Thack has returned to work, but his surgical skills may have been a casualty of his recent detox.
Credit: Mary Cybulski/HBO

They don’t have quite the same connotation as the proverbial white hat, but now that Dr. John Thackery is back to wearing the white shoes, it feels like a new energy has been injected back into the Knickerbocker Hospital.

But aside from the loose Olivia Pope similarities in color preference, it’s a different kind of energy this time. Now that Thack is clean (though not sober — he’s still throwing back the whiskey), he is determined to spend his days researching the cause of addiction instead of resuming his surgical duties. This brash decision isn’t taken kindly by the hospital board, especially the holier-than-thou archbishop, who declares Thack’s project “absurd,” deeming addiction as nothing more than “a failure of personal morality.” Even though most of the board shares the archbishop’s opinion, Thack knows the right language to use in this case — which is the only useful dialect when it comes to securing advances at the Knick: money. Once he discovers a cure for addiction, he promises the Knick will become “the leading hospital in treating the epidemic — and we can charge handsomely for that treatment.”

Thack may have been briefly channeling a familiar White House fixer throughout his impassioned speech to the board, but his return to the Knick puts him in more of a Season 7A Don Draper role than anything else. He’s back as chief of surgery, but heavily censured: He has to seek approval for medications he prescribes, and he must subject himself to regular examinations to ensure no new track marks have popped up on his skin. And for all his grand assurances about unraveling the mysteries of addiction, Thack brings himself down several notches by admitting to Capt. Robertson and the board that he has “no idea” where to begin with his research.

This is the ideal moment for Nurse Lucy Elkins to stride into Thack’s reclaimed office only to have her giddy grin wiped right off her face the second she tries reaching out to her returned lover. This breakup was inevitable as soon as we heard Lucy’s naïve voice-over last week (if not immediately after Thack checked into Cromartie), though it doesn’t look like their intimacy will be ending anytime soon: Guess who’s been assigned to check the good doctor for needle marks?

“Because I know all your hiding places,” mutters the girl who once injected cocaine into Thack’s penis.

But there is one thing that Thack didn’t count on when he got clean: That his skills in the operating room would be affected. After noticing that Algernon Edwards was relinquishing surgeries to Everett Gallinger (a.k.a. the biggest racist in the entire hospital) and sneaking eye drops, Thack called him out on his damaged peeper. With their history of shared secrets, Edwards realizes Thack is the only doctor who can try out his experimental surgery (dude’s got detailed sketches and everything!) — with Edwards himself as the guinea pig. Except before he even makes it into the surgical theater, Thack is spooked by more visions of the little girl from last week (a couple of vivid flashbacks confirmed the child as the one he killed during last season’s failed blood transfusion), a mysterious clanging sound and the sight of blood pouring out of the sink taps.

Anyone hoping for some elaborate knife-to-the-eyeball action in this scene had to make do with a large needle being injected right into Edwards’s sclera. The sight of Thack’s unsteady hand was enough to make the Clockwork Orange-eye-clamped patient cancel the procedure at the last second.

But the day wasn’t a total loss. While drowning his sorrows at a local dance hall, Thack reconnects with Kate, a hooker with whom he decidedly didn’t dance earlier in the episode (he opted for an alleyway quickie instead). Kate, as it turns out, likes to do cocaine and heroin — at the same time, one in each arm. “Cocaine takes the bottom off the heroin, and the heroin takes the top off the cocaine,” she explains. “They dance beautifully together,” she purrs. “Until the cocaine wears off,” interjects Thack. “That’s when you find out if you got the amounts wrong,” says Kate. Instead of being tempted by this alluring cocktail, Thack realizes he may have a breakthrough in his nascent addiction research, because he knows that uneven amounts could lead to death. Looks like this discovery may just be Thack’s new version of a drug high.

