[This is a review of The Knick season 1, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Near the end of the series premiere, Dr. Edwards was taken by Dr. Thackery's surgical ingenuity after seeing him successfully repair a man's bowels with a tool of his own design. It was a tad unorthodox, somewhat reckless, and, considering Thackery likely had more cocaine in his system than the blissfully unaware patient lying on the operating table, quite hazardous.
But it was also unprecedented. And so, despite facing immense racial prejudice and finding himself remanded to the hospital's basement, Edwards responded, "I'm not leaving this circus until I've learned everything you have to teach."
Since that time, The Knick has devoted a portion of its run – now halfway through the first season – to providing some kind of commentary on the disparity between Thackery and Edwards' situations. They are equally skilled in their professions. A great many lives will be saved, or simply made better, and tremendous advancements in medical science may even one day emerge as a result of their work.
And yet both are handicapped by difficulties that otherwise stymie what may be their untapped potential; one is the result of a prejudicial society and the other the result of personal choice.
The not-so-vague intimation, then, is that if only these two minds could come together, if they could find a way to bridge the divide between them, real progress could be made.
However, even as The Knick sees fit to make such allusions about the similarities between Thackery and Edwards in 'They Capture the Heat,' the more it develops a story around Algernon, it becomes more obvious how distant the depiction of Thackery has been up to this point. Moreover, with the exception of Algernon and the many continuing misfortunes of Herman Barrow, the series has only occasionally looked behind the curtain of the public facades that comprise the denizens of the Knick.
To that end, given the series' penchant for recreating horrific surgical scenes, it sometimes feels as though we know more about what's going on inside the nameless, soon-to-be-dead patients than we do those who comprise the ensemble. It can be limiting from a storytelling standpoint, but it also seems to serve a narrative function in that these characters must have distance from their patients in order to perform their jobs – lest they end up like Dr. Christiansen.
On the other hand, the confounding psychic distance between the audience and the ensemble reduces some of the characters to a series of motions and experiences. Things occur, and yet the impact of the experience either remains on the surface or it winds up being delivered via an equally undefined proxy – i.e., Nurse Elkins.
The result, as evidenced by last week's clumsy-but-not-without-value 'Where's the Dignity?' is that The Knick can sometimes be distracted by its desire to moralize through hindsight or to build a story through a series of happenings without necessarily providing a semblance of significance.
Occasionally, the scripts have been surface-level in their examination of the characters, as if the significance of the series lies entirely in the fact that surgical procedures are being shown in tremendous detail, or that addiction and acts of abhorrent racism were being depicted onscreen, leaving its characters to be defined by their actions and reactions, rather than an examination of what those mean to them.
Therefore, much of what has been explored has felt somewhat distant and matter of fact. But it is also those things in a way that only Soderbergh can make dramatic and gratifying. And at times, the deliberate remoteness has made certain circumstances surprisingly compelling, as was the case with 'They Capture the Heat.'
Throughout the episode, there is a pervasive sense that characters, not unlike the titular heat, are caught or ensnared in some fashion – by their vices, debts, positions, race, gender, etc. – and they are all stuck looking for some kind of escape from that which holds them back.
Answers are not terribly forthcoming, but the suggestion seems to be that freedom will be the byproduct of these individuals comprehending their situations as they engage in increasingly deeper and more meaningful interactions with those around them – as is the case in Thackery and Nurse Elkins (and her bike), as well as Cleary and Sister Harriet.
Thackery may be something of a cipher, but his growing interaction with Nurse Elkins and his unspoken rivalry with Edwards is slowly accumulating layers of complexity where previously there weren't many. The opening procedure to save the leg of one of Bunky Collier's pimps is little more than an exercise in ego for Thackery, but his failure to save a woman and her unborn child in a placenta previa procedure – similar to the one in the premiere – leaves him shaken and possibly seeking the distraction he finds in Lucy and her blue bicycle.
At another point in the episode, Thackery is taken with another distraction: this time he displays a hint of desire to humiliate Edwards by hastily performing an unsophisticated procedure to burst a cyst on his mother's kidney. The act in and of itself is not much, but it reveals something about what motivates Thackery and what he takes pleasure from that helps to round out his character a little more.
Although 'They Capture the Heat' is primarily focused on the dividends an increased interaction between Thackery and Edwards will provide, the exploration of circumstances dictating need furthers the storylines of Cornelia, Harrow, and even Dr. Gallinger in small ways as well.
And while The Knick is still a bit of a circus built around a large group of characters it doesn't entirely seem to know what to do with, episodes like this help to better define them and point toward individual arcs that factor more concretely in the overall narrative.
The Knick continues next Friday with 'Start Calling Me Dad' @10pm on Cinemax.
Photos: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax