The medical misfits play games and face the consequences.
Credit: Mary Cybulski

The Knick’s medical staff members continue dancing around one another like chess pieces on a board, while others live or die by their moves. Edwards engages in a particularly dangerous game, talking Gallinger through a heart surgery up to the point of no medical return, then standing silent, defying each white man in the room to prevent him from taking the scalpel and saving the patient’s life. Thackery sums up the brutality of the Knick under his care and supervision with one flick of the tongue, spitting a threat at Edwards: “If he dies because of your horses—, I am going to stab you in the throat with my father’s Union Army sword.” Cheers to Edwards—who says he would’ve guessed Confederate—for an expertly played match. After successfully completing the procedure, he gets a punch to the stomach from Gallinger for his cheekiness, but still made his point, stood his ground, and survived (as did the patient, fortunately).

Literal gaming kicked off the episode with ambulance driver and nun harasser Cleary gleefully hopping from darts to overseeing a vile rat-stomping wager—this game’s deadly in more ways than one when the rats exact revenge after the contender slips on some guts and falls in the ring. “Started biting the s—e out of him,” as his pal says. Don’t touch any liquids oozing from the man, Edwards warns when the rat-stomper shows up in the Knick’s patient-receiving area. Hello, hantavirus. Hello, plague. What idiot thought up this game? Thackery isn’t in at the moment to quote Shakespeare, so we’ll choose Macbeth’s Act 5, Scene 5 soliloquy in his stead:

…All our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing.

Later, Gallinger attends the guy laid up in a hospital bed, and when Edwards reads his chart, Gallinger gets hostile. Edwards offers to let Gallinger take another swing. He’s ready to accept Gallinger’s challenge this time, but Gallinger smartly backs down, as he is ultimately no match for Edwards in, oh, so many ways.

Edwards steps onto another gaming board when his father, Jesse (Leon Addison Brown), the Robertson’s coachman, picks him up to attend Cornelia’s formal engagement party at the house, which surely won’t be at all awkward for the black doctor. (Must we note that he’ll be the only black person attending as an invited guest?) But first an observation on Thackery, who leaves the hospital at the same time: “Is he really that good?” dad asks. Edwards: “He is, but—I think I might be better.” Care to lay bets? At the house, oblivious Capt. Robertson introduces Edwards to a South American plantation owner, and the two verbally spar about the benefits of free labor. Throughout, Edwards’ face says, “You’re kidding me, right?”

NEXT: Nurse Elkins pays a visit to Thackery’s favorite drug den

Meanwhile, Cornelia faces her own challenges: Fiancé Phillip (Tom Lipinski) informs her in front of their guests that they’ll be moving to San Francisco. Edwards shows more intimacy with Cornelia in that moment than her fiancé when, referring to her by an obviously affectionate nickname “Neely,” asks why she hadn’t told him she’d be leaving. That they grew up together obviously colors the exchange—a stark contrast to Cornelia’s complexion, which blanches in the face of Phillip’s pronouncement. How will the strong-willed Knick board leader give up her good deeds here for a wedding dress and an uncertain future in foreign San Francisco?

Also gaming? Chickering and his sister, Clara (Lily Brahms), play a parlor game before dinner. She asks about Edwards: Does the color rub off? Chickering’s father, apparently a well-regarded doctor in his own right, is displeased with Chickering’s prospects at the Knick, especially after “showman” Thackery calls the young doctor “Bertie” during surgery. “You are a physician, and my son, and you should be addressed at all times as ‘Dr. Bertram Chickering Jr.’—nothing less, ever,” Chickering Sr. says.

Nurse Elkins appears to be testing her boundaries, as well; first, prodding Thackery to visit Abbie Alford, whose recovery is hard to look at and will be agonizing. (When he does, they reminisce about how “spectacular” they were as a couple. In a flashback, a younger Thackery enthusiastically recites poetry to a boisterous group of friends. Abbie argues that they should slow their party roll, but he lures her along. Back in the present, he says she was right to leave him; she just chose the wrong man to leave him for.) Nurse Elkins later follows Thackery to his drug den and finds him wrapped in the arms of a prostitute. When the madam offers to make accommodations for Nurse Elkins, she declines with a silent retreat—looking like the prom queen who just found her date making out with a freshman in the bathroom.

Discovery and invention also play a role in the episode, underscoring the slow crawl toward modernity that would have frustrated and delighted the medical community and society at large at the turn of the 20th century: Thomas Edison demonstrates his phonograph recorder technology at the Robertson party—what would lay the groundwork for the entire music industry and more; Thackery hand-pumps the lifeless heart of a patient who botched a self-administered abortion, marveling with Chickering over the similarity to the sound of a live beating heart (“We’ll find a use for it,” Thackery promises Chickering, as Nurse Elkins and Sister Harriet look on sadly); and Edwards visits an electric vacuum salesman and inquires about whether the technology could be used to suction blood. Theoretically, yes. Edwards is sold. In the end, however, his enterprising actions are thwarted by the lack of an electrical outlet in his basement facilities. Here’s betting that Thackery or one of the other white doctors ultimately get credit for “discovering” electric suctioning during surgical procedures.

Finally, don’t look to health inspector Speight to answer the episode title’s question, “Where’s the Dignity?”—The Knick‘s last puzzle piece: Cornelia endures his cringe-inducing interrogation of one of her society friends, whose husband died from typhoid. He tells them that the fever spread to the house when someone evacuated their bowels and didn’t wash their hands. Argh! He asks if her husband slept around. Gah! When they leave and Speight asks how they’ll follow up with the family, Cornelia kicks him to the curb.

Barrow further demonstrates his complete lack of dignity when he brings pig ashes to the widow of the man whose body he sold (the husband didn’t want to cremated, by the way). Then Barrow charges her $5 for the privilege of receiving pig-part ashes. Cleary stops him before he runs off with the body of the girl dead from the at-home abortion.

In the end, dignity appears to have come to rest at Sister Harriet’s feet. Cleary asks “Harry” to go for a ride and takes her down to a pauper’s graveyard. Moved by the death of the young woman, Cleary agrees that if what he calls “baby murdering” is going to happen anyway, better that the good nun does it right than to have these girls killing themselves over an unwanted pregnancy. (Of course, he’ll take the greater portion of a 60-40 split for securing her patients.) A “shame” she calls it before praying over the grave. “This whole place is full of shames like her,” Cleary says.

Episode Recaps

The Knick
Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh team up for this 1900s medical drama.
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