd enough not to insist on lead credit.) “Have you lost your fucking mind?” swiftly changes to Edwards’ long-awaited real welcome to the Knick.

And just in time too, because it seems as if Dr. Gallinger won’t be a fit assistant for some time, as he loses his daughter Lillian to meningitis and his wife to denial of the infant’s death. Eric Johnson’s performance is crushing, as he sits, devastated by the knowledge that he brought this into his home. And as skeptical as I’ve been about Maya Kazan’s work as Eleanor, her sickly sweet innocence throughout the season makes her fragility and break with reality all the more believable here. Sister Harriet, in an attempt to move beyond simple words of comfort, suggests to Gallinger that he adopt abandoned baby Grace, and give his wife something to nurture once more.

If Thackery and Edwards are about to make the future, the Showalters and Robertsons (save Cornelia) are the forces of the past, threatened with irrelevance if they don’t change and adapt. Captain Robertson, fascinated by technology and insecure of his new-money status, is willing to make small concessions, like his daughter’s work at the Knick. Cornelia and Health Inspector Spreight wrap up their Cagney and Lacey act this episode, catching Mary Mallon, the cook whose peach melba ice cream spread typhoid into wealthy homes. As Cornelia later says, she was truly useful – Spreight really couldn’t have cracked the case without her connections and knowledge. (That said, I’ll be glad if his screen time gets reduced now. The character is boorish to the point of being insufferable.)

Cornelia’s father and fiancé may not sense her dissatisfaction with her future station as a proper married society woman, but her prospective father-in-law sees it clearly. Mr. Showalter violates the sanctity of Cornelia’s bedroom, intruding on her personal space in a way that makes it clear that she has no real privacy; her freedom is an illusion and she is a possession to be traded. He delivers a chilling, hardly-veiled threat of what could come from her new ‘dad’ if she doesn’t fall in line. The future may be on its way, but maybe not fast enough to save Cornelia.

Odds & Ends

– Sorry for the lateness of this one – I went a whole day without any access to the Internet. The perils of international travel.

– Does the end of the basement surgery mean this is the last we see of Miss Odom? Say it ain’t so!

-Cornelia’s fiancé is an awful bore and completely oblivious to boot. I know that Cornelia and Algernon grew up like siblings, and I’m not one to ship characters at the expense of strong male-female friendships, but these two might be the only people in the world who could understand each other.

– Thackery as he dismisses Mr. Luff: “Away, you moldy rogue! Away!” I could listen to Clive Owen read a goddamn phone book, but hearing him relish lines like these is a treat. (Equating Luff with Falstaff was fun, too.) Owen did Shakespeare early in his career at the Young Vic, but I’d love to see him revisit it. Richard III, maybe?

– Mr. Luff’s kids played with the X-ray machine for hours! Mr. Barrow x-rays his head! This show does have a macabre sense of humor at times.

– I find death portraits spine-tingling, and that one of Gallinger, Eleanor, and Lillian might take the cake.