NEXT: Cornelia’s grave discovery

Another person with a new pet project on her hands is Cornelia Showalter, who is jolted awake from her society-wife stupor by the news that the Health Department inspector, Jacob Speight, began the episode as a corpse floating in the East River. Instead of investigating another outbreak disease as I had initially surmised last week, it looks like Cornelia will be busying herself uncovering the layers of corruption at Tammany Hall. She’s not buying the police’s official report that the health inspector was drunk on a Brooklyn ferry and fell overboard (the man was a teetotaler). She then persuades Edwards to devise a postmortem alcohol test on Speight’s body — discussed over a hushed-toned phone call in which Steven Soderbergh’s close-up shots of Juliet Rylance’s face emphasize the long-forgotten sensuality that comes from speaking into one of those turn-of-the-century mouthpieces (the effect just isn’t the same when talking into an iPhone).

The next step is to enlist onetime grave digger Tom Cleary to help her clandestinely exhume Speight’s body after the suits at Tammany tell her to pay up or shut up for the privilege. After amusingly presuming Neely needed yet another abortion when she first approached him, the ambulance driver makes the most astute observation of the entire episode while shoveling away in the cemetery. He admits to petty crime here and there over the years, “but the two who dragged me into serious malfeasance are a society lady and a f—ing nun.” Even Neely can’t help but laugh at the irony, which is a nice bit of comic relief before her investigation becomes infinitely more complicated: Speight’s body has been suspiciously removed from his coffin, and the only people who knew she wanted to examine his corpse work at Tammany.

Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, Lucy’s life really sucks. She hasn’t had time to nurse her broken heart before her preacher father, A.D. Elkins, shows up, calling her “Cricket” and presenting himself as a kindly God-fearing West Virginia man. But his seemingly harmless asides about the work his daughter does at the Knick (he’s interested in “only the miracles God can create”) eventually add up to the biggest insight into Lucy’s backstory, which is that dear old dad is actually creepy old dad, and he likes speaking in tongues. His service is made all the more disturbing by The Knick‘s signature use of modern synthesizers in the scene, gradually building and building until they drown out the hymns sung by Lucy and her fellow congregants. It’s not about conveying peace and harmony, but instead complete and total chaos, which also was emphasized by Soderbergh’s camera encircling Elkins as he preached to the small, assembled congregation.

Only on a show like The Knick can a prayer meeting come off as scarier than a surgery involving injections to the eyeball.

Stray observations:

  • The only person having a worse day than Lucy is Bertie Chickering. He petulantly resigns from the Knick, flat-out refusing to work with the man who stole his sweet, innocent girl away from him and tainted her with his drug-infested lifestyle. But somehow, the trusting, sheltered Bertie still thought that Thack and Lucy’s relationship consisted of holding hands and necking (when they weren’t shooting each other up with cocaine), recoiling with contempt upon learning that the virginal Lucy is anything but. Points to Thack here for advocating an early form of feminism, even if it was probably meant as a way to humiliate Bertie: “Virginity is a man’s idea, meant to shame.”
  • Now that opium-den owner Ping Wu is bringing his girls to the Knick to guarantee venereal disease doesn’t make its way into his place of business (as part of a deal with Herman Barrow, who is driving up the construction costs of the new Knick in order to skim more off the top; he owes a lot of money to Ping), there is a need for a specific kind of discreet medical professional. But if I were one of Ping’s girls — or Ping, for that matter — I would make friends with any physician working at the Knick other than the idiotic walking social register Dr. Mays. I’ll forgive Ping’s ignorance over Mays’ rejection of the stirrups (he tells the hookers to place their legs on his shoulders), but I’m surprised that a man like the Chinatown drug lord, who’s probably the savviest character on the show, doesn’t know that “a good nose and a pair of eyes” is hardly a substitute for a tissue swab.
  • Cleary gets Sister Harriet a fancy-schmancy lawyer (Jefferson Mays!), but it may be all for naught, as she’s been studying her case while in the slammer. Whatever loopholes her attorney is exploring (her arrest was technically entrapment courtesy of the Anthony Comstock-led Society for the Suppression of Vice, as the woman in question wasn’t pregnant), Harry’s steeling herself for the inevitable: up to 20 years imprisonment. Harry will be tried under her birth name, Rose Agnes Dolan, but fat chance getting Cleary to start calling her that. “Harriet is better,” he grunts. “You’re no Rose.”

Episode Recaps

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