Bertie tries an experimental procedure on his cancer-stricken mother, while conjoined twins become Thack's new project.
Credit: Cinemax

Leave it to a show like The Knick to name an episode centered on a major character’s disregard for medical protocol — which results in both his mother’s death and the loss of his job — “There Are Rules.”

As with all Knick episodes, this week’s title stems from a piece of dialogue. It’s not spoken by anyone affiliated with Dr. Bertie Chickering Jr.’s considerable operating-room foul-up, but the theme still resonates throughout many of the episode’s story lines. Though in Bertie’s case, while it seems like the writers might be taunting the young surgeon with their choice of episode title, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, Bertie suffered a devastating blow to his personal life and his medical reputation after he attempted a risky procedure on his cancer-stricken mother. But at the same time, the experience awakened him to something I’ve been noticing ever since he joined Dr. Levi Zinberg’s more traditional practice:

He’s got a lot more of Dr. John Thackery in him than he thought.

This may be why Thack took a back seat in tonight’s episode when it came to the Precarious Surgery of the Week, because it’s time to allow his protégé to start taking the reins. Just like his mentor, Bertie is going to mess up now and then (and a dead parent on your watch isn’t something one gets over instantly), but this show is called The Knick, not Mt. Sinai. It was time for Bertie to get back to where he once belonged, and anyone could see that while he admired Zinberg greatly, he was chafing under the fastidious doctor’s conservatism.

With Zinberg unwilling to let him try an experimental procedure on his dying mother, Bertie conscripts Dr. Algernon Edwards to assist him in a clandestine attempt. After all, Edwards pretty much spent season 1 performing secret surgeries, and he’s at least observed the technique in Paris. As Bertie’s father stands guard, the two colleagues set to work on Mrs. Chickering. Between Edwards’ limited eyesight (he wears spectacles now, and admits to having lost vision in his injured left eye), Bertie’s ill-advised decision to operate on a family member, and the doctors’ limited knowledge of the procedure, Mrs. Chickering dies on the table. But not before a furious Zinberg storms in to berate Bertie for his insubordination — and to make a last-ditch effort to save the patient.

A shattered Bertie confers with his boss in Zinberg’s office, and it’s decided it’s time for a change, as their fundamental differences will make it impossible for them to work together again: Zinberg refuses to take risks, whereas Bertie, now Thack’s mouthpiece, feels they are necessary tools for medical innovation. If he’s saying this mere minutes after he technically killed his own mother (in all fairness, given her condition, he really just brought about her death a little sooner than expected), then there is no question that Bertie belongs at the Knick. He and Zinberg part amicably, with Bertie offering to resign in lieu of his inevitable firing.

But Bertie’s time away from the Knick has been good for him. Having healed from his breakup with Nurse Lucy Elkins as well as learned from his own mistakes, he’s not the haughty boy he was when he basically told Thack to go shove it a few months earlier. Admitting that he’s “a bit too reckless” for Zinberg, he asks Thack for his old job back: “I need the speed of this place,” he says to his mentor. “Of you.” Having realized that the Knick “is where I belong,” Bertie receives the best possible response from the mercurial Thack: “I’ve always known that.” As if that weren’t enough, his old/new employer gives him a hug. This is almost as heartwarming as Genevieve Everidge fulfilling her promise to Mrs. Chickering that she will help the family cope with their losses, which she does by handling household duties and inviting Bertie for a sexcapade at her roommate-less apartment.

NEXT: Tom Cleary to the rescue

In addition to Bertie returning to work with Thack this episode, their mentor/protégé connection also rears itself in a rather indirect fashion: The opening scene of “There Are Rules” has Thack checking out the attractions at Huber’s Palace Museum, where Bertie and Genevieve had their first date. He is fascinated by a pair of violin-playing conjoined twins named Zoya and Nika, whom Bertie and Genevieve walked past on their evening out. (Thack is also captivated by a hypnotist, but other than one failed hypnosis attempt on the pipe-smoking Tom Cleary, he doesn’t get far in his addiction research this week.) The twins quickly become Thack’s new project: He persuades their smarmy, mercenary handler, Lester Brockhurst, to bring Zoya and Nika to the hospital for an examination. Brockhurst demands cab fare and a dinner stipend, but the investment is worth it, for both Thack and the girls.

An X-ray determines that the twins only share a liver, which makes surgical separation a possibility. It’s beyond evident that Thack wants to do this for the glory and publicity, but he’s not faking his disgust at Brockhurst’s treatment of his “property” (The Minsk-born teenagers are a perennial circus act, with some forced prostitution work thrown in too). Though I found Thack to be uncharacteristically naïve when he presented his surgery idea to Brockhurst. The second Zoya and Nika are separated, his gravy train comes to a screeching halt, so it’s hardly a surprise when the impresario is all, “Hell, no, Doc.”

So it falls to Thack and a crowbar-wielding Cleary to abscond with the girls in the dead of night — and not a moment too soon, as the two men rescue Zoya and Nika right when they’re about to pleasure a john. Once they’re ensconced at the Knick, Thack leaves them in Cleary’s care. A questionable choice, but harmless: While their safety is certainly not an issue, they do have to contend with the burly Irishman’s blunt line of questioning, like, “How do you two take a shite?”

