not in our stars, but in ourselves
The star of the show on The Knick is, of course, the medical innovation. Through trial and error, with blood and sweat and tears, these doctors are slicing and stitching their way towards understanding how to fix the human body. But season two has also – quietly, almost insidiously – been about the rudiments of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, so there was certainly something brewing during the time The Knick is set. Even Freud was still fumbling his way through his attempts to understand human psychology; and in “Not Well at All,” we get to see that those fumbles – whether by a specialist like Freud or by an amateur – could pose just as many dangers as a shaky hand during surgery. Cases in point: poor Eleanor Gallinger and poor Abigail Alford.
Ellie tells her husband, quite directly, that she poisoned Dr. Cotton. She’s “not well at all,” despite her new head full of teeth, so she killed the misguided doctor for disfiguring and failing to cure her. After she possibly kills the detective who’s come to inquire after Cotton’s last known movements (we’re left in some intense suspense on that point), Gallinger commits her to a seemingly less barbaric asylum for life. We may never see Ellie again: indeed, that wouldn’t be out of keeping with the real-life story of the confluence of imperfect psychological insight and botched surgery of Emma Eckstein. She was an early patient of Freud’s, with some nervousness and low-grade depression. Freud attributed the cause to hysteria and excessive masturbation; on the advice of his quack otolaryngologist friend, Wilhelm Fliess, he authorized Emma to undergo a surgical procedure on her nose – intended to stop her from masturbating so much. Fliess left a piece of surgical gauze in her nose, and she developed a severe infection. For the rest of her life, she was disfigured and bed-ridden. Ellie at least didn’t develop an infection after Cotton removed all her teeth – but the tendency of early psychoanalysis to attribute emotional problems to physiological causes was common. Obviously, there can be physical reasons for these things, but the process by which early doctors discovered these relationships was incredibly messy. Also messy: the moment Ellie is locked up, her sister puts the moves on Gallinger, who eagerly reciprocates her advances. There is no fate too horrible for Everett Gallinger. I hope his cock rots off while he watches. He is a thoroughly despicable man, and I hope there’s just enough justice for him to experience a reckoning.
As for Abby, she has the dubious distinction of being touted as Thack’s very own talking cure. He attributes his success to her skills as a listener and interpreter, and he believes she can help others as well. This would all be fine if it weren’t for a couple of things: Abby just wants Thack. She doesn’t want him to continue to use her – for his own recovery, for other patients, for anything. She doesn’t want to feel like she’s the means to an end. The other side of it is the phenomenon of transference: since Thack has restructured his relationship with Abby as a patient-therapist relationship (rather than a relationship between two equals), he’s re-experiencing the love he used to feel for Abby – but only when she’s “helping” him by talking through his problems. Abby is a smart woman. She knows what’s happening. Her feelings for Thack haven’t changed or mutated – but she can see that his for her have. I think she can see that he’s not in love with her, merely dependent on her: she’s the new drug. And so, intentionally or not, she kills herself. Based on the episode’s “post-mortem,” it seems that Abby’s pre-surgery dose of laudanum combined with the ether used to knock her out was an unintended death. Maybe they just didn’t know any better. I tend to doubt that, however: they’ve been practicing surgery for long enough at the Knick to know how something as common as laudanum would react with something as common as ether. Remember that Abby has expressed an aversion to laudanum before; remember that she’s completely alone when she takes the soon-to-be-fatal dose. I think she did it on purpose, and I think she’s one of the more tragic figures on a show that isn’t exactly short on them.
The early waters of psychoanalysis were awfully choppy, and we see the proof in Ellie and Abby. I wonder if Edwards will be the one to swoop in and save the day, so to speak: with his European training, he may know more about Freud’s work, and the work of other early psychoanalytic pioneers. Furthermore, his currently dead left eye may mean he’s better suited to a life of therapy than a life of surgery – but this is all speculation.
Speaking of Edwards, he breaks into Gallinger’s office late one night – presumably to look for evidence of Gallinger’s tampering with the curare, because Edwards is no fool, and he’s well aware that Gallinger is – and finds something he didn’t expect: detailed notes on fifty-two forced sterilizations of young boys at the “idiot house” run by Gallinger’s eugenicist pal. Edwards brings the notes straight to Thack – but Thack says it’s not illegal, just objectionable. I have hopes that Edwards will instead tell Opal all about it, and she’ll raise hell, but what can either of them really do? Poison Gallinger’s soup? Actually….
Elsewhere in the hospital, Bertie shows Thack what he’s learned from his adrenaline research at Mount Sinai: he injects a rabbit with something to make its heart stop, and then – in a Pulp Fiction moment – injects adrenaline straight into the poor little bunny’s heart. Bun-bun comes hopping back to life – probably as far away as its little paws can take it – and Thack is suitably impressed. No doubt, this adrenaline discovery will factor into Thack’s addiction to addiction studies (even though they’ve been shut down by the hospital board). She’s ODin’ on me, man – but never fear: Thack and Bertie are here. As an aside, I suspect that Bertie may turn out to be the one hero in this mess. The others on the side of good – Edwards, Neely, Harry, Cleary – are too compromised by other things in this deeply racist/sexist/classist world: their primary focus will have to be survival. Bertie just might make it out okay. I hope so.
And hey, speaking of the erstwhile sister and her rough-around-the-edges benefactor: we DID get Tom’s Dick And Harry! Granted, it was very literal – Cleary was trying out Harry’s homemade condoms – but my nickname did indeed prove prophetic. Alas, not as prophetic as Cleary would have liked: when he takes her to Huber’s, tells her how he feels, and tries to kiss her, she balks. Poor Tom (and Tom’s dick). It would be nice if they got together, but I don’t want the writers pulling any strings for the sake of a feel-good subplot. I just want them to be a force for reproductive rights. Let’s hope Tom’s dick didn’t ruin those chances. (But don’t white men’s dicks always ruin everything?)