Dr. Thackery puts Nurse Elkins in her place, while others struggle to find their own.
Credit: Mary Cybulski
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“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.” –Kate Chopin, The Awakening

In 1899, author Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening challenged moral and societal conventions imposed upon women in the radical (at the time) story of Edna Pontellier, a respectable married woman who experiences a self-awakening when she falls in love and carries on an adulterous affair. Classic literature spoiler alert! She eventually commits suicide over the futility of it. Several of The Knick‘s characters similarly push against the mores of that same era. The suicide of Christiansen, who returns in flashback to educate Thackery about the machinations of hospital politics and finances, here serves as the cautionary tale against faulty enlightenment.

Each featured character in “Mr. Paris Shoes” at some point acknowledges his or her own flaws, pains, or difficulties, and each seeks some type of resolution: Edwards forestalls his imminent existential crisis by creating a secret health clinic in the basement for black patients; Thackery has a vaguely menacing chat with comely and vulnerable nurse Elkins; Cornelia puts her foot down about troubles with the electrification of the hospital; her bold stand, however, is undermined by hospital administrator Barrow’s shady dealings that require him to confront his demons as well.

Two episodes in, The Knick must prove to the audience why we should care about these characters and their challenges. So far the Cinemax show has received critical acclaim on par with Boardwalk Empire and Gangs of New York (ignoring Leo’s accent). But in a TV landscape that is populated with a fantastical universe like HBO’s juggernaut Game of Thrones or historical science fiction like promising Starz series Outlander, can these Knick characters hold up? “Mr. Paris Shoes” indicates yes—the flood lamps are turned on the players, exposing soft underbellies, torn seams, and frayed edges, as standout conflicts slowly emerge and present themselves as full-on personal battles.

Algernon Edwards: “Mr. Paris Shoes” himself is now the deputy chief of surgery at Knickerbocker Hospital—and more importantly the only black employee. Now that NYC is his home, he lives in a tenderloin district boarding house, where a cockroach—and no one else—is eager to make friends. Among the other residents, Edwards gets the “Who do you think you are?” treatment—a question that Edwards grows increasingly weary of having to answer, especially since he has to present a different version of himself to nearly every person he encounters. To his boss, he has to be the very best surgeon Thackery has ever worked with in order to turn the man colorblind, which promises to be a long haul given that Thackery only assigns him the most menial tasks. To his other colleagues, he must be the invisible man. To his benefactor, Cornelia Robertson, he must rise above the rabble. To his patients, he must be the healer (his most natural state). And to this co-resident, he must be more like every other troubled soul in this flophouse—in other words, not so “uppity,” but those Paris shoes of his aren’t helping.

NEXT: Thackery counsels the ladies

Cornelia Robertson: The Robertson household serves as stark contrast to Edwards’ living arrangements; the benefactor family awakens to servants dressing them for the day, breakfast around a table set with lace and silver, and a stimulating conversation about what it means to be Cornelia in the difficult role her father, Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines), has placed her in at the Knick. Cornelia fears she will not fulfill her father’s expectations because of the challenges she faces as a woman navigating the male staff and board. Her father reassures her that her sensibilities most closely hew to his own—more so than those of her brother—and that he has absolute faith in her ability to thwart any opposition with her sweet disposition. (If a sweet disposition worked half as effectively as Captain Robertson imagines, the world would be a vastly different place.)

Catherine Christiansen: Seen briefly in the premiere, Dr. Christiansen’s wife (Melissa Errico) visits Thackery at the Knick. She feels responsible for not being able to ease her husband’s burdens. “Blame is easy; truth is harder,” Thackery tells her. In his reassurance that she was a fine wife and did everything right, we see an instance of a Knick character in this enlightenment-themed episode having to be told who and what she is when tragedy compromises her self-perception. The truth in this case: No garden party or vacation Catherine might’ve arranged could have turned Christiansen from his dark path once he adopted death as his own personal failing.

Nurse Lucy Elkins: After having to inject her boss in the penis, she is—not surprisingly—avoiding him. Thackery recognizes this and confronts her in a way that is surprisingly honest: She saw behind the curtain, and what she saw could hurt his career. She’s a good girl, he knows, but she mustn’t tell anyone, or—he passively threatens—there won’t be a place for her in his circus.

Sister Harriet: Quite possibly the episode’s biggest revelation is that the good nun is an abortionist. She seems to be the only character fully aware of and unperturbed by her place in the Knick universe, but she is also now the most in jeopardy, as underhanded ambulance driver Cleary surreptitiously witnesses her pregnancy-termination activities. If anyone would cash in on that knowledge, it’s him.

John Thackery: And then there’s Thackery. Where he lay his head the night before is unknown, but the hospital serves as a second home—one where the doctor, who’s not blind to his flaws, is comfortable getting his morning fix. Shakespeare-quoting Thackery offers counsel in confronting personal struggles when invoking Henry V during the flashback with Christiansen: “When the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger.” But when surrounded by tigers—whose fearful symmetry has been framed by the hand of Soderbergh, no less—will impersonation of one be enough? Owen’s Thackery, by the way, is full-on ferocious tiger—not mimicking one—whose self-reflection so far seems to have less to do with philosophy than with predation.

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