The Knick becomes Thack's stage as he tries to turn an addict's brain into his latest masterpiece.

By Sarene Leeds
November 13, 2015 at 02:29 AM EST
Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
S2 E5
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Sometimes, when Dr. John Thackery plays God, he’s triumphant.

As a result, he’s feeling pretty good about himself these days. Confident that his abilities are back in top-notch form (thanks to a steady speedball routine), he’s refocused his attention on his addiction research, which, as he theorized on last week’s episode of The Knick, now centers on the brain. He takes a quick detour when a subway-line explosion throws the hospital into temporary chaos, but his genius still ends up prevailing after an x-ray-room overflow forces him to hastily invent a crude metal detector using a telephone and electrical wire. Also, the ethical repercussions of his drastic approach to curing Abigail’s syphilis notwithstanding, it appears love may be slowly blossoming again between the haunted doctor and his ex-girlfriend: After he stays over one night (just sleep, no sex), where Abby, to her credit, immediately puts the kibosh on any drug use in her home, he impulsively kisses her on his way out the door the following morning. “Sorry, old habit,” he confesses.

But while Abby seems to be okay, playing God does have serious risks attached to it, and if he could speak, I’m sure that Thack’s patient Sydney Carton would cry foul at the surgeon’s choice of dangerous experiment in tonight’s episode, “Whiplash.”

The rather Dickensian-sounding character of Sydney Carton (his Tale of Two Cities name was selected on purpose, I presume) was sacked with the rawest of deals this week: A morphine addict and accident victim, Carton became a prime candidate for testing out Thack’s newest theory. This meant unwillingly trading in his morphine addiction for a seemingly permanent vegetative state when Thack’s latest installment of Mystery Surgery Theater 1901 doesn’t exactly go as planned. The surgeon has barely sent a recovered Abby back home before he’s transformed Carton into a sideshow-esque oddity for a packed operating room, where he demonstrates via electric current how different parts of the brain can be stimulated to produce laughter, tears, or a foot stomp. (Carton’s exposed cranium with 10-15 scissors dangling off the sides is a disturbing sight on its own.) “But what about desire?” he asks.

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Thack determines what he believes to be the area of the brain most responsive to cravings via poking around Carton’s head with an electric-current-measuring rheoscope — and putting a vial of morphine within his patient’s sight (right, I forgot to mention, Carton is awake for all of this). But a few days later, despite an aside to Drs. Edwards and Gallinger about his concern that another part of the brain could be damaged in the process, Thack performs a lobotomy on Carton. Victorious, he announces to the gathered audience in the operating room that he has removed “the source of addiction.” Unfortunately, while Carton is in recovery, Thack’s overconfidence comes back to bite him in the ass in the worst way possible. His patient is unresponsive to even a finger snap, and his drawing board awaits his return.

After her emphatic declaration to change her life for the better, already we can see a very different Nurse Lucy Elkins patrolling the halls of the Knick this week. She’s detached when performing Thack’s scheduled needle-mark check (though she may want to take a little more notice, as he was snorting up cocaine and heroin seconds before she entered his office), and then she exhibits a cool grace under pressure during the subway-explosion sequence. She walks calmly down the corridor, giving informed orders to her fellow staffers, her blood-stained uniform a mark of pride. Hey, A.D. Elkins, who you calling a cricket now?

NEXT: “It tastes like cherry-flavored kerosene”

Lucy also receives some sound instruction from an unlikely source: Lin-Lin, a Ping Wu employee who pays for her required checkup with some invaluable advice. Lin-Lin explains that she’s able to both please men — and make money — without having intercourse: “When he’s in my hand, I control him. That’s when I can get anything I want.” There’s no physical contact between Lucy and her new conquest, Henry Robertson, other than a good-night kiss, but believe me, every action she takes with Henry this episode is a variation on Lin-Lin’s words. The wealthy Robertson scion has been pursuing the West Virginia nurse since the start of the season, and given his unsavory tactics, Lucy’s going to need every feminine trick in the book to get what she wants and not feel like retching at every turn. One of Henry’s sample pick-up lines, in reference to Lucy’s gynecological textbook: “Quite a weighty tome for a delicate dove like you.” Her aloof demeanor works like a charm, and all of a sudden, there she is, in a fancy mauve gown, being treated to a lavish dinner by Henry, who orders her a new gin-and-vermouth cocktail out of San Francisco called “a Martinez.” This precursor to the martini isn’t doing much to impress Lucy, though, as she likens its taste to “cherry-flavored kerosene.”

The young nurse keeps up her routine right until the evening’s conclusion, when her bored expression is exchanged for an unsolicited kiss and her recitation of the definition of “whiplash” before hopping out of Henry’s car and walking away without a backward glance. Both actions achieve two important goals: one, assuring Henry that she was listening to his tiresome, whiplash-related banter; and two, leaving him wanting ever-so-much more. I admire this strong, revamped Lucy, but I’m not quite sure what her intentions are here. If it’s to have fun, that’s one thing. But if it’s social-climbing, she might need further guidance before she takes the next few steps.

