In the world of The Knickerbocker hospital, Dr. Algernon Edwards is seen as either an exotic creature from parts unknown, or something abhorrent to be dismissed out of hand. So while Dr. Chickering wants to pick his brain about the “wild” part of town where the black community lives, the mother of the child Dr. Edwards is tending to would like him to stop touching her little girl so much. As for the fellow tenants of the boarding house where the good doctor resides—they want to know who the hell he thinks he is.
Viewed from a distance of 114 years, all those interactions feel downright deplorable, fictional though they are. But that’s what makes the decision to write a black doctor into the story such an interesting one; we are given a stark look at race relations, which might have been otherwise ignored on another show.
It’s so bad within the hospital that Chickering and Dr. Gallinger break into a library of medical journals to find a paper that Edwards co-authored as a student in Paris about a new procedure that could save the lives of patients with heart conditions. At the boarding house, Edwards has to fight with a fellow tenant who views the doctor as uppity. It’s a fight the good doctor wins handily, and he even leaves his combatant with a bottle of pain pills for his trouble.
More importantly, Edwards decides to provide a crucial bridge between the hospital and the rest of the black community. After he sees a patient get turned away and sent to the “Negro hospital” across town, he tracks the woman down and brings her to the basement of the Knick for treatment. She immediately asks if he can help out her ailing brother, and the light bulb goes off in Edwards’ mind. He will start treating other black patients from his underground offices.
Speaking of light bulbs, the other storyline in this second episode revolves around electricity. Last week, Dr. Thackery only agreed to let Edwards take the job of assistant chief surgeon because the hospital’s benefactors threatened to shut off the power if he didn’t. Call it a literal and figurative power move.
Trouble is that the electricity is faulty because the hospital director Herman Barrow is unwilling to pay what’s needed to get the job done right. This opens the door not only to tragedy as a young nurse gets electrocuted when trying to pour water on an electrical fire, but also serious concerns about Barrow’s handling of money. He already owes a healthy amount to a loan shark (played with scene chewing brio, NY theater vet Danny Hoch) and is being bled dry by the ambulance drivers, and other needy folks. He pleas for more time to collect the cash, and winds up getting a tooth forcibly extracted for his trouble.
The only storyline that I’m still not entirely sold on revolves around Sister Harriet, the nun in charge of the maternity ward and orphanage on the grounds of the Knick. The ambulance driver who has taken a weird shine to the holy sister sees her in plain clothes on the street, and follows her to a tenement where she is to perform an abortion. The dichotomy of the clergywoman doing such unholy deeds seems a little too convenient for a show that has otherwise been so smart and careful with the drawing of its characters. It could yet yield some interesting dramatic moments, but for now I remain entirely suspicious.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.