At both the start and the close of tonight’s second-season premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s gruesomely gripping drama The Knick, we find ourselves asking the same question: Who’s that girl?
Sadly, Madonna and her 1987 song won’t be much use in figuring out this mystery, but, considering this apparition of a pale-faced child in a hospital gown and Dr. John Thackery’s crippling drug addiction are undeniably intertwined, I have a theory: She’s the young girl the brilliant but tormented surgeon accidentally killed during a botched blood transfusion last season, which resulted in Thack being placed in an institution for his cocaine dependency.
It is now several months after the events of last year’s season finale. We’ve moved from 1900 into the winter of 1901, and everyone affiliated with New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital, not just Thack, is downright miserable. Not that “upbeat” and “happy” are words usually associated with a show like The Knick, but “Ten Knots” is a real bummer of an episode. Speaking of the title, the only real glimmer of hope arrives when Clive Owen’s Thackery completes his 10 knots task (more on that in a bit). Nurse Lucy Elkins’s voice-over brings us up to date on a few important details via a letter to Thackery, her former lover — still undergoing a steady treatment of heroin at Cromartie Hospital. But the only real information the letter conveys is that the Lucy-Thackery relationship has remained one-sided since the surgeon was admitted to Cromartie. One reason being that Thackery checked in under an assumed name, “Crutchfield,” which would explain why Lucy isn’t able to visit or get a letter in return. Then again, Thackery, heroin addiction or not, doesn’t seem the type to write mushy notes addressed to “my love.”
Thackery has been keeping busy by performing that nose-reconstruction surgery he pioneered on his old flame, Abigail — this time on syphilitic patients at Cromartie — in exchange for extra heroin (he’ll even tattoo lips to “make them appear more plump” for additional vials). I tell you, nothing gives you a good shiver like seeing flesh pulled away from the nasal cavity. So forget any sort of recovery at this rehab center, but hey, at least he’s keeping his surgical skills in practice!
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But a visit from Thackery’s colleague, Dr. Everett Gallinger, allows us to see exactly how counterproductive the hospital’s treatment regimen is. Gallinger is horrified to discover that a stay at Cromartie has only resulted in a new addiction for his incredibly fidgety colleague, who watches the clock religiously so he won’t miss his next heroin dose. What Gallinger does next, however, is ultimately for the good of Thackery’s health, but it begs the reminder that it’s for selfish reasons too. He is demanding the surgeon’s return to the Knick due to his unrelenting, yet commonplace for the time, prejudices: Gallinger staunchly refuses to serve as subordinate to Dr. Algernon Edwards, the acting chief of surgery who just happens to be an African-American.
While Thackery undergoes a more brutal drug-treatment program courtesy of Gallinger and the Atlantic Ocean, the 20th century continues to march on without him. Just as his grisly work in the surgical theater will some day elicit less-gory advances in modern medicine — word of warning, we get a season’s worth of pus in the span of a single scene — so will the actions of the other brave souls who are trudging through a society determined to keep them subjugated. Emphasis on “some day.”
At a board meeting, Edwards proudly announces that since assuming the acting chief of surgery position there has been an increase in weekly surgeries and new procedures, as well as a drop in mortality rates. The board members — with the exception of Henry Robertson, whose wealthy family paid for Edwards’s Harvard education — could not have been less interested in the doctor’s findings, judging them entirely on the color of his skin.
NEXT: Cleary & Harry, together again