The Knick Season 1: “The Busy Flea”

In the third episode of The Knick, the choices made by characters in the past continue to cause unforeseen repercussions.


This idea is presented in the opening, when a woman from Dr. Thackery’s past comes to The Knick seeking his aid. Abby was Thackery’s lover, and their affair was a passionate one. His manner with her is gentler than his manner with most people. In the end, Abby left him for another man, one she loved less, in favor of serenity. Ultimately, that other man was unfaithful to her, and he infected her with syphilis. The disease ravaged her face, leaving her without a nose and eyesight that can’t stand even the dimmest light. She seeks John’s aid for a skin graft, one which will serve only to cover the hole where her nose use to be. She will never be what she was, but any aid is better to her than doing nothing at all.

Dr. Edwards is also dealing with the consequences of his choices. Tired of being ignored by the white staff, Edwards has decided to make a difference in the lives of impoverished black folks in the neighborhood. He opens a secret clinic in the dark cellars of The Knick, and enlists the aid of workers, training seamstresses to apply their talents to chicken skins, then to people. He tells himself that his efforts are important, that they make a difference. But when a patient fails to follow his instructions to rest (he can’t afford not to work) his sutures break and he dies, leaving Edwards to confront the very real consequences of his secret hospital procedures.

Meanwhile, hospital manager Herman Barrow was visited by consequences in last week’s episode, when his debts caused him to lose a tooth to a local mobster. This week, we meet the reason for his unending need for money. His wife is quite the spender, and their relationship is none too warm. Barrow seeks love and validation in the arms of a prostitute, and he steals his wife’s pearl earrings for the girl. Though he manages to make an immediate payment on his debt, it is cellar that Barrow’s choices will continue to bring him-and The Knick itself- to harm. Already, his misuse of hospital funds caused the death of a nurse due to shoddy workmanship.

For her part, Sister Harriet continues her work for the poor in New York City. Last week, she provided a much-needed abortion to a local woman. This week, we saw the consequences that result for the women who can’t receive abortions when a baby is left on Sister Harriet’s doorstep. Sister Harriet understands cause and effect in these women’s lives. It is clear that she is devoted to the abandoned children in her care, but that she understands the limitations of what she can do for them. Unfortunately, Cleary has seen what Sister Harriet does in secret. He knows that it can get her excommunicated and arrested. He has started dropping hints that he can make these consequences a reality for Sister Harriet.


Choices are not the only issue at play. Some characters choose inaction, which is a choice onto itself. Thackery refuses to act when another typhoid patient is admitted with a ruptured intestine. He fears that an operation would kill the girl, or render her quality of life unbearable. Checkering and Gallinger refuse to put asked their pride and prejudice to ask Dr. Edwards about a life saving procedure he pioneered in Europe. In both cases, inaction could result in death. Luckily for everyone, Thackery revisits his views on both matters after a conversation with Nurse Elkins. In the face of certain death, acting-even if the results are fatal- is a choice with better odds than inaction.

The Knick continues to reveal more of its characters to us. Their choices are sometimes born of desperation, or pride, or greed. We’re only three episodes in, but we’ve learned a lot about Thackery, Edwards, and Barrow. I would like to learn more about Cornelia Robertson and Nurse Edwards. Thus far, they’ve existed to jump start the choices made by Thackery. I’d like to know more about all the women in the series, including Mrs. Gallinger, Mrs. Barrow, and the nurses. It would be disappointing to me if they existed as mere sounding boards to the men on the show. I’d like to see more about the inner workings of their minds, more about their interior lives. One of the problems with applying feminist theory to shows and films is that we often look for and find the ways in which they’re failing female characters. I don’t think The Knick will take this route. Its exploration of Sister Harriet’s secret mission and Cornelia’s investigation of the typhoid problem gives me hope that we will understand more about these women and the rest of the women in the series. At this juncture, it is too early to know whether the series will do right in this respect.


Another thing that drew me to The Knick was the possibility of exploring the infrastructure of Old New York. The city is and has always been the love of my life, and I’d like to see a series that explores it with the same insight and breadth that The Wire gave to Baltimore. One of the minor characters is a health inspector. If the series were to use him, the ambulance drivers, the church, and the hospital staff, we could have an extraordinary narrative about New York as a city. Already, we have very interesting contrasts in the lives of the people downtown and the lives of the people uptown, especially where diseases like the Typhoid outbreak of 1900 are concerned. One of the children in the hospital was sent in a carriage to her job in a shirtwaist factory, a mere decade before the infamous fire in such a building would claim the lives of so many young women near Washington Square Park. The City has been a great source of inspiration to other TV shows/films before. The Knick is in a unique position to make it a character onto itself (it shoots in NY) in its 1900 splendor and squalor. It is this 1900 New York setting that separates it from House or Nurse Jackie. I really hope it expands on this, but again, it is too early to tell.

The direction, the scoring, and the acting continue to be top-notch. That leaves the writing. It travels roads that have been traveled before by the aforementioned shows, but it can overcome these comparisons by building on its characters and taking advantage of its historical setting. The foundation is there, in the talent in front and behind the camera, to make a great show. Like its characters, The Knick has to make a choice: what show does it want to be?


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