Thack's reunion with old girlfriend Abigail incites him to experiment with a syphilis cure.
Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

The title of tonight’s episode is a quote from Dr. Everett Gallinger, as he discusses the cornerstone of eugenics with some old University of Pennsylvania pals at a reunion. But what’s such a great slap in the face to The Knick‘s resident racist is the fact that when it comes to the events of the episode, breeding “the best with the best to get the best” requires quite a bit of race- and religion-mixing.

There’s the teaming of Dr. Thackery and Dr. Edwards, who have embarked on a new syphilis theory that, even if the experiments don’t pan out (they’re testing a hypothesis that entails raising a person’s fever to lethal levels), will still prove they are the best medical duo the Knick has to offer.

The Presbyterian Dr. Bertie Chickering is now mixing in with the Jewish docs at Mount Sinai Hospital, working with Thack’s season 1 rival, Dr. Levi Zinberg, on adrenaline research. He’s also one half of what I hope will be The Knick‘s take on the New York power couple: The other half is one Genevieve Everidge, a whip-smart, Nellie Bly-influenced magazine journalist who infiltrated a sanitarium in order to uncover its poor conditions (Bertie is seen reading her Collier‘s article in last week’s episode), and who is now writing about Zinberg. She’s also stylish, confident, and has no qualms about asking the bashful Bertie out herself. Oh, right, and her real name is Esther Cohn. “It seems we’re both swimming in each other’s ponds,” she remarks of their shared experience.

Also, not that we needed further evidence that keeping people with “their own kind” is hardly a one-way ticket to success and happiness, but “The Best With the Best to Get the Best” still drove that point home tonight via several peeks behind closed doors. There was that troubling bird’s-eye view into the Showalters’ marital bedroom. We got a disturbing look at A.D. Elkins’ true, abusive colors toward his daughter, Lucy. Even Eleanor Gallinger, once her husband’s perfect specimen of arm candy, is now a broken shell of a woman with too-big replacement teeth — and a social pariah for drowning their adopted baby daughter. But perhaps the biggest argument against eugenics and racial segregation in general (or rather, for Team Neely-and-Algie. Team Neelgie?), next to the ugly post-coital exchange between Cornelia and Philip, is made through tonight’s reveal of Edwards’ long-lost wife. She is a wife who, judging by the standards of 1901, would be considered “acceptable.” Except it looks like she’s about to wreak all sorts of havoc on her estranged husband, if Edwards’ terrified facial expressions upon her reappearance are any indication.

Immediately after his new dance-hall pal Kate enlightened him to the concept of taking equal amounts of cocaine and heroin, we find Thack rushing into his lab, high on this breakthrough. He cooks up both drugs — sending them right up his nose. Other than a couple of instances where we see Thack trying to get cadavers for his addiction research, his monumental project seems to have gone completely out the window this episode. In a later scene, he and Kate return to their special spot (a grimy back alley) to snort drugs and have sex, making the only real development here, surprise, surprise, is that Thack’s back on the smack.

But the capricious Thack has a new obsession challenge instead, and in a partial way, it’s an altruistic one, because he’s determined to cure his old lover, Abigail, of syphilis (I say “partial” because his desire to save her comes out of his unwillingness to let her go). Following his multiple-vice session with Kate, Thack wanders over to Abigail’s home, where, having recovered from last season’s pioneering surgery, she now has a reconstructed nose. But her symptoms are worsening, and death seems imminent. Thack’s latest theory is that syphilis can be cured with heat, believing that by inducing a fever in a patient — meaning, temperatures of 106-107 degrees — he can “bake the disease to death,” and he wants Edwards’ help in the experimental stage. He seeks Edwards’ expertise because he noticed (in last week’s episode) that there is now a dangerous-looking apparatus called a “fever cabinet” at the Knick, courtesy of the Paris-trained doctor. Edwards, while initially skeptical, is intrigued by the idea, and given his ongoing eye trouble, he’s game for an endeavor where he doesn’t have to hide his condition. It’s a kick seeing these two working together again, even after last week’s failed eye surgery, and especially because the stronger the collaboration, the more of a hissy fit Dr. Gallinger gets to throw.

Gallinger’s resentment does indeed boil over as he watches Thack and Edwards from the scrubbing room — in a beautifully shot moment that captures both the WASPy doc’s reflection and the conferring surgeons in the surgical theater. When Gallinger attempts to guilt Thack for choosing to work with Edwards over him, giving him the ol’ “I saved your life!” argument, his colleague counters with a modern-day way of thinking that, sadly, is likely no match for the eugenics speech Gallinger heard earlier in the episode: “Since he started here, Edwards has invented and improved procedure after procedure, technique after technique.” Thack advises his friend to drop the jealousy act (read: jealousy=racism), but given Gallinger’s own issues, he’s ripe for further indoctrination into the growing eugenics movement.

