Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Knick: “Working Late A Lot”

Illustration for article titled The Knick: “Working Late A Lot”

“Working Late A Lot” is shot through with a sacred-profane contrast that itself has both snarky and sincere uses. It opens with Thack and Lucy talking God, her fear of divine judgment for their affair and his belief that God’s sins are far worse than theirs. More often it’s just the expected authority figure saying something blue, in this case the Archbishop talking about “wretched immigrants.” When Typhoid Mary swears in at her trial, Speight advises the judge to throw that Bible out. Not only does it have her shit on it, but it carries typhoid bacteria as well. That’s the general vibe of “Working Late A Lot.” The people in charge are failing us.

Mary Mallon is painted with as broad a brush as your average tertiary character on The Knick. After being let off by a sympathetic judge who doesn’t really understand the basics of how science works (i.e. empirical data, testing, and replication of results), Mary opens the doors of the courthouse and feels the warmth of the sunshine. She’s carrying typhoid, she’s definitely the source of multiple deaths, but all she cares about is herself. She merrily prances down the steps after Speight and his crew, chirping in her Irish singsong: “Sweet freedom! Go fuck yourselves!” She’s just a cartoon. A repulsive one. Before we ever saw her, we knew that she serves food infested with her shit. By accident, but it’s a revolting act nonetheless. And it’s less accidental now, even if she doesn’t believe she’s ill. She’s responding to bad press by changing her name, but she’s still applying to a new cook position in a scene that feels like the supervillain plotting her next escapade. Typhoid Mary will strike again!

It’s understandable, or at least revealing, that she and the judge don’t buy the science. This is the first documented asymptomatic case of typhoid. As Chickering, Sr., says, it took millennia for people to understand that germs could make you sick. If Bertie could explain himself a little better, maybe explain how the tests aren’t wrong, then perhaps things would be different.

Indeed, history could be different. Typhoid Mary wouldn’t be quarantined until years later. The Knick’s brazen reappropriation of history fits right in with its styling as a fast-paced scientific and cultural revolution. 1900 is a party, and the guests are the Vanderbilts, Edison, Typhoid Mary, the cop who started a race riot, and our heroes, fictional pioneers of real medicine. Contrasted with the Deadwood school, a creative take on actual historical people, and the Mad Men school, where textbook history happens largely out of sight of our heroes, The Knick starts to feel like a scamp getting away with something.

At the 83rd meeting of the Metropolitan Surgical Society, Thack meets his Ted Chaough in the person of Dr. Zinberg, a friendly-seeming rival who reads a paper every bit as good as the Thackery-Edwards Hernia Repair. What Zinberg has come up with is the Illuminating Intrascope, something like the camera dildo on Masters Of Sex, used to see inside the body before too much incision. His speech is all about the maltreatment of experimentation. Doctors are cutting too much without knowing for sure, and that’s causing too much harm to patients.

In light of Thack’s placenta praevia trials, it’s easy to see a contrast. But Thack would probably be pretty receptive to his ideas if he weren’t suffering withdrawals. The hospital—the city—is out of cocaine, one effect of the Philippine-American War. In response, half of “Working Late A Lot” is trained on Thack’s face, watching him sweat. The board meeting is just Thack and the black of the other board members too close for the camera to register as the camera revolves around the table. Even when there’s something else interesting going on, Clive Owen is putting on the better show. When Bertie asks Lucy out to some museum exhibit that he assures her will be perfectly ladylike for her delicate eyeballs, Thack walks past and we go with him while we’re listening to them. Later we watch Dr. Thackery as Edwards and Gallinger—Edwards and Gallinger!—play nice describing a diagnosis. We don’t even know Gallinger’s there until halfway through, but what a development. Meanwhile the patient’s moaning and Thack shouts, “Will someone please shut that man up!” If you thought the surgeries were graphic—and get a load of that guy’s open cheek!—Thack’s sweaty, fidgety, side-to-side, unfocused withdrawal is just as hard to watch, and it’s cut back and forth for extra irritation. Don Draper provokes pity at his lows. John Thackery provokes physical discomfort.


Thack manages to get a couple vials from Lucy, taking one right before his speech. We dolly up the aisle at him, not quite as in control as in surgery. “Would you be willing to take any questions?” “No.” Next he tries a strychnine solution before surgery, but that just makes him lethargic. Finally he gets some opium from Wu. Facing him with the pipe in his mouth, we rack from the burning balls of opium to Thack’s face and back. He thinks of Jules and of himself finding Jules’ body. Why? Is he afraid that’s where he’s headed? Is he just punshing himself for his addiction? Lucy’s there, too, in the memory. Lucy’s a strange bird. I get being drawn to something that might not be good for you, but Lucy’s first encounter with cocaine was seeing its hold on Thackery and shooting some into his dick. How quickly she falls for it herself.

Yes, Lucy and Thack are shooting and fucking a lot. Thack’s always just there, never mind how. Algie and Neely are far more tasteful, each sprawled out nude like an art object for the other to take pleasure in. The first close-up Algie gets, a high-angle as he reclines on the bed, it take a moment to register that his eyelids are the only thing moving. She’s smoking naked on a chair, and he’s looking her down and up. The example in “Get The Rope” holds: We watch Algie and Neely, and we feel Lucy and Thack. The former is about the external, the bodies, the optics, the outside pressure of a grabby father-in-law and expectant fiancé. The latter is about the experience, and their Problem is literally internal.


To be more specific, we feel with Lucy. What is Thack getting out of this, just sex and drugs and blasphemy? Not that those things aren’t delightful in themselves, but Lucy wants more. She walks downstairs in his shirt that night, and he doesn’t even notice her until she’s invading his airspace. “I think I’ll go home,” she says. Cut to her sad walk down a long hallway and a pan over to the bike that brought them together. She also sulks the next day at work, for which Dr. Chickering, Jr. prescribes a cup of coffee. He’s sweet, she says. Whatever else Thackery is, he’s not sweet.

Stray observations:

  • The Gallingers go up and down with Grace. Poor Eleanor still thinks Lillian is going to come back, sometimes believing Grace is Lillian and other times ignoring Grace altogether. On the bright side, “Working Late A Lot” confirms that wagging a baby in front of a mother whose child has just died and saying, “Look at her. Look at her. She needs a mother” is not the most effective cure for mental illness.
  • Captain Robertson feels he has done more than his fair share. After all, it’s his ships being sunk by Filipino revolutionaries.
  • Chickering, Sr. is still all about Thack’s Svengali hold on his son. Thack says, “I hold no special power over him.” “You hold enormous power. He worships you.”
  • Thack: “Good is not enough. Good does not change the world.”
  • In a single shot, Cornelia dismisses Mr. Edwards—she’s gonna be working late, you see—and then walks down the sidewalk to the next taxi and gives that one instructions to Algie’s hotel.
  • Barrow can’t find funding, so he has to cut costs. He goes down to the basement and fires indiscriminately into the workers. “Two of you are fired.”
  • Thack: “If I’d have known you were gonna charge me, I’d have gone back to sleep and let you choke.” Wu: “I would not have died. Nothing can kill me.”