People’s pasts and futures are colliding in this episode. We see the backstory of many characters, some surprising, others, not so much. One thing’s for certain: the daily events at the Knickerbocker Hospital are never dull. The opening scene is dark and shows the dirty underworld of boxing, but in a ring full of rats. Rats, at that time, were known to carry disease. And we see our man, Cleary, in the ring. A way to make a quick buck, I suppose.
Patients continue to be delivered to the Knick. We see one who comes in with tuberculosis; one with rat bites and one who has a heart condition. Tensions continue to run high in this episode. Drs. Gallinger and Thackeray continue to be rude and condescending towards Dr. Edwards and at the most inopportune time: the operating table. Our man Edwards is not down for the count. Showing how arrogant Gallinger is, he shows him up and works on a very tricky procedure – clearing a blockage from a patient’s heart. He does his job extremely well and how is he rewarded? With a punch to the face. In 1900, having an African American doctor was almost unheard of. The prejudice and ill behaviour shown towards Dr. Edwards would make anyone upset. But, you have to hand it to Dr. Algenon Edwards: the man stands up for what he believes in and keeps going back to work, determined to make a difference and researching alternate methods of technology, in order to make future surgeries successful.
Cornelia and the health inspector visit a well to do family and the inspector is callous in his approach; he is rude and in need of some manners in formal etiquette. You can feel Cornelia’s disdain at having to put up with such a man; and in the end, they really didn’t get any answers as to why one woman’s husband and daughter came down with the epidemic that was lethal. This episode certainly didn’t shy away from showing how the wealthy lived and how the “other half” lived. In stark contrast: the wealthy have the best of the best, while the poor have to make do and often, get lost in the shuffle. As is the case in the Knick, it’s always the poor and down trodden that get the shaft.
Corruption and secrecy are the order of the day with Barrow. He’s resorted to cremating people’s bodies – for a fee – which he pockets. He also ‘discreetly’ uses the ambulance to sell furniture. His wife’s dresser, for instance. Everyone at the Knick seems to be taking their cut, whether for personal gain or to pay off debts.
Thackeray continues his rounds at the hospital and visits his patient. But wait. “I’m not just any patient.” Thackeray’s former lover has undergone a radical skin graphing procedure, in the hopes of rebuilding her nose. Abigail and John had an intense relationship; as she described, he “always wanted more.” Thackeray continues to show care and concern for her, his bedside manner is one of tenderness and dare I say, regret. Nurse Elkins watches from a distance and keeps her observations to herself. She doesn’t say much but I believe that she knows a lot more than she lets on. She’s also pretty astute: she follows Thackeray one evening, only to find out his dirty secret: he likes to frequent a heroin den in Chinatown. However, she stays silent about her findings. She is disgusted and shocked, but not surprised, given what she had to do a few episodes early. Thackeray may be a man of modern science, but he sure doesn’t know how to be discreet about his nocturnal activities. It was only a matter of time before someone found out about his little habit.
Dr. Edwards is invited back to Cornelia’s home, where her fiancée has returned and they are having a formal dinner. Before he makes his way to the party, he visits his mother and father, and we learn that his father is the head carriage master. His mother is sassy. Nice to see a little spunk! Once at the party, you get the feeling that Algenon is not quite at ease. Although Cornelia and her father, Augustus, are liberal minded, the same cannot be said for Mrs. Roberts and Cornelia’s future father in law. It seemed to me that although he put on the social graces of being happy to meet Algenon, it was only a pretense. Alegnon isn’t stupid; he knows when he is not wanted in the room and knows when he is not respected. Cornelia also gets her own bombshell dropped: her fiancée has decided that San Francisco is where they shall move to, once they are married. You just know that this relationship is not the happy one she seems to portray. Algenon and Cornelia, having grown up in the same household, seem to share a bond. He knows that she is upset at the idea of being rerouted so far away. I know that if my life’s work was in New York and my future husband wanted to relocate across the way to the west coast, well, yes, I would be upset, too. Of course, back then, it was a woman’s place to simply accept what her future wanted and follow his wishes. Algenon and Cornelia both face the struggle for equality and respect.
We also see Dr. Gallinger going home to his devoted wife, Eleanor and their infant daughter, after he was treating a patient with the rat wounds. This scene also resonates with the snobbery and racism of the day. Eleanor is concerned for her husband’s social position and job. She is also very ignorant about what goes on in the hospital and knows nothing of the politics that go down at the Knick. With so many immigrants arriving daily, and so much disease and vermin in the poorer districts of New York, it’s only a matter of time before disease and death spread. Many of the patients that are admitted to the Knick don’t speak English. Dr. Chickering goes about his daily duties, shadowed by his father. His father is clearly upset that his son is working at such a place. Nor does he like the fact that the other doctors do not address him respectfully. Albert stands his ground and explains that he wants to be working at the Knick because of the new innovations in medical surgery. His father scoffs at the notion and wants his son to be somewhere else. Somewhere respectable. Again, the difference between the classes is palpable.
Which brings us to Cleary and Sister Harriet. Secrets don’t have friends. Everyone has their price. Cleary’s hints and innuendoes have gotten the best of Sister Harriet. He makes his intentions known: he knows all about what she does – “the abortions” – and he wants his cut. After all, he has her right where he wants her: her being a Catholic nun and all, she’s supposed to be helping to sustain life, not take it away. In an ironic turn of events, when bringing a patient to the hospital that dies of a self –induced abortion, Cleary changes his mind. Oh, he’ll still take the money and all; however, one thing has changed: he was haunted by the look on the poor girls’ face. He’ll make the arrangements with Sister Harriet to find the girls in trouble and she’ll provide the service. An unlikely partnership. And with so many babies being abandoned at the hospital and church door, perhaps their partnership is one that is necessary. As they look at the many coffins of nameless corpses, Cleary wonders aloud about where is the dignity? So many immigrants come to America with the hope of making a better life. Many end up in the grave.
The Knick doesn’t shy from showing explicit surgical scenes. In several shots, you see the detailed precision in which Dr. Edwards feeds a thin thread into a patient’s heart. Another scene is when a man is brought in with extensive bites and is bleeding profusely. Hm. The source? Bare knuckle boxing in a ring – with rats. Another shot of Thackeray shows him and Sister Harriet operating on the woman who tried to induce an abortion on herself, with fatal results. He attempts to start the woman’s pulse by cutting into the chest cavity and massaging the heart itself. These scenes are not for the squeamish. Medicine was about testing theories and pushing limits; about trying to find the next surgical procedure that was going to be a huge success. You see in the dark how Algenon uses a small vacuum machine – which was brand new at the time – in order to help with limiting blood flow and keeping surgeries cleaner. The total opposite is seeing the look on Nurse Elkin’s face when she sees the supposedly brilliant Dr. John Thackeray lying in a drug induced stupor in a heroin den.
Who should really be the chief surgeon at the Knick? Someone addicted to drugs and his own sense of super inflated ego? Or a man who has a pioneering vision of trying new technology and new methods, with the hopes of reducing patient mortality? Will John let down his guard and give Algenon a proper chance to shine? Will Barrow continue to sink lower, in order to pay off his debts? Will Cleary and Sister Harriet get caught? Can Cornelia truly let go of her life in New York to move to San Francisco?