NEXT: Lack of character

Eleanor may be home from that inhumane sanitarium, with a new set of teeth to boot, but she’s still a basket case who can’t interact with people. Her sister Dorothy, who is now living with the Gallingers, isn’t much support, because she has her own bitterness toward Eleanor’s actions. Now that word has spread that Eleanor is, in Dorothy’s words, “a baby killer,” their family has been irrevocably affected: Another sister, Ethel, has been abandoned by her fiancé, and Dorothy is facing life as a spinster. With Eleanor too frail and fragile to attend her husband’s reunion, he goes alone, and is easily swept into a rousing discussion — led by Rent‘s Anthony Rapp — about eugenics. For an already vocal racist like Gallinger, who continues to feel emasculated by Edwards’ achievements at the Knick, Drexler’s (Rapp) words are like mother’s milk, particularly when he moves away from complaining about immigrants and homosexuals to his real target: “the Negro.” “Science is proving their weak intellect and innate lack of character,” states Drexler, a decidedly un-Mark Cohen-like Penn grad.

One person who doesn’t fall into any of the threatening racial, ethnic or social groups mentioned during the eugenics discussion, but undoubtedly demonstrates an innate lack of character this episode is Cornelia’s husband, Philip. There’s a scene where director Steven Soderbergh shoots the Showalter bedroom from a single ceiling angle — almost like we’re in the surgical theater. As Cornelia and Philip prepare to get intimate, we feel as though we’re eavesdropping on their conversation, where Philip’s one-line observation speaks volumes to their passionless marriage: “I do love to be with you, however infrequent.” The second we cut to a close-up of their pillow talk, whatever ecstasy they may have enjoyed quickly dissipates, and we can see why their lovemaking is so “infrequent” — there isn’t much in the way of common interests between the Showalters. That and a passionate kiss between Cornelia and Edwards earlier in the episode just reinforces the fact that she’s married to the wrong man. When Cornelia mentions that she knows how pregnancy works (he wants a kid; she’s not pregnant), she explains it’s because “I work in a hospital.” But Philip corrects her without hesitation: “Did work.” Her face falls at the reminder.

And forget Philip supporting Cornelia’s desire to have a purpose in her life other than being a society wife. She’s put her Inspector Speight investigation on hold this week in order to support Sister Harriet. But as soon as she casually mentions to Philip that she attended Harry’s hearing, her husband’s loving demeanor shifts to that of revulsion and anger. He refuses to fund Harry’s lawyer, calling her a “murderer.” He also forbids his wife to see her incarcerated friend ever again, before turning his back to her with little more than a dirty look.

So by the time Cornelia leaves Edwards a note with the promise of a phone call and an imminent rendezvous, it’s easy to envision the two illicit lovebirds absconding to Paris and living out their days there in peace, but that’s way too happily-ever-after for a show like The Knick. Though Edwards does get a call, and he is summoned to Cornelia’s family home, the outcome is the polar opposite of what he expected, or wanted. As the doctor approaches the kitchen doorway, he overhears his parents (who work as servants for the Robertsons) entertaining a British-accented woman’s voice unfamiliar to us, but definitely familiar to Edwards. It’s so familiar that his face crumbles at the realization that he’s been found.

The woman is Opal, she’s Edwards’ wife from Paris, and there’s something about her behavior that suggests something is more than amiss. She’s polite enough to not raise suspicion, but there’s a hard look in her eyes, and she’s not exactly exhibiting signs of love or affection. There is a very intriguing backstory here, especially when Opal leaves the room to “freshen up,” and Mrs. Edwards slaps her son before asking, “Who on Earth is that woman?”

Edwards cops to being married, and to deserting Opal in Europe. “It happened so fast,” he explains weakly. “We were in Paris. Medicine was going well, people were accepting me.” He says he was happy, “but then.…” He trails off, and we don’t get any further information. Already he’s getting zero sympathy from his parents, who blame him for never being satisfied, but it’s obvious it’s way more than that.

Mrs. Edwards has already picked up on the fact that Opal is “determined,” which can only mean she wants money, and lots of it.

Since we can’t wait around hoping for Edwards and Cornelia to somehow find a way to be together publicly — it’s 1901, folks… it ain’t happening anytime soon — giving the good doctor an enigmatic wife with an ulterior motive is a great way to keep things interesting.

Stray observations:

  • We already knew that A.D. Elkins was not the forgiving man of God that he presented himself to be last week, thanks to the ominous, synth-drowned prayer meeting scene. Lucy, unfortunately, didn’t get the memo that synths and a strong bass line are harbingers of bad news. Thinking she can move forward from her disastrous affair with Thack by seeking God’s forgiveness, she confesses all of her sins to her preacher father in tonight’s episode. We don’t see what Lucy tells him, but it’s not necessary. Her father’s genuine nature is unleashed once they are in the safety of her apartment (“safe” is more of an operative word for Elkins rather than for Lucy). He repeatedly slaps her face before viciously whipping her. Lucy’s regression into a childlike state is made even more distinct by Soderbergh’s choice to show her cowering under the bed, then switching to her POV, where we only see Elkins’ feet and the sound of him removing his belt.
  • At Harry’s hearing, her future continues to look bleak as the pro-life, anti-immigration (sound familiar?) judge makes his determination before the trial has even begun: He dismisses the fallen nun as a child killer, blaming immigrants like her for contaminating the lives of “real Americans.”
  • There was a graphic liver surgery going on this episode, but the real wince-inducing moment had to be when the prim and proper Dr. Edwards removed that giant thermometer from a pig’s anus.

Episode Recaps

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