'The Knick' Recap: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Respect, race, and toilet habits all jockey for the spotlight in this week's episode

Eve Hewson, Clive Owen, Michael Angarano and Cara Seymour in Episode 4 of 'The Knick'. Credit: Mary Cybulski

When last we saw the doctors, degenerates and not-so-distressed damsels who populate Steven Soderbergh's dingy medical drama The Knick, we'd been left on buzzing over a highwire act of wordless sequences involving drunken fistfights and shady this-little-piggy funereal rites. This week's episode — "Where's the Dignity" — picks up more or less where we left off: crackling energy, unsettling tension, and another amazing dialogue-free visual sequence. As the pulsing beat of Cliff Martinez's electronic drone plays over the soundtrack, Soderbergh's camera follows Tom Cleary of County Cork marching through the night streets, canvas bag in hand, to deliver the live and diseased quarry to Gotham's underground rat stomping games. 

Keeping the breakneck momentum, it's a quick cut to Herman at the hospital, carrying the urn that reveals the purpose of last week's pulled-pork roast, obsequiously offering a distraught wife her late husband's porcine ashes.  Then it's over to the operating room, to finally witness the galvanic procedure we've all been hearing so much about. Algernon addresses Doctors Thackery, Gallinger, Chickering and a full gallery of old white men to talk them through the aneurysm removal method he helped invent – the surgery they won't let him perform, because of the color of his skin. And that's when Algernon takes control, by refusing to give the men a vital piece of information unless he's the one to complete the work.  What follows is a game of surgical chicken: "If he dies because of your horseshit," Thackery barks, "I'm going to stab you in the throat with my father's Union army sword."  "I would have thought Confederate?" Algernon replies.

The patient doesn’t die, though he should have — either because the showdown between Algernon, Thackery and the Hardy Boys wasted too much time, or because the Paris-trained doctor , no matter how skilled, actually couldn't save the life. The show should have let Algernon make a mistake based on profound principle (a black man in America will be respected) or inflated ego (only I can do this, and me doing it is more important than it being done). He should have been allowed to be a richer character, a flawed person, an anti-hero equal to Thackery. Instead, he clenched his jaw and won the face-off, saved the man's life, and demonstrated that a black man can do anything a white man can do, only better. Basically, he pulled a Sidney Poitier.

That Oscar-winning actor more or less carried the entire reputation of black America on his shoulders throughout the Fifties and Sixties, and therefore chose roles that were noble, intelligent and measured. The Poitier Man was furious at the injustice of the world, but knew to win, that he had to be the better person – superior to all the idiot racist crackers around him. His characters were complex enough to make a powerful impact, but not multifaceted enough to be real. Algernon Edwards is the epitome of dignity, taking all insults with poise and burying his simmering rage. He gets to be the smartest man in the room at all times, whether he's lobbing back subtle sarcasms about slavery with the racist rubber baron ("They built the pyramids." "Among other things…"), or being the only person in 1900 to realize a vacuum will work to suction medical fluids. Even his mistakes are cloaked in a gloss of righteousness: a man died after his surgery, but that's because he didn't follow the post-op orders. And yes, he beat up his boarding house neighbor, but the guy attacked him first, and the good doctor left the unconscious man some nice cocaine for his pain when he woke.  There's even a genuine Guess Who's Coming to Dinner moment when Algernon shows up at the Robertson's party, only to be greeted by the lady of the house with a grimacing "Are you here to see your mother?  She's in the back." (Not to mention all the knowing looks between Algernon and Cornelia, which we can only guess refer to forbidden love – past, present or future).  Actor Andre Holland is giving it his all, but its time he got more to work with besides righteous anger. Where's the dignity, indeed?

The Knick's Poitier Syndrome is doubly frustrating as other characters get to develop week after week. This episode sheds light on Bertie's private life, introducing his domineering doctor father and adoring sister.  Lucy's slow burn of curiosity forces her into action; she follows Thackery to his opium den, but is unable to either confront or join him. Cornelia gets a fiancé and, hilariously, a partner in her typhoid hunt, Health Inspector Speight, a man with a knack for words ("Let me ask you about your toilet rituals") and a fear of Peach Melba. And we learn more about Thackery's relationships with both Abby and Dr. Christianson in a Christmas Party flashback.

As the title suggests, the concept of respect permeates the hour. Abby appears post-surgery, equally poised and elegant as she was in the flashback, even with exposed arm viscera sewn to her nose. After spending a day at the Knick, Bertie is berated by his father, accusing him of being nothing but a disrespected lapdog to Thackery and an object of ridicule to others. The senior Dr. Chickering is also offended by an emergency surgery he witnesses, that of a young immigrant woman bleeding to death from a botched abortion.  After Thackery and Sister Harriet fail to save her, the doctor refuses to let her rest in peace, and instead turns her corpse into a bloody anatomy lesson, sticking his arm inside her frayed torso to palpitate her heart, and encourages others to do the same. All the while, the nun looks on, a combination of pity, dismay and regret on her face. (Cara Seymour is truly doing some of the best work on this show.)

At the end of the hour, she stands with Cleary over the open mass grave of the city's paupers, mourning the defiled and forgotten. Chris Sullivan, who plays Cleary, gets the big lines: "If you ain't strong enough, this city will bugger you 18 different ways and leave you to rot.  Where's the fucking dignity?"  But it's Seymour's quiet performance that gives the scene its emotional impact.  She is feisty with the Irishman but meek under the eyes of god as she performs his rituals. Her pain feels earned; her motives complex; and her mistakes real. In an episode where the only African-American character feels one-note, it is both surprising and satisfying that a nun is turning into the show's most complex character.

Previously: Follow Your Nose