This review of The Knick contains spoilers.
The Knick: Season 2, Episode 3
A lot of good television tends to be about people who “Do Stuff.” That’s pretty self-explanatory. Watching characters without any drive, ambition or talent would likely not be very sustainable (although fascinating under the right circumstances).
The Knick is no exception. The surgeons at the center of it are predisposed to dig both figuratively and literally through the human body for answers. The interesting wrinkle The Knick adds, however, is its period setting. Due to social constrictions, there is a whole subset of female characters desperate to “Do Stuff” but who are not able or allowed.
Enter poor Lucy Elkins and her questionable West Virginia accent. Irish actress Eve Hewson may at times struggle to tackle the Appalachian pangs of her character in a Rick Grimes-ian fashion, but the innocence and depth she brings to her character are undeniable. Lucy came to New York from the mountains with a bicycle and a dream. And what has that brought her so far? Not a hell of a lot of anything aside crippling shame.
Lucy is intelligent and ambitious but there are few opportunities to be the protagonist of her own story…she continually has to latch on to someone else’s. Last season it was Dr. John Thackery. She became enraptured with not only his brilliance and attractiveness…but also his propensity for action. Life with Thack is exciting, even when it means traipsing into an Asian drug den to get him the drugs he needs to keep the good times rolling.
Now that the doctor is clean, however, she needs another engine to latch her hopes to. Her revivalist preacher father being in town provides the perfect opportunity. Now that the demi-God of John Thackery wants nothing to do with her maybe the actual God-God will. As it turns out, God is not that interested in letting Lucy hitch her wagon to him either — or at least that’s what her father says. In a heartbreaking moment, Lucy is swept up by the enticing prospect of total forgiveness and confesses all of her big city sins to her father and congregation. Her father slaps her around for her trouble.
Lucy’s father doesn’t care about her getting in right with God, Lucy’s father’s only concern is that he have an obedient, quiet daughter. Maybe a daughter like Eleanor Gallinger, content with her new teeth and eager to be the perfect wife to her husband again, give or take a few infanticides. In short, he wants a daughter who stays at home and doesn’t Do Stuff.
If Lucy wanted any insight into how far a religious angle would take her, she could have checked in with Harry. Harry, Cleary and her lawyer, Water Taffet from The Americans (the actor is supposedly named Jefferson Mays but you can’t fool me, Walter Taffet from The Americans), check in for Harry’s deposition where Harry is immediately accosted by a Protestant judge. This Catholic monster will pay dearly for the crimes of murdering babies. It’s one of the most darkly comedic scenes of The Knick’s run yet and the message is clear: Thou shalt not attempt to Do Stuff, woman.
But Lucy and Harry are relatively poor and lower-class. What about the high-class ladies? How are they faring? I like to joke about Neely and her Nancy Drew mysteries every season. That doesn’t give enough credit to her legitimately strong investigative instincts though. Neely is in a position of power and privilege and she’s more than happy to use it for the public good. Still, her husband controls the coffers and he is loath to open up their wallet to help save a baby-killer like Harry. Tracking down the bubonic plague? Sure, go ahead, that will play well at the next party. She still doesn’t have the agency to help out someone he is truly close to.
The new woman in Bertie’s life presents an interesting case, however. Esther Cohen is clearly an approximation of the real-life Nellie Bly, who wrote an expose for The New York Times about the conditions of sanitariums across the city. She’s risen to a position of respect and renown but not without a name change. It’s hard enough to be a female journalist certainly but a Jewish female journalist? That’s a non-starter.
The immigration question on The Knick continues to satisfyingly fester in the background. Subtle moments like Esther Cohen disguising her real name give way to more broader ones where a former classmate at Gallinger’s reunion literally says “We were just discussing eugenics,” as Gallinger walks into a conversation. If that’s not the 1900’s equivalent of boring people with talk of your fantasy football line-up I don’t know what is.
Still, throughout all the ugliness The Knick’s protagonist remains far more sympathetic than I think the show ever intended. Dr. Thackery began as the general prototype as the Tony Soprano-esque Difficult Man. Now, without the benefit of mind-altering drugs* he’s given free reign to Do Stuff, and it takes all the edge off of his character.
His pursuit into the question of drug addiction is fascinating and admirable but equally so is his assumption that he can take on another big project: eradicating syphilis. When his former love and her reconstructed nose, Abigail, stops by the hospital again, Thack is consumed with thoughts of a cure for syphilis. Fundamentally, he is a problem-solver but what softens him and makes him is that the problems he’s looking to solve usually effect those close to him. Maybe as a solid believer in the church of Doing Stuff, he recognizes that Abigail doesn’t have that luxury and her appearance and feminity is all she has. Not to him, of course, but to the rest of the world at large. So if he can just fix this one thing, she’ll get her life back.
If Abigails appearance is all she has, Thack’s partner-in-crime Dr. Edwards has similar limitations. As a loathed minority, all Dr. Edwards has is his talent. Even Neely, who truly loves him, cannot be with him. The only thing he has left to be an active participant in the world is his surgery. Now even that is starting to abandon him, thanks to his detatched retina. But Edwards gets an unwelcome surprise at the end of the episode that may change everything: Mrs. Edwards. Algernon’s wife, Opal, turns up unexpectedly and is immediately another entrant into the world of women on The Knick desperate to be the hero in her own story. Based on Edwards’ reaction to her, it seems like she’s more than capable of doing so.
*It’s interesting that Thack actually tries out the cocaine-heroin concoction he learned about in this episode. Is it scientific curiosity or a burning desire to be high. Surely, relapse isn’t in his cultural lexicon but he has to have at least a vague idea that trying any kind of drug again is not smart.