[This is a review of The Knick season 1, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]
In March of 2012, Richard Norris became something of a media sensation and an example of how far medicine and surgical techniques and procedures had come in the last century. As the victim of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound that left him without a face, Norris had been living a reclusive life, one reportedly devoid of most human interaction that was also intermittently filled with surgeries sadly reminiscent of the one performed by Dr. Thackery on his former lover Abigail Alford in episode 3 of The Knick.
As with Thackery's attempt to fashion some kind of appendage to replace the nose Abigail had lost after contracting syphilis from her unfaithful husband, Norris' own skin from his forearms and legs was used to construct makeshift approximations of the features that simply were no longer there. The procedures were a mere stopgap; they corrected his appearance to a certain degree, but failed to make his visage whole. A true solution required science and medicine to make a leap forward, to advance a technique that was new to even the most skilled surgeons.
And so, 112 years removed from the period in which The Knick takes place, and after a grueling 36-hour facial transplant procedure, Norris had been given a whole new lease on life.
While that span of time means little will likely be done to give Abigail back the face she lost to a highly stigmatized disease, the comparison of what medicine can achieve now as opposed to then is in keeping with the way The Knick utilizes its time period to such a precise degree, making the audience's awareness of the scientific and social limitations of the era paramount to what it is trying to achieve narratively and visually.
As such, episode 3 is a busy one, a fact that only tangentially has to do with its title, which, as we find out, refers to a silly striptease that seems to take Herman Barrow's mind off his financial, marital, and dental problems for just a few precious minutes.
In that sense, 'The Busy Flea' is all about distraction. Amongst the two primary plots at play, the episode takes time to highlight its characters finding small, simple pleasures to offset the hurried, sometimes desperate nature of the episode and their lives. These tiny distractions either inform greatly on a character, or they serve to reinforce what is already known, while presenting it from a slightly different angle.
Following the introduction of Barrow’s wife, Effie, her asking him for money, and the way in which Herman is forced to respond – or acquiesce to her request in order to keep the family's financial insolvency hidden – reveals a heap of information about Barrow's character. He is a man of simple pleasure – there's nothing too complicated about the young woman he’s with and her performance of “The Busy Flea” – but it'ss pleasure he (literally) cannot afford to indulge in.
It is Barrow, Thackery, and Edwards’ varying needs that allows their indulgences to offer so much insight into their characters. As Barrow offers his wife's pearl earrings to his young lover, his perception of the inherent value of a thing, an individual, and his relationship to both is revealed. In fact, the look on his face when the woman reciprocates his gift is not far removed from Thackery's perceptible pleasure in finding a viable vein in his forearm.
Moments like these are brilliantly contrasted by Dr. Edwards' experience with a hernia patient who dies after returning to work, rather than convalesce as his doctor prescribed. The differing experiences of Thackery and Barrow, in comparison to Edwards’ – especially the pleasure both men are able to conjure for themselves in otherwise hectic contexts – add another level to the disparity of Edwards’ circumstances, beyond simply depicting the conditions he’s been forced to make do with.
Therefore, it’s unsurprising that when Edwards finds himself looking for a little release at the end of the episode, it comes exploding out of him in the form of violence. But the way in which Soderbergh films the action in disorienting angles and with cameras affixed to the character, and then edits it in a disjointed, halting, clipped manner, is as far from the expected as anything else that was seen throughout the hour.
What's most intriguing about 'The Busy Flea,' then, isn't the graphic nature of Abigail's facial deterioration, or that, during her examination, Thackery did not hesitate to rub her nose (so to speak) in the fact that she chose another man over him. Instead, it was the way in which The Knick established how it has developed over the course of just three episodes.
Episode 3 may be the most compelling so far, but in many ways, it is also the most self-aware. That awareness demonstrates how, even though the series is interested in exploring the ways in which the limitations of a certain era impact and influence people differently, it doesn’t necessarily have to limit the tools a filmmaker like Soderbergh has at his disposal in order to depict the era.
The Knick continues on Friday, September 5, with 'Where's the Dignity' @10pm on Cinemax.
Photos: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax