Tragedy comes early in The Knick this week: By the cold morning light, two men fish a bloated body out of the East River; sadly, the corpse’s bald head can only mean one thing. And so, let’s pour a little out for Health Inspector Jacob Speight, the city’s brave champion of hygiene and shocker of the upper crust, capable of bribing landlords and evading tainted peach melba, all while asking the eternal question, “How many toilets you got in this joint, anyway?” You will be missed, sir.
Not least by Cornelia, Speight’s former partner-in-grime, who starts her day dutifully planning a hospital fundraiser and ends it deeply immersed (and spiritually revived) in her efforts to unravel her friend’s mysterious death. Powering through the city from police precinct to patronage-heavy Tammany Hall, she enlists the burly Tom Cleary for a little grave robbing and the slowly-going-blind Dr. Algernon Edwards for a post-mortem toxicology test (and possible future sexy times), gathering clues like an episode of CSI: Victorian Gotham. “It’s very strange and no one is giving it a second look,” she whispers to her former beau on the phone. She means the health inspector’s death, but the statement is entirely applicable to everything else going down at the Knick.
Take the restoration of Dr. Thackery‘s reign as chief of surgery. Sharply dressed in his signature white shoes, but still looking like Errol Flynn after a bender, the “rehabilitated” surgeon stands in front of the Board, defiantly declaring himself drug-free. Far from contrite, our (anti)hero acts insulted when told his arms will be checked for track marks, and then turns his arrogance up to 11 by informing the group he doesn’t intend to perform surgery; instead, he plans to study the causes and cures of narcotics dependence. Dangling the idea that rich people will flock to the new Knick if they provide the only guaranteed antidote to addiction convinces the suits that his plan is worth a chance – even after he admits he has no clue how to conduct his research. But wouldn’t employing a heroin-addled fornicator who stole medicine and killed a patient — specifically, last season’s the failed-transfusion girl, still haunting the good doc — outweigh the possible benefits of being the first Cliffside Malibu?
But no one is giving it a second look, so Thackery proceeds to barrel through the hospital and create havoc. First, he thoroughly marginalizes Dr. Edwards and all his good work. Then, he’s on to abruptly dumping Nurse Elkins, using the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” line. She’s not buying. “I don’t want to start anew, I want to continue on,” she pleads, both pathetically and perceptively – she knows this man doesn’t believe in new beginnings. Having lost her father figure, Lucy then runs into her actual father, fresh from West Virginia to save some souls in the big city. Call it the accent, or the weirdly menacing look in his eye when he says “Raise ‘em up right and they’ll always find their way,” but this guy doesn’t look any healthier for our favorite nurse than Thack.
Also strange: the memorably whiskered Dr. Mays, now unforgettable for how he jumps at the opportunity to examine Wu’s stable of women using nothing but “a good nose” — a moment fated to win the stomach-churning prize for the hour, until the terrifying Clockwork Orange eye operation overtakes it at the buzzer. Why a smart man like Algernon would ever choose Thackery to perform the surgery seems a little ludicrous, and while he probably isn’t aware the “cured” doctor spends his evenings drunkenly humping the dance-hall prostitute who invented speedballing, he’s got to notice the guy just doesn’t look…fresh.
So why does no one give any of this a second look? Because it’s 1901, and the desire to maintain the status quo lets influential men move through their lives with multiple chances and few consequences. The Knick has always trafficked in the currency of power imbalance, and like Mad Men before it, the series doesn’t have to do much more than adhere to historical accuracy to make its points. From Sister Harriet‘s imprisonment and Algernon’s demotion to Cornelia’s questioning about Speight’s murder, any challenge to the existing state of affairs will only be tolerated with condescension and disdain; meanwhile, women and people of color look nobler just for putting up with this shit. But even they play into the game. It’s not just men like hospital bureaucrat Herman Barrow and Colonel Robertson who choose to ignore the obvious, but each person with a stake in keeping their job. Everyone is doing their part to uphold the order of things.
Including, of course, Dr. Thackery – the prime beneficiary of everyone’s collective turning-a-blind-eye protocol. (No offense, Dr. Edwards.) While minority characters may appear more honorable in the light of history’s biases, making men like the returning Chief of Surgery seem likable without appearing clairvoyant or phony can be a struggle. So The Knick chooses to portray him as an era-appropriate asshole, but with a twist that keeps him compelling. Addiction isn’t “a failure of personal morality” as one board member states; it’s a true disease, By depicting Thack as an obviously sick man, we’re forced to sympathize with his modern suffering while wincing at his period-specific arrogance and bigotry. It’s a neat trick – everyone else can look away, but we can’t.
Previously: Two If by Sea