Thack attempts his new syphilis treatment on Abigail, while Dr. Edwards deals with the repercussions of Opal's arrival.
Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

It’s getting busy for Dr. John Thackery over at the Knick these days.

Now that he’s figured out how to continue taking drugs without getting caught — by speedballing cocaine and heroin up his nose —­ he has resumed his addiction research in this week’s episode of The Knick. The irony of this in theory is mind-boggling, but whenever someone like Thack is concerned, this scenario is still the most natural of progressions. He plunges into an abyss of cadavers, growing increasingly frustrated in the realization that there is nothing in the organs of addicts that signifies a predilection for drug cravings. But, just as he starts thinking about the possibility of addiction being a disease of the mind, he is sidetracked by a more pressing issue.

Abigail is brought to the Knick after having suffered a seizure, and since Thack and Algernon Edwards have made some headway in their syphilis-cure experiments (the syphilis spirochete is found to have died when their fever-induced pig reached 107 degrees), she becomes the prime candidate for the first human test subject. What happens over the next series of scenes is both terrifying and miraculous — but even though the episode is titled “Wonderful Surprises,” I still wouldn’t call the result of Abigail’s treatment a “wonderful surprise.” Yes, Thack does cure her, and yes, he does so because he is still madly in love with her, but his myopic, obsessive determination puts her at a level of such danger that it’s impossible to call him a hero.

When the spirochete is still alive (Thack periodically checks Abby’s blood under a microscope) at 107 degrees, Thack ignores Edwards’s protestations (“You’re frying her brain!”) and recklessly puts the suffering Abby into his colleague’s fever cabinet. His fanaticism is now touching on levels of insanity, which makes this the perfect moment for director Steven Soderbergh to give us a gorgeous shot of Thack illuminating the flames beneath the cabinet. “I know about living on the edge between life and death,” Thack insists to Edwards. “It’s a matter of will, and she has plenty of it!” He raises Abby’s temperature to a lethal 120 degrees, and it’s more disturbing to watch than any of the graphic surgeries that are so commonplace on this show. Somehow, not only does Abby survive — her fever reduced by quinine and an ice bath — but Thack’s mad experiment seems to have worked in this pre-penicillin age, as the spirochete is killed.

While keeping a bedside vigil, Thack has an ethereal vision of himself with Abby on Everett Gallinger’s sailboat (not unlike the apparitions he had of the girl he killed with the blood transfusion). Both are dressed in white, Abby has her pre-syphilitic nose, and they smile beatifically at each other. When she awakens, Thack crawls into bed with her, overcome with joy. It’s a sweet moment, but as with everything on this show, it still leaves an ugly taste in your mouth. How could someone who, as Edwards says, has taken an oath to “do no harm,” someone who is supposed to care for this woman, do something so dangerous to keep her alive? Plus, how do we know she won’t have lingering side effects from sustaining a fever that high?

NEXT: Culture clash

It’s also a busy episode for Dr. Edwards, who kicks things off in the first scene by bringing his “wonderful surprise” of a wife, Opal, home to his apartment — and telling her every sordid detail of what he’s been up to since leaving Europe. So she now knows that he fell in love with another woman—he doesn’t tell her it was Cornelia Showalter—got her pregnant, and that the pregnancy was terminated. Still, Opal, as Edwards’s mother said last week, is determined, and she takes it all in stride — because she decides the path her life will take, not her husband: “I have never let anyone tell me when it’s time to walk away,” she tells Edwards, “and you are no exception. I’m staying, and I’m keeping what’s mine.”

I’m not entirely fixed on how I feel about her, because you gotta wonder why someone would be so insistent on remaining with a man who, for all intents and purposes, abandoned her. However, what I do like about her is that she speaks her mind about the appalling treatment people of her skin color receive in the good ol’ U.S. of A. During lunch at the Robertson home, she and Edwards are welcomed and honored guests — though Cornelia is visibly disappointed to learn her former lover has a wife. And Philip Showalter totally notices: Soderbergh has the camera linger on Cornelia, as she tries to block out Opal and Capt. Robertson’s conversation, with Philip looking at her intently, and not with love or affection.

It’s in this scene that the British Opal thoroughly embarrasses her husband — and everyone else — when she asks why they are welcome at the dining table, but Algernon’s servant parents are not. Things are made even more awkward when Edwards’s mother emerges to clear the plates. Perhaps if Opal isn’t going to return to Europe — and I wouldn’t blame her if she did — she will be the one to bring in early inklings of the civil rights movement to The Knick. After all, she and Edwards may be moving uptown anyway, to the burgeoning African-American community called Harlem. Because, in what might be another “wonderful surprise,” it looks like Mr. and Mrs. Edwards are going to give their marriage a go — they spend a lovely evening together at a Harlem dance hall, flirting, dancing and just getting to know each other again, grey hairs and all. If it turns out Opal doesn’t have an ulterior motive — jury’s still out on that front — I think I may like seeing where this relationship goes. Especially because Opal can absolutely tell the woman her husband got pregnant was Cornelia.

