'The Knick' Recap: Force of Habits

Love and other drugs dominate an addiction-fueled episode as Steven Soderbergh's historical hospital drama gets closer to the homestretch

David Fierro, Juliet Rylance, and Michael Angarano on 'The Knick.' Credit: Mary Cybulski/HBO

"I used to do a little

but a little wouldn't do

So the little got more and more"
- Guns N' Roses, "Mr. Brownstone"

It's all about the more and more this week on The Knick, with everyone deep into a habit they just can't quit. Lucy is high on the thrill of her cocaine-fueled affair with her boss, whether it's sleepovers at his place or groping behind hospital doors. Cornelia is "working late" night after night, her euphemism for assignations with Algernon; the experience is so exhilarating that when he asks if she's scared of what they're doing, her brief answer is pure Junky 101: "I'm only scared we won't be able to stop." And with John Thackery's supply of easily accessible narcotics slowed to a trickle by a war in the Philippines, the doctor is both physically and mentally incapable of ending his dependence. Instead of attempting to dry out (something Thackery tried – unsuccessfully – in the pilot), he doubles down, squirreling away vials, downing strychnine, and rapidly disintegrating into a doughy, sweating, jittery mess.

With the death of Dr. Christianson and the disappearance of Abby, Thackery's drug addiction is,  as far as we can tell, the strongest relationship in his life. So when this confidante abandons him, too, he's unable to function. Even with adoring, nubile Lucy at his side – and in his bed – he can't pull it together. And for the first time, others are taking notice. People remark on his pallor, asking if he's sick; they look askance at his erratic behavior, and it's disturbingly obvious why. All credit to Clive Owen, Steven Soderbergh and makeup artist LuAnn Claps (if there's an Emmy for flop sweat, she's got it in the bag) for making the good doctor's downward spiral as viscerally uncomfortable as one of the show's trademark gory surgeries.

Take the scene about 10 minutes in to this episode — "Working Late a Lot" — where Thackery presents his plagiarized paper on inguinal hernia repair to the 83rd Meeting of the Metropolitan Surgical Society. He delivers his address only minutes after shooting up, and as he spits out his words at a mile a minute, swaying back and forth on his long limbs as the camera hurtles up the aisle towards the lectern. It all works to mimic the chemical rush hurtling through the doctor's body; when he finishes, you expect him to throw down a mic and yell "Thackery out!" Instead, he abruptly says "no" when the host asks if he'll answer any questions and takes his seat. He has to sit still and listen to Dr. Levi Zinberg discuss his amazing medical scope.  And for minutes the camera sits, too, lingering on Owen's glassy eyes, twitchy features, and fleshy face for so long, it goes from unsettling, to outright dread. Later, after ingesting strychnine in a desperate attempt to get high, Thackery must completely abandon a surgery, but it's this moment as he sits and tries to concentrate, the truly shows what his addiction is doing to him.

But there are calmer moments for our hero, notably his post-coital pillow talk with Lucy. The two sit quietly discussing their respective god-fearing fathers. "He never met a person he didn't believe had a sinner inside," Lucy says, almost apologizing for her guilt after sex. Thackery is having none of it. Explaining more about his upbringing then we've heard all series, he tells Lucy that his father was a devout, abusive drunk who slaughtered Native Americans in Colorado after the Civil War. "Us here now...this is no sin," he says. "God's not watching. He's too busy not saving sick children and letting people starve." It's both tender and sweet, a way to alleviate Lucy's fears – but also a deeper clue into what this character is about.

After the propulsive power of last week's "Get a Rope," this episode feels a bit like the hangover. Everyone is picking up the pieces of that episode's events, or more accurately, dealing with the implications of what the riot wrought. Herman goes from person to person looking for money to fix the hospital (and buy black market cocaine), and is again involved in the argument about moving the Knick uptown. Bertie's father is even more desperate to get his son out of the Chief Surgeon's orbit, which he characterizes as a bad addiction in his pleas to Thackery: "You have to let him go...the boy's in your thrall, that's no good for him." While Bertie, oblivious to what transpired between his boss and his beloved in the riot's aftermath, continues to plan the future life of Mrs. Lucy Chickering.  And with a lot of attention focused on the romantic entanglements, a lot of "Working Late a Lot," feels like setting the table for the season's final act.

That said, this episode also advances the one storyline almost completely separate from every other on this series – the very sad Gallinger saga – as Everett takes Sister Harriet's advice and brings home little Alicia Grace to his grieving wife. His spouse then alternately protests, adores, and ignores the baby. Aside from whatever it is that Thackery did for Colonel Robertson in Nicaragua, this storyline, in its own way, is The Knick's most mysterious. It's been building throughout the entire season, having been mentioned or touched upon in almost every episode, yet it's hard to take it at face value. Is it really just a human story about one of the doctors, or is this all a set up for something truly shocking? With just two more episodes to go, we're hooked.

Previously: No Pain, Much Gain