A disjointed Knick experience fuels a conversation about character.
Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Despite our decidedly pro-Knick stance up to now, if ever there was an episode in this series so far that stubbornly refused to congeal, “They Capture the Heat” seems it. Too much stuck when the ideas were thrown at the wall. Early X-ray technology: Nifty. Baby with meningitis: Tragic. Mobsters threatening doctors: Imbeciles. Ongoing abortion debate: Uncomfortable. The title of the episode even references the weather (among other things)—Edwards notes that the buildings “capture the heat” when Thackery complains about the humidity, and Thackery later parrots the observation to Capt. Robertson. Could the suggestion be that New York City has the atmosphere of a torturous sweatbox? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time the comparison has been made, but how does that apply to each character?

THACKERY: Though still self-medicating, Thackery shows growth in episode 5. The natural bon vivant and sometime-misanthrope experienced personal loss in the suicide of his mentor Dr. Christenson, the ghost of whom is invoked here when another dire placenta previa case comes into the hospital. Despite Thackery’s assurances to wary Chickering that this surgery will be different, the outcome is the same, resulting in the death of both mother and child. “Seventy-two seconds,” Chickering says, turning tables and trying to comfort a numb and bloodied Thackery. “I don’t think anyone could have done it any faster. We did everything right.” Thackery has also, to some degree, lost the woman who was once his lover, Abbie, whose disfiguring battle with syphilis has claimed her spirit. Then, when he hears that his disciple Gallinger’s infant daughter now likely suffers from potentially fatal meningitis, he laments: “Just another Tuesday at the Knick.” Amid so much loss, Thackery moves forward, observing and envying the freedom Nurse Elkins exudes while riding her bicycle. In the end, he takes a lesson (in more ways than one) from Nurse Elkins. As he’s tumbling off the contraption in his white boots, she says he’s thinking too hard and instructs him to sing a song to settle his mind. He chooses “Sidewalks of New York”: “East side, west side, all around the town,” he sings as he gleefully takes a turn through the street. He: “You’re a good teacher.” She: “You’re a good student.” Us: How soon before they’re tumbling around together? Inevitable—though we advise against it.

EDWARDS: As astute as Dr. Edwards is and though he has himself spent much of his time battling stereotypes and outright racism—as when, in this episode, Barrow offers Thackery a pull on his flask after a particularly tense surgery, passing up Edwards entirely—he still has a few things to learn about diplomacy. The doctor, who spends so much time trying to prove himself to other doctors, forgets himself with a lower-income Cuban hernia patient, who accuses Edwards of not respecting him as a man, using big words he doesn’t understand while he stands there stark naked. Abashed, Edwards corrects the situation, allowing the fellow to dress and then describing the surgery in layman’s terms. (Edwards later divulges during surgery on the man that he paid for the silver wire he uses to ensure the stitches hold—not a result of their interactions, but just generally showing Edwards’ charity and humanity.) Though he has no cause to trust anyone completely except Cornelia, he still learns a bit about faith when his mother takes ill and Cornelia retrieves him. He’s near hysterics when he arrives in time to see Thackery’s brusque manhandling of his mom, popping a cyst on her kidney by pulling a belt tightly around her body. All is well in the end, but did Edwards show trust in Thackery by not clocking the man and taking over? In their earlier surgery on a mobster, Thackery did display his resourcefulness, earning an “Always a pleasure, doctor,” from Edwards. Can a man who’s been undeservedly kicked so often learn to trust one of his assaulters? This story arc provides much of the tension for the series and will make for compelling drama in coming episodes. Just a small note on actor André Holland’s performance as Edwards: His expressions contain small storms of emotion—in the pass-the-flask moment in this episode or his defiant stance at the opening of “Where’s the Dignity?,” for instance. Kudos to Holland for the depth and strength he brings to the character.

CORNELIA: Throughout the series so far, Cornelia has slowly drifted toward what is sure to be a moment of explosive self-actualization. So many male authority figures, so many demands—the woman has handled her obstacles with such grace that the time is surely coming when her store of it must run out. And what a moment that will be. For the time being, Speight’s crudeness is her challenge, as when they interview the household staff of a wealthy family whose boys are afflicted with typhoid fever. They ask about their bathroom habits and raw-food eating, notably including another mention of ice cream. Speight says the master of the house shouldn’t think he’s immune from this disease—unless, that is, “he has a servant who wipes his ass for him.” The head housekeeper meets his obscenity with a level gaze and says, “Don’t think for a moment he doesn’t.” I hope Cornelia was taking notes on assertiveness and unflappability because she’s going to need it when she confronts her fiancé about his plan to move her to San Francisco and/or when she calls off the wedding and her father, who sees a brood of children in her near future, reacts. It will be a delight to behold—if the backlash isn’t too great. A broken Cornelia would be devastating.

BARROW: Firmly established as the worm in this operation, Barrow causes viewer consternation with every raise of his slimy eyebrow. In “They Capture the Heat,” not only does he insult Dr. Edwards (again—for the 50th time), but he facilitates a whore-exchange program between two police districts and he confesses to his childlike prostitute-mistress that he took money from the hospital and invested it carelessly. Thackery’s enthusiasm for Edison’s newfangled X-ray technology brings up the conversation about cost-cutting across the hospital and a board member’s fantasy to move the hospital uptown where the money is. Barrow brings the X-ray debate to Capt. Robertson over an intimate dinner, but the price causes Robertson some pause—until, that is, a Vanderbilt moseys by and informs the table that he bought two X-ray machines for Manhattan Hospital. Not to be too-far outdone, Robertson promises that the Knick will get its X-ray machine. Crossing fingers that Barrow does the right thing when Robertson does put up the $3,000. Doubtful, though.

SISTER HARRIET: Cleary and “Harry” become chums over a beer after an abortion appointment is canceled (the mother-to-be was seven months into her pregnancy, and Sister Harriet would not have performed the procedure even if the mother hadn’t changed her mind). The controversial topic takes up much more of the show’s plot than one might expect. The arguments for and against have been presented by the series clearly in black-and-white, but the approach in enforcing those perspectives is not so straightforward. The Knick‘s propensity to show mothers and infants in mortal danger argues for abortion access despite the fact that the procedure is illegal in the year the series is set; Sister Harriet firmly stands for abortion, despite her religion and the potential legal consequences; and even abortion opponent Cleary finds some justification for the procedure. The question is: Do viewers wish to endure this much story line around such a divisive—and, frankly, morbid—topic? Or do they maybe think, Can’t we just get back to whatever Clive Owen is up to—with the X-rays and the cocaine and the surgical bravado? Please?

Episode Recaps

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