not in our stars, but in ourselves
My whole life, these men – who are supposed to show us how to live our lives – we are supposed to respect and trust and honor them. They’ve all disappointed me, and betrayed me, and thrown me away. Why do we let them? It doesn’t make any sense, and I’m sick of it!
– Lucy to Sister Harriet
In its second season, The Knick is going hard at antiquated notions of female subservience – antiquated notions that, as you might have noticed, are still very much part of the American psyche – and “Wonderful Surprises” hammers that point home in nearly every scene. Lucy articulates the basic premise of feminism, but all the main female characters are discovering it for themselves: whether they’re exercising their own agency or having someone else’s exercised on them, they all experience the same flickering (or in some cases, roaring) sense that the status quo is cruel and oppressive. Whether the men in their lives listen or don’t, all these women know it – and so do we. Lucy tells Sister Harriet that she deserves more, she deserves better. She does. They all do.
After Lucy’s creepy pastor father beat her up, he told her he had fleeced plenty of suckers in New York, and he returned home to West Virginia. Thack notices her bruised face, and reacts the way any self-unquestioning man would: a macho proclamation that he’d hurt whoever did that to her far more than her assailant had hurt her. Lucy snaps back, “You think he hurt me?” Having been let down by both love and religion, Lucy seems to have determined that she can rely on herself alone. Indeed, this is literally the case when the hapless Dr. Mays – the one who thinks his nose and eyes are enough to detect venereal disease in Wu’s prostitutes – sets himself on fire during surgery. (Good fucking riddance.) Lucy starts reading up on obstetrics and gynecology so that she can better take care of her “special patients” – and her roommate plants the idea in her head that maybe, just maybe, Lucy could be a proper doctor. Nowadays, it’s a rarity for an OB/GYN not to be a woman, so the realization that women in 1902 were all entrusting their reproductive health to clueless old men like Dr. Mays is one of the subtler chills The Knick has sent down my spine. I think Lucy has the nerve, the smarts, and the determination to become an honest-to-pete doctor – and I hope she does. Women need her.
Speaking of someone women need: Sister Harriet is released and cleared of all charges. With her xenophobic, god-botherer judge, how can that be? When Cornelia failed to convince her dim-bulb husband to pay Harry’s legal fees, she and Cleary came up with another solution. Harry performed abortions on a number of “uptown girls” besides Cornelia, and Cleary tells them all that their names – and the names of the men who “emptied their bags in ya” – will likely come up in court if Harry has to testify. Pressure your men to pressure the judge, Cleary says, or risk a scandal. The judge is obviously furious – but he drops the case on the grounds that it came to him as a result of entrapment. It’s sad that the only agency these society dames have is in the privacy (and desperate secrecy) of their own marriages, and even then only to avoid a scandal that would implicate the men in their lives; but it’s some agency, at least.
Cornelia continues to be bored silly by her own role as a society dame, perhaps explaining why she sneaks around at night, rounding up other women who terminated their pregnancies and snooping through Speight’s mysteriously abandoned home. I have a very bad feeling about what’s going to happen to Neely Doll. She goes to her father’s house for a lunch with – surprise! – Dr. Edwards’s wife, Opal (Zaraah Abrahams), and Philip is there as well. He seems mad at her, even before he sees how paralyzed she is by shock at the sight of Mrs. Edwards. During one of her midnight rides to the Speight home, we see that she’s being trailed by some sort of detective or private eye. It’s unlikely that Tammany Hall would have set their goons on her, or that their goons would have been so subtle, so my money’s on Showalter surveillance. Between that and the fact that Philip is going on a month-long business trip to the Midwest – leaving Cornelia alone with her odious father-in-law – I feel very, very nervous for Neely. It’s interesting, though. She’s such a tireless advocate for others – for Algie, for Sister Harriet, for the quarantined residents of Chinatown – but she’s so terribly meek in the face of her own soul-deadening oppression. Cornelia seems to operate very much from a place of empathy and love, and she therefore finds it difficult to disappoint or potentially hurt the people around her. I hope she learns to assert herself…but I’m not optimistic that she will.
One woman who has absolutely no problem asserting herself: Opal Edwards. She was introduced as an obstacle, an antagonist, a barrier between Algie and Neely, a grasping shrew who was that most terrible sin for a woman to commit: “determined.” But here’s the thing: she’s right. She’s right about everything. She’s right to be mad at her husband for keeping her a secret from his family. She’s right to be mad at him for ceasing to write to her when, as she correctly guesses, he meets someone else. She’s right to question the Robertsons’ liberal patronage when they won’t even let Algie’s parents sit at the table as equals during the “celebratory” luncheon they throw in her and Algie’s honor. She’s right to point out that all his accomplishments are his, not the Robertsons’. In less capable hands, this arc would be a tiresome soap-opera triangle: the mean-spirited pre-existing wife getting in the way of her poor husband’s impossible love with the woman of his dreams. In the hands of Soderbergh et al., it’s compelling drama. After Opal expresses her displeasure, we see why Algie liked her in the first place. She’s passionate. She’s outspoken. She’s even, when he takes her to a dancehall up in the new neighborhood of Harlem, quite a bit of fun. And, I mean, she’s easy on the eyes, too. Algie could never have found happiness with Cornelia, for any number of reasons. He can be happy with Opal. I hope he is. I hope she’s happy with him. It’s like the Langston Hughes poem, “Advice“:
Folks, I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean —
so get yourself
a little loving
The most harrowing moments of the episode belonged, as they often do, to Thack. Not because of his speedballs or his blood transfusions or his shaky eye surgery: no, this time, it’s because he’s going to perform his extraordinarily risky syphilis cure. He discovered that heat kills the syphilis cells. After experimenting with inducing malaria in an infected pig – thus giving the pig a fever high enough to kill the disease – he tells his old flame, Abby, that he can cure her. She’s rightly suspicious that the fever could kill her anyway, but she agrees to the procedure (if you can call it that) after she has another seizure. Abby is a tragic figure in many ways. She has syphilis, not because she was gallivanting around, but because her husband – whom she married instead of Thack – infected her. It took her nose, it gives her migraines and muscle spasms, and it will cause her to deteriorate slowly and painfully…or Thack can take a gamble and maybe kill her swiftly and feverishly. What a wide range of choice she has. Watching her as her brain cooks is pretty horrifying, all the more so when Thack decides to shove her into a fever cabinet (why didn’t he put her in that in the first place?! why the malaria?!?! Thack! goddammit!!!) to raise her temperature even more lethally high. This is a show that, literally, does not play with fire. Two people have died in the hospital after fire mishaps – so I’m nervous every time I see it. All the same – somehow or other, she doesn’t die. Somehow, the syphilis is destroyed, and she makes it out alive. We’ll see next week if she’s permanently debilitated after her 120-degree fever.
A quick turn of the rest of the cast of characters: Bertie decides he needs to have sex before he continues to woo the enchanting Genevieve Everidge. He goes to a brothel, introduces himself as “Tom…Thomas…Tom,” and gets his cherry popped. Good work, Bertie! His father tells him that his mother has an esophageal mass, which will kill her if it stays in or if they try to take it out. Mother doesn’t know, though. Of course not. Bertie’s wheels start turning, and I hope he’ll either stumble upon a breakthrough himself, or consult with Edwards (and maybe Thack) to figure out how to help his mother. Barrow, for his part, is SOL after Mays’s untimely demise. Mays was going to sponsor Barrow at his club, but with Mays dead, Barrow just has to sit there and listen to a bunch of dusty old white men insult him for being the son of a fishmonger. Barrow’s arriviste tendencies make much more sense now, and they’re thrown into somewhat tragic relief by his forced association with Tammany Hall. He can’t escape his lower-class roots, however much he tries. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for him. Almost. The Gallingers continue to be horrible to watch. When her sister goes out for an errand, Eleanor decides to go for a walk outside. A gang of immigrant kids sets upon her and steals her purse. Gallinger beats up one of the culprits and then schemes with his eugenicist buddy about how to sterilize all those nasty immigrants. I do not want to see where he goes with that train of thought. If he could set himself on fire next week, that would be great. Where would that leave Eleanor? Who knows, but she couldn’t be worse off than she is with him refusing to allow her proper care and treatment. Maybe she and Harry could be roommates.