It almost seems unfair to the acting and writing of The Knick to keep harping on about Steven Soderbergh’s work behind the camera and the use of the editing software on his laptop. But, as so many people have been pointing out over the past few weeks, and in the months leading up to this second season, this show would be remarkably different—and potentially worse—without it.
I point you to a few key scenes in last night’s episode involving Cornelia for proof. All of them take place with her sitting at a long wooden table. In the first, the camera moves slowly around the room as a gaggle of society women discuss the decorations for some function. It stops near Cornelia as she looks off into the distance, visibly bored and disengaged with the discussion of color coordination. It frames her unspoken emotion that she is technically a part of this world, but completely removed from it. Her ambitions are much grander.
The next time we see her at a table, she is lunching with her parents and, much to her surprise, Algernon and his heretofore hidden wife. As the conversation pleasantly carries on, the camera stays on Cornelia, slowly zooming in as we are forced to focus completely on her despondent face as she realizes that she may have just lost her last, best chance at reconciling with her former lover.
It’s devastating, but not so much as her next dinner engagement with her in-laws. Philip has to tell Cornelia that he’s going to be gone for a month on a business trip. He doesn’t offer this news freely, but is instead instructed to do so by his dad. As the scene progresses, we suddenly realize that we haven’t seen the elder Showalter’s face at all, even though he is the key element of this discussion. Instead, we look only on Philip as he registers his deep understanding that he knows what he’s leaving his wife behind to face, and Cornelia’s poorly masked terror. That expression is even deeper seconds later when the shot gets framed to nearly drown her out by a big black swathe of her father-in-law’s suit.
If you were to mute the sound in those three sequences, you’d still get every nuance of emotion and know exactly what’s going on here. There’s a very real chance of Cornelia’s strong will and free spirit getting shattered and snuffed out by both societal mores and forces that are entirely out of her control. It’s like a horror movie that we have to white knuckle it through, knowing that she is more than likely doomed.
Soderbergh’s mastery doesn’t end there. While the scene of Algernon and his wife heading out to an all-black bar is damn near ruined by him dramatically announcing, “This is Harlem!” the director saves the entire affair. The fractious couple, over the course of the night, start growing closer, aided by drink and a few turns on the dancefloor. As they dance and imbibe, they share a charming little conversation about how he’s getting gray hair because he suffers from the disease known as aging. Soderbergh keeps the energy of that obvious spark between the two fully active by cutting between the pair two-stepping to the music and sitting down at a table. But here’s the trick: as he does these edits, their conversation goes on uninterrupted. Algernon starts a sentence on the dancefloor and then finishes it in his chair. I’m undoubtedly taking the magic out of this scene by describing it like I am, but for all the breathtaking moments that we’ve been treated to in The Knick, this is, by far, the greatest of them.
The other element that connects all of these scenes above is that they lie almost completely removed from the main storylines that the writers are pushing forth throughout the rest of the hour. In fact, all the scenes that stuck out in this week’s episode were entirely tangential: Bertie losing his virginity in a whorehouse, Henry proving to be a budding pornographer as he asks his lady friend to undress while he films her, Lucy seeking solace in a conversation with Sister Harriet, and, most of all, Dr. Mays accidentally setting himself on fire in the middle of a surgery.
These are obviously there to provide the shading and color to the episode, but they start dominating the canvas in a big way. I’m caring very little about Herman getting forced to deal with Tammany Hall as he tries to continue his grafting of the new hospital construction, or Dr. Gallinger’s budding interest in eugenics, or Dr. Thackery’s attempts to find a cure for addiction.
Even the stories that did raise my interest in tonight’s episode, including Thackery’s dramatic healing of his ex-girlfriend’s syphilis, and Tom using his influence over a group of society ladies to get Harriet’s case dismissed, were almost not enough to keep me engaged. So let us once again praise the construction of each episode and those devilish little interludes, for the show would surely be lost without them.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter.