The thing about television is that returns tend to diminish on all but the best shows. So it’s not a great sign that we’re three episodes into The Knick and I’m already suffocating in the folds of all that unnecessary dialogue. The first half of “The Busy Flea” is such naked scaffolding it’s practically Schizopolis-speak. Passive-aggressive sniping meant to reveal a loveless marriage. Expository paragraph outlining Mrs. Effie Barrow’s unseen father’s work history. Further exposition establishing the missing earrings of Madame de… Barrow. The lines aren’t impossible. The back-and-forth is supposed to be grating, and the missing earrings are the tantalizing hook for later. But all that plain outlining of a character’s feelings, backstory, and plot incident just sits there. There’s no personality, no stylization, no particular approach to how people speak. There’s no life.
What really makes the exposition tedious is that we can see what we need to see for ourselves. If Thack is such a whirlwind of social and sexual energy, that should come through in his performance. He doesn’t need a Tek-Jansen-style fluffing. “It wasn’t that simple,” says an old flame, Mrs. Abby Alford. “Nothing with you ever was. You were exciting and brilliant. I couldn’t have loved you more. I was so proud to be on your arm.” Oh, Thack, you’ve obviously had hundreds of lovers! Isn’t this patient a lady of high upbringing? Abby conducts a train of simple sentences, the subject at the front of every car. So not only is the content laughable but the form’s monotonous. How do you act a diary? Outlander can’t even handle the voice-over, and it’s an honest-to-goodness choose-your-own-adventure bodice-ripper. People give Mad Men shit for being obvious, but when it cut to black bathroom attendants, they just looked slightly rumpled at the wealthy ad wives walking away. When Effie Barrow steals her husband for a moment, a nurse asides, “She’s wearing more than a year of my wages on her back.”
Granted, The Knick is nothing if not a chart of the processes, micro and macro, that make up this hospital. So file that data on nurse wages somewhere. And “The Busy Flea” in particular is about connecting the classes. But the show really comes alive when it visualizes those processes. Think of the close-up of Edwards taking a syringe in between wide shots of him dealing with a moaning patient’s pain. Once Abby has established all the relevant and irrelevant information she feels she needs to get her story going, she finally gets to the heart of the show. “How does it work?” Thack describes the skin graft procedure step by step, letting your imagination do the graphic work of visualizing. That way, when it comes time to perform the skin graft, Soderbergh tells the story in close-ups of the doctors. As the mortality rate at The Knick makes clear, patients are just the objects of surgery scenes. This one’s really about Thack standing up for Abby and Nurse Elkins as they endure the condescending bitchery of a nurse. “Nurse Baker, another word from you about anything other than the job at hand and I will sew your mouth and nostrils shut and happily watch you asphyxiate.”
Abby has lost her nose to syphilis, and not that she owes Nurse Baker any explanation, but it’s because her husband cheated on her. Like Thack explaining the skin graft, Abby’s admittance works on your imagination. First we see a bored nurse jump into high gear when she sees whatever it is that’s wrong with Abby’s face. Then Thack too softens his mood when he sees her, standing there with her back to us she’s so ashamed. It’s like The Twilight Zone’s “Eye Of The Beholder,” where we only see the patient as reflected by her pitying doctors, except there’s no twist. And then we sit and watch her noseless face and read all her shame and worry and regret. But the tone isn’t pity. Thack’s inserting all kinds of golden instruments into the cavity, and the camera’s trained on her but rocking like a drunk, so there’s a nice queasy factor bringing all that drama down to earth. Isn’t that so much more interesting and complicated and human than hearing her flatter him and him rescue her?
Once “The Busy Flea” moves past all that establishment, it really sweeps you up with its thrill and wit. Edwards is building the night ward like an amateur spy outfit, with multiple black workers “inquiring about the washing job” after hours. He hires a seamstress to sew stitches and another woman to play court stenographer. It’s all going great until capitalism intervenes. The hernia patient defies his bed-rest prescription and goes to work before he’s healed. Unfortunately the basement’s out of thread and the seamstress doesn’t tell Edwards until he’s already got his hands in the patient’s body, so Edwards has to make haste all the way through the hospital, bloody hands in the air, backing through any doors, to the operating theater where he can retrieve more silk. With his teeth. It’s hilarious. And then Thackery, seeing what an opportune time it is, both of them mid-surgery and all, interrupts the one-man race to tell Edwards they’ll be using his expertise to guide the aorta operation after all. The Knick is pretty funny when it lets go. Barrow squares his debt (by selling a scarce Knick cadaver to Cornell for 75 bucks) and then ahems to get his tooth back. The guy takes his sweet, comic time finding the tooth, and then places it on the table. “That is not my tooth.” “Get the fuck out!” Smash cut. I can’t get enough of Barrow. The only scenes where he gets his way are the ones where he’s alone.
Oh, and the ones where he pays the other character to do his bidding. The title of the episode refers to a striptease that Barrow’s favorite prostitute does for him, a girly number where she can’t find the flea and has to take off all her clothes to get it. Like I said, “The Busy Flea” brings the high and the low together. Hard not to make the connection between the source of Mrs. Arnold’s syphilis and Mr. Barrow’s hobby, but it also doesn’t look like the Barrows are sleeping together. Meanwhile a domestic scene at the Gallingers gives way to a depressed-seeming Eleanor (I believe—even after completely missing that last week’s abortionist is Sister Harriet, I’m a little gun-shy identifying characters I barely know) putting their six-month-old daughter in a basket on the porch, where Sister Harriet finds it. And the Robertsons are forever having breakfast, this time casually slipping that Algernon Edwards is the son of the woman serving them. When Cornelia starts to wonder about a typhoid fever outbreak among their social circle, her mother says, “Do you know if they’ve been spending any time with immigrants? They carry it, you know.” The oblique portraits say it all, really. The wealthy are freaky funhouse mirrors of everyone else on The Knick. Thack’s a god on this show, and even his after-hours are delirious.
You’d think Cornelia might be the focus of an episode like this, but she acquits herself in a handful of little scenes rather than one big story. She’s the go-between for Captain Robertson, Dr. Edwards, Dr. Thackery, Health Inspector Speight, and the upper crust of their neighborhood, the glue that keeps those parts in place. She has all the right values and even makes a case for the utility of her social status. She’s such an angel I can only assume she strangles stray kittens at night.
Once again, it’s Edwards’ encounters with the less privileged that most stokes my fire. At work it’s all the expected scenes. He makes Wooster and Hiram, the coal men, risk their jobs to keep the lid on his night ward. He hires two employees for his clinic. He tries to help patients. But after losing that hernia patient who couldn’t afford to keep still, he lets off some steam by picking a fight with a neighbor at the local bar for the crime of pretension. The guy’s trying to impress a date with his worldliness. He’s been all the way to Tennessee! The boys get their foreplay out of the way, and all of a sudden, we get a big close-up of the back of Algernon’s head and the ambient noise becomes a chime score.
It’s like another dimension. The only sound is the chimes, pealing like church bells, and the look is on drugs. We’re staring at the back of Algernon’s head, the only thing in focus for the entirety of the scene, as he approaches his opponent in slo-mo, and then the head dodges a punch on fast-forward. That dizzy coverage is the blanket, and it’s patched with a couple low-angle close-ups of Algernon’s face, sweaty and pained against nothing but the black sky. It’s like The Passion Of Joan Of Arc in the middle of a modern fight scene. Edwards is taking the anger and frustration heaped on him by an impossible job in a racist, classist system out on, who, nobody, anybody. It’s also a scene about one social climber kicking another down the ladder. And more intimately it’s a scene about Dr. Edwards pushed to extremes. In those close-ups we see him feel in a way that he can’t reveal at work or at home. Like the minimal aesthetics, he strips away all these forces of society to the point where it’s just two people fighting. Focus, sweat, speed, pain, control. At the end he checks his pulse, looking dazed but cool. It’s amazing what The Knick can do without dialogue.
- So what was so exciting and adventurous about Thack’s old life? They used to go to Coney Island. Could his life really be that exotic?
- Cornelia finds Thack in the middle of his, like, fifth pig trying to get this aorta procedure right. “Now you see why we have no Jewish doctors.”
- In other news, Cleary’s making all kinds of passive-aggressive remarks to Sister Harriet about her night job. And she in turn deposits a wad of cash in the donation bin. To be continued.
- In the middle of a quote-off with Thack, Nurse Elkins drops, “In the blackest darkness even a dim light is better than no light at all.” “Who said that?” “I just did.” It convinces him to try to save the girl with typhoid fever even though chances were slim, and ta-da, it works.
- Edwards to his new nurse: “Sew everything you see that’s got blood coming out of it.”