[This is a review of The Knick season 1, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS]
As mentioned by the pharmaceutical huckster played by Tom Papa, Dr. John Thackery is no longer a man who exudes "a convincing air of healthful vitality." The war in the Philippines has left much of the U.S. without a supply of various narcotics; namely, the cocaine Thackery uses as part of his unbalanced diet. This leaves the resident surgeon of The Knick on a desperate hunt for anything to ease his symptoms of withdrawal and, as we see, it also leads to a surprising response of assistance from those able to do so.
Throughout much of the episode, Thackery is not far removed from the sweaty, twitchy mess he was at the end of last week's 'Working Late a Lot.' It's a striking look that's not particularly pleasing, but it is fascinating to see Owen's lip curl underneath that mustache of his, while his eyes are seemingly busy penetrating the wall just beyond the audience's field of vision. There is a palpable sense of desperation in the opening sequence wherein Thackery breaks into a pharmacy in the wee hours of the morning, searching for some relief.
It's a simple scene, one that audiences have experienced some version of time and again. An addict, frantically in search of his next fix, throws caution to the wind, risks everything for release from his pain and winds up on the floor of a pharmacy, a syringe between his toes, and a policeman's light shining in his face. But with Soderbergh behind the camera, it can be appreciated on another level. Lit only by a few faint lights from the street outside and a match held by Clive Owen, there's a seedy single-mindedness to it that says all it needs to with the proximity of the match's flame to Thackery's fingertips.
Despite his paranoia and desperation, there's a charge to watching Thackery hole up in his brownstone, accepting Lucy Elkins only after she first acquires salt water from Barrow – courtesy of Bunky Collier – then performs the titular Golden Lotus for Ping Wu in exchange for some opium and $100, which she wisely keeps for herself.
If last week's episode was the long-awaited glimpse into the mind of John Thackery, then 'The Golden Lotus' is an extension of Lucy's final scene in 'Get the Rope.' But it's also a reflection of how, despite all evidence to the contrary, she's quite a lot like Thackery – or, at the very least, she has similar interests. By the time Lucy steals the drugs from the German hospital, it's clear she's willing to do anything, to risk almost anything, for John to have what he needs and wants. And yet, as she and Thackery shoot up and tumble on the floor (as lovers are wont to do) Lucy's actions begin to take on an air of self-interest that illustrate how Thackery isn't pushing a drug on her anymore; he's become the instrument by which she can continue to gain the satisfaction she craves.
In that sense, 'The Golden Lotus' is more than Dr. Thackery playing in some bizarre early-20th century version of an Irvine Welsh novel. At its heart, the episode is about relationships; specifically the damage people do to one another in the process of overcoming tremendous personal obstacles. Think of Nurse Elkins, Gallinