not in our stars, but in ourselves
As has often been the case on The Knick, sisters are doing it for themselves. They’re trying to, anyway. Some of these women are trying to act on their own behalf; some are allowing themselves to be acted upon; but I don’t think there’s a one among these nurses, society dames, fallen women, spurned wives, whores, and lady reporters who’s not keenly aware of how the odds are stacked against her. This show concerns itself, time and again, with women’s issues – even though it’s a show that is, shock of shocks, written and directed by men! I realize I dwell on that point a lot in these write-ups, but it’s still refreshing for a show not explicitly coded as For Girls to consider issues beyond the ego of the white straight male antihero.
Not that we don’t get plenty of antihero in the person of John Thackery. This week, he’s set his sights on a pair of conjoined twins, Zoya and Nika (Miranda and Rebecca Gruss, respectively). They’re among the “attractions” at Huber’s, and they’re jealously guarded by their impresario/pimp, Brockhorst. Thack offers to pay to examine them at the Knick, where he discovers that they share only a liver – an organ that he can split in half so each girl has her own. As conjoined twins go, Zoya and Nika are about as uncomplicated as they get. Their story is still pretty miserable, though: they were born in Minsk, sold from freak show to freak show, and then ended up legally owned by Brockhorst. He pimps them out to curious patrons, who mostly want to watch the sisters make out with each other. Men are so gross. Thack isn’t exactly a puritan, but he has a deep-seated savior complex – so he and Cleary break into their tenement one night, beat up Brockhorst, and bring the girls back to the Knick. Gold star for Thack.
Of course, all his sneaking around at night tends to upset Abby – understandably so. She has nothing except the hollow, rattling shell of her old love for Thack. Her health is improved, but she’s so accustomed to hiding that she stays locked in her house all day, all night, waiting for Thack to come back. I don’t mean this as a dismissal or a slight, but she seems to feel the way about him that a dog feels about its owner. He’s her whole life, and the times without him are unendurably full of despair and boredom. When he’s excitedly telling her about what he’ll do to save Zoya and Nika, she snaps. He can’t keep coming over, telling her about other women, sleeping with other women, rubbing her nose in how many other women he knows and fucks and thinks about – when he’s the only man she wants or needs. It’s too painful, she says, and he has to go. Thack falls to his knees and pleads with her: “I love you, Abby. I never stopped.” Maybe. He kisses her, and gazes deep into her eyes – and that’s where the episode ends. I don’t know that I buy Thack as a pining lover. I think that one of his many addictions is to fixing and saving people – and here, Abby has shown him that she won’t have healed completely unless he re-enacts a bit of Captain Wentworth/Anne Elliot role play. He’ll probably go along with it, quite convincingly, but not forever. There’s a reason he’s a surgeon and not a general practitioner: he’s good for one-off solutions to serious problems, not long-term palliative care. I’m concerned, and I imagine Abby must be concerned as well.
For all the question marks surrounding the sincerity of Thack’s devotion, there are none surrounding Bertie’s. With his father looking out and Dr. Edwards assisting, Bertie leads the experimental procedure on his mother’s esophageal cancer (late at night at Mt. Sinai, of course). His technique, based on the medical papers Edwards recommended from Europe, is to inject the mass with mercury and zinc, and then to zap them with electricity. The mass should shrink and soften immediately – but it doesn’t. A furious Dr. Zinberg bursts into the operating room, berating Bertie for deliberately disobeying the rules, but rolling up his sleeves to help when he sees the direness of Mrs. Chickering’s situation. It’s no use, however. She dies. Bertie resigns. Things aren’t as gloomy as they might be, however. Bertie realizes that his home should be at the Knick, with Thack and his never-ending circus. Bertie also has real, true love in his life, in the person of Genevieve – who promises him some sexy times when her roommate is out of town next weekend. Do I trust the show to let someone have a happy ending? No. Do I still hope Bertie gets one? You know it.
