Recap: The Knick, “The Busy Flea” (1×03)

We use several juicy adjectives in an attempt to describe story progression, including “unfolds”, “reveals”, and “thickens”, but the one I like best for The Knick’s style of storytelling is “unspools.” Steven Soderbergh has said that he approached the show as a ten hour movie, and the first three episodes taken together form a triptych of set-up, demolishing established conventions of television pacing. (This is especially true in regards to when and how much characters appear in a given episode – Cornelia doesn’t show up until halfway through this one.) What this episode manages better than the previous is incorporating several smaller, self-contained mini-arcs in service of that longer story.

The struggles of Thackery and Edwards form a matched pair in this episode, one ending in a moment of triumph and the other in a moment of defeat. Thackery, ripping out pig hearts with a speed and frequency that would make the vampires of True Blood jealous, comes no closer to engineering a viable procedure for their aortic aneurysm patient. Distractions and interruptions plague him – first, an ex-girlfriend begging him to restore her nose, lost due to her husband’s dalliance with a “syphilitic whore” at the office; then, Cornelia’s insistence that he care about the nascent typhoid outbreak among the wealthy and the small girl suffering from it just down the hall.

While the dialogue between Thackery and his lost love Abigail (Jennifer Ferrin, Hell on Wheels) doesn’t break much new ground – yes, Thack is complicated and chaotic and a workaholic and lonely, thanks, got it – it does give Clive Owen the opportunity to showcase some genuine warmth, aided by the camera’s lingering on his reactions. (I really can’t get enough of this technique of Soderbergh’s. It works, and it gives the show something unique.) Thackery hasn’t yet subsumed all human emotion to his professional drive, and he succumbs to Abby’s pleas for help despite his already packed schedule and what he perceives as the futility of the procedure. When he refuses Cornelia’s pleas to operate on young Cora Hemming’s perforated bowel, he points to the inability of the family to make an informed decision on the procedure’s devastating side effects when the only alternative is death, rather than simply arguing fact that operating on a dying child might be a waste of time.

So Thackery is not inhumanly cold, and nor is he overly stubborn. When his surgical team encounters dead end after dead end in their efforts to recreate the French heart procedure, he concedes that Edward’s co-authoring credit on the paper gives him just enough credibility to talk Gallinger (still adamantly opposed) through the procedure in the operating theatre. When Nurse Elkins points out to him that maybe, for some, any light in the dark is better than none, Thackery gets a surge of inspiration and puzzles out how to use a variation on the nose skin flap technique to repair Cora’s intestines. That Thackery is willing to forgo personal infallibility for innovation is my favorite aspect of the character.

Then there’s Edwards, who clearly bit off more than he could chew in his idealistic fervor to start a clinic for the city’s black residents. (Entry code: “I’m here about the washing job.”) He assembles an unexpected crew of coal men and laundresses to serve as reluctant administrators and nurses. Despite his intrepid resourcefulness, he fails to account for the realities of his patients’ lives outside the clinic: his hernia patient returns to work too soon after surgery, reopens his wounds, and dies on the table. Letting Edwards fail is brave. The show trusts the viewers to take Edwards’ failure not as an indictment of his talent as a doctor, but as an indication of the futility of someone even of his formidable skill fighting alone against the system.

The episode ends with a devastated Edwards goading an unsuspecting man in a bar into a fight. Edwards cruelly picks on the man’s lack of worldliness while he attempts to impress a lady; whereas the man at the boarding house had his beat-down coming for his abuse of Edwards, all this poor man did wrong was display a lack of game. The subsequent fight is seen through the haze of Edwards’ alcoholic stupor and frustration, as the show further eschews the Magical Black Man trope by making Edwards talented yet angry, generous yet proud. Edwards may be the only major character of color on this show, but his race is nowhere near his defining characteristic, despite its importance to his story.

Besides Thackery and Edwards, there’s another pair begging comparison this episode, and that is Barrow and Cornelia. Neither gets a meaty storyline, but we see Barrow continue to struggle to finance the hospital, his wife, and his barely-legal prostitute mistress. His comment last episode about stealing from Peter to pay Paul takes another meaning this week as he steals his wife’s earrings as a gift for the mistress, and as he steals his own morgue’s dead bodies (Thackerly is going to be PISSED) to sell to higher-paying hospitals to finance his debt.

Meanwhile, Cornelia and the Robertsons – a new money family apparently disdainful of both Rockefeller-style old money and the poor – struggle to understand how an epidemic like typhoid could touch the rarefied realm of the rich. Cornelia, in an attempt to use her privilege for good, offers to act as an ambassador for the health inspector among the wealthy. The typhoid epidemic threatens to bring Cornelia’s high society in direct contact with the reality of Barrow’s resource-poor existence all too soon.

Odds & Ends

– Another thing this show does well is how the characters move into each other’s orbits while they’re doing things. (Cornelia entering Thackery’s pig laboratory, Edwards running into the operating theatre.) On lesser shows, the characters seem to be waiting around to interact.

– Cleary doesn’t like abortion and lurks threateningly around Sister Harriet while vaguely alluding to her secret. Please connect this plotline with something else, stat, because right now it feels like it’s happening on an entirely different show.

– The typhoid outbreak among the wealthy bears a strong resemblance to the story of Typhoid Mary. It’s a promising direction to take the show, as it provides an opportunity to tie together the worlds outside and inside the hospital.

– We learn this week that Dr. Edwards is the son of the Robertsons’ long-time servants. Nothing quite made me cringe like Mr. Robertson calling Edwards “a good investment.”