With nothing left to lose, Dr. John Thackery attempts the riskiest surgery of his career
When you stop and think about it, that had all the makings of a great series finale.
Now, that doesn’t mean The Knick has indeed come to its conclusion — the future of the show remains up in the air as it has yet to be renewed; Cinemax is currently keeping mum on that front — but if it has, “This Is All We Are” settles the fates of the characters who populate the Knickerbocker Hospital quite nicely.
Obviously the big question here is: Did Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery end up killing himself on the operating table? The ending is ambiguous enough that there is the possibility he somehow survived turning his abdomen into his own personal butcher shop, thanks to Dr. Bertie Chickering Jr.’s lightning-quick decision to plunge an adrenaline-filled syringe into his mentor’s chest. But we don’t see the tormented surgeon following Bertie’s attempt to save him, and there’s some vague dialogue after the botched procedure between Dr. Algernon Edwards and Henry Robertson about how Edwards “owes” it to Thack to keep his addiction-treatment program in operation.
If Thack is dead, you couldn’t have picked a better way for him to go out. In typical fashion, the doctor comes up with his most hare-brained scheme yet in tonight’s season 2 finale, performing intestinal surgery on himself, with a spinal block as his only form of painkiller. His despair over Abigail Alford’s accidental death by an ether-and-laudanum overdose has made him staunchly opposed to the use of general anesthesia. And Dr. Levi Zinberg, who intended to treat Thack’s ischemic bowel, refuses to try his rival’s suggestion of a spinal block over ether.
High as a kite on cocaine — there’s a heartbreaking moment just before he injects the drug where he looks at the phone, forgetting for a split-second that Abby won’t be there at the end of the line to talk him off the ledge — a manic Thack saunters into a packed-house surgical theater for what may very well be his last performance.
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While he insists to his onlookers that his intentions are noble — if he succeeds in this risky procedure, he will have proved that surgery can be done without general anesthesia, and Abby will not have died in vain — Thack’s arrogance is through the roof here. Like an X-rated ringmaster, Thack disrobes in front of his captivated audience before tossing off subtle digs directed at Zinberg about the safety of his choice of sedative.
But it wasn’t so much the spinal block that was the problem here, it was the fact that Thack believed he could Ginger Rogers his way through the surgery — performing it backwards (through a mirror) and, instead of in heels, upside-down. We watch as he hacks deep into his belly, pulling out grisly intestines and ignoring the pleas of Bertie and Dr. Everett Gallinger to stop the madness. He is going to do this or die trying.
One has to wonder how much he’s doing this for Abby — and how much of it is really for himself. “The show must go on,” he insists. And boy, does Thack deliver. He gives the performance of his life, where his slow, painful death is acted out for a willing audience, both watching on TV, and in the surgical theater. Eventually, he begins to bleed out. Upon realizing what a mess he’s made of himself (not just physically), he begins to narrate his own death, commenting on his weakened peripheral vision and dropping body temperature, and uttering what might have been his last words: “This is it. This is all we are.”
As his POV goes fuzzy, Thack sees the ghostly images of little Sonya and Abby, while we’re left to wonder if he is now indeed resting peacefully among them.
NEXT: “Papa, can you hear me?”
The Knick seems to subscribe to the “cice guys finish last” mindset, so with that in mind, the infuriating denouement of Cornelia Showalter’s season-long investigation into her father’s crooked business dealings makes a lot of sense. She has hardly finished mourning the death of Capt. Robertson when a casual aside from her husband, Phillip (I know, I forgot he was still there, too), gave her the final piece of the Robertson Shipping Company puzzle she had been looking for: Henry had been in charge of the ports for years, which means it was Cornelia’s brother, and not the late shipping magnate, who was responsible for all of the disease brought into the country by sick immigrants.
A frightening confrontation between brother and sister then has us wondering if Henry would stoop so low as to throw Cornelia down a flight of stairs. And why wouldn’t he? He didn’t have any qualms about setting fire to the new uptown location of the Knick, which he knew would kill his own father in the process. The sad truth is that Capt. Robertson had been squandering his fortune for years, forcing Henry to cut corners with the company in order to keep the family afloat. But when Cornelia discovered his scam, Henry decided that money was far more important than keeping his loved ones alive, so he lit a match to the hospital construction site. He knew as soon as Cornelia told Capt. Robertson about her investigation, he would immediately trace the corruption back to Henry. “He had to go,” Henry tells his sister coldly, before laying the blame on her pesky muckraking. “You left me no choice.”
Now powerless in both her marriage and her own family — “Your one-woman crusade is over,” sneers Henry — Cornelia’s defeat is palpable. In a beautifully orchestrated shot, she descends the stairs as Nurse Lucy Elkins, decked out in white-lace summer finery, ascends them to join Henry. It’s a great metaphor for how the old guard is making way for the new and how, at least on The Knick, those who succeed are the ones willing to play dirty. Lucy’s presence heralds her summer-long stay at the Robertsons’ Newport, R.I., estate, not as Henry’s girl on the side (he initially offered the guest house), but as his intended. “So glad you saw things my way,” she purrs upon her arrival.
With Henry’s true colors no longer hidden away, I feel that he and Lucy are perfect for each other. They’re like one of those vindictive couples on all those classic 1980s sudsy dramas like Dallas and Dynasty. But if this is the last we ever see of these characters, Henry had better watch out. He may have been able to scare Cornelia into running away, but fat chance of that ever happening with Lucy.
