It’s getting busy for Dr. John Thackery over at the Knick these days.
Now that he’s figured out how to continue taking drugs without getting caught — by speedballing cocaine and heroin up his nose — he has resumed his addiction research in this week’s episode of The Knick. The irony of this in theory is mind-boggling, but whenever someone like Thack is concerned, this scenario is still the most natural of progressions. He plunges into an abyss of cadavers, growing increasingly frustrated in the realization that there is nothing in the organs of addicts that signifies a predilection for drug cravings. But, just as he starts thinking about the possibility of addiction being a disease of the mind, he is sidetracked by a more pressing issue.
Abigail is brought to the Knick after having suffered a seizure, and since Thack and Algernon Edwards have made some headway in their syphilis-cure experiments (the syphilis spirochete is found to have died when their fever-induced pig reached 107 degrees), she becomes the prime candidate for the first human test subject. What happens over the next series of scenes is both terrifying and miraculous — but even though the episode is titled “Wonderful Surprises,” I still wouldn’t call the result of Abigail’s treatment a “wonderful surprise.” Yes, Thack does cure her, and yes, he does so because he is still madly in love with her, but his myopic, obsessive determination puts her at a level of such danger that it’s impossible to call him a hero.
When the spirochete is still alive (Thack periodically checks Abby’s blood under a microscope) at 107 degrees, Thack ignores Edwards’s protestations (“You’re frying her brain!”) and recklessly puts the suffering Abby into his colleague’s fever cabinet. His fanaticism is now touching on levels of insanity, which makes this the perfect moment for director Steven Soderbergh to give us a gorgeous shot of Thack illuminating the flames beneath the cabinet. “I know about living on the edge between life and death,” Thack insists to Edwards. “It’s a matter of will, and she has plenty of it!” He raises Abby’s temperature to a lethal 120 degrees, and it’s more disturbing to watch than any of the graphic surgeries that are so commonplace on this show. Somehow, not only does Abby survive — her fever reduced by quinine and an ice bath — but Thack’s mad experiment seems to have worked in this pre-penicillin age, as the spirochete is killed.
While keeping a bedside vigil, Thack has an ethereal vision of himself with Abby on Everett Gallinger’s sailboat (not unlike the apparitions he had of the girl he killed with the blood transfusion). Both are dressed in white, Abby has her pre-syphilitic nose, and they smile beatifically at each other. When she awakens, Thack crawls into bed with her, overcome with joy. It’s a sweet moment, but as with everything on this show, it still leaves an ugly taste in your mouth. How could someone who, as Edwards says, has taken an oath to “do no harm,” someone who is supposed to care for this woman, do something so dangerous to keep her alive? Plus, how do we know she won’t have lingering side effects from sustaining a fever that high?
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