not in our stars, but in ourselves
I don’t claim to know the first thing about medicine, surgery, nursing, or anything like it. I’m pretty sure I would have failed out of any sort of medical school, had I ever been silly enough to attempt it. Nevertheless, I know enough about the code by which doctors are supposed to abide – the Hippocratic Oath, or the basic principle of not doing any harm – to hope fervently that there’s a special place in a custom-made Hell, reserved just for Dr. Everett Gallinger. In “Williams and Walker,” it’s not so much his dabbling in eugenics that’s leading him to do extremely unethical (and, I should imagine, illegal) things; it’s really more his garden-variety racism and jealousy of Dr. Edwards. If there’s any justice at all at the Knickerbocker Hospital, Gallinger’s downfall will be swift and severe. But who said a TV show, let alone the real world, was ever just? Certainly, the fictionalized New York City of 1902 is one of class divisions, gender divisions, racial divisions, religious divisions, ethnic divisions, and so on and so forth – and certainly, none of it is fair or just. Some people get lucky; some people do not.
Nurse Elkins isn’t exactly one of the lucky – but she’s determined to get what she wants, and she seems smart and resourceful enough to get it. Taking Lin-Lin’s advice to heart, Lucy has been allowing Ping Wu to suck on her toes while he climaxes inside another girl. (Quentin Tarantino fucking wishes he knew Lucy Elkins.) With this business arrangement, she’s been able to purchase a lovely pink gown for the Knick’s charity ball, where she’ll accompany Henry Robertson. As she tells her roommate, he wouldn’t buy her a dress like that – but he expects it, and he’s gonna get it. The vision of Lucy, her wintry brunette beauty surrounded by soft, cool pink silk, is enough for Henry to want to take her back home right away and tear the gown right off – but Lucy is at the ball “to dance and be doted upon” before she lets him see so much as her ankle.
Cornelia is proving to be terribly unlucky, on the other hand. She finds out some pretty devastating information about her father’s shipping company – from the immigration officers on Ellis Island as well as from her odious father-in-law and her only slightly less odious husband. From the former, she finds out that the Robertsons pay the immigration officers to allow sick third-class and steerage passengers to disembark as second-class passengers, thus bypassing the Ellis Island health inspectors – and also bypassing the hefty fine that INIS would levy against each sick passenger sent back to Europe. Scrupulous, do-gooder Cornelia is visibly crestfallen to realize that her family is so heavily involved in such shady deals – but, as usual when she’s visibly crestfallen, she doesn’t express her shock, sadness, rage, etc. From the Showalter père et fils, she learns that (a) her father-in-law has had her followed by a private detective, and that he’s royally pissed off that she’s not yet knocked up; and (b) her own father is heavily indebted to the Showalters, and would be ruined if Hobart withdrew his support – which he certainly would if, say, Cornelia up and left her husband. Scylla and Charybdis. “Williams and Walker” played a bit with sound design, and the tail end of her confrontation with Hobart (as usual, he burst into her room while she was in a state of undress) is overlaid with her tearful plea to get out of the Showalter home. I was hopeful – so terribly hopeful – that she was talking to someone who might actually try to help her: Edwards, Thack, Bertie, even Cleary. Alas, she was talking to Phillip, who’s literally as useful as a tit on a bull. Poor Neely.
It’s to be seen, still, whether Thack is lucky or unlucky. Compared to some, obviously, his catastrophic mistakes have had relatively few lasting effects on his career or personal life; only his soul seems to have taken a hit. But he’s still doing secret speedballs, and he’s started drinking turpentine to ease his stomach pain. He’s living with Abby, and finally sleeping in the same bed, but for all his declarations of true love everlasting, I wonder. He gets up before sunrise one morning to visit the grave of the girl his blood transfusion experiment killed – the girl he sees in his dreams on the sailboat. When the graveyard attendant tells Thack to clear out, they get to talking instead, and we learn that the girl’s striking headstone – with a large statue of a lamb on top of it – was paid for by none other than Dr. John Thackery. Must have cost at least fifty bucks, the attendant says. “$65,” Thack corrects him, as he walks away.
No one is unluckier than Edwards. For all his skill, intellect, sensitivity, innovation, and hard work, he finds – again and again – that it will never be good enough. His wife, whom I’ve taken to calling Queen Opal, brazenly shows up at the Knick with D.W. Garrison Carr for his hernia operation. It sets off a chain reaction: Gallinger tattles to Thack, who confronts Edwards, who throws up his hands and admits he knew it would always come to this. In Algie’s words: “It’s the future. You think it’s here too early, and I think it’s here too late.” Regardless, this is the last time the Knick ever intends to admit a Negro patient – particularly one as brazen and outspoken as Carr. However, they can’t turn him away. If it weren’t for Gallinger, the surgery would have gone off without a hitch, despite Edwards’s bad eye. He knows what he’s doing. All his movements are careful, measured, reasoned, and exact. There aren’t any flourishes of showmanship, à la Thack, or nerves, à la Gallinger. Edwards is the most capable surgeon in that hospital. Unfortunately for him, Gallinger is the most petty surgeon ever to crawl out of the inbred genetics of the lily-white ruling class – and he deliberately sabotages the operation. He’s heated up a bottle of curare, the paralytic agent Edwards will use to soften some of the perineal muscles while he’s repairing Carr’s hernia. By heating it up, he’s concentrating it – meaning that the 2% solution Edwards thinks he’s injecting into Carr’s muscles is instead far more dangerous. Carr’s pulse goes erratic, his breath ceases, and his heart stops. Gallinger has murdered Edwards’s patient – all so he could heroically swoop in, correctly diagnose what had happened (too much curare, don’t you know what you’re doing, Algie?), and tragically fail to save the man he wanted dead anyway. For any other (white) surgeon, this would have been a setback. For Edwards, it will probably be fatal. As we learn after the charity ball – when Queen Opal asks Captain Robertson, point blank, whether Algie will still be employed at the Knick when it moves uptown – Edwards’s future is uncertain. Robertson is facing a board that wants Edwards out, and Robertson simply doesn’t have the money to plow through their opposition and get his own way. Despite the fact that the board would have refused to treat Carr if they’d had the chance to vote on it, they’ll most definitely use this apparent malpractice to keep Algie out.
What is it these people want from Algie, from Opal, from Carr? We see it at the charity ball. The evening’s entertainment is a minstrel act called Williams and Walker. Bert Williams and George Walker were real-life African-American vaudeville performers who managed to be a mainstream comedy/musical act among white audiences – while wearing the exaggerated, greasy blackface we’ve come to associate with D.W. Griffith films. By billing themselves as “the two real coons,” doing the cakewalk, telling jokes calibrated to tickle their casually (or not so casually) racist audience’s funny bones, and never dropping the character (caricature) for a moment, Williams and Walker found a way to survive in a hostile world. Carr and Opal, on the other hand, want to live like human beings. That’s not what the rest of white America has in mind for them, though, so they’re all in for some heartache – at best.
To wrap up with that charity ball: it’s a rare sequence of mostly pure beauty, up until the minstrel show. The ladies are adorned in their very best gowns, looking like characters straight out of an Edith Wharton novel. Lucy looks like Snow White, with her ivory skin and ebony hair, all surrounded by delicate pink; Cornelia wears a gleaming white gown, as if to telegraph her essential innocence and hope; Opal is resplendent in a glittering red gown that she wears as if she were, in fact (rather than in her imagination), a queen; Abby, self-conscious about her unnatural nose, nevertheless sparkles in an amethyst-colored dress overlaid with sheer ivory; and Genevieve wears a simpler but no less striking grey sheath, accented with black sashes and gloves, as she and her Bertie twirl happily around the dance floor. There are just so many hard, cruel, sad things that happen on this show, and they all make for great drama, but I admit: I was grateful for the chance to sit back a bit, let my head swim, and admire the kind of opulence that died off not long after Mrs. Robertson’s last glass of sherry. None of it was fair or just – but some of it sure was pretty.