“Where’s The Dignity” is the first time I feel the whirlwind of innovation that Thack talked about in the first episode. Some nerd named Thomas Edison pops up at a fancy party where he shows off his wax recording technology. I don’t know which was more exciting, the performance or the appearance of Edison at all. Later Dr. Edwards is immediately taken with a new electric vacuum technology he hopes to apply to surgical use. It really does feel like a societal revolution.
Nothing about The Knick has felt as revolutionary as its form, the electronic score, the bobbing camera, the cool palette. This doesn’t look, sound, or feel like your average period drama. Edison’s furtive introduction would never fit Boardwalk Empire’s lush, lavish production or Manhattan’s more grounded operation. The score that announces Thack to the world is electric. Three weeks later, I sank in my seat a little to hear the score reused as Nurse Elkins tramps through Chinatown to spy on him.
It isn’t the particular bit of music, even if it is seared in my memory as Thack’s introduction. It isn’t the scene, although remember on Mad Men when Lois had the hots for Sal? It isn’t even the act of recycling, which has already happened and more to the point, that’s kind of how scores work. It’s the feeling that this music that was so vital not so long ago is already de rigueur. For those brief moments, the futuristic form became less than futuristic at a moment in the story that’s never been more so. Maybe the tension is productive. After all, Elkins following Thack is one of the least exciting developments of the episode, and here’s our cue. Still, even 10-episode TV is a long game.
In other words, formal creativity can’t do all the work. The Knick is still unlike everything else, and we still get sequences like that in-your-head fight scene. In fact, you don’t get a sequence like the rat ring—the longish traveling shots, the cramped perspective, the lampoon of the showdown, the low perspective as the guy kicks, steps, smashes, slips, then THE KNICK—every day either. But the splashiness of the pilot and the series as a whole on the television landscape dissipates when you narrow your parameters to hour four of a 10-hour movie.
So episodes like “Where’s The Dignity” largely ride on what’s happening and how, not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, What’s Happening is wild: During the second aorta operation, Dr. Edwards gives instructions to a certain point and then stops, playing chicken with the patient’s life and his co-workers’ racism until he can perform the procedure himself. Watch how Andre Holland sells it. First he zips up, then he looks at Gallinger through the tops of his eyes, and then he moves his whole head high, standing proud.
Later Cara Seymour does the reverse. It’s when Cleary stops dropping bitchy double-entendres and shaking his damn head at her and finally confirms that he knows what she does. Cleary’s such a big hulking mass that the frame, which otherwise creates a nice medium portrait of Sister Harriet, only goes up to his shoulder, his noggin somewhere up above looking down on her like he’s you know who. So he’s letting it all hang out and then he walks away. We never lose sight of her face. At first she’s impudent, returning his gaze right back at him, but once he looks away she gradually falls, slowly dropping her eyes to her feet.
Is Harriet that worried droop the same way Edwards is that defiant rise? He struggles to rise in every area of his life, but it shouldn’t even be a struggle, either to hold your head high or to take what you’ve earned. We don’t know as much about Sister Harriet’s inner life, but clearly, in the words of that one play, she has such doubts. But she’s also seen a lot of angles on unwanted pregnancy. She’s heard the stories of the violent husbands, she’s dealt with the babies that get dropped on her doorstep, she’s negotiated funding to care for them properly, and she’s seen what can happen when a woman tries to abort a fetus without the care or expertise of someone like her. So she’s made her decision, and she can live with it, because she knows it’s for the best, but she still has moments where she feels she deserves Cleary’s judgment.
The life-or-death game of chicken tells us a bit about the characters, too. Gallinger is exactly who we thought he was: “We don’t have time for your nigger games.” But Thackery is more measured. “Perhaps you’ll break first, Everett,” he says like he’s enjoying the show. Afterward Gallinger punches Edwards, and Thack intervenes. “Gallinger! Idiot! A surgeon needs his hands. Help him up. Everett, scrub out. Next time, kick the man instead.” So for those counting, he dismisses Gallinger, he has Edwards helped up, and he seals it with a joke to relax his stuffy white audience, not to imply that he’s above it himself. Thack’s somewhere between Bertie and Gallinger when it comes to race relations, but it’s kind of extraordinary that he isn’t just Gallinger’s hype-man, and I don’t mean that because it appeals to our enlightened sense of racial equality but rather because it’s a modern antihero with some nuance in his troublesome attitudes. Then again, Thack is a master of quiet, close-quarters, utterly credible threats. “If he dies because of your horseshit, I am gonna stab you in the throat with my father’s Union Army sword.” “Union? I would have thought Confederate.” I’m still grinning to see that side of Edwards. We don’t get to find out if he’d really let a man die, but I wager he would, which speaks to his desperation. In his defense, the chance of a patient walking out of the Knick is 50/50 on a good day.