One relationship that is thriving beautifully, without the need of games or intrigue, is the one between Dr. Bertie Chickering and the intrepid journalist Genevieve Everidge. Like Lucy, Bertie is a different person than he was in season 1 — especially now that he’s gotten that whole virgin problem out of the way (he visited a brothel in last week’s episode). And whether or not he realizes it yet, he’s brought a little bit of Thack’s borderline-reckless work ethic into his own medical practice. It’s too soon to tell if this ultimately will be a good thing, but his industrious campaign to find a treatment for his mother, who is suffering from laryngeal cancer, is to be respected, not reproved.

Due to the limited established options back in 1901, Mrs. Chickering has pretty much been given a death sentence by everyone, including Dr. Zinberg, who refuses to attempt any procedure that hasn’t undergone “rigorous” experiments and peer review. So Bertie reaches out to Algernon Edwards, asking if he’s familiar with more “pioneering procedures” from his time in Paris. It turns out to be an astute move, as Edwards mentions he once read a paper co-authored by Pierre Curie on using radium on malignant tumors. He offers to translate it from its native French if Bertie can procure the paper (which he does, by breaking into an office — along with Genevieve in the coolest date night ever). But when Bertie presents both his completed adrenaline research and a copy of the French paper to his boss, he’s told to put the cancer topic on the backburner until his adrenaline work is finished.

Maybe Dr. Zinberg should have joined Genevieve for dinner at the Chickering home later that night, where he would see for himself that time is undoubtedly running out for Mrs. Chickering. Genevieve knows she needs to move fast to win over her beau’s family because Bertie’s mother can’t hide her pale visage and weak constitution anymore. So Genevieve proudly declares her heritage — and seals her future as Bertie’s lady by making the whole house reverberate with laughter with a great joke about how, you know, Jesus Christ was Jewish: “His mother thought he was a God, and he thought she was a virgin.”

NEXT: Gallinger’s Public Service

She also proves her worth by gently tending to Mrs. Chickering’s basic needs in the privacy of her bedroom — giving her a manicure and assuring her that the Chickering family will get on “with help.” But none of these gestures carry as much weight as when Genevieve silently helps a frail Mrs. Chickering out of her chaise longue and slowly walks her to her bed.

You’ve picked a winner here, Bertie. So don’t mess this one up.

Stray observations:

  • As I predicted, Sister Harriet’s existence at her new boarding house is not much different from prison. With her reputation preceding her, she’s forbidden to talk to any of the other residents, and vice-versa. The nun calls her “the worst kind of sinner” for daring to help a girl suffering from menstrual cramps and accuses her of committing “infanticide.” Maybe it’s time she looked elsewhere than the church for assistance because they’ve no longer got her back.
  • She’s a minor character, but I feel for Effie Barrow. The hospital administrator’s wife represents how, like Cornelia, even relatively well-off women were trapped once they said “I do.” With Herman Barrow off skimming money at every opportunity to pay off his massive debts, she’s lonely and has resorted to throwing herself at her husband in a frilly white negligee set. Barrow coldly rejects her frisky offer because he’s gotta go see Ping Wu about setting his preferred hooker, Junia, free so they can begin a life together. The worst part about this is it’s not like Effie could just walk out, take the children, and start over. Women didn’t do that back then — she’ll be dependent on Barrow forever.
  • In last week’s episode, Cornelia snuck out of the Showalter home to do some snooping at the Speight residence. She found the dead inspector’s family had vanished into the night without warning, as well as a half-burned steamship ticket in the fireplace. Plus, as if this couldn’t get any more shady, now she’s being followed. But this week, when she brings the ticket to the police, she’s given Speight’s log book, which has an entry regarding Bubonic plague (the same illness sweeping San Francisco earlier in the season). Could there be a connection between the two cities?
  • Our only glimpse into the rebuilding of the Edwards’ marriage this week is seeing Opal and her husband attend a stirring lecture by a character named D.W. Garrison Carr, who encourages his African-American audience to change their accepting attitudes toward inferior treatment. Opal listens intently, but Edwards initially looks uncomfortable. It’s not until Carr makes his closing remarks that the doctor sits up with interest: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.”
  • It would be nice to see Edwards acquire some of Opal’s staunch opinions regarding civil rights, because Everett Gallinger is already leading a one-man (well, two-man, if you count Drexler) charge to rid the world of undesirables. Gallinger’s eugenics beliefs reach an alarming level tonight when Drexler introduces him to a man who runs the “Idiot House” on Randall’s Island (which was the location of this kind of horribly named institution in 1901). The proprietor, a doctor himself, refers to his charges as “boys deemed to be morons” and is concerned because once they reach adulthood, they will be released to their own devices. Meaning, they will be “free to engender more idiots like themselves.” Well, doc, today is your lucky day, because good ol’ Everett here has the fix for you! In the final scene of the episode, several boys wait in a dark hallway. One by one, they are brought to Gallinger, who has agreed to perform vasectomies on all of them. It’s absolutely harrowing to watch, especially because all we do see is his instructing them to remove their pants — and the door closing behind him. Even more upsetting is the knowledge that Gallinger is about to work on a boy named “Moishe.” When Gallinger confirms that he’s “a Yid,” and tells him, “very good,” you know very well it’s not because he’s a fan of Yiddish theater down on the Lower East Side.
  • Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh team up for this 1900s medical drama.
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