From Sons of Anarchy to Homeland, some of the best shows on television have slid over the edge into soap. So what's the tipping point? The surprise wife? The courtroom bombshell? How about the shocking death? Because all those things happened this week on The Knick, and somehow, the show managed to keep its head above the sudsy waters.
Let's start with Sister Harriet's How to Get Away With Murder moment during her trial. After her last appearance before a judge with no time for Catholics, immigrants or, apparently, legal arguments, the former nun's fate seemed sealed. But a new day brings a shocking twist: citing entrapment, Judge Bigot McGee drops the case, and a stunned Harriet walks out of jail. The immunity idol obviously goes to Cleary, who gathers a group of former clients to advise them, in his own poetic way, "to go to these powerful fellas who emptied their bags in you" and make the wheels of justice turn towards dismissal. "What's better than being free," he asks triumphantly as he drives her away from prison.
Arriving in New York with a brashness Joan Collins would envy, the English-born Mrs. Opal Edwards asks a different question to her estranged husband: "A man stops writing to his woman for two reasons. Either he's dead. Or he's moved on. You look very much alive to me. So…?" This lady takes no prisoners, making herself at home in Algernon's apartment, mocking his (weak) excuses, and upending the delicate enlightened-yet-condescending status quo that exists between the Edwards and Robertson families. She questions why she and the good doctor are allowed at the dining table — but her husband's parents are not. Between the sass, the style and her ability to ruin a good family meal, this woman is channeling her inner Cookie Lyons so hard she actually tells Algernon "I'm staying, and I'm keeping what's mine."
Portrayed by Zaraah Abrahams (a veteran of the British soap Coronation Street) Opal's commanding self-confidence brings a fun jolt of energy to the action, but her appearance is still a little hard to swallow. Introducing her in the final minute of last week's episode felt as contrived as any lathery last-act shocker, and the idea that Algernon would have a wife all this time makes little sense for the complicated character. Equal parts brilliant, proud, sad and saintly, Dr. Edwards may be a private man, but excepting basement clinics, he's not a liar. In his relationship with Cornelia, he left it all on the table; when she told him about her pregnancy, he genuinely wanted to marry her, regardless of the stigma.
For her part, Cornelia continues her investigation into Speight's death, slipping out of her in-law’s house in the dark of night to rummage through half-burned papers in the health inspector’s abandoned home. Of course, she's being followed – dun dun dun – but whether by Tammany or her creepy father-in-law is still TBD. Meanwhile, a very capable prostitute deflowers Bertie and Henry Robertson pioneers the 1901 version of the sex tape.
And speaking of pervy behavior, a moment of condolence for Dr. Mays and his slightly Dr. Drake Ramoray-ish departure. Although he doesn't fall down an elevator shaft, the inept MD meets the trope-iest fate of the episode – the sudden death of an expendable character created solely to advance the leads' plots. With Mays out of way, Lucy takes over his brothel patients and discovers a possible new career path; Barrow loses his sponsor at the men's club but gains another way to line his pockets, changing the new hospitals architectural plans – again – by including a memorial to the toasted physician. And the lack of a surgeon surely sets in motion the return of young Dr. Chickering, now seeking a cure to his mother's esophageal cancer at Mt. Sinai, and finding no help from the dour and unimaginative Dr. Zinberg. It's only visionary men like Dr. John Thackery who defy rules and risk everything – lives, careers, pigs – to heal the patients formerly damned as untreatable.
Which is how it happens that Thackery cures syphilis all in the name of love. Jolted from his drug stupor by Abby's suffering, he infects his former amore with malaria and raises her temperature to 107 degrees in order to destroy the bacteria (a scientific fact that won't be proved for another 15 years or so). As Edwards screeches "we swore to first do no harm!" in the background, his colleague barrels forward, and in one of the episode's most tender scenes, crawls into bed with a cured Abby as her fever breaks. Forget the noble speeches and hallway histrionics, that shot explains why Thackery can't lose her – because she's the only person who truly knows him.
It's just one of the many indelible moments where the emotional truth comes from the visual language, not the writing. On paper, the introduction of Opal Edwards might look like a fabricated point in a love-triangle. But the sublime scene of her and Algernon dancing at a Harlem club, the camera swirling closely by their heads, quick cuts creating a medley of looks and smiles and brief exchanges, elevates this relationship beyond a cookie cutter complication. Which is what separates The Knick from its melodramatic period-era cousins like Downton Abbey or Masters of Sex. While the plot and dialogue can grind into soap, the look, sound and overall too-cool-for-medical-school vibe of the series keeps it operating at another level. Will director Steven Soderbergh be able to keep this up?
Tune in next week…
Previously: Straight to Hell