By the end of the episode, Thack has devised a surgical plan to remove the girls’ liver, separate their bodies and then reattach equal portions of the organ to each twin. He’s so enthralled by his genius that, as he gushes about his plans to Abigail, he fails to notice her dejected expression. No, she’s not experiencing any syphilitic relapses, but it’s difficult for her to listen to her ex prattle on about removing the “freak” and “monster” stigmas from a set of twins while she sits at home with a deformed nose. She’s also getting a little fed up with their current arrangement — Thack sleeps over from time to time, but they have not resumed their physical relationship, and she knows he keeps company with an endless string of women. The camera slowly pulls in on her, and the pain of her situation fills the entire frame as she confesses to waiting up night after night, hoping he’ll come over.

In one of the few tender moments we ever get to witness on The Knick, Thack tells Abby he’s never stopped loving her, and they kiss passionately before dissolving into the end credits. I want this to be a good sign, but Thack’s recurring sailboat dream paints a foreboding picture: He and Abby lock lips and embrace in tonight’s version, but when she pulls away, she’s turned into the little girl from the failed blood transfusion.

NEXT: Lucy’s Wish Is Granted

The only person who gets an honest-to-goodness happy ending in “There Are Rules” is Sister Harriet — a.k.a. the third woman Tom Cleary (of all people) rescued tonight. A friendly lunch between Harry and Cleary forced the disgraced nun to come to terms with her wretched existence, and with the fact that she’s got an incredible friend in the rude, crude ambulance driver. He can see she’s pale (she cops to “not eating much”), and that if she stays in the boarding house, it will eventually get the better of her. “No human deserves the beating you’ve been taking these last few months,” he tells her.

Harry tries to maintain the quintessential stiff upper lip, but she admits the nuns’ treatment is “breaking” her, and she’s reached the point where she’s actually afraid of them — yet she still staunchly refuses Cleary’s roommate offer. It’s only when he makes a mention of the $3 he’s been sending her every week (“What three dollars?”) that she relents. Well, in reality, Cleary is so furious over the nuns’ deception that he insists Harry accept his proposition (“This time it’s not an invitation!”), but since we all wanted this to happen, we’ll excuse his brutish approach. Guess finding out that religious sisters are surreptitiously pocketing money for themselves is worth living in sin. A relieved Harry agrees to move in with Cleary, who, in keeping with the theme of the episode, demands that she “make up whatever rules [she likes],” and he’ll “follow them to the T.” Can’t wait to see what kind of house parties these two throw.

Stray observations:

  • It was hard to tell what exactly Lucy’s intentions were on that stilted dinner date with Henry Robertson last week, but the second she marched into his office tonight and slid her hands down his pants, it became abundantly clear. She’s a far cry from Cinderella, as she doesn’t need any sort of fairy godmother to help her out, but, in short, Lucy wanted to go to a ball, and she wanted to go as the prince’s date, the rest of the nursing staff (Henry’s pretty much slept with all of them at this point) be damned. Using Lin-Lin’s advice once again, the nurse requested an invitation to the hospital’s charity ball in simple, direct words — all the while giving Henry the greatest hand job of his life. By the end of the episode, her wish had been granted. Sidenote: It was nice to see Lucy and Bertie reconcile now that they’ve both moved on from season 1’s non-relationship.
  • So who thinks that Eleanor Gallinger poisoned Dr. Cotton? Let’s see, she voluntarily invited the sanitarium proprietor responsible for removing all of her teeth to dinner, she suspiciously treated him with kindness and respect, and she berated her husband for daring to insult him. Oh, right, he bolted out of the Gallinger residence midway through dinner, sweating profusely and citing illness. Plus there’s that whole baby-killing thing on her record too…
  • Cornelia is making some breakthroughs in her Inspector Speight investigation, but unfortunately, this week’s episode was weighed down by the Big Expository Scene that evokes this classic Chris Farley-in-Wayne’s World cameo. That mysterious second-class ticket she brought to the police last week led her tonight to the ticketholder’s brother, an Italian immigrant suffering from Bubonic plague (the close-ups of his perspiring, black-nosed face really drove the misery of the disease home). Puzzled as to why the ticketholder (who gave his brother the disease, and who has since died) was allowed into the country if he had the plague, she spoke to an officer from her family’s steamship business to get some intel. As they walk along the docks, the officer explains how whenever someone tries to enter the country with a highly infectious disease, “shipping companies have to pay a $100 fine, and passage back overseas.” This is why big companies (like Robertson Steamships) do their own health inspections before immigrants leave Europe. The officer also makes sure to mention the differences in health inspection between the third-class passengers and those traveling in first- and second-class. Those who can “pay to ride in comfort” are less likely to bring infectious diseases along with them. Yet there was one second-class passenger who still did. It looks like Tammany Hall may be off the hook here, as I previously speculated. Sounds like there’s something really fishy going on behind the scenes at the steamship companies.

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