In some ways, you have to admire the social conscience of The Knick. The creators and writers for the show Jack Amiel and Michael Begler dare to tackle a number of hot button issues from racism and inequality based on gender and wealth, to the abortion debate and the shady dealings of the pharmaceutical industry. It can be terribly heavy-handed at times, but they are proving out that for as many advances the world has made in the nearly 115 years since the setting of the series, we are still very much spinning our wheels, socially speaking.
All of those topics swirled around this week’s episode, but none were more potently rendered than the closing scene that took place in the home of The Robertsons, the benefactors of The Knickerbocker. As Cornelia settled herself in for the night, she received a terrifying visit from her future father-in-law, and current business partner with her father. His eyes moving over her body with lust, he oozed out underhanded messages of how much he is looking forward to the “rewards and pleasures” to be had with this union. And he kept insisting that, as the title suggest, she call him Dad.
I’m still getting nauseated thinking about it, but have to marvel at how Steven Soderbergh constructed the scene. The room stayed dimly lit, covered in shadows and red reflecting off the wallpaper. He shot the actors up close so you could see the naked desire in his eyes and the desperate fear in hers. And the ambient noise of every creak of the floor, and shifting of fabric in the clothes seemed amplified. Another example of just what a masterful director Soderbergh really is.
Speaking of mastery, we got another glimpse into just how good Clive Owen can be—and another reminder of how unfortunate it is that he hasn’t been showered with awards for his work. As the episode begins, Thackery has called Dr. Chickering to the hospital in the middle of the night. The chief of surgery has had a breakthrough in his experiments on placenta previa cases, and needs help conducting experiments on a couple of prostitutes that he’s brought into the pathology lab. Throughout the scene, he’s excitable, almost manic in his glee that he might have the solution, and potentially coked out of his gourd having spent two nights working on a way to slow the internal bleeding of a pregnant woman. Credit as well goes to Michael Angarano for maintaining Chickering’s delight and hesitance, and a little bit of worry in the face of this whirlwind of energy.
On the opposite side of the episode, we got to see the other shade of Owen’s acting triumphs in this show when he stumbles upon the secret clinic that Dr. Edwards has been holding in the hospital’s sub-basement. His fury is palpable and, frankly, a little scary to watch. But it turns into begrudging respect once he sees what Edwards has been doing—modifying a vacuum machine to aid in the suction of blood, and putting together a new procedure for treating hernia patients. By the scene’s end, he knows his hand has been forced because he has to either invite Edwards into the “lilywhite world of the operating theater” (as the young doctor put it) or risk losing these innovations to another hospital. Owen plays all these emotional shifts so subtly that you somehow feel the impact of the moments that much harder.
But this episode also suggests that Amiel and Begler simply don’t seem to trust the intelligence of the viewers. As the health inspector and Miss Robertson seek out Mary Mallon, the cook who has been potentially infecting all the upper class households of New York with typhoid, they actually have Inspector Speight say the words, “Where are you, Typhoid Mary?” Why spell it out for us in such bold letters? Give us all a little credit that we can put two and two together on the historical friend, gents.
Still, now that we are deep into the storylines of all these characters—understanding their morality and talents and failings, and learning some of their histories—this episode feels like a perfect step forward for the series. Even with the occasionally shaky writing, they are making it very hard to turn away from this singular show.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.