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'The Knick' recap: 'Williams and Walker'

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The Knick

type:
TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
tvpgr:
TV-MA
seasons:
2
run date:
08/08/14
performer:
Clive Owen, Grainger Hines, Katrina E. Perkins, Andre Holland
broadcaster:
Cinemax
genre:
Drama

Psst! Hey, you — John Thackery — yeah, you, the one with the speedball habit. That thing you just did, pre-surgery? You know, calling your girlfriend on the telephone and confiding your deepest fears, while she reassures you that you’re, like, the best surgeon in the city? I think you might be onto something there with that whole addiction-treatment thing.

Before Abigail talked Thack down from the proverbial ledge on tonight’s episode of The Knick, he was an increasingly nervous wreck as he prepared to separate conjoined twins Zoya and Nika. Even his resumed sexual relationship with Abby wasn’t doing much to calm his nerves, so instead a restless Thack spent the early-morning hours preceding the surgery visiting the grave site of one Sonya Smyslov, the little girl who’s been haunting him all season long. But it wasn’t until the phone call to Abby that the ever-present clanging in his head stopped, and he found the confidence to put on the show his standing-room-only spectators were waiting for in the surgical theater.

Because it’s not just drugs that give Thack his high, it’s the command of an audience, especially when he flourishes in his medical endeavors. Dr. Thackery does successfully separate the twins, but, in keeping with the surgery-as-entertainment theme here, we don’t see it as it occurs. Following his grandiose opening speech about how “this is [the twins’] last day as a sideshow attraction,” Thack makes the first incision — and then we immediately cut to his post-op briefing. Here, the triumphant surgeon details the procedure for a second packed house using the motion-picture footage he had Henry Robertson film during the operation, rendering his earlier claim that Zoya and Nika were no longer a sideshow attraction a bit of a stretch. “This surgery proves how high we can soar on the wings of science and ingenuity,” he announces with more than a hint of cockiness.

Still, a victorious Thack is a happy Thack, allowing his rekindled relationship with Abby to thrive in tonight’s episode. He proudly escorts her to the Knick’s charity gala, though despite a lovely evening — which includes witnessing Clive Owen do a minstrel-show impersonation on the walk home (it’s 1901, yo) — Abby can’t help but feel self-conscious about her misshapen nose. Thack, blissful in the knowledge that he’s finally back with the only woman he’s ever loved, and confident in his abilities once again, promises to look into reconstructive possibilities. Director Steven Soderbergh’s exquisite close-up shot of Owen and actress Jennifer Ferrin kissing against the glow of a streetlamp perfectly denotes the conclusion of what was for Thack and Abby, an unforgettable night out.

The same cannot be said for Cornelia Showalter, who started off this episode making further headway in her investigative pet project, only to be pushed back into her gilded cage by her father-in-law, husband, and of all people, Lucy Elkins. A few hours before the ball, Cornelia nips downtown for a little meeting with the health inspector from her family’s steamship company. The inspector, who mistakenly thought Cornelia was in on whatever shady dealings her father had in place, lets his loose lips go wild: Robertson Shipping pays him to admit steerage passengers into the U.S., even if they have contagious diseases, in order to avoid the exorbitant fees that comes with sending them back — it’s way cheaper to do that (and to “upgrade” them to second-class). This new information, compounded with what goes down at the Showalter townhouse that evening, reinforces Cornelia’s confining situation.

Once again, Hobart Showalter barges into Cornelia’s bedroom while she’s in little more than her dressing gown, and, despite her protestations, won’t leave. Using intimidation tactics and flat-out inappropriate touching, Cornelia’s father-in-law chastises her for, in straightforward terms, not being a subservient wife to his son (“You should be pregnant!” he booms). We also find out that he’s the one who’s had Cornelia followed on her Inspector Speight quest. Soderbergh’s choice to only show Juliet Rylance’s face here, as she gets progressively more frightened and suffocated by Hobart’s constant reprimands, is brilliant here. Hobart is far more scary a character when we see what his actions do to others, and not the other way around.

NEXT: Lucy’s Fancy Foot Work[pagebreak]

Philip, not surprisingly, is of zero help in assuaging his wife’s terror, telling Cornelia, “My father isn’t a man you want to upset.” But just before you start telling ol’ Phil to go jump in the East River, he does provide some important insight: Apparently Robertson Shipping is, well, foundering, and the only keeping it, heh, afloat, is Hobart’s investment. So if Cornelia doesn’t want Hobart to demand that Capt. Robertson repay him the “enormous amount of money” her father owes him, she’ll shut up, play the dutiful wife and let Philip do all the thinking for them (yep, he tells Cornelia that last part almost verbatim).  

What I find fascinating about this episode, is that it’s hard to know if Cornelia would have approached Lucy at the ball, and said the things that she did, if the incident with Hobart didn’t happen. In light of Hobart’s intimidation, it seems as if Cornelia was trying to save Lucy — who did arrive on the arm of Henry Robertson — from the hidden horrors that come with being a society wife. Without insulting her background or intelligence, Cornelia warns Lucy that her lack of placement on the New York social registers will likely preclude her from becoming anything more than a temporary plaything for Henry. But I don’t get the sense that Cornelia was informing the young nurse that Capt. Robertson “has expectations for his children” in order to be catty — she was pretty much told to marry Philip, after all. This scene was great though because Lucy, while remaining calm and polite, responded to Cornelia’s “helpful” advice with an ice-cold snub. More importantly, without the rules of society controlling her every move, Lucy has a better shot here of changing things for women when it comes to relationship and sexual empowerment. When you think about it, try as Cornelia may to enact reforms from her society pedestal, the real crusader here is Lucy, who is kicking down several different doors without waiting for permission.

