Don't get syphilis. That's the takeaway from "The Busy Flea," this week's episode of The Knick. Sure, a bunch of other things happen, but really, what leaves more of an impression than venereal diseases and the damage done?
The grande vérole makes an early appearance, in the form of Dr. John Thackery's old girlfriend, Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin from Hell on Wheels – apparently Louise got back to New York!). Years ago, Abby made a choice between the melancholy doctor and a disease-ridden fornicator, and she obviously chose poorly. She returns to Thackery with much regret and remarkably little nose, asking for his help regarding the latter — thus preserving the show's format of introducing a horrific medical malady that forces you to turn your eyes away from the screen before the 10-minute mark.
Their introductory scene together covers a lot of ground. It shows the physician once had a profound attachment to something other than a syringe of cocaine, and that even in love, his surgical work was paramount. ("In all the time we were together, I could never get used to what you call normal," Abby tells him ruefully.) It reinforces our anti-hero as an emotionless shell; he's taking none of the sentimental bait Abby casts his way, eventually brushing her off with a terse, "what's past is past, I would prefer not to get in to it." And it works to brings Nurse Lucy closer into his orbit, a mix of concern and curiosity etched on her face as she ushers Abby into the doctor's office – after she leaves, we can almost feel her listening outside the door.
But woven through the expositional heavy lifting and I-don't-think-people-talked-that-way-even-in-1900 dialogue ("Those times we were together, it was like I was taking the best bite of the plum") is the implicit question: What makes a life worthy of living? Abandoned by her husband, disfigured and branded by a scarlet "S," Abby has decided to move forward with a painful and gruesome procedure, so she can salvage some part of what remains. She believes her life still has value, even if everyone else sees her as a walking corpse. And in that way, Abby is doing surprisingly better then the majority of folks – or corpses – that waltz in and out of the Knick in this episode.
Continuing his dissolute spiral downward, Herman cares little for the worth of anyone's life but his own. He steals a cadaver from the hospital morgue to pay off Bunky, then pilfers his wife's pearl earrings to give to his young, adoring prostitute girlfriend — and pins the theft on the maid, for good measure. The visit from his haughty, disapproving other half adds a bit of sympathy to his story; it's all very reminiscent of Mad Men's Lane Pryce. Then any good will he's ginned up is promptly and amusingly wiped away by the hospital administrator's whorehouse boasts about the courageous work he does, and his need to whack off to the busy flea.
Meanwhile, Algernon is committing many similar crimes, but for entirely different and noble purposes. He's stealing hospital supplies from upstairs to service the needs of the African-Americans downstairs in his clandestine clinic – actually carrying out the courageous work Herman pretends to do. But when a hernia patient neglects to follows the doctor's orders after surgery, things go down hill fast. His death, as Algernon frantically runs throughout the hospital searching for thread and the pragmatic seamstress/surgical nurse Miss Odum flounders, is agonizing. And although Algernon valued this African-American man's life more then anyone on the upper floors ever would, his body is still dumped in the woods, as disrespectfully and unceremoniously as any of Herman's cadaver shenanigans.
It's times like these, where the acting is great and the parallels are subtle and the action visceral, that The Knick really works. But the show has a balance problem overall, constantly teetering between falling into the trappings of a traditional melodrama/medical drama, and the desire to create genuinely innovative television. It's almost as if Steven Soderbergh and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler are working at crossed purposes.
There's no better illustration of that the episodes final scenes: After a post-surgery Abby is wheeled out with her arm sewed to her face, Thackery sighs to Lucy, "What was the point? She will always be alone; ruined and diseased. What future does she have?" The camera then cuts to Lucy's dewy, innocent face, as she quietly answers, "In the blackest darkness, even a dim light is better than no light at all." The nurse's words are enough to thaw a bit of a doctor's cold, cold heart; quicker than you can say Grey's Anatomy, he's racing down the hall to operate on the "hopeless" 12-year-old ruptured bowel victim he scorned just hours earlier. Now he sees that every one deserves a shot. Every life does have value.
Surprise! It succeeds. His benefactor, Cornelia, is impressed. Lucy is besotted. Thackery gets to utter an operating room kicker — "We got lucky" — and good wins over evil. It's conventional and not quite grounded in what we've learned about his character so far. But this is what medical shows do, and for all the corpse-stealing and overactive insects, it's clearly a hospital drama that Amiel and Begler are writing.
It's Soderbergh, however, who gets the last word, ending 'The Busy Flea" with two entirely wordless scenes. Herman, alone in the basement, butchering pig cadavers and furtively placing them into the fire, shadows flickering on his face, unable to reveal his true purpose. And then the final series of shots: Algernon, drunk, damaged, fighting in a back alley — a fever-dream of shaky cameras, freeze-frames and distorted close-ups. It's completely different then everything that came before, and it's this sequence, after all's said and done, that sticks with you the most. Well, that, and the syphilis.
Previously: A Day in the Life