As Mad Men winds down its run and speculation increases about how the series will end, some critics have honed in not on Don Draper, but Peggy Olsen. The evolution of that show's dual focus took a couple of seasons to establish, but no one will be completely surprised if the last image of the finale is Peggy in the boardroom on the top floor. Whether intentional or not, The Knick is doing something similar earlier in its run – a show billed as the struggles and decline of the brilliant but troubled Dr. John Thackery is increasingly turning into a tale of the ascent of one Nurse Lucy Elkins. And when directed by the man who made Erin Brockovich a household name, it's damn fun to watch.
It's been a slow build. For the first few episodes of the series, the Kentucky nurse existed more as a symbol of innocence and youth than a real person. But somewhere around Season One's midpoint, perhaps at the moment she eagerly said "I think it's delicious" when asked if she likes to be frightened, that began to change. As her co-workers struggled, Lucy surged forward, becoming arguably the most adjusted and capable character on The Knick (in the Land of the Blind, the one-eyed woman is Queen). Whether she's injecting a syringe into her boss's groin or convincing a bloodthirsty Irishman his balls will fall off if he lifts up a sheet, Nurse Elkins doesn't panic. Quite the opposite, in fact; she tends to thrive in these situations. "You're a resourceful girl," is how Thackery describes her. So when an anxious Herman needs help staunching the artery that is the coked-up doctor's spiraling descent, it's not surprising that Lucy is his go-to gal. He knows she can get it done – whatever "it" is.
Herman – as well as Colonel Robertson, Algernon and the rest of the rumor-mongering staff – has reason to worry. In the full grip of withdrawal, the Chief Surgeon has officially hit rock bottom. Jittery and paranoid, Thackery begs the Luff's Medical Supplies salesman he formerly scorned for drugs, injects himself with home-cooked scrapes of who-knows-what refuse and starts the episode by breaking into a pharmacy and getting arrested. (He's bailed out Colonel Robertson – if we don't learn what happened regarding their damn Nicaraguan secret pact in next week's season finale, there will be blood.) Our hero is useless, defeated and won't let anyone see him but Lucy, pathetically telling her the only thing she can do to help him is simple: "You can find me an ocean of cocaine." And so she does.
As it tightly unspools, this episode — "The Golden Lotus" — is therefore ostensibly about Lucy's corruption and downfall, as she spends the majority of the episode trying to save her lover , She soothes him with lullabies when he's restless, endures his abuse when he yells, and covers for him at the hospital when their co-workers gossip. Eventually, after Herman's maneuvers prove useless, she sets out to score the drugs herself, first prostituting herself to Mr. Wu and then resorting to outright theft, dashing down another hospital's corridor while clinging to a crate of cocaine. As it all plays out, it could be a morality play – the tale of a woman completely under the malevolent thrall of an older, manipulative man, blinded by love as she does anything to save him.
But "The Golden Lotus," written by Steven Katz and, as always, directed by Steven Soderbergh, undermines those ideas with almost every shot. Lucy barters her tiny "golden lotus" feet to Wu, but there's just a hint of a smile as she hides her $100 earnings within the pages of a book – it looks like pride. Later, her escapade at the German Hospital serves as a neat little bookend to Thackery's earlier feeble break-in, but there's a big difference – Lucy's is calm, clever, and successful. And while her caper is worlds apart from the shenanigans of Soderbergh's Ocean movies, there's a whiff of that coolness in her crime as the camera follows her escape down the hallway. So when she returns to her beloved with the ocean of drugs he begged for, that final scene is much more about her triumph then his salvation. He's a sad, old junkie, desperately needing a drug to function. As she shoots the cocaine into his foot, she's the one in control, and big props to Eve Hewson for making this all believable and compelling. "Let's douse your sex with it," she says, and it's obvious her episode-long quest was less about Thack than about what makes her happy and feel delicious.
That said, Lucy is pretty much the only person at the Knick left with any joy at this point of the season. After wondering last week if the Gallingers' tragic storyline offers more than just misery, it appears it doesn't, as that family takes another hit with the death of baby Alicia Grace. Whether she died at the hands of her adoptive mother or an illness, Eleanor is removed to the asylum in a wrenching, wordless scene – something this series continues to excel at.
Elsewhere in the hospital, we've reached the limits of Cornelia's progressive enlightenment – she will sleep with Algernon, and seemingly fall in love with him, but she won't have his baby. Interracial marriage in New York at the time was legal (in fact, New York never had anti-miscegenation laws), but the word isn't even mentioned in the agonizing conversations between the two. Her initial trepidation when she tells him, followed by Algernon's shy, surprised smile at the news, makes it seem for a few seconds that the two might be up for defying convention. But Cornelia is having none of it. At least, not unless forced to, which is the remarkably sad cliffhanger this story ends on this week after Algernon is unable to end the pregnancy.
For the second episode in a row, The Knick did not feature any gory surgeries, and instead relied on emotional bloodletting. With only the finale left, it's hard to imagine the show will return to its roots and go out with a messy, gruesome bang at the last moment. Here's hoping Lucy gets the last word.
Previously: Force of Habits