There is every reason to believe that being a woman in 1902 … well, most likely it sucked. With no meaningful political rights, massively unequal wages and every breath dictated by a man and a corset, life as a member of the fair sex must have felt disturbingly unfair. So there's a lot to sympathize with in tonight's episode of The Knick, "There Are Rules" — a title taken from Bertie's conversation with Dr. Zinberg, but a phrase brutally relevant to all the show's ladies. One after the other, the women face the partisan principles of their daily lives, and deal with it in vastly different ways.
After suffering the consequences of literally breaking the rules, the former Sister Harriet is shattered. Defrocked, demoralized and depressed, the ex-nun can see no future for herself beyond self-flagellation and destitution. So it's Cleary to the rescue with a promise of a bed and some heroic drapery: "I told you I had the lady down the hall make a curtain!" While the offer plays as a victory – starring in The Victorian Odd Couple gets the not-so-holy-anymore woman out of her terrible living situation with the city's shadiest clergy – in the end, Harriet's chosen to obey the unspoken social contract of the era: women should follow the directions, and wait for men to make their lives better.
It's that path of least resistance that Mrs. Chickering has been following her entire life. Both married to and mother of a doctor, when esophageal cancer strikes, she sees no recourse than to meekly wait for one of them to save her. Enlisting Dr. Algernon Edward's help, Bertie performs an experimental operation on his beloved mother in secret at Mt. Sinai. It does not go well, and Mama Chickering sadly shuffles off this mortal coil a bit earlier than planned. Her sweet boy is heartbroken; losing his mother and his job, although gaining a new respect from his father and a promise of some future fine loving from Genevieve. Not said: What voice did Anne Chickering have in any of this?
Also mute to the circumstances of their lives, the sideshow "Siamese" twins that fixate Thackery throughout "There Are Rules" (and thank you, writers: The Knick is a circus, we get it). He ostensibly wants to examine their shared anatomy for his addiction studies, but his nagging dream featuring Haunting Dead Girl triggers the good doctor's guilt-slash-savior complex. Soon, he's drafted Cleary and some baseball bats to swoop in and free the girls from their villainous pimping handler and, perhaps, their conjoined state.
Thackery's dream also stars Abby, nose intact, and it's obvious the doctor has fallen for her completely. But for Mrs. Allford, the world is not so simple. She followed the rules, got married, obeyed her husband, and it left her disfigured and ostracized. Subsequently, even with the cosmetic surgery, she stays inside, a ghost of her former self, waiting night after night for the surgeon to return while her resentment towards him grows. "I have no claim on you," she tells him, "You only come here to talk; you go elsewhere for everything else." She's trying to dismiss him, but her heart's not in it. In reality, she's looking for the rescue, and the doctor is more than happy to rekindle the relationship they've both been craving since she walked back into the hospital. Their love is real, and the (re)-consummation completely earned, but Abby's circumstances have left her with barely any choices; it feels more like a last gasp than a win.
The same cannot be said of Lucy Elkins, still basking in the glow of getting her groove back. Since her pep talk from Lin Lin, the nurse is following a different playbook, quite literally taking Henry Robertson in her hand to get a date to the Knick's charity ball. "How many other girls do I have to watch smiling, receiving their invitations?" she coos, as she rhythmically demonstrates on the shocked shipping heir a skill it's doubtful she learned in her anatomy texts. Not to be outdone in the sex-as-power department, Junia simultaneously emasculates and arouses (emascarouses?) Herman as he shows her around their new, low floor, non-park-facing apartment. "I understand Hermie, you're doing the best you can, I suppose," she sniffs, as she lifts her skirt. "Just imagine if we were higher up, what it would be like to look out the window when we fuck?" The woman is a master: There are rules.
Let it be noted that Genevieve continues to kick ass, succeeding in this restricted world by her own terms. Possessing a great job, a keen intelligence and hands down the series' healthiest relationship, she's also genuinely having a good time – a rarity on this show. But she is the president of a very lonely sorority, more or less consisting of Cornelia during her Veronica-Mars moments and Opal Edwards, who hasn't been seen in weeks.
But of all the varying ways women on The Knick deal with their daily oppression, only one is truly blazing her own path. Eleanor Gallinger, she of hardy new teeth and hardly sound mind, invites her torturer Dr. Cotton to dinner, and then poisons him. To be fair, it's not clear she actually put something lethal in his meal, and the real life Dr. Cotton didn't die until 1933, but John Hodgman's flop sweat departure points in that direction. "I'm very glad you came so I could show you my appreciation for what you did for me," she chimes sweetly as he rushes out. No one's saying this is a good choice. But sometimes, you've got to throw out the rules all together.
Previously: Bad Brains and Blow-Ups