not in our stars, but in ourselves
In the immortal words of Ron Burgundy: that escalated quickly. Last week, our mourning maniac Thack claimed he had some sort of non-surgical way to fix his rotten intestines; this week, in the season finale, he performs the surgery on himself. It does not go well. Nothing goes very well for the good guys in “This is All We Are” (not that Thack is entirely a good guy), while the bad guys all seem to profit. The Knick has never been a terribly optimistic show, but dear lord, things end on an especially dark note this season.
Let’s start with that surgery. For Thack, the main takeaway from Abby’s death has been that ether is unnecessary and dangerous. I may have missed something, but it seems that neither Thack nor any of the other doctors at the Knick are aware that she’d taken laudanum before her surgery – a fatal combination of opiate and anesthesia. (Remember when Cornelia was going to dig up Speight’s body, and Edwards was going to devise a toxicology test to see if he was really drunk or drugged or whatever? I should think that good writing would have resumed that narrative thread, but, well, we’ll get to the writers in a moment.) Thack proposes, to his fellow Knick surgeons and to Zinberg, that there’s no need for general anesthesia: injecting cocaine into his spine will act as a local anesthetic, and allow the surgery to proceed as it should. No one is willing to perform such a cockamamie procedure – except Thack. How? He’ll use a mirror, repairing his necrotic intestines – as the Entertainment Weekly recap put it – Ginger Rogers-style: upside-down and backwards.
Unlike all the clandestine, cloak-and-dagger surgery performed at the Knick after hours, Thack has commanded a full house to witness his would-be revolutionary triumph. Before he starts, he paces nervously around his office, breaks into the medicine cabinet, and injects himself with a shitload of cocaine. Once he’s in the surgical theatre, he gives a big speech, takes off his clothes, and is injected with still more cocaine, this time into his spine. From there, the horror is inevitable. For one thing, his bowels are in far worse shape than he knew. For another thing, one of the rotten parts is far up enough in his abdomen that even a team of sober surgeons, performing the surgery in the traditional way, would have had to be extraordinarily careful. Alas, the sober surgeons are all just watching Thack, who is (a) not sober, (b) not doing things traditionally, and (c) trying to do all this by watching himself in a mirror. He nicks his abdominal aorta – and then, in the most gruesome surgery since the series premiere’s placenta previa, bleeds out. As he fades, he says, “This is all we are.” Blood, guts, muscle, bone. That’s it – and it’s lights out for Thack.
The Knick is usually at its best when Soderbergh is given interesting things to do with his camera, and the surgical scenes usually afford him just that chance to shine. Thack’s accidental suicide is terrifyingly well done, with very few close-ups of the carnage: we see much of the fatal, exposed internal bleeding in the mirror, just as Thack does. Soderbergh finds other unusual ways to film the rest of the episode’s scenes, too, and that’s a relief – because most of them are pretty unconvincingly written. For those of you unfamiliar with wrestling, you might not know the term “heel turn,” but it’s when a former good guy suddenly becomes an antagonist in the match. Professional wrestling is fun enough to watch, but you can’t exactly say it’s well-written, and so you know I’m not paying the writers any compliments when I say that this episode featured a number of heel turns. Soderbergh and the cast did what they could, but I really hope they send the writers to some community college writing classes before season three.
The worst heel turn came from Cleary. All this time, we’ve thought he was truly on Harry’s side. He was her partner in crime during her time as an abortionist, he fought to free her from prison, he took her in when the shelter proved just as bad as jail, and – after absconding with the funds from their new contraceptive venture – he buys her a ring and gets down on one knee. She tells him she can’t possibly, so he goes to church. In a terrifically shot sequence – Soderbergh films only the empty church, and we hear the priest and Cleary in the confessional like some sort of radio drama – we hear the truth. Cleary claims he fell in love with Harry when she was a nun, but he knew she’d never take him, due to her vows. He therefore tipped off the cops to her abortion ring, all to get her excommunicated and free to accept his hand. The priest sounds pretty shocked, but Cleary is undeterred. He says he’s a good man (always beware when someone goes out of his way to tell you he’s a nice guy), and all he wants is for God to listen to him and force Harry to accept his hand in marriage. Well, goddammit all, it works. The next morning, she’s wearing the ring. Basically, Cleary has engineered a situation in which Harry has no one and nothing but him, and guess what: that’s what abusers do. This is disappointing – devastating, even – because it not only undoes what seemed to be a truly lovely friendship; but also because it entirely deprives Harry of any of her own agency. Some priestly voodoo, and she’s no longer the brave crusader for women’s rights: she’s the property of a lout.