Cornelia is in a pickle this week because her husband is a close-minded creep and won’t help pay for Sister Harriet’s lawyer. With Harry’s court date approaching and no attorney to represent her, Cornelia and Tom Cleary come up with an ingenious idea that, you guessed it, in a “wonderful surprise,” ends up working.

NEXT: “You’re on toilets”

While Cornelia hides in a separate room, Cleary gathers several fancy-looking ladies who once came to him in a crisis — ladies who received assistance from Harry’s “safe and secret” expertise. He puts their predicament into very simple words: Unless they speak to their husbands, tell them the truth, and ask these rich and powerful men to use their money and influence with the judge, all of their names (and their husbands’) too, will be in the papers. Why? Because the God-fearing Harry, when asked to testify on the stand, swearing to tell the truth on the holy Bible, will be forced to reveal the names of the women she helped. Reputations really are everything, because the morning of Harry’s trial, the judge dismisses the case, and the fallen nun is set free.

But, because there are no happy endings on The Knick, Harry’s real prison sentence has only just begun. She refuses Cleary’s kind proposal of a roommate situation — she may not be a nun anymore, but she ain’t living with a man. She opts instead to go to a women’s shelter, run by nuns. The sister showing her around doesn’t hide the truth that Harry’s presence besmirches their reputation, and she shouldn’t consider herself a welcome resident. After Harry offers her nursing and cooking skills in order to earn her keep, she’s curtly told, “You’re on toilets.” As for sleeping quarters, she gets a mattress on the floor — no sheets, no pillows. It’s not shocking, given the attitudes of the time (and in the case of the Catholic Church, in 2015, it still depends on who you ask), but it’s no less upsetting to see women who are running this shelter out of charity treat Harry with such disdain.

This could be an opportune time for Harry to take a page out of Lucy Elkins’ playbook, for the real “wonderful surprise” of tonight’s episode had to be the beginning of the meek nurse’s transformation. Now that her abusive father has returned to West Virginia, Lucy has a new outlook on life, and she’s no longer going to be a scared little cricket. Her empowerment is the breath of fresh air this show — and these characters — need, and I’m so excited to see what she’s going to do with it.

The first hint of her growth comes when she talks to her roommate, Lottie, about the obstetrics and gynecology book she’s reading: Ever since that twit Dr. Mays set himself on fire in the operating room (and mercifully died), she’s been doing a lot of extra work with Ping Wu’s girls, and she wants to educate herself on the subject. Lottie suggests that Lucy take her knowledge a step further and change the sad fact that there are barely any women doctors in existence.

I’m hoping that Lucy will take Lottie’s words to heart. Also, I like how she’s channeling her anger toward both her father and Thack and throwing it back at her former lover: During one of their scheduled track-mark examination sessions (now that Thack is snorting drugs, there are no needle marks to look for and he can pass inspection. Crafty!), he notices her black eye and demands to know how she got it. She “confesses,” but Thack’s words of gallantry are too little too late: “I would have hurt him a whole lot worse than he hurt you.”

Lucy: “You think he’s the one who hurt me?” Oooh, careful of scorch marks there, Thack, because that’s a burn.

But that’s just the opening act for Lucy’s steel-infused voice-over, which turns out to be a venting session during a visit with Harry at the prison: “My whole life, these men, who are supposed to show us how to live our lives. We are supposed to respect and trust and honor them. They’ve all disappointed me, and betrayed me, and thrown me away. Why do we let them? It doesn’t make any sense, and I’m sick of it!” She confides that she’s “not getting what I deserve,” and she wants “something better.” I look forward to seeing where this goes, because it’s about time women on this show start fighting for better treatment, both at home and in the workplace.

Stray observations:

–Gallinger’s mounting contempt for immigrants is heightened this episode after a pregnant Eastern European woman tried leaving her four children at the hospital with their tonsillitis-stricken brother (the sick son watches the others while she works) — and a still-unstable Eleanor is accosted by an Italian boy and his group of ruffians. His outlook is twisted further when his new pal, Drexler (Anthony Rapp) talks about how Italians from the south are all criminals. Oh, you just wait there, Drex. I hear a little boy named Vito Andolini, from Corleone, Sicily, is planning a trip to New York in 1901. But their discussions get even more frightening, as they talk about how the immigrants “breed like animals,” and the only way to stop incidents like what happened to Eleanor is to sterilize these people “on a mass scale.”

–It doesn’t matter if it’s a giant, hand-cranked camera like Henry Robertson’s 1901 Edison Company model, or a 2015 iPhone 6: As long as there have been moving-picture cameras, there have been amateur porn films.

Episode Recaps

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