'The Knick' Recap: Straight to Hell

Faith and fervor fuel one grim holy-war of an episode

Andrew Holland and Clive Owen in 'The Knick.' Credit: Mary Cybulski/HBO

"You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science, but you cannot turn round and speak of the scientific foundations of morality."
– Albert Einstein

It's easy for medicine to be at odds with religion. For a doctor who believes in microbes, medicine and causation, a god who punishes and rewards makes little sense, and there is no place for moral judgment. But don't tell that to anyone on The Knick, where this week there was so much talk of faith, fanaticism and the Almighty you could not be blamed for thinking the rapture was imminent.

In its most benign iteration, religion forms the backdrop of Dr. Bertie Chickering's new life at Mt. Sinai, originally known as "Jews Hospital." Now one of apparently many under-surgeons under Dr. Thackeray's rival, Dr. Zinberg, the comically goyshe young man tries to impress his new colleagues with his naïve affability and good-natured jokes ("You can call me Bertie. I am not a Jew"), before throwing down some bedside Yiddish. But the uptown hospital is far more buttoned up than the Knick – employing a sober chief surgeon will do that to a place – and Bertie's shy smiles leave his new boss cold. Luckily, they do work on Genevieve Everidge (nee Esther Cohen), the fetching young reporter writing an article about Zinberg, and he scores his first date since Lucy Elkins.

As for that nurse, she's still downtown trying to get over her breakup with hard work and prayer, while fighting off Henry Robertson's advances. Apparently turned on by a pretty face emptying bedpans, Cornelia's sort-of-charming-sort-of stalker-ish brother follows Lucy around the ward, deploying more confidence in five minutes than Bertie was able to muster during their entire courtship. But the lady's post-Thack heart is cold. "Tell Me, Mr. Robertson, do you believe in God?" she demands. He does not, and so ends that seduction.

Intolerance is just one of the obstacles in Sister Harriet's path as she sits in the clink waiting for her court date. The other is finances, since Cleary has yet to come up with the cash for her attorney. Fortunately, after a little light blackmailing, Cornelia agrees to bankroll the former nun's defense, but this particular brand of altruism doesn't go over well with her husband. Up until now Philip hasn't displayed much personality beyond kind-but-oblivious cuckold and filial doormat, but he expands his range this week with a dash of sanctimony. Sharing some pillow talk after Cornelia initiates guilt-sex (she just returned from a make-out session with Algernon), he spouse clearly states his disapproval: "Stay away from her," he orders. "Only God can save her now."

But God isn't taking the bait, at least according to the anti-Catholic judge presiding over her trial. The moment he counters a legal argument with a biblical verse, the ex-sister identifies both the scripture and its larger meaning – she's royally screwed. "The devil has no influence over me," the judge begins his xenophobic rant, which alludes to filthy immigrant hoards, namechecks the Pope and concludes with the vow to "let real Americans know exactly what you are." So much for blind justice — or as Cleary so succinctly puts, it "What the fuck just happened?"

And so, one after the other, various prigs parade out their concept of the divine to prove their own prejudices. Not that science is doing much better with the moralizing, mind you. When Dr. Everett Gallinger attends an alumni function at the Penn Club, he finds himself immersed in cocktail chatter about eugenics – "breed the best with the best to get the best" – proving Ivy League douchebaggery is far from a modern-day affliction. "Forgive us our preaching," intones one classmate, "[but] Drexler and I are both a bit evangelical about the subject." As he sips his scotch, it's difficult to decode Everett's thoughts, particularly since his mentally ill wife hardly qualifies as "the best." But as soon as his peers identify "the Negro" as the biggest problem, it seems they might have a new convert to their flock.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Knick's staff seem content simply breaking as many commandments as possible: Cleary steals drugs to inject into his wrestler, who wins – and then promptly ODs. And while Barrow rekindles his relationship with his prostitute mistress, the surprise winner of the adultery award goes to...Algernon! Yes, it turns out the good doctor has a wife. Thackery, of course, creates his own moral universe; he's now snorting the speedball recipe prescribed by his dancehall girlfriend, resigning to his addiction as he sets out to gather as many drug-riddled cadavers as he can to cure it. His treks from upper-crust parlor rooms to back alleys eventually leave him at Abby's doorstep, his long lost first love. With her syphilitic nose healed from surgery but the rest of her body deteriorating from the disease, her defiant spirit from last season is gone. "There's no cure," she says wearily, "and we both know where I'm ultimately headed."

Whether Abby's referring to heaven or hell, her words shake the smack addict from his stupor. Gathering Dr. Edwards and one unlucky pig, he sets out to save his amore, even if he winds up killing her in the process. But that's nothing new. When it comes to their higher calling, these men have always played God, applying their own unique ethical code to their work. They make their medical choices on who to treat not based on need or financial gain, but by how the patient fits their particular perception of advancing science – their world view is its own particular brand of faith. Is it moral? Who's asking? The devil is in the details.

Previously: Take Me to the River