Back in the day when hospital dramas like ER would routinely attract a weekly audience of 30 million, the shows used to boost their viewership further with “event” episodes – a blizzard, a ferry crash, a chemical spill, or some other major crisis that would bring every character together to toil heroically for a greater good. Enemies temporarily became friends, rookies rose to the occasion and unlikely bonds were formed, changing lives forever…you know the drill. The Knick, which consistently teeters between prestige cable drama and medical procedural, went all-in on the latter — and surprisingly, the Thack’s Anatomy vibe totally worked.
The disaster in episode seven, “Get the Rope,” is a race riot that swirls through the downtown streets and into the doors of our favorite Gilded Age hospital. Based on an historical event, it’s hands down the series’ most successful weaving of real life with fiction (fun or not, it’s hard to imagine that Dr. John Thackery and his minions actually invented appendectomies or tackled Typhoid Mary). During an heatwave in August of 1900, a plainclothes policeman named Robert J. Thorpe approached May Enoch, an African-American woman waiting for her boyfriend, and attempted to arrest her for soliciting. An argument between Thorpe and the boyfriend, Arthur Harris, ended with the black man stabbing the officer, who eventually died of his wounds at Roosevelt Hospital. Enraged, the poor Irish – many of them policemen – rampaged through the city, attacking any African-American they could find.
“Get the Rope” cleverly replaces Thorpe with the fictional Officer Sears, a man already established as hard up for cash and looking to recruit prostitutes into Bunky‘s stable, and turns the Knick into the hostile mob’s prime target once the policeman dies. As the angry horde swarms outside while the hospital tends to riot victims, nearly every main character falls into line and bands together to treat the wounded, regardless of their respective feelings towards African-Americans during the six previous episodes. Only Dr. Everett Gallinger, returning for his first shift since the death of his daughter, stays consistent with his prejudices, balking at helping the beaten or looking on incredulously as his white colleagues trade jokes with Dr. Algernon Edwards about the new suction machine.
Still, it’s a little jarring, even after their dénouement at the end of the previous episode, to see Thackeray’s sudden concern over Algernon, with him running into the street to chase off thugs and warning his colleague that “you need to stay out of sight.” Or to see Tom Cleary singlehandedly pull the ambulance laden with contraband patients to the Negro clinic after the mob has stolen the hospital’s horses. It’s as if everyone is suddenly living in a parallel bizarro world where they are all better people.
Come to think of it, there’s something otherworldly and nearly supernatural to the whole episode overall. Every exterior scene is even more desaturated and washed out then usual, with no one and nothing registering beyond a beige hue. The staging of the stabbing is dramatic, with the woman standing as a speck on the empty street, perfectly centered. But it’s strange that the street is immaculately clean – an anomaly for an NYC in 1900 or 2014. It makes everything look almost post-apocalyptic, an idea that’s further bolstered by other images – bloodied riot victims looking like zombies in The Walking Dead; Sister Harriet screaming “Away! Back I tell you!” while brandishing a cross like a vampire hunter – or the shots of the mute, white-smocked gang pushing sheet-draped gurneys through the streets, like a retro Guilty Remnant from The Leftovers. Once they get to the clinic, everyone pitches in to treat the injured, with Thackery even reaching into his personal cocaine stash to alleviate the pain of a patient (although not his last bottle, as we see later). No one died in the historical riot, and thanks to the heroic efforts of the staff, no one dies in its fictional counterpart either.
In fact, there are few losers this hour (except for Herman, poor Herman, who races across town to save Julia from being defiled by the mob, only to walk in on her servicing a client). Gallinger might grouse, but he does his part to keep the patients safe. Bertie, left alone at the hospital, soldiers on, confidently performing surgeries with Nurse Pell. Lucy gets to save the day with her quick, deadpan response to an a rioter’s question about what’s under the sheet hiding Algernon (“You can look, but about a week from now you’re going to be down on your knees trying to find where your testicles rolled off to”). Even Mrs. Odom gets her moment. “Aren’t you a laundress?” Herman asks when he finds her down in Algernon’s secret clinic, “Down here I am a surgical nurse!” (Am I the only one writing fan fiction about this woman?!?)
Clocking in at roughly 44 minutes, it’s a tense, taut episode of television, with the pressure relieved at the end in classic Knick fashion. Cornelia finally makes her pass at Algernon, perhaps unconsciously doing whatever she can to sabotage her future with Philip Showalter and – more importantly – his pervy father. The doctor, in turn, is more than willing to throw her over the exam chair after all their racy “buttock” banter earlier. But that pales in comparison to the seduction of John Thackery by Lucy Elkins. The minute he urges Ms. Elkins to leave her bike at the hospital so he can walk her home, the lady’s mind is made up. And while John is trying hard to maintain the era’s decorum, Lucy is nothing if not a modern woman. “My roommate’s already gone to work,” she tells him at her door, “you can come in if you’d like.” He accepts the invitation, and when Lucy wonders if her first time will hurt, he introduces the virgin to his true mistress, letting her know, “I can make it painless and perfect.” This Knick episode, coincidentally, comes remarkably close to being both.
Previously: The Bright Side of Life