Recap: The Knick, “Where’s the Dignity” (1×04)

There’s an argument to be made that one should view period entertainment for what it is, and refrain from projecting modern concerns on the issues specific to that time. Then along comes an episode like “Where’s the Dignity” that practically dares the viewer not to see that the problems plaguing the urban society in fin de siècle America – embedded racism, women’s control of their bodies, the plight of the poor – are still very much the ones we talk about now, albeit with better sanitation and less fantastic finery.

If there’s one upside, horrible as it is, to the hateful and aggressive racism and exclusion Dr. Edwards experiences at the hands of fellow surgeons Thackery and Gallinger, it’s that the vitriol is overt. Edwards knows where he stands and knows what to expect. Unfortunately, the other racism he experiences on a daily basis – a series of microaggressions perpetrated almost everywhere he goes – is less predictable, and he’s able only to react.

Edwards faces affront after subtle affront in this episode. The orderlies call him Doctor Darkie behind his back. He rushes to the side of a patient only to be dismissed as a shoeshine. Several insults transpire at Captain Robertson’s engagement party for Cornelia and Phillip Showalter (played by Tom Lipinski, Suits, and surprisingly not Josh Brolin from fifteen years ago via time machine), an event to which Edwards is invited as a guest – but Mrs. Robertson assumes that he’s there to visit his mother, and attempts to usher him quickly through to the back. Even the Captain, who has always been firmly in Edwards’ corner, describes Edwards’ promise as a surgeon in terms of Negro, and not general, aptitude. Yet we know he sees himself differently – Thackery is superb, sure, but Edwards thinks he himself might be even better.

At least when Edwards expects to be marginalized, he can prepare to fight back through both guile and fists. In a move equal parts inspiring and reprehensible, Edwards withholds a crucial detail of the surgery for the aortic aneurysm until he’s allowed to perform it himself, banking on the fact that Gallinger’s resolve is weaker than his. (Edwards is performing here, fully aware of the theatre behind the operating table, and Thackery knows this.) Sure, Gallinger’s punch catches him off guard, but as their subsequent toe-to-toe confrontation on the ward proves, it will never happen again. But when Edwards is faced with the Captain’s insult, he can only silently grimace, and when Mr. Showalter rhapsodizes about cheap native labor in Ecuador, Edwards can only resort to wryly commenting, “Free labor certainly changes the equation.”

In spite of the very real nature of Edwards’ suffering at the party, it’s somewhat played for laughs, as he becomes increasingly exasperated and the tension builds as his experience crosses over into the absurd. Meanwhile, Cornelia gets a rude awakening as she finds out for the first time that her fiancé expects her to accompany him to San Francisco after their wedding. Shortly before the party, Cornelia had been making full use of her wealthy privilege and the freedom it gave her to access almost any place in the city, a favor she could bestow on the crass city health inspector. Now, Cornelia realizes that her wealth and sex are also a trap – as she goes through one door, another closes behind her, and although the locks may be gilded, they’re no less effective. Juliet Rylance’s face as she realizes that nobody even informing her of her fate is completely normal is heartbreaking. Everything that makes her Cornelia Robertson is in New York, and nobody – except perhaps Edwards – cares.

While Cornelia wears her emotions on her sleeve, and has the luxury to do so, Nurse Elkins keeps hers close to the chest. Clearly, she is fascinated by Thackery, perhaps a bit in love, but we don’t yet know why. Eve Hewson isn’t an incredibly experienced actress, but the way she plays Lucy with a sort of inscrutable curiosity is really working for me. Whether she’s eavesdropping on Thackery and his former paramour, Abby, or following him to a Chinatown opium den, her intense but unreadable expression lets us ascribe our own motivations to her. After all, we’re only four hours into this story.

Perhaps it’s because most of the other stories have chapters revealed at this languid pace that Cleary’s sudden reversal of morality, regarding secret abortionist Sister Harriet, rang false. At the beginning of the hour, Cleary is still filled with righteous indignation about Sister Harriet’s affront to God, and the two have their first real confrontation. Cleary extorts Harriet for a 60/40 split of the earnings in his favor, or he’s going to the bishop and the law. But later, his ambulance picks up an immigrant woman who attempted to abort her fetus herself, and he watches her die on the operating table. Her end – alone, desperate, known only by her first name – moves him to grudgingly accept Sister Harriet’s work as useful, and offers to help identify women in need, but for the same financial split, of course.

The graveside scene emphasizes the harshness and low value of life – particularly immigrant life – in turn-of-the-century America. The poor are buried three deep in pine boxes in shallow, unnamed graves on the edges of the city. If you pay your rent, there’s no need to know your last name. While the health inspector frets over the typhoid deaths of a few wealthy individuals, another outbreak in a downtown tenement is taken for granted. Dr. Chickering finds Yiddish, not Greek or Latin, to be the most useful language to practice medicine. This is the New York of Jacob Riis’ social reform photography, not Walt Whitman’s Manhattan of “Give Me the Splendid, Silent Sun.”

It’s not like people are unaware of the problems at hand. Edwards’ father remarks on the decay in the neighborhood surrounding the Knick; Cornelia’s mother discusses the disgusting muck covering a friend’s shoes after ‘touring’ the Tenderloin; and the elder Mr. Chickering dismisses his son’s romantic notions of working at the Knick as finding “only poverty in poverty, and only struggle in struggle.” The previous generation identifies the fissures in the land of opportunity, but only their progeny, such as Algernon, Cornelia, and Bertie, have the desire to change it.

Odds & Ends

– Bertie and his sister play Parcheesi, a game that occupied hours of my childhood, albeit on a much less elegant board.

– I find most of the dialogue between Thackery and Abby to be tediously on the nose, such as when she laments, “You always want more” in his flashback.

– It’s a testament to the cast’s strength that there’s very little Thackery tonight and the episode remains this strong and interesting. Still, he got a couple of great lines, including threatening Edwards very directly (and somewhat understandably), “If he dies because of your horseshit, I am going to stab you through the throat with my father’s Union Army sword.”

– Some really interesting use of perspective tonight. Edwards narration during the heart surgery (pictured above) is from behind his head, looking out as he sees it, but with him still within our sight. We witness Thackery and Abby’s reminiscences first up close with them, then watching from where Nurse Elkins stands, then watching her. Finally, we see chunks of Sister Harriet and Cleary’s conversation looking up from the dead woman’s grave as if she’s watching them from beyond.

– Mr. Barrow is now simply selling off the corpses of those who die in the hospital and giving their loved ones fake cremated remains. He’s nothing if not morbidly entrepreneurial.