Propriety is the theme of the day this week at The Knick. No character encapsulates this as well as Inspector Speight (pictured), a character that doesn’t seem to be very popular with my fellow writers at HBOWatch. I love Speight. Years of living (and watching medical shows) have taught me that important things, crucial things, are often kept secret for the sake of propriety. When disease is afoot, propriety can be fatal. A woman of wealth may not want to reveal that her husband is having an affair, but Speight’s disregard for propriety will uncover this secret, and it will save lives. Speight knows that disease has no respect for class and manners, and his investigation into Typhoid Mary has, perhaps, taught Cornelia a thing or two about prioritizing truth over propriety, and about the kind of person she wishes to be.
Dr. Thackery is known for his impropriety. He begins the episode by calling Bertie to The Knick to perform experiments on prostitutes. These experiments may advance medicine, and reduce maternal mortality, but no person mindful of food manners would approve of Thackery’s methods. Bertie, however, is curious. He wants to learn what the renowned and controversial Thackery has to teach. He is drawn to his superior’s innovation and curiosity. He’s not the only one. Nurse Elkins is clearly drawn to the Doctor. Even the local huckster tries to profit off Thackery’s name by devising a plan to market a tonic with John’s name (a plan John shoots down).
Not all innovation is celebrated. Dr. Edwards shows a great deal of disregard for convention and propriety in his underground hospital, but being black, his discoveries will not be accepted nor his trespasses forgiven, as Thackery’s are. When John finds Edwards’ clinic, he has the gall to be horrified and outraged, before realizing that Edwards’ curiosity, recklessness and skill mirror his own. Edwards demands greater respect at The Knick, and he threatens to publish his discoveries at another institution if his circumstances don’t improve.
For his part, Gallinger has always toed the line. He’s always done what was expected of him. Then his life began to go off the rails. He was passed over for promotion. His sense of his own racial superiority cannot fathom how a black doctor can be best him. Now, his own negligence has brought disease into his home, and his baby daughter has paid the ultimate price. How these challenges will change Gallinger remains to be seen.
Finally, we return to Cornelia. The rules of propriety state that she should marry and withdraw from her work. She chafes against this, but has not yet broken convention by articulating her feelings to anyone. Sometimes, however, a breach of propriety can double as a invasion, a violation. Cornelia’s future father-in-law Mr. Showalter enters her room after she has begun to undress. It is a room that no one should enter unbidden, especially a visitor to her family’s house. Cornelia’s discomfort, fear, and alarm are clear, but decorum dictates that she maintain her manners towards the man, an investor in her father’s business. In the single most chilling scene of the season so far, Showalter reminds Cornelia of his importance to her father, and his anticipation of her upcoming nuptials, his gaze traveling over her body. Cornelia’s future is suddenly a much more distressing path to contemplate.
“Start Calling Me Dad” started with yet another dispiriting (for me) display of female flesh. I don’t dislike nudity (quite the contrary). My problem was that once again, women were nude next to fully clothed men without adding anything resembling an idea to the conversation. Like their clients, the creators of The Knick care little about the thoughts and lives of these women, whether it’s Barrow’s lady friend or Thackery’s test subjects. This lack of curiosity extends to Mrs. Gallinger, Mrs. Barrow, and Dr. Edwards’ nurses (in Thackery’s case, there is an added racialized salaciousness that makes their portrayal doubly problematic). Luckily, Sr. Harriet and Cornelia do give me hope, as their complexity continues to grow.
If the opening scene was dispiriting from a gender perspective, the closing scene was a triumph. According to the episode’s “Post-Op” (a behind the scenes feature that airs immediately after the broadcast), the scene was originally written to have a more physical aspect to Cornelia’s encounter with Showalter. Soderbergh decided, wisely, to keep the menace in the subtext. Like many real-world instances of harassment, no overt threat, no action, was employed. Viewers may side with Cornelia, having “witnessed” the interaction, but real-world instances of this sort would result in accusations of hysteria and paranoia for Cornelia, as well as the question of why she didn’t end the conversation more quickly. Only she would know that Showalter’s remarks were meant to convey more than the seemingly benign desire for an expanded family. The menace was left unspoken, presumably for the sake of plausible deniability, but it was there for Cornelia to understand.
Though still not perfect, The Knick continues to pose challenges for its characters, and sometimes, it creates a brilliant convergence of storylines, like the rat fight that resulted in the death of the Gallinger baby. As I had mentioned in my previous review, the real-life health risk posed by Typhoid Mary was brought into the show, and I eagerly anticipate what real-life characters and events we’ll see next. This episode made mention of McKinley, which makes me hope we’ll see Roosevelt soon, given that he was very prominent and very active in New York. The city at the turn of the century featured many larger-than-life characters, so I do believe we might see some of them. The season at this point has raised the stakes for all the characters, and I am eager to see where it will go.
Aside from the content and the performances of the actors, I want to take a moment to praise Soderbergh’s direction. I think he’s doing more interesting things stylistically than Cary Joji Fukunaga did on True Detective (excepting, of coursem Fukunaga’s astounding tracking shot in “Who Goes There”). Soderbergh eschews the TV medium’s overreliance on close-ups, and it does marvels to make The Knick more visually interesting and cinematic. The teaser of “Start Calling Me Dad” began with a dark, distant view of the hallway in the Chickering home. There was not a single cut to close-up as the phone rang, as Mr. Chickering picked it up, nor as Bertie awoke from his sleep to take the call. In fact, we never see the face of Bertie’s dad in the episode. Another instance occurred when Sister Harriet and the Gallingers were discussing possible treatments for their baby. The entire scene played on Dr. Gallinger’s face, regardless of who was speaking. In fact, he spoke the least, but the camera remained always on him and on his reactions to the conversation (a great moment from actor Eric Johnson). Then, when Mrs. Gallinger went on her knees to beg her husband to consider another avenue of treatment, it was with her back to the camera. Only in the end of the scene did Soderbergh reveal her anguished face to us when she turned around to face Sister Harriet (off-screen). Soderbergh savors close-ups by making them scarce and saving them for their greatest effect. This has the added value of forcing him to frame scenes in innovative ways, atypical for a TV show, even for one on a premium network. I always look forward to what he has to offer.
The previously mentioned reservations aside, I’m still enjoying The Knick, and I think it continues to grow and deepen as a show. I’ll be interested in seeing how the season progresses in its second half.