In “The Busy Flea,” The Knick continued its hypnotic look at the early days of surgical practice, weaving together personal stories with history. One of the show’s biggest achievements (aside from its gorgeous and distinctive look — more on that later), has been the story of Algernon, and his desire to do things on his own terms. But like most things at the Knick, that is easier said than done. Hit the jump, because “you promised me a dead man!”
Under Steven Soderbergh‘s direction, The Knick teases viewers, but also mirrors a sense of the series’ unique perspective. When Thackery’s old love Abby enters the scene, her affliction is revealed piece by piece. First, the admitting nurse glances up at her, and changes her attitude from one of indifference, to that of wonder and care. When the patient turns to Thackery, as well as viewers, we see her blue-tinted lenses and dark nose piece, but the story still isn’t complete. As Thackery exams her and she mentions her symptoms, she also mentions the cause — her husband contracted syphilis from a woman he slept with at his work, and then gave it to his wife. We can put together the rest. It has made her eyes extremely sensitive to light and, most horrifically, eaten away her nose.
Her exposition about Thackery as a beau was far less interesting, because though it gave him a little more background, there’s nothing about his maverick-style “work hard / play hard” type we haven’t seen before. Her insistence, over and over, about him being so brilliant and exciting, but also complicated and different, sounded more like a production note than a sincere mention of their past together. In the end, Thackery recommends surgery for her that will at least close over the hole in her face, but will never bring her back to the beauty she once was.
That story fit in perfectly with that of the child who had Typhoid (Thackery didn’t want to perform surgery on her, but his discussion with Nurse Elkins made him reconsider). Those familiar with the history of this particular outbreak, and of Typhoid Mary, will likely be impatient as Cornelia, Thackery and the health inspector start putting the pieces together. But in the meanwhile, the story is serving as both a look at classism (something the show has a fixation with), as well as the series’ first successful surgery — and boy, did we need one.
There’s a certain kind of satisfaction from the realism of things not going well most of the time. After all, the story needs somewhere to go. But there still needs to be, as Nurse Elkins said, at least a dim light in the darkness. As for Algernon, his successes and failures came together in a bundle. Successfully employing some of the other hospital staff as members of his new, illicit, basement practice, as well as having a positive outcome with one of his surgery patients made it seem like things were looking up. But because of the fact he’s doing this on his own, and cannot risk those upstairs knowing about his moonlighting, he has to kick the patient out before he is ready. After the man returns to work immediately and re-injures himself, Algernon, thanks to a lack of resources and an untrained makeshift staff, loses the patient. Worst of all, he then instructs his new hires to dump the man’s body.
One step forward, and several leaps back for Algernon and the Knick. But even in this darkness, there was some light. Algernon tearing through the hospital to get more silk for sutures was a fantastically filmed sequence, particularly when he burst onto the scene during Thackery’s surgery. Thackery, unfazed, told him to prepare for the surgery the following morning (as Algernon, with bloodied hands, picks up the silk with his mouth). As hard as Everett, Bertie and Thackery have worked to keep Algernon away from the procedure, they have acquiesced at least to have him guide them, if not perform it himself. It’s something.
Elsewhere, Barrow went about paying his debts, retrieving his tooth (or someone’s tooth), and stealing his wife’s pearl earrings to give to his favorite prostitute (who rewarded him with the title’s performance). In the most separated of all of the current stories, though, Cleary hangs around the orphanage, and gives the abortionist nun a hard time for the work she does in the cover of darkness. Though neither of these arcs tie in as well as the others, they are still important regarding atmosphere — and The Knick is all about atmosphere.
Soderbergh does wonderful things like not showing us the pearls until after the girl puts them on (we have guessed what they are, but there is no close-up to make it obvious at first). He also does an interesting thing where he lets the camera linger not on the person who is speaking, but on the person they are speaking to (or, like last week, just a third party who is observing). It’s very unorthodox, but it all goes back to that idea of revelation. The words become less important than that person’s reaction. Watching the faces of Thackery, Nurse Elkins, and the talkative Nurse Baker during the surgery was an interesting way to experience that moment — and very different from the more graphic surgeries we have been shown in the past.
The best sequence though, which felt reminiscent of Guy Ritchie‘s style in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, was the POV shot of a drunken Algernon engaging in a fight. It was the perfect way to capture his turmoil and emotion (and that final shot of him was haunting), without making Algernon just another drunk looking to beat someone down. These kinds of garnishes make The Knick a singular kind of show.
Episode Rating: A-
Musings and Miscellanea:
— Couldn’t Abby’s nose piece have been painted lighter so it wasn’t so jarring? (Thinking of Boardwalk‘s Richard Harrow). Poor thing.
— “Another word, Nurse Baker, about anything other than the job, and I will sew your nose and mouth shut, and happily watch you asphyxiate” – Thackery. Nurse Elkins smiles.
— Thackery and the pigs were great, especially when Barrow finds them later, and cuts up what’s left of them for fuel.
— Barrow’s wife has very fancy needs. I fear she is soon to be disappointed by his ability to provide.
— I loved the scene where Barrow remains completely still as he asks for his tooth back, and the men in the back are silently cracking up. The cut away just after he explains “that’s not my tooth!” and the reply “get the fuck out!” was also perfect.
— Prostitute: “Oooo, where is it?” Barrow, without any poetry: “It’s on your tit.”
— “You’ve just been promoted from laundress to surgical nurse” – Algernon to the seamstress. I also liked how he was spelling out the medical jargon for the girl taking notes, and had to ask his patient if he could read. All very grounded moments.
— Cornelia doesn’t look thrilled about the return of her fiance. We’ll see what that brings.
— “Someone’s giving rich people a poor folks disease, that’s worth investigating” – the health inspector.