'The Knick' Recap: Bad Brains and Blow-Ups

Once again, a catastrophe brings out the best of this historical medical drama

Charles Aitken and Eve Hewson in 'The Knick.' Credit: Mary Cybulski

As a series, The Knick is a bit of a wandering target. Moving from prestige drama to medical history lesson to soap opera to moody art piece, it's hard to pinpoint what it wants to be, and therefore, what it's missing. The answer: blowing shit up. On January 27, 1902, over 200 pounds of dynamite blew up Park Avenue. The stored TNT was bound for the construction of New York City's first subway line currently tunneling under the street. The blast killed five, injured over 100 and caused millions in property damage.

The victims of this tragedy come spilling through the fictional doors of the Knick in this week's episode — "Whiplash" — mobilizing the medical personnel to action. Like last season's riot-tastic "Get the Rope," the show picks up steam when it takes on an occasional calamity, and while the series probably couldn't maintain this pace week after week, disrupting the rhythm every blue moon acts as a welcome jolt of electricity.

The subway accident brings out the best and the worst of the staff – sometimes at the same time. Henry Robertson jumps at the opportunity to help, gathering extra nurses, expediting admissions, and refusing to charge anyone (including the construction company) for the medical care. Is it selfless?  Maybe…? He's also a covert investor in the subway project, and every cent charged to the company eventually comes out of his pocket. As it is, he's in for another $300,000 to head off insurance claims for Park Avenue residents, and still keeping all the financial maneuverings secret from his dad.

Henry's refusal to bill for any treatment trickles down to Cleary and Herman Barrow, who both planned to profit from the disaster, and see their efforts for the day amount to little. Dr. Everett Gallinger can't get through the emergency without whining about fellow sawbones Algernon Edwards, but for the most part, John Thackery and his crew work well under pressure. In charge of triage, a bloodied Lucy Elkins marches through the hall, calmly directing the rest of the nursing crew while the chief surgeon focuses his creative energy, using the electric current from a telephone wire to fish shrapnel from an injured man.

No doubt, the inspiration to use the voltage come from his recent tests into the root of addiction. Moving from cadavers to the living, Thackery experiments on a morphine addict missing the top of his skull, leaving his brain free to peek and poke. With a full house on hand in the operating room to watch, the chief surgeon wields an electronic wand to probe the exposed organ, causing the patient to flail his limbs with sickening jabs into the squish. "Electricity also effects out emotions," he demonstrates, shoving the needle in deeper to produce laughter and tears, but "what about desire?" He's talking about drugs – the symbolism hits hard. Who controls our wants and needs? Is it the body or the mind?

For Nurse Elkins, the answer is clearly her heart. Whether she's tending to patients, listening to her father, or falling in love with her drug-addicted boss, feelings dictate her choices. So far, the approach has gotten her nowhere beyond a black eye and awkward needle-check sessions with a shirtless Thackery. But a brief exchange with Lin Lin about the prostitute's clients alters her perspective. "When he's in my hand, I control him,” she explains. "That's when I can get anything I want." For the lovelorn Lucy, it's a light-bulb moment. Leaving her emotions behind and leading strictly with her head, she applies the "Lin Lin Principle" to her budding relationship with Henry; plotting her moves so shrewdly she leaves him almost panting as they sip their fashionable martinez cocktails, which according to Lucy, "tastes like cherry flavored kerosene."

Gallinger dives deeper into his involvement with eugenics, choosing to respond to the chief surgeon's question about what controls desire at its basest level, sterilizing the "mentally deficients" he deems unworthy of procreating. It's a tidy parallel in the narrative, but the blonde doctor's descent into pure racist monster feels both repetitive and one-note. As Everett and Algernon bicker with each other, again, Thackery's exasperation speaks for us all. "For God's sake, gentleman," he sighs as he dissects an organ, "even this brain is getting bored of this horseshit."

Halfway through the season, the hospital's wannabe Grand Wizard of the KKK isn't the only one treading water. Despite being played with spectacular worminess by Jeremy Bobb, Herman Barrow's craven desire for money and Junia hasn't evolved much since the series premiere, unless you count watching him reduce his wife into a weeping puddle of shame a plot advancement. Cleary still gets the best lines, but no back story, and even though Sister Harriet is out of prison, she's still glum and repentant, absent the spark that once made her the Best Nun Ever.  Here's hoping she leaves the wayward women's house soon to bunk with the burly Irish ambulance driver, adding a little heat to the back stretch.

Which returns us to Thackery's ongoing quest for the source of what make us want. Is it the small flap of brain he removes from his morphine addict?  Hard to know, since the lobotomized patient can no longer speak. But what becomes clearer to the chief surgeon is his need – specifically, the syphilitic Abby. Stopping by her apartment to tend to her after his long explosion-filled day, the doctor obeys her reprimand to put away his drugs. In the morning, after sleeping over on the floor, they share a quiet breakfast, and in perhaps the sweetest moment ever filmed on The Knick, he absent-mindedly kisses her goodbye as he heads out the door. The exchange is unexpected and electric. Thack just blew it all up.

Previously: General Hospital