It’s what Cornelia does next, though, that gives me confidence in her future: She sells several pieces of jewelry and uses the cash to book herself passage to far-flung Australia. True, Cornelia’s journey — she goes through with it, as we see her departing New York Harbor — has a reverse-Yentl quality to it, but she probably never felt more emancipated than she does at that moment. She’ll be lonely at first, but what was really waiting for her back in New York? In no particular order: an unloving husband, a murderous brother, confining social standards of her upper-class existence, and a father-in-law whose biggest hobby is creeping on her. Plus, due to the attitudes of the time — and the fact that Dr. Edwards and Opal seem to be making a go of things — any hope of a rekindled Neely-Algie romance was snuffed out by midseason.
NEXT: Confessions of a sleazy ambulance driver
Believe it or not, neither Thack’s self-surgery nor Henry’s murder of his own father is the most twisted thing to come out of “This Is All We Are.” Oh, no, that award has to go to Tom Cleary, who, in the best scene of the episode, confesses to a priest that he set up Sister Harriet’s arrest. It is an excruciating sucker punch once we realize what the burly ambulance driver is saying behind that curtain (director Steven Soderbergh has Cleary’s entire speech performed in voice-over by actor Chris Sullivan; we only see shots of the church’s interior and Sullivan’s feet peeking out from the confessional). Earlier in the episode, Cleary had stunned his roommate with a marriage proposal — ring and all — but Harry, still a nun in her heart, said no. In the hope of getting God to change her mind, Cleary went to the place he abhors the most, church, and laid out his sorry tale for all to hear (the priest, God and The Knick‘s audience). He’s been in love with Harry ever since her habit-wearing days, so he figured the only way he’d ever have a chance at marrying her would be if she weren’t a nun. So he machinated her excommunication by telling a cop she was off performing an abortion.
Cleary admits he never thought Harry would’ve been punished as severely as she was (um, it’s 1901, and you told a police officer she was aborting a baby — what did you think was going to happen, Tommy boy?), but any sympathy we may have had for this guy has gone completely out the window. The revelation that Cleary’s kindness toward Harry all season was a direct manipulation to serve his own selfish desires is a devastating blow to Knick fans. Cleary and Harry’s friendship was one of the few pure relationships that existed on this series. Sure, it follows the pattern of The Knick‘s brilliance at creating complex, egocentric characters, but it’s no less upsetting to learn that even the romance between Cleary and Harry had a seedy component to it as well.
So when Harry does accept the proposal (the confession worked!), which she does by appearing at the breakfast table one morning, wearing her ring and a big smile, what should be hailed as one of The Knick‘s few happy moments in its entire two-season run is instead its most disturbing. It’s for this story line alone that I’m making the argument for no further episodes. I’d rather leave Harry in her blissful ignorance than have her learn the truth someday about how her cherished husband ruined her life.
Perhaps it’s because we had to watch him endure the worst day ever last week that Algernon Edwards had the honor of closing out the season finale — and possibly, the series — on the most positive note. He’s in a solid marriage (I’ll admit I didn’t see them working out at first, but I think Opal has been one of the best things to happen to Edwards — she single-handedly turned him into an activist), and he’s poised to make a difference both in the fields of civil rights and drug-addiction treatment.
The downside to Edwards’ brutal beating, courtesy of Dr. Gallinger, is that he has probably lost sight in his left eye — the prognosis is still undetermined, but the fact that he’s walking around with a blood-filled sclera isn’t a great sign. The upside, as he demonstrates during a poignant conversation with his father at Capt. Robertson’s funeral, is he’s “angry.” He’s frustrated that Jesse Edwards was never allowed to be anything more than a white family’s coachman. “I’m angry that they made you turn your eyes to the ground. And then they made you too scared to look up,” he tells his father.
NEXT: Dr. Edwards’ Inheritance
In his defense, Jesse reminds his son that however hard they have it now, it was far worse just a few decades earlier — and if he hadn’t “turned his eyes to the ground,” neither of them would be sitting where they are. Still, I’d like to think Edwards, who is a product of the W.E.B. Du Bois generation, will use that anger to forge changes in American society, however slowly those changes may come about.
Another reason why The Knick‘s future remains uncertain? In order to keep the truth about the fire under wraps, Henry agreed to a settlement with the insurance company, which means no more uptown Knickerbocker Hospital. With Capt. Robertson gone, he is also pulling all funding to the hospital’s current downtown location and recommending that the city take it over. With Thack out of commission (and possibly dead), Gallinger about to embark on a yearlong sabbatical preaching the word of eugenics to willing listeners (his first stop? Germany. How prophetic), Lucy likely having turned in her coffee-filter nurse’s cap for a life of luxury, and Edwards sidelined by his eye, there wouldn’t be too many familiar faces back at the Knick anyway.
The only silver lining to these changes is the fact that Edwards received an inheritance from Capt. Robertson, which he’s chosen to put toward furthering Thack’s drug-addiction treatments. Besides, as he admits to Henry, his eye may not allow him to remain a surgeon for much longer. So in honor of both Thack and Abby, Edwards sits down with the last remaining alcoholic on the ward, Mr. Dominczyk.
As Edwards listens to Dominczyk and prompts him to elaborate further on his bad dreams, his future seems just a bit brighter than everyone else’s. Perhaps he’ll switch over to psychiatry, perhaps he won’t. But just seeing him in a place where he is in control of the treatment provided to his patients, where he no longer has to prove himself to his racist colleagues, is enough to let us bid farewell to The Knick without the need to look back.