The Knick: Whiplash Review

Dr. Thackery knows that electricity can also affect our emotions. He will now demonstrate.

This The Knick review contains spoilers.

The Knick Season 2 Episode 5

Here’s a little behind the scenes look into how the TV episode review sausage is made. The screeners I receive for The Knick don’t have the episode titles on them. They’re readily available information through a simple Google search or if I joke poke around the HBO press site a bit but I chose to watch episode five without knowing the title.

As I’m watching this episode in particular, I notice this motif of “whiplash” begins to pop up. Henry Robertson on his expensive dinner date* with Lucy asks her if as a nurse she knows what it means because she’s giving him whiplash from her rapidly changing behavior towards him. First, she’d never ever date him, and makes fun of his manwhore tendencies but then she’s goes on the date and gives him a kiss at the end of it.

*During which they have the trendiest new drink from San Francisco: the “Martinez” which is equal parts vermouth and gin. Sounds familiar.

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In truth, Lucy is just trying to put into motion the lessons she’s learned from her many prostitute patients to get her way. And of course she knows what whiplash is. It’s “a sudden movement causing strain to the muscles in the neck,” she tells him before heading into her home and not inviting him in.

Obviously, I can’t help but notice that episode five, itself, seems to have a lot of movements that cause a strain to the muscles in the neck. There’s an explosive off-screen subway construction accident that floods The Knick with dying workers that Thack, Gallinger and Edwards must do their best to save. Soderbergh’s camera follows the frenetic movement around the hospital for nearly ten minutes of uninterrupted tracking shots* before the crisis is resolved and the episode returns to “normal” for the remainder of its running time. How else do you describe that other than “whiplash?”

*I like that there are a few cuts thrown in here and there during the fast-paced surgery scenes. The artful, overly-extended tracking shot has been done on television before most notably during the non-awful season of True Detective. So by including a few cuts, you get the sense that Soderbergh is doing what’s right to service the action, instead of merely just trying to up the technical television-directing ante.

Then it occurs to me that I’m not that smart and surely The Knick is very well aware of how this motif corresponds to the strange pace of the episode. So I finally look up the name of the episode and sure enough: “Season two, episode five: Whiplash.” And weirdly that significantly changed how I felt about the episode.

The subway disaster scene is, at first glance, not only a lot of fun (I particularly love how it again showcases Thackery’s brilliance with his improvised device to find metal embedded in human skin) but meaningfully expresses how quickly and randomly tragedy can strike. Here we are, officially in mid-season at episode five and sixteen minutes into that episode there is a mind-blowing crisis. It’s not because the plot demands it either, it’s because shit just happens. And then the rest of the episode moves along at its normal, languid Knick pace. Lucy goes on dates, Opal takes Algernon to a nascent black empowerment meeting* and Thackery checks in on Abigail just like how he did in the beginning of the episode.

*“The story of the Negro in America, is the story of America.” Dr. Edwards hasn’t had a ton to do yet this season, but the show has really done something special with that line being spoken while the camera is trained on his affirming but devastated face.

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The title “Whiplash”, however, lampshades everything in far too meta and annoying of a way. Audiences should be allowed to make these kind of thematic connections for themselves, not have the title of episodes spell them out for us. It’s strange, we so rarely think about the quality of the actual individual titles of episodes of television. And the way I viewed “Whiplash” without knowing the title and then finding out, negatively affected my experience.

It’s a shame too because there is plenty to appreciate in the episode. The surgery sequences are fantastic as usual and not just the subway accident ones. The episode is book-ended by Dr. Thackery’s ongoing mission to identify the root cause of addiction. He thinks he has in the brain of his morphine addicted patient Sidney. “Electricity can also effect our emotions. I will now demonstrate,” he tells the surgery audience before prodding the patient’s brain to make him cry.

Now THAT would make a low-key good episode name. Dr. Thackery’s understanding of the human brain is even more primitive than our own already primitive understanding. Sure, you made the guy cry, John but is that all it takes to create emotions? Random pulses of electricity?

Is it random pulses of electricity that make Dr. Gallinger such a eugenics-obsessed dick? Is it random pulses of electricity that endgender the sweet moments among the Chickering family and Bertie’s girlfriend Genevieve?* Do those impulses cause Harry to selflessly stand up to a girl in menstrual pain being bullied? Or cause Barrow to reject his poor wife and instead try to rescue his prostitute crush?

*The Bertie and Genevieve scenes are an episode highlight. As is her joke. Of course Jesus was a Jew: “his mother thought he was God and he thought she was a virgin.”

Who knows? And Dr. Thackery certainly doesn’t as he demonstrates by pulling out a portion of his patient’s brain and turning him into a vegetable. You think you’ve identified the root cause of affection and addiction and then it turns out all you did was turn an important organ into useless mush.

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Oh shit. Maybe that’s the whiplash.


3.5 out of 5