Recap: The Knick, “They Capture the Heat” (1×05)

One of the wisest choices that the writers of The Knick made has been to focus on surgical micro-advances and the application of new technologies, rather than make Dr. Thackery and his crew responsible for massive innovative leaps. In addition to rewriting history, those type of grand, sweeping advances would rob the characters of their small moments of triumph in the face of what comes across as constant, unrelenting defeat. Nothing is without cost or sacrifice at the Knick, and that’s what makes it so damn interesting and human.

Near the end of the episode, Thackery repeats to Captain Robertson a claim Edwards makes explanation of the city’s humidity problem  – the buildings keep in the heat. As the literal temperature rises, so does the mounting tension and desperation of the urban environment also hemmed in by those buildings. The Knick‘s New York is one where the energy generated by the city’s growth also threatens to ferment and decay.

“They Capture the Heat” was an episode filled with great moments that didn’t quite add up to a cohesive whole, but rather served to push the characters forward within their own orbits. Mr. Barrow, luckless investor and inveterate social climber, makes some progress towards financial solvency and freedom from debt to Bunky Collier. Barrow desperately wants to be part of the upper classes, and while his profession as a hospital administrator is respectable enough to grant him access to the rich, he’s still a man with a job, and not a well paid one at that. His desperate attempt to impress Robertson fails miserably when he extolls the virtues of the passé Delmonico’s restaurant, and he can only stare like a starry-eyed fanboy when he comes face to face with a Vanderbilt. His desperate need for a substantive connection leads him to confess his sins to a juvenile prostitute who doesn’t understand anything he has to say. Barrow’s attempts to get his feet back under him means that he needs to descend further and further into New York’s underbelly, brokering deals with an unctuous corrupt cop in a whorehouse to help Bunky procure better whores. Almost tragically, it’s this capitulation to vice that promises Barrow the chance to recoup his losses.

But we see that the world of the rich is also putrid from rot. It’s a world where even charity is motivated by greed and jealousy – after Captain Robertson hears that Vanderbilt gifted two of Edison’s $3000 X-ray machines to an uptown hospital, Robertson’s eyes almost flash green with envy as he swiftly agrees to give one to the Knick less his patronage be regarded as less generous. Even the Church comes up morally bankrupt when the monseigneur argues, “Medical advice is as much a commodity as bread and to give either one or the other to the unworthy is wrong.” This is an upper class obsessed with ideas of social Darwinism and Herbert Spencer, under the growing yet disastrous influence of eugenics. The rich frantically search for confirmation that their wealth makes them special, chosen, while also scrambling for a more exalted position within their rarified cohort. Meanwhile, the rest of the city decays as the poor are blamed for their own circumstances. (Please forgive me if I sound like I could be describing a broadcast on Fox News. The more things change…) It’s in these more subtle, pointed critiques of the social order that the show excels.

But even as class divisions become more and more entrenched, physical proximity means that disease can cross the border between rich and poor with increasing ease. A sneering Inspector Spreight suggests that Mr. Cook, who wouldn’t deign to meet with him to discuss the typhoid crisis, is responsible for his own toilet hygiene “unless he’s got a servant to wipe his ass for him,” a steely housekeeper replies frostily, “Don’t think for a moment he doesn’t.” Paradoxically, the servants who do the dirty work may be the ones getting their employers ill. The latest heartbreaking example of the danger is baby Lillian Gallinger’s possible meningitis, brought about through her father’s contact with the rat-bitten man from Cleary’s fighting ring.

Repeated emergencies mean that Thackery and Edwards are thrust into each others’ orbits, resulting in a tenuous advance in their relationship. Thackery isn’t warming to Edwards, and he certainly isn’t willing to stand up for him, but he’s no longer willing to reject his assigned Deputy as being of no use. There’s no way he buys Edwards’ flippant claim of being early to the hospital to impress him, but he doesn’t care, because he needs him for surgery. Slowly, perhaps even unconsciously, Edwards is being added to Thackery’s toolbox.

Edwards, on the other hand, is twice given cause to rethink his boastful claim that he’s better than Thackery. When given time to ponder, Edwards can come up with innovative surgical solutions, such as using silver wire to repair the Cuban cigar seller’s hernia. (I’m relieved to see the return of Edwards’ basement clinic, along with his band of reluctant but talented nurses.) But, when under immediate pressure, such as operating on the gangster’s leg or faced with his mother’s illness, Edwards retreats to conservative diagnoses while Thackery is still bold, still nonconventional. Edwards may eventually have the potential to reach Thackery’s heights, but Thackery is ascending to his professional peak, and Edwards still has a lot to learn before he can topple him.

Thackery, again, doesn’t get much of an independent storyline this week, but since he’s the driving force at the heart of the Knick, his intensity seeps into everyone around him. He saves Bunky’s brother-in-law but gleefully revels in the knowledge of Barrow’s unsavory connections. Despite his initial reticence, he gets passionately excited over the promise of the X-ray machine and won’t take no for an answer – nor will he consider moving the Knick uptown (next to the Met, in the “middle of nowhere”) and abandon the city’s impoverished residents. He restores Edwards’ mothers health with nothing more than some straps and brute force. He gives Dr. Chickering a marvelously optimistic pep talk when faced with another placenta previa operation (last seen driving Dr. Christensen to suicide in the pilot) that turns out to be a lie, and both are demoralized by their failure.

Faced with all this misery – “Just another Tuesday in the Knick” – Thackery goes looking for some joy and freedom. Chinatown and cocaine no longer promise escape – but Nurse Elkins and her gleaming blue Rambler bicycle might. Lucy quickly teaches Thack to ride, and as he circles around the entrance to the Knick, teetering awkwardly and singing “Sidewalks of New York”, he seems to snatch a moment of happiness. Lucy, however, bites her lip in trepidation, fully aware of the dark path down which her attraction to Thackery could lead her.

Odds & Ends

– We’re treated to some on-the-nose dialogue between the Captain and Thackery about marriage, as well as more enigmatic references to their time in Nicaragua. It’s like Soderbergh and the writers have decided that in order to balance out Clive Owen’s intensity, they have to stick him with a few banal and cliched lines each week.

– Soderbergh chooses to shoot Bunky’s inspection of new prostitutes Millicent and Alice’s “goods” from over their shoulders looking at him, showing his approving expression rather than his view of them. Who thought “Skinemax” would be a leader in subverting the male gaze?

– Another of my favorite beats in the show is that before a meaningful encounter between characters, you often see one of them going through the minutiae of daily life. We see Barrow taking a piss before encountering the cop in the whorehouse hallway; we see Edwards showering and preparing for bed before Cornelia summons him to see his sick mother. Events feel like they’re interrupting the character’s normal lives, and not like the characters are only called to life by plot-relevant action.