not in our stars, but in ourselves
It’s never been a secret that the main reason to watch The Knick is Steven Soderbergh. Usually, the writer/showrunner gets authorial credit (that is to say, they’re the auteur – both literally and theoretically) for a TV show, with hired-hand directors each week. The Knick has at least partly flipped that formula: the vision, the urgency of each episode comes from Soderbergh’s direction, cinematography, and editing. The writers/creators, on the other hand, are less integral to the success of each episode. I don’t want to say that they’re bad, but this really would be a period soap opera if it weren’t for Soderbergh’s fever-dream filmmaking (and Cliff Martinez’s pulsating synth score, and the wondrous cast, and the exhaustively researched and recreated medical procedures).
“Do You Remember Moon Flower?” was the first episode – for me – in which the disparity between Soderbergh’s talent and the writers’ became impossible to ignore. There were plenty of cool, interesting moments, plenty of drama, but there were also plot contrivances on plot contrivances. There were lazy, would-be shocks. There were some cringe-worthy lines. I hope everyone gets their act together by the finale next week – because I can only endure so many sudsy developments in the name of breathtaking camera work.
A case in point: Edwards reported Gallinger’s illegal and immoral sterilization work to the New York Medical Board. At a hearing, Edwards argues passionately against eugenics – but of course, the judges all agree with Dr. Gallinger’s work, and dismiss the case. Had Thack or Bertie testified in his place, perhaps it wouldn’t have been so open-and-shut. Because the one telling them to get rid of Gallinger was just the sort of man Gallinger seeks to eliminate, they shoo Edwards away. Edwards waits for Gallinger outside, shirtsleeves rolled up and ready to fight. Gallinger gloats a bit, then punches Edwards just above his left eye. That’s the bad eye. After Edwards has been laid out on the sidewalk, Gallinger spits out, “Stupid nigger.” Listen. I’m not trying to argue that the medical board wouldn’t have been full of racist, dusty-ass old white men. I’m not trying to argue that Edwards wouldn’t have figured out that Gallinger had sabotaged his surgery, and then tried to get revenge. My point is that Gallinger is, at this point, a cartoon villain. His speech to the board could have been performed while he twirled his moustache, and it would have been exactly right. After his double triumph – legal and physical – he even goes home to fuck his sister-in-law on the floor. Are there people this reprehensible in real life? Maybe. Have the writers made Everett Gallinger believably evil? No. They could have explored how his knowledge of his own inferiority has fueled his racism; they could have explored how his burgeoning interest in eugenics conflicted with his marriage to a woman who’s suffering some sort of psychotic break; they could have explored any number of things that would have humanized him, and made his “evil” more interesting to watch. But alas, no.
Slightly less unbelievable, but still well within the realm of plot contrivances, we see two daddy issues come to a head. Nurse Elkins slips into her paralyzed father’s ward late one night, injects him with some sort of lethal cocktail. Before it kicks in, she rattles off the unabridged version of her various sins – in embarrassing, excruciating, unnecessary detail. It sort of works, but it also seems to be at odds with the Lucy we’ve seen in the past few episodes: one who is, as poor Simone Gerhardt might have put it, done lyin’ down for men. It seemed that she had put all the hurt behind her, and set her cap at Henry Robertson instead. For her to succumb to her need for revenge doesn’t quite sit right with the (again with the Fargo references) actualized Lucy we’ve witnessed these past few weeks.
Elsewhere, the Robertson kids have agreed to confront their father with his apparent murder and conspiracy to infect tenements with the plague, all in the name of saving a few bucks. He wants to meet them at the site of the new Knick, still under construction, and Cornelia gets there first. She tells him that she knows everything, and he sort of denies it, but not quite, and then they realize the building is on fire. Cornelia escapes, brings the fire brigade, and joins with the just-arrived Henry to see their father sidle out a window and plummet to his death. Was he trying to escape justice? Or simply trying to avoid being burned to death? (A fall seems like a much quicker way to experience excruciating death.) Who knows. We have a number of suspects: Henry, who’s far more acquainted with the Robertsons’ finances than Cornelia; Barrow, whose estranged wife found evidence of his embezzlement and is blackmailing him to keep her quiet; Robertson himself, in an unnecessarily elaborate suicide plot; again: who knows. I’m hesitant to add “who cares,” but…well….
On the subject of the dearly departed Captain August Robertson, we get some flashbacks – to Nicaragua in 1894 – to see how he and Thack met. Dr. Thackery was brought to a remote village somewhere in the jungle to cure an outbreak of yellow fever, but it turns out that the disease was actually smallpox. To avoid a PR scandal, or whatever, they lied to him about the disease – so Thack has to improvise. If there’s anything at which Thack is adept, it’s improvisation, so he consults his little book of native flora and fauna to devise some sort of medication. He enlists survivors of the disease to come to the camp and act as nurses to the patients, since he knows that they’re immune. Finally, he scrapes sores off the patients to grind up and use as a vaccine on those not yet affected by the disease. The Nicaraguans believe – probably not without reason – that they’ve been given smallpox-infested blankets by none other than the Robertson Shipping Company, who’s been bribing them to be permitted to pass through. As such, Captain Robertson is shackled to a post. Thack manages to barter for Robertson’s release – if I help these people, he says, you let the American go – and it’s the start of a beautiful friendship. While the Nicaragua flashbacks look great and offer some nice moments, we don’t need them. Who cares how Thack and Robertson met? Anyone? I didn’t think so. Flashback scenes can be effective when they fill us in on something we wondered about and didn’t know. I didn’t wonder about why Thack worked for Robertson at his hospital. Did you?
Perhaps The Knick‘s writers are best kept to task when they have a grisly surgical procedure to devise. In this episode, it’s all quite bloodless. Scraping off sores and grinding them into powder was gross, but it wasn’t a hernia operation. A lethal injection for Papa Elkins is a breach of medical (and other) ethics, but it’s not placenta previa. The one time we’re in a surgical theatre, it’s to examine Thack’s necrotic intestines (his drug use is catching up with him) – but with Dr. Zinberg’s endoscope. As primitive as the turn-of-the-century version may be, it still doesn’t require much more than a small slit in Thack’s lower abdomen. Soderbergh and the actors can make due with whatever they’re given, but the writers seem to struggle when they don’t have a genuine bodily crisis to invent. On a more standard show, I wouldn’t notice or mind so much, but with Soderbergh et al. doing circles around the writing and character development, it’s increasingly difficult to pretend that the talent in the writers’ room is in the same stratosphere as that behind and in front of the camera.