'The Knick': Can the Pig Be Less of a Swine?

Cara Seymour and Chris Sullivan in The Knick season 1 episode 4

[This is a review of The Knick season 1, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]


The titular hospital of The Knick is a place driven largely by want. The patients want to be treated and they want to live. The doctors want to keep their patients alive by treating them properly.

But in that want, there is another deeper want that propels individuals like Dr. Thackery and Dr. Edwards. It is the desire not only to treat patients, but also to be better than anyone else in doing so. And in order to do that, they have to take opportunities where they can get them, even if it means gambling with a man's life while his chest is splayed open in the operating theater, or manipulating the heart of a dead woman, purely as an educational exercise.

And yet, as much of the goings-on in the Knickerbocker Hospital are naturally of the medical variety, The Knick is ostensibly more concerned with what motivates its characters to step into the operating theater, to set up their own after-hours clinic in the bowels of the hospital, or to be a nun who administers abortions to young women in need. It is all driven by very specific wants – for themselves and sometimes for others – and in 'Where's the Dignity?,' the series more or less reaches into its characters' chests to root around for their heart's desires.

It's a chance to dig deeper into the perspectives of the more ancillary characters like Nurse Elkins, Sister Harriet, and even Bertie and the tetchy Mr. Tom Cleary, as well as provide some continuing insight into larger players, like Thackery and Edwards. And although the episode is often clunky and the script too obvious at times, it does at least attempt to explore what the various longings mean for certain relationships, especially as many of them enter into a transformative phase.

Andre Holland and Grainger Hines in The Knick season 1 episode 4

With that in mind, the throughline for the episode is established relatively quickly, as Dr. Edwards withholds information on a procedure that's already in progress until he's allowed in to do the work himself. The end result is Edwards saves a man's life, establishes his surgical prowess amongst those who don't respect him, and winds up with a black eye for his trouble.

Ultimately, that's all surface stuff, as 'Where's the Dignity?' winds up giving everyone else a black eye by again underlining the deplorable racism of the time. Weaving in a social message is often what's expected of a period drama such as this, and The Knick has had some success being subtler of its delivery in the past. But here the gloves come off, and the script winds up tripping over itself with some labored lines of dialogue, like Thackery's mention of his father's Union Army sword, all to set up a clever retort by Edwards that's so obvious it doesn't exactly do the character or the scene any good.

And the hits keep on coming, as Edwards is forced to endure an uncomfortable social gathering at the house of Captain Robertson (Grainger Hines), where an entrepreneurs discuss with the doctor the merits of using "free" labor, while using the pyramids as an example. The prickliness of the dinner party, and the idea that an individual's worth is measured by superficial constructs, is used to further establish the relationship between Cornelia and Algernon. By introducing Cornelia's fiancé and his plans to take her to San Francisco without first discussing it with her, the connection between the two is made clearer, as it attempts to go beyond what may well be the sublimated feelings they have for one another.

Eve Hewson fares somewhat better. She spends much of the episode silently reacting to an influx of information, as her arc expands to further explore her growing fascination with Dr. Thackery. The subtlety of her performance, the slight adjustments she makes in her facial expressions – like the smile that breaks when she's acknowledged by Thackery in the episode's closing – articulates where her character is at far better than some of the more overt elements undertaken by the episode.

Clive Owen in The Knick season 1 episode 4

With that, the conflation of Sister Harriet and Tom Cleary's threads lands somewhere in the middle. By blending the characters' empathy with their other desires, and centering it on as contentious a topic as abortion, the script services some underdeveloped characters as much as it does its desire to thematically link the story of the Russian immigrant woman's lack of choice to Algernon and Cornelia's thread.

In doing so, Cleary and Harriet become fascinating contradictions, a kind of 60/40 split of desire driven by compassion and the need to turn a quick buck suggesting Cleary's not all bad, and he's not the only one who could do with being a little less of a swine.

While it stumbles around in a few places and makes some regrettable choices in dialogue, 'Where's the Dignity?' is at least commendable for working so hard to define the narrative's core relationships as well as the characters in them. It may not get as many style points as the episodes that have come before it, but in the long run, the benefits of establishing stronger associations amongst this particular group of characters will likely prove that inelegance to have been worth it.

The Knick continues next Friday with 'They Capture the Heat' @10pm on Cinemax.

Photos: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

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