First off, Lucy was not about to wait around for Henry to buy her an expensive gown for the gala, so she took matters into her own hands — or feet, as it were — and purchased a stunning pink silk and lace dress with cash she earned by letting Ping Wu suck on her toes. There’s no doubt about this girl’s enterprising nature, that’s for sure. She also refused to be the docile girl on Henry’s arm, hiding her giggles with her fan. Lucy wanted to have a good time at the ball, so she was firm and direct with her escort: “I’m here to dance and be doted upon,” she tells Henry. Her commanding nature is a huge turn-on, and Henry is rewarded at the end of the evening with an invitation to enter Lucy’s nether regions. But again, if this is happening, she’s damn well going to enjoy herself, as well as stay in control of this affair, so she introduces her new beau to the pleasures of sex on drugs.

Another person who, like Lucy, opts for the kicking-down-doors method in tonight’s episode is Algernon Edwards. The surgeon has slowly been falling under the influence of D.W. Garrison Carr, a W.E.B. DuBois-based character first introduced two episodes ago. Carr, who is suffering from a strangulated small umbilical hernia, shows up at the Knick this week demanding he be treated there. This poses a conundrum for Edwards, who initially tried tiptoeing around the awkward subject last week by asking Thack to serve as a middle man with the hospital board. But the situation is accelerated by Carr’s own assertiveness, which in turn has galvanized Edwards to become more proactive himself. It causes a rift between Thack and Edwards, who is fed up with being patient. He knew the board would never have admitted the civil rights activist, which is why he didn’t put up a fight when Carr decided to sidestep the original plan. Upon further reflection, Edwards realizes that Carr’s treatment has been unfair from the start, so he too will no longer wait for permission from the board: Edwards is on staff at the Knick, therefore he will perform the necessary surgery on Carr.

NEXT: Gallinger to the “Rescue”[pagebreak]

Thack, whom we know has only been willing to go so far when it comes to race relations, informs his colleague that he’s on his own with this fight:

Edwards: “I didn’t expect it to be any other way.”

Thack: “Is that a provocation?”

Edwards: “No, it’s the future. You think it’s here too early, and I think it’s here too late.”

Unfortunately for Edwards, and as history has shown, admitting Carr to the Knick is the first of many Pyrrhic victories: As he and Opal depart from the ball a few nights later, his European wife’s blunt line of questioning to Capt. Robertson about Edwards’ future at the Knick’s new location divulges an answer no one, not even Edwards, was expecting. Since Capt. Robertson is now dealing with investors other than himself — investors who want to keep the hospital white and filled with wealthy patients — he hangs his head in shame, his silence confirming that there is no guaranteed place for Edwards uptown.

If that wasn’t enough of a blow, Everett Gallinger, a.k.a. the worst person in The Knick‘s universe, is so disgusted with the fact that an African-American patient has been admitted to the hospital, that he secretly sabotages Carr’s operation. Through a little anesthesia tampering and some slick bottle-switching, the racist doctor causes Carr to stop breathing mid-surgery, allowing “the Good Knight Gallinger” to “ride to the rescue” (to use Thack’s words) – and humiliate Edwards in one swift gesture.

Gallinger’s actions cause tonight’s episode to end on an incredibly frustrating down note, as it’s a painful reminder that this is 1901, and Edwards is facing a taxing uphill battle. It’s a struggle that will probably last the rest of his life, with no signs of Opal’s promised “better days” ahead. Whatever sway Capt. Robertson still held with the hospital board members has been rendered moot, now that Edwards’ reputation as a surgeon has been called into question. “We set out trying to prove one point,” Edwards laments to Opal, and we wound up proving the opposite!”

Stray observations:

  • Sister Harriet and Tom Cleary are now living together (get yer mind out of the gutter — Cleary kept his word about that curtain), and they’ve also got a new business idea that is way less dangerous and far more profitable than “the fix.” Since Harry seems to have inadvertently started a nascent version of Planned Parenthood in their apartment anyway — some of the girls from the boarding house still come to her for contraceptive advice — Cleary figures they might as well peddle condoms and sponges to the horny masses themselves. “Why not stop the trouble before it gets that far?” opines the ambulance driver. For once, his entrepreneurial nature might actually do people some good. 
  • The magnificent scope of the charity ball is expertly captured by one long, seamless tracking shot expertly employed by Soderbergh. It allows us to take notice of nearly all of the main characters — and admire the women’s beautiful finery — without disrupting any of the action, like the dancing.
  • Looks like we have another ailment to keep an eye on: Thack’s been swigging turpentine — yep, the paint thinner — to treat a recurrent stomachache.
  • The episode’s title, “Williams and Walker,” is named for the real-life vaudeville team that entertained the charity-gala attendees.Yes, the African-American Bert Williams and George Walker performed in blackface, and they billed themselves as “Two Real Coons.” But, their cringe-worthy creative choices aside, their presence was, unbeknownst to the predominantly white crowd, or even Edwards and Opal, the start of a revolution. The duo’s upcoming Broadway show, In Dahomey — which everyone from Thack to Opal was giving Hamilton-level hype — was the first-ever show written by African-Americans to play in a major Broadway theater

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