Everyone has something to do this week. Lucy is scandalized by the sight of Thack in the opium den. It’s like she’s never watched a cable drama before. Bertie’s the only one in the office who fell for the Take Your Dad To Work Day prank. His father is the kind of guy who would make you repeat yourself if you didn’t get all of his titles right. He thinks Bertie’s wasting himself (and his fine, surgical lineage) at the Knick, and he thinks Bertie thinks he’s there to feel the nobility of poverty. “There is only poverty in poverty,” says Bertie, Sr. This is the kind of situation we’ve seen on Mad Men, but what about the specifics? The men do treat Bertie like he’s lowest on the totem pole, but that seems to have more to do with his youth. And the camaraderie is real, but the doctors don’t actually hang out after work or anything. Well, except for special occasions like Cornelia’s engagement party, and even then it’s only Dr. Edwards and not the others. Not to keep Mad Men-ing but, it turns out fiancé Phillip wants to take Cornelia to the west coast soon. Permanently. Guess who’s not excited about that.
The party’s good for the expected laughs at the aloof upper class, but what’s really revealing is the subtext among the Robertson and Edwards families. Also the text: Not only does Edwards’ mother work in the kitchens, but his father is a driver for the family. They’re as proud of Algie’s success as Bertie, Sr. is ashamed of Dr. Bertram Chickering, Jr.’s. But we mostly they stay out of sight. Instead the party slowly parcels out three little dollops of gossip: Captain Robertson appreciates Algie so much that he wants Algie’s approval of his daughter’s fiancé, Captain Robertson’s generosity toward Algie is not reciprocated by the missus except out of politesse, and Cornelia and Algernon seem to have a genuinely fraternal relationship. They share glances, they confide, they commiserate about the prospect of her having to leave. All three Robertsons surprised me tonight, but that’s the one that lingers. Perhaps because it’s the first time Dr. Edwards has been in a place like London or France where he was treated as an equal.
There’s a similar surprise in the Sister Harriet story. When an abortion gone wrong brings a dying mother to the Knick in “Where’s The Dignity,” Thack calls for Sister Harriet. It’s one of those little things that suggests a whole lot about what he knows about her and how he values her professionally, as well as simply opening us up to the fact that Thack and Sister Harriet actually have a relationship somewhere in the shadows of this show. To be perfectly candid I thought of Don Draper and Joan, as their mutual respect for most of Mad Men was more suggested than spoken.
Cleary gets philosophical about her at the end. She was an immigrant with no connections in this country but a landlord taking her money who didn’t even know her last name. “There’s a whole family somewhere thinks their girl’s alive and well in America.”
“This whole place is full of shames like her, all coming here hoping to Christ the stories they heard is true, thinking that every fuckin’ plunker who steps off the dock trips dead into a bucket of money. But then you get here. And it ain’t that. And if you ain’t strong enough, this city’ll bugger you 18 different ways and then leave you to rot. Where’s the fuckin’ dignity?”
All of this is happening because Cleary—Cleary!—was shaken to the bone by the look on the woman’s face. Chris Sullivan’s not waxing poetic. He’s tired. He’s an Irish immigrant watching Polish immigrants follow in his footsteps burying a Russian immigrant who died trying. “Where’s the fuckin’ dignity?” is a rhetorical question, but he apparently doesn’t believe there’s no answer. This woman wasn’t left to rot. He brought Harry here to look after her soul. On top of that he tells her that they’re all the poor woman has, which is to say he believes the deceased does have some people physically present who care about her to some degree. Cleary also takes this as a lesson to thaw some of the ice between him and Harry, strengthening his own connections in the city. And if he must line his pockets in the process, so be it.
- “The day you get a bullseye, Cleary, is the day I suck off a horse,” says some guy with an obligation to fulfill.
- This episode contains so much I barely got to Barrow, who spots a new widow the hall and delivers her husband’s ashes. But it turns out the husband had always planned to get buried. Barrow gathers himself and then tells her, “It was his final wishes, which he stated to me, just moments before his passing.”
- Speight gets all caricaturish at the Hemmings’ house, slurping his tea, racing to a seat. “Miss Robertson, every human being has bowels, and every one of them evacuates those bowels.”
- Thack visits Abby, who looks exactly as he described. She regrets leaving him, but he says her only mistake was the man she left him for. Abby: “We were something, weren’t we? Alive, beautiful.” Thack: “We were spectacular.”
- More data: cremation costs 10 dollars, and Thack memorized part of “The Song Of Hiawatha” in third grade elocution class.
- Mr. Edwards asks his son about Thack: “Is he really that good?” “He is…But I think I might be better.”
- Bertie’s sister asks about when Bertie touched Dr. Edwards: “Did any rub off?” He’s stunned. “Edith Dutson said it could happen.” “Right well, Edith Dutson and her whole family also believe that Jesus Christ came to America.”
- Captain Robertson introduces Dr. Edwards to captain of industry, Mr. Hobart: “You will never meet a Negro with as much ability and ingenuity as this one.”
- Hobart brags about exploiting the labor in Ecuador. Our Man Algie mic-drops: “Free labor can certainly change the equation. History has shown us that.” Look at that line. Imagine acting that line. Then watch Holland own it. Hobart: “It built the pyramids.” “Among other things.”
- After the failed rescue, Thack personally wraps his fingers around her heart and gives it a few gentle squeezes. Bertie picks up her pulse on the stethoscope, but it’s all Thack. “We’ll find a use for it.”