not in our stars, but in ourselves
Sometimes, I wonder if Steven Soderbergh is trying to give me tomophobia. We’ve had some graphic stuff over the course of the series: placenta previa, skin grafted onto the nose from the arm, Dr. Edwards’s near-miss of an eye surgery, etc., etc. This time, Thack’s obsession with finding the source of addiction has led him to experiment on a real brain, in a real live addict. Said addict, Sydney Carton (!), was in an accident that damaged the top of his skull. This gives Dr. Thackery all the invitation he needs to probe around Carton’s pulsing, goopy-looking brain with a rheoscope. It’s fascinating to see how turn-of-the-century surgeons experimented and innovated and theorized and practiced – but it’s also incredibly disturbing. Thack pokes Carton’s brain with a long, thin prod – and it’s excruciating to watch.
But of course, that’s not all. There’s a scene that’s more fascinating than excruciating, until you consider that the following isn’t just a lot of fancy words and theoretical assumptions:
We’re inferior. We’re condescended to. We’re taken for granted. We’re made fun of. We’re attacked. We’re ignored. We’re worthless. We’re a pestilence. We’re invisible. That’s the story of the Negro in America. That’s the tale they tell. That’s what they say. Does what a man says matter? We were born in this country, the land of equality by birth. That’s what it says. That’s what the man says it says. So again, does what a man says matter? Do his words matter? Do his laws matter? Because when a man’s words or laws don’t matter, that’s when you have chaos. That’s when you have conflict. That’s when you have corruption. When a man’s words or laws don’t matter, forget about justice, because people don’t even know where to look to for justice. So does it matter what a man says? The story of the Negro in America…is the story of America.
Overall, “Whiplash” was an episode that focused more on action than on some of its more social concerns – but the above speech, from the fictitious D.W. Garrison Carr (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), is one that touches on The Knick‘s ethical concerns. We’ll see how it bears itself out – whether Opal, with her outspoken condemnation of American racism, will succeed in convincing her husband to assert himself and his humanity – but it was a hell of a scene, no matter what. Will we see the Edwards lovebirds work towards what would eventually become the Back-to-Africa movement? Maybe, maybe not. But Carr’s oratory is a solemn reminder that these (white) men’s words almost always fall short of their actions. However lofty their words, too many of the men at the Knick are at best thoughtless, and at worst cruel, in their actions.
We spend much more time with Henry Robertson, Cornelia’s brother, and he’s a prime example. We see him do an awful lot of reckless things in this episode, and I wonder if the white male bubble can protect him from all the consequences. That bubble has protected Thack, Gallinger, and Barrow (for the most part) – but they weren’t showing homemade pornography to their friends, or skimming money off their dad’s business to fund the subway, or wining and dining pretty nurses at fancy restaurants, or refusing to charge 120+ patients for their intensive care at the Knick – probably because he doesn’t want to have to pay up when the responsible party, the subway construction company, gets the bill. (He cites it as a “civic duty” to provide medical services free of charge, and it would be nice to think he means it. Cornelia would certainly mean it.) It will be something to see, what Fate does with Henry Robertson. He may be playing too fast and loose with his immense privilege; he may gamble and lose an awful lot. And all this, while he’s finally gotten a date with Lucy.
Lucy, for her part, has decided to take her fate into her own hands. It’s funny. She’s giving a gynecological exam to one of Ping Wu’s girls, Lin Lin (Ying Ying Li). After Lin Lin gets a clean bill of health, Lucy admonishes her not to work if she feels any burning or itching. Lin Lin protests that she should still work; Lucy protests that Lin Lin can never be sure her clients won’t insist on intercourse; and Lin Lin avers that she won’t find herself in that situation if she contracts some sort of venereal disease. Once she has a man in her hand, he’s her slave, she says. Somehow or other, the whole scene reminded me of Baby Face, when the Nietzsche-loving barfly tells Barbara Stanwyck:
A woman, young, beautiful like you, can get anything she wants in the world. Because you have power over men. But you must use men, not let them use you. You must be a master, not a slave. Look here — Nietzsche says, “All life, no matter how we idealize it, is nothing more nor less than exploitation.” That’s what I’m telling you. Exploit yourself. Go to some big city where you will find opportunities! Use men! Be strong! Defiant! Use men to get the things you want!
If we’re about to see Lucy embody a 1902 version of Lily Powers, I’m all in favor. However, we’re not in the thrilling Wild West of pre-Code Hollywood: we’re in fin-de-siècle New York City, where most women are an afterthought, if they’re anything at all. How will it work out for her, taking advice from a sex worker Asian woman? How will it work out for Lin Lin? We’ll see. (Well, we’ll probably see about Lucy. Maybe not Lin Lin.)
Additionally: Cornelia’s future may well be presaged in poor Mrs. Barrow: when the kids go to bed, she comes slinking downstairs in a white négligée – to her husband’s clear horror. (Not that this should matter, but for the record: she looks lovely. Herman’s a prick.) He tells her he has to go run some errands (a refrain he probably resumes as often as Patrick Bateman returning some video tapes), leaving her there, humiliated and helpless, because where can she go? What can she do? She must know he’s off for a piece of tail, and she can’t do anything about it. Again – this is more of an action episode, but one of many things The Knick does well is subtly incorporate its thematic elements into seemingly inconsequential scenes.
And oh, right, that action. It comes in the form of the previously mentioned subway disaster: an explosion underground, somewhere underneath Park Avenue, leads to over a hundred maimed workers being transported to the Knick for emergency surgery. Given current events, the scenes of crisis-related hospital chaos were hard to watch – but they’d be hard anyway. Soderbergh has never been shy about showing blood, and we see lots of it: spouting up at Thack, gushing out of abdomens and faces, spattering all over the nurses’ nice white uniforms. It’s the set piece for this episode, and it’s marvelously done – especially because it shows how cool and collected Lucy can be when she’s in charge of something. I hope Lucy makes it out okay, and Opal, and Cornelia, and Harriet, and all the women on this show. And Algie, I guess, and Bertie too. The rest of them – the men – can go pound sand.
P.S. Sorry for the paucity of images in this post. Like a sucker, I watch this show on the TV, legally and responsibly, so I’m not making screencaps from an illegally downloaded episode on my computer. (And, like, I watch stuff on my computer when I have to, but…why the fuck would you do that instead of watch it on a real screen.) Anyway, the point is that I have to rely on the internet, and the internet isn’t always the bounty I expect it to be. Oh, well. Just watch the episode yourself. Worth the gore.