The next heel turn was one that we saw coming, but that was no less depressing – partly because of how badly it was written. An offhand remark from her useless husband – whom she’s promised to join in Ohio – leads Cornelia to realize that her father didn’t control the ports. Henry did. She confronts her brother, livid that he’s not only intentionally allowed the plague to spread among poor people, but also that he killed their father. In a monologue that would have suited a villain in a Poverty Row ’30s Hollywood thriller, or in an episode of Scooby Doo, Henry confesses the entire thing, and reminds Cornelia that he owns her and the family and everything else. (One of his first decisions, by the way, was to disentangle the Robertsons from the Knick. It will become a city hospital, to Barrow’s dismay.) In another wonderful directorial decision by Soderbergh, Henry positions himself at the top of the stairs, perfectly capable of shoving his terrified sister down to a broken neck at the very least. As they conclude their confrontation, as Cornelia stumbles down the stairs, Lucy ascends. She’s going to join Henry at the house in Newport, presumably as his fiancée. The good girl sinks to her doom, and the two patricide-committers rise up to begin the bloodthirsty variety of capitalism that defined the twentieth century. Great.
For her part, Cornelia decides she’s had enough. She rifles through her jewelry drawer, gathers up her most valuable pieces, pawns it all, and buys a ticket for Australia. Neely Doll, I’ve done the whole running-away-from-my-problems-by-escaping-to-Australia thing as well. Good luck, girl. No, but seriously, I hope it works out for her. Nearly every feminist angle the show took earlier this season has disintegrated, and it would be wonderful to see a female character do well for herself somehow. Besides, there’s enough lovely old architecture in Melbourne that they could easily shoot a show set in 1902 down there. I’m just saying. (Film Victoria, if they do move The Knick to Melbs and you wanna give me a cut, hit me up.)
Finally, there’s Algie. On the plus side, his marriage to Opal seems to be working out. She’s taught him that there’s nothing natural or right about his lowly social position, and awakened in him a sense of righteousness. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by his father, who asks what Algie has to be so angry about. Hasn’t Algie gotten everything he could ever want? Didn’t he go to the best schools, and rise as high as possible, and do some great things? While Algie certainly has plenty of reasons to be angry for his own sake – and most of them are due to Everett “Future Advisor to Dr. Mengele” Gallinger – but he tells his dad that he’s angry for his sake. Jesse Edwards, Algie’s father, is the smartest man Algie has ever known. And yet, he’s the coach man for a rich white family, always casting his eyes down, too scared to look up. Jesse snaps that Algie has no idea what he’s seen, and that he can’t know what it’s like. This is true, no doubt, but both men are right. Jesse is probably in his fifties or sixties, meaning he would have been a child during the Civil War. Algie, in his twenties or thirties, would never have known that world – a world in which half of his country was fighting the other half for the right to keep men like him for free labor. Father and son don’t resolve their opposing world views, but Algie finds a new vocation. Using his inheritance from Captain Robertson, and the notes that Abby took when Thack thrust her into a career as a therapist, he employs the talking cure with the last remaining drunk on the addiction ward. He feels he owes it to Thack to carry on his work, and – without his left eye, which Gallinger ruined for good – he can use the new science of psychology. Thack was partly right to think that this corporeal being is all we are, but we’re also consciousnesses and neuroses and emotions and ideas. When the drunk on the ward says he has bad dreams, Dr. Edwards leans in. “Tell me about them.”