Forget about the West Virginia church mouse that used to silently, shyly roam the halls of the Knickerbocker, her wide eyes taking — meet the baller version of Nurse Lucy Elkins, kicking ass and taking names. Like Cinderella’s sex-positive feminist alter ego, Lucy arrives at the Knick’s charity ball, French Chantilly on fleek (subsidized by a foot fetish loving fairy godmother named Ping Wu) and slays. Fending off patronizing Robertsons at every turn, she reduces Henry to mush by withholding any gratitude the rich boy thinks he deserves for taking her to a fancy party and then shocks Cornelia by refusing to accept her narrative that the young nurse isn’t the right sort for her brother.
And when the clock strikes midnight, instead of turning into a pumpkin, Lucy gets hers. “Lie back and I’ll show you what I like,” she purrs to Henry, taking out the Thackery vial and flipping him over, “Isn’t that better?” Does she actually like the dashing aristocrat? Who knows — but she likes having the power.
The unleashing of Lucy’s id is just one of the highly enjoyable events of this overstuffed episode, “Williams and Walker” — perhaps the best of the season so far. Within the hour: Dr. Thackery successfully separates the conjoined twins; Abby convinces him to do the procedure without first snorting drugs; Cornelia learns of her father’s deal with the docks to let plague-ridden immigrants into the city; and Herman gets Wingo fired after the architect threatens him with Junia-related blackmail. But like a good teen movie, the charity ball is the highlight, and this prom does not disappoint. More than just a showcase for Lucy 2.0, it brings together almost every couple in their finest fashions for dance, drink and disturbing era-appropriate racist entertainment.
There’s Bertie and Genevieve, basking in the glow of their first giggle-filled sleepover, gawking at the rich people and exchanging cute looks. (They are the healthiest couple this show has ever seen; writers, please don’t give her smallpox.) Then there’s John Thackery, proudly displaying his stunning, surgically-aided true love on his arm; he dotes on her like a princess. Unfortunately, Abby is still insecure about her nose, and on their walk home she’s asks for more procedures to correct it, which…well, it doesn’t sound like a good idea.
Most stylish duo goes to Dr. and Mrs. Algernon Edwards, whose everyday Paris lifestyle most likely resembled this rare New York evening. Opal kills in red and black lace, and when an admiring Genevieve remarks that the doctor’s wife seems born to wear such garments, she tartly replies, “I was.” But the night ends poorly, when Opal presses a tipsy Captain Robertson to admit his pull is no longer enough to convince the board to employ Algernon, let alone treat black patients when the hospital moves uptown. His pain and embarrassment at letting his surrogate son down looks heartfelt. But the lady isn’t buying it, and convinces her husband not to either.
Elsewhere at the dance, Cornelia and Philip work as a united front against the domineering Mr. Showalter, Herman pretends to like his wife, who, in turn, finally gets a little affirmation by hosting a successful society party. Even Harriet and Cleary get in on the action, throwing their own shindig at their apartment. Admittedly, it’s a particular affair: the ambulance driver makes chops, the two drink whiskey, and decide to go into business together selling contraception.
The ball itself looks sumptuous and ornate, but also feels strangely unsettling. With director Steven Soderbergh pulling double duty as the cinematographer, The Knick receives much deserved praise for its look, but the show’s sound design is often the unsung hero. Even with music playing, the echo of hundreds of bodies trampling and trodding heavilyaround a wooden floor give the party scenes a sense of hyperreality and dread. The night’s entertainment — real life vaudevillians Williams and Walker, two African-Americans who performed in blackface, calling themselves “the two real coons” — add an extra layer of oddness to the evening, as their footsteps and unamplified voices move across the assembled guests.
The only person missing is Dr. Gallinger, who pulled the short straw and spends the evening working, although, it’s doubtful he would take his wife out in public after the poisoning — if, indeed, there was a poisoning. (Eleanor does not appear in this week’s episode, and no mention is made of Dr. Cotton – perhaps the psychiatrist is completely recovered and removing other mentally ill people’s teeth.) On the up side, Everett’s night shift allows him to sabotage Edwards’ upcoming surgery on civil rights figure D.W. Garrison Carr by altering the concentration of a needed drug needed for the operation.
Later, during the procedure, the wrong dosage forces the patient into life-threatening paralysis, allowing Gallinger to “discover” the mistake and kill two birds with one stone – embarrass Edwards and maybe murder a black guy. For Algernon, coming straight on the heels of his conversation with Captain Robertson, it’s another demoralizing blow. “How the hell could it go so wrong?” he asks Opal, seething with shame, anger and confusion. She tries to console him: “We’ll have better days.” But he doesn’t believe her. Neither do we. The party’s over.
Previously: Woman’s Work