“The first great fortunes that were amassed on this planet were a result of the material: gold, copper, lumber, iron ore. The next great fortunes will be a result of the immaterial – the unseen wealth buzzing all around us like electricity and x-rays.”
Captain Robertson drops that bit of wisdom on Herman Barrow over dinner (along with the knowledge that no one goes to Delmonico’s anymore), and from today’s vantage point, it is, of course, profoundly true – the Wright Brothers, the Model T Ford and radio transmissions were all less than a decade away. But for the staff of the Knickerbocker, the future is still unknown, and as the series slouches toward the season’s halfway mark, it’s taking stock of who will be the victors in this oncoming wave of modernity: those that can follow “the smart money,” as Sister Harriet describes it, and those who will be left in the dark.
The wealth, smart or not, is moving uptown to the city’s newer neighborhoods, leaving the streets around the hospital filled with immigrants, the poor and the desperate. But the medical institution, as yet, is not moving. In fact, it’s Captain Robertson, comfortably ensconced in his decidedly not-downtown mansion, who appears to be the one leading the charge to keep the Knick where it is – financing its electricity and x-ray machines, among other things – for reasons unidentified, but perhaps having to do with long ago humid nights in Nicaragua with Dr. John Thackery.
Or perhaps he knows, as many seem to, that the future’s greatest technological transformations won’t be made in upper crust salons, but among the thriving new population downtown. After all, the doctors have been obsessed with this oncoming revolution all along. The need to master science drove Dr. Christianson to a self-inflicted grave, and while Thackery insists he’s mentally tougher than his mentor, he fails, again, at the placenta previa surgery that triggered the bearded doctor’s self-imposed exit. (The operation is staged in an excellent visual callback: no cutting or spurting, just the post-procedure bottles of blood). Meanwhile, his outcast deputy Dr. Algernon Edwards finally makes a silver-thread breakthrough with his hernia method, and even if it’s a secret for now, he makes sure to use new technology – photography – to document every step for future posterity.
Separated for their experiments, the two come together to save the leg of one of Bunky‘s goons, and the grudging respect between them builds as they dance through the surgery. Algernon is impressed by his boss’s ingenuity with a set of massive pliers; Thackery is pleased by his deputy’s ability to anticipate his requests; and both equally appalled by Bunky’s threat to lynch the black man should the operation flop. After their successful collaboration, the doctors take a post-surgery break outside, as Soderbergh continues to tell the story with his camerawork, shooting them from behind as equals, just two tired men discussing the humidity of the morning. (“It’s all the tall buildings,” Algernon tells Thackery, “they capture the heat.”) The magnanimity is broken by Herman, who walks into the frame to offer his flask to the white doctor only – and the camera changes angles just at that moment, as if to reinforce that here’s a man who can not see future.
Of course, Herman thinks he’s following the smart money, and that’s what makes him truly tragic. He is absolutely absorbed by the Captain’s speech about electricity and the immaterial, the wheels in his head whirling. He’s fated to come to the conclusion that the only way out of his financial hole is to get into the prostitution procurement business – perhaps, famously, the oldest money there is.
Written by Steven Katz, “They Capture the Heat” is the first episode penned by someone other than creators John Amiel & Michael Begler. It still drops several clunkers, however, most egregiously Thackery’s kicker after he loses his previa patient and learns about the long foreshadowed illness of Dr. Gallinger’s daughter: “Just another Tuesday at the Knick…” (The line worked a lot better on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “So, Dawn’s in trouble… must be Tuesday.”) But the episode is noticeably funnier. When Health Inspector Jacob Speight lectures the Downton-esque housekeeper about her boss’s susceptibility to typhoid, he tries to shock her with vulgarity. “For all his money,” he condescendingly explains, “he shouldn’t think he’s immune to this disease, unless of course he’s got a servant who wipes his ass for him?” “Don’t think for a second that he doesn’t,” is her snobby response. And then there’s Sister Harriet’s advice to Tom Cleary on modernity and how he can follow the smart money: “You, my friend, aren’t following anything smart. Not until you acquire some fine manners. And learn to drive a motorized car. And dress presentably. And fucking shave.” Who doesn’t giggle when a nun curses?
“They Capture the Heat” also feels warmer, which could be an intentional play off the title, or the result of more and more Nurse Lucy throughout the hour. Every time Eve Hewson’s dewy face appears, the show’s pulse perceptibly quickens. She’s the only one that really gets to smile (“I think it’s delicious,” she says, when Bertie asks her if she likes being frightened) and the only one who seems to be truly optimistic. “You’re thinking too much,” she tells Thackery, as she instructs him on how to ride her bike. In an episode full of x-rays and Edison, it’s young Lucy, all dressed in white and atop her blue bicycle that is the true symbol of modernity. She is the future.
Previously: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner