“There’s a life we live within the walls of this hospital. And the one we live outside. And these two lives need not intersect.” When Dr. Thackery calmly says this to Nurse Lucy Elkins, he’s delivering a threat – warning her to keep her mouth shut about his extracurricular cocaine habit. But he’s also issuing a prophecy: These worlds don’t have to meet, but everything about this week’s installment of The Knick points to the fact that they most certainly will.
After a premiere episode that unfolded over multiple days, the action of “Mr. Paris Shoes,” is contained to just one morning-to-midnight period, offering extended glimpses of many characters’ private concerns away from the hospital. But when the final shot of Thackery at his opium den fades to black (“Where else would I go?” he replies when asked if he’s coming back), there’s no way to envision these messy lives aren’t going to seep through the Knick’s walls.
For some, it already has. Take Administrator Herman Barrow – he’s a man with cash flow problem – $9,000 dollars in the hole. To pay off his loan shark, a tough named Bunky (who apparently wandered in from the set of Boardwalk Empire: The Prequel), Herman has been skimming off the top of the hospital’s electricity installation budget. The shoddy wiring leads to a dreadfully botched operation, complete with a patient set on fire and the mortal toasting of a nurse – the first, but certainly not the last, cringe-inducing medical moment of the hour.
While Herman’s personal issues are already bleeding through the daily fabric of the hospital, others are sketched out for future exploration. There’s Cornelia, chafing at the paternalism of her pampered life. We meet Dr. Gallinger‘s loving wife and adorable baby daughter, characters presented so glowingly healthy, there should be a flashing “foreshadowing” sign above their heads. And then there’s Sister Harriet and Cleary, who are so entertaining to watch that they may need their own spinoff. While it’s little surprise that the ambulance driver-slash-cadaver dealer spends his nights picking fights in sawdust-covered barrooms, it feels like a genuine twist when he spies the good nun, dressed in street clothes, slipping into the darkened hallway of an unfortunate woman in a family way.
But the hour’s starkest portrayal belongs to Algernon Edwards, particularly when placed next to the lives of everyone else. The episode opens with an intercutting of two mornings unfolding: Cornelia as she is pet, pampered and patronized in her family home; and Edwards, fending off roaches in his crummy Tenderloin rooming house. In those hallways, he’s not a Harvard-educated physician who practiced abroad; he’s “Mr. Paris Shoes,” the nickname resentfully bestowed on him by a fellow roomer. This is the brute who’s been sizing the good doctor up from the get-go, wondering how a man as dark as him and waiting in line for the one bathroom in a neighborhood described as “everything humans would do if no one was looking and god didn’t judge,” could have such nice shoes.
What Algernon goes through every morning, and how he experiences life as the only African-American man at the Knick who isn’t shoveling coal, is completely foreign to everyone around him, black or white. When the more-attentive-then-has-properly-been-explained Cornelia comes to check on him, only to realize his “office” is the dank cellar, his sigh of acceptance is simple: “I expect these things. You’re upset because you don’t.”
Off course, he doesn’t accept these things, really. As his long day moves forward and the indignities keep coming, Algernon takes matters into his own hands, setting up a clandestine clinic in his basement crypt for African-Americans who are turned away upstairs. And when he finally returns home, exhausted, to his rooming house, it’s to beat the shit out of his earlier antagonist, showing the man that he learned other things in Paris besides how to choose fancy footwear. After a day of being treated as less than an equal in his work life, Algernon needs to prove to someone he’s a man, even if it’s an act recognized by no one but him.
That flash of violence is a direct callback to the scene right before, where Bunky teaches Herman what it’s like “to be a man” (among other things, a real man does not lose a teeth in a pliers), and right before the final shot of Thackery zonked out on four bowls of opium, further underlining the injustices of public and private lives at the hospital. If it all feels a little clunky in how the writers are setting everything up, there’s no doubt these are the pins that are going to be knocked down throughout the season’s run.
Conspicuously missing a personal life in this episode is Lucy, seen biking up to the hospital in the morning (part of a beautifully crafted long and languid Steven Soderbergh tracking shot — a savvy piece of visual shorthand outlining each person’s status by the conveyance that takes them to work) and then only within the institution’s walls. While the bike signifies she’s a modern woman, her character continues to exist only in contrast to the men around her – mostly Thackery. “My circus tent is no place for a proper girl,” he tells her, as a roundabout way of apologizing for asking her to inject cocaine into his groin a few nights before. In a show noticeably light on woman, here’s hoping Lucy gets her own circus tent, soon.
Previously: Doctor’s Orders