But back to the women. All is not right in the Gallinger household, specifically during a bizarre dinner party. Eleanor has, for some reason, invited Dr. Cotton (John Hodgman) to the house in order to thank him for helping her. He helped her, remember, by removing all her teeth while she was staying in his nut-house. Gallinger hasn’t forgiven him, and he’s openly rude throughout dinner. But while Dr. Cotton is regaling them with the story of how he saved a hypochondriac – by removing all the patient’s teeth and a few organs, for good measure – he falls ill. He leaves abruptly, sweating and shaking, raising the question: did Eleanor invite him over in order to poison him? Whether or not that’s true, I’m worried about Mrs. Gallinger’s fate. Her husband, you remember, is hanging out with a bunch of eugenicists these days. They advocate the elimination of all “undesirables,” including mental deficients. Eleanor is a woman who suffered an immense loss, whose grief took the form of psychosis, and who would probably be fine if she could speak with a qualified therapist once a week. Alas, it’s 1902. She’s not fine. Gallinger refused to admit that she was as sick as she was, and he’s kept her sheltered and coddled – and she can’t cope with anything anymore. She’s as timid and nervous as a little bird these days. The moment one of his shitty, racist friends sees her, Gallinger will probably hear about how she’d be better off dead. Will he listen? Whatever happens, I’m not optimistic for any of them.
Despite the other fallen women’s interdiction against talking to her, Harry is still surreptitiously advising her cellmates (well, not quite, but sort of) in matters of female health. She wants one of them to go to the Knick, and she asks good old Tom Cleary to sort it out for her – but to keep her name out of it, since she assumes she’s persona non grata there as well. Cleary insists that she come to lunch with him, and tells her, “No human deserves the beatin’ you’ve been takin’ these past few months.” Harry confesses that she doesn’t eat much, and that the nuns running the shelter are breaking her. She has no job and no prospects of paying for her bed. Cleary asks about the three dollars he’s been sending her every week. Harry hasn’t received any of it. With that, Cleary commands that she leave her shelter and live with him. The look of gratitude on Harry’s tired face is beautiful to see. I don’t think they’ll end up as a romantic couple (although if they do, I’m calling them Team Tom’s Dick and Harry) – but I’m sure they’ll develop a deep love for one another. Aww.
Harry’s former client, Cornelia, has been doing some snooping – and it’s leading her slowly to wonder if her own family’s business might be behind Speight’s demise (and a slew of bubonic plague cases). She visits the docks to find out how things work, and she learns that third-class and steerage passengers are supposed to be subject to strict health checks when they arrive at Ellis Island. If they’re found ill, they’re sent right back to Europe, and the shipping company is slapped with a $100 fine. Cornelia may not be aware of the Robinson shipping family’s finances, but remember: we learned last week that Henry has been doing all sorts of fancy bookkeeping in order to pay for the construction of new ships, all while fighting Captain Robertson to invest in newer projects. A company that is, so to speak, going under isn’t likely to want to pay $100 per sick passenger. Cornelia may well figure out that her own family is, in some way, responsible for Speight’s death and for an incredibly dangerous disease spreading among hundreds of people – and then what? She’s obviously disenchanted with her marriage. Her in-laws are creeps. Her own family is just as shady as the rest of them. Will she try to convince Edwards to sail to Europe (presumably on another company’s ship)?
And speaking of Edwards, and speaking of the Robertsons, I suspect Algie’s days at the Knick may be numbered. Captain Robertson tells Henry that he’s concerned about Algie’s palling around with this Carr fellow. It makes the board nervous for their obedient little Negro surgeon to associate with someone who has the temerity to advocate for treating Negroes as equals. This doesn’t bode well for the surgery Carr needs. He has a hernia, and Edwards wants to be the one to perform the operation. He knows he can’t ask the board, so he asks Thack to do it. Thack will be happy to oblige – but it’s clear the board won’t listen. As progressive as the Robertsons want to believe they are, they’re not likely to approve surgery on a black man. Henry told Algie a few weeks ago that the world may be moving too slowly for them – young go-getters – but it’s probably moving far too fast for the old white dudes running the world. Plus ça change.