While the ability to genuinely surprise and shock viewers isn’t the only metric for measuring a TV show’s entertainment value, it’s a good place to start. The Knick, which shines with innovative and unpredictable visual storytelling, hasn’t really excelled in the art of the unexpected when it comes to plotting – until tonight. “Start Calling Me Dad” has a couple of genuine unforeseen twists in it, starting with the episode’s overall optimism and sense of hopefulness (all things being relative, of course; this is The Knick, after all).
It’s taken over half the season and multiple gory corpses, but this week, the placenta previa surgery haunting the Knick’s (white) staff finally succeeds. The breakthrough comes after a weekend of cocaine and prostitute-filled experimentation for Dr. Thackery, one he ropes innocent-but-willing Dr. Chickering into by the end. This is the first surprise of the hour — a phone ringing in a darkened house, summoning Bertie to the hospital in the murky night – and a replay of the last episode’s moment when Thackery was similarly called into work to operate on Bunky‘s brother-in-law. But instead of scrubbing in for a surgery, Bertie is met by his boss, hopped up on goofballs, and two naked opium den prostitutes. “These ladies work by the hour, and their rate is on the high side due to their cleanliness and good cheer,” Thack exuberantly greets him. “So scrub in, Bertie the Wise, for I have many new secrets to reveal to you…I can do strange things.”
Everything about this extended scene is delightful (with the exception of Lin Lin and Delores‘ gratuitous nudity – they didn’t have robes in 1900?), and Michael Angarano, a former child actor who played Jack’s son on Will & Grace, excellently conveys Bertie’s multiple reactions, from shock and embarrassment to scientific curiosity to downright glee. And although there are still three episodes to go until the finale, here’s hoping Clive Owen submits this as his Emmy episode, if only for his fantastic reading of the line, “Our budget won’t allow for pregnant prostitutes, so we’re just going to have to make due with what we see here.”
Bertie’s unforeseen good luck continues, as the Christianson-Thackery-Chickering Placental Repair Procedure appears headed for publication, and more importantly, his first date with Nurse Lucy looks to be a success. The two spend the afternoon strolling through the park, sharing pretzels, giggles and their mutual obsession with the “intoxicating” Chief Surgeon, neither aware the other knows the secret to what Algernon calls Thackery’s “endless energy.” Since the series has been building week after week to a Thackery/Lucy entanglement, this sweet connection is an unexpected but welcome digression.
Back at the hospital, the (used) x-ray machine arrives, delighting everyone — especially Herman, who gets to pocket the balance of Captain Robertson‘s money. There’s a Mad Men-ish “look at all the smoking!” type of joke here, as Herman wonders aloud about how long the device’s uranium will last, and everyone eagerly jumps at the chance to get cancerous rays blasted at their bodies. (Historical fun fact No. 1: Clarence Dally, the Edison associate who invented the x-ray machine, died an excruciating death in 1904 from metastatic skin cancer after testing the machine on himself so often).
Meanwhile, Sister Harriet and Tom Cleary‘s side business is doing well, with a patient alive and grateful. When you combine that with Abby checking out of the hospital – albeit with her arm still sewn to her face – and the surviving placenta previa patient, this is hands down best episode for females on The Knick ever (with the excruciating exception of little Lillian Gallinger, who succumbs to meningitis).
Even Algernon is having a good day…for Algernon. He continues to unleash his aggression in some sort of underground Gilded Age Fight Club, but when Thackery finally discovers his underground clinic, he’s able to keep his cool – or perhaps just set free his egotism – and demonstrate his usefulness to the Chief Surgeon. The confrontation leads to a meeting of the minds, and a deal: Algernon will trade in his basement operating room for the theater upstairs; in return, the chief and the hospital get credit for his medical innovations. The dénouement between the two surgeons is hardly a shock, but Thackery’s hypocritical outbursts (“This is about lies, about duplicity, about your lack of morality”) and his swift acceptance of the African-American’s Cyrano offer is a clever callback to all of his drug-addled behavior earlier in the hour.
But the real surprises in this hour belong to Cornelia. She and Inspector Speight finally catch their “Typhoid Mary,” and while many figured out this was the real historical figure last week when the name “Mallon” surfaced, it’s doubtful anyone expected the story to end with Cornelia’s awesome football tackle. (Historical fun fact No. 2: Mary Mallon wasn’t apprehended by the NYC Health Department until 1907, but she was famously belligerent.) Her flushed face and beaming pride carry the heiress home, where she accepts good wishes and congratulations from the men in her life – her father, her fiancé, and her future father-in-law, Hobart Showalter. As expected, the compliments are ultimately condescending. “A toast to my little girl,” exclaims Captain Robertson. “A perfect way to wind down your tenure at the Knick,” Philip says, raising a glass. “My wife will always have the best stories to tell her lady friends at lunch.” Deflated, Cornelia takes to her bedroom to pull off her corset, the era’s ultimate symbol of a woman’s constraints.
And just when you think that’s the end of a good episode, things take a truly startling turn. Into the room skulks the corpulent Mr. Showalter, to offer a series of veiled sexual threats. It’s creepy, it’s tense, and takes The Knick into new territory – the completely unexpected.
Previously: Show Me the Money