The Knick season 1 episode 5 review: They Capture the Heat

This week, The Knick offers glimpses of the future, both expected and otherwise. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers

1.5 They Capture the Heat

‘It’s the future’. 

X-ray machines may well have once been the future of diagnostics (and, as most of us in the early twenty-first century can attest, they certainly were) but they were not cheap. Three thousand dollars apiece; a lot of money on any normal Tuesday in the Knick, an awful lot during a time when the literal and figurative penny-pincher Herman Barrow has to cut costs by not cleaning the staff uniforms. 

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Five episodes in and the same themes are still circulating around one another, but they are beginning to intersect a little bit more. The question of the hospital’s finances has begun to reach near-existential levels; is it better to move the Knick to a more lucrative district if it would mean accepting a higher class of patient and rejecting the ‘unwashed’? Depends on why you’re running a hospital I suppose. For Thackery and Edwards, who this week found some hints of a common ground, the quest is less about the patients, unwashed or otherwise, and more about the procedures. Each one is a fresh chance to experiment, test and perfect. The Cuban’s hernia allows Edwards to try a new method, one that he does with his patient’s full blessing (if not quite understanding), while the poor girl with the placenta previa case gives a drug-invigorated Thack the opportunity to attempt to beat his score from the first episode. Seventy-two seconds. A partial success but a complete failure. 

The frustration is palpable. These men know, for the most part, what they are doing, what they are trying to achieve, but they are struggling too hard with their limitations to realise the fullness of their ambitions. Pressures financial, racial and technological (all three in Edwards’ case) conspire to check the free play of their powers and leave them, like Edwards, scrabbling around in the clandestine darkness. 

These concerns are hardwired into The Knick’s narrative, so much so that they extend beyond the merely medical. It’s interesting, for example, to follow Barrow around this episode and observe how he applies a keen eye for the main chance, whether for himself or for the hospital. Officer Finney’s horrible plan to collect women for Collier is recognised by Barrow as an chance to reduce his debt to the gangster, a debt that was accrued through a previous and similarly stupid bout of financial opportunism. More interesting is his dinner with Captain Robertson. It’s a sweetly subtle performance from Jeremy Bobb, running through general obsequiousness, mild self-aggrandisement (Delmonico’s!) and humiliation (Delmonico’s, again). Best of all was the look on his face when the challenge to Robertson’s own ego secures him with the x-ray machine he was after. An image of self-suppressed satisfaction, revealing his earlier emotions as feints, his expression showed just how smart an operator he really is. Excepting that nasty business with the embezzled funds, of course. 

The Knick does a lot with facial expressions. Particularly with Edwards’ face. As the episodes mount up and the number of slurs, insults and injustices increase, Andre Holland offers fewer verbal responses, instead letting his anger appear through a look or a pause. The shared moment between Thack, Barrow and Edwards after the leg operation was a strong case in point. Or should that be ‘partially shared’? Barrow’s unthinking, reflexive denial of the flask to Edwards, who had done much more than the administrator in saving the day, was one of those moments that reminds us of the abiding situation and renders it at once normal and startlingly unjust. That view was reflected in Holland’s performance, a mixture of expectation and resigned disappointment. He’s starting to be treated as part of the team, when he absolutely has to be, but he’s still on the outside and this constant silent reminder conveys his situation superbly. 

Subtle changes are also afoot with Thackery, a fact also expressed through facial expressions. In his case however the expression is a smiling one. He’s been an inscrutable presence so far, sharply withdrawn and moody. It’s for this reason that the flashbacks and expostional conversations with Abby have been necessary; there’s been no other way to get under his skin. The presence of Nurse Elkins has started to change that and, for the first time in the main narrative timeframe, we see him break into an open and unguarded smile. It’s also a curious reversal of the expected order of things. Their first encounter had Thack firmly in charge, issuing her with a more severe reprimand than was strictly necessary as a way of establishing his authority and irascibility. Since then, as Elkins has found more and more about the surgeon’s hidden life, their positions have started to shift and she is the one doling out permissions. Permission, in this case, to be free. That it involved her bicycle is significant. It was the transport of choice for the New Woman, for whom it represented freedom and self-determination. Elkins may have chosen the colour blue ‘to match her eyes’, but the bike is a bigger deal than that for women and slowly, whatever Captain Robertson might think of his daughter’s ‘responsibilities’, the world is starting to catch up. It’s the future, and it’s coming with a silent smile. 

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Where’s the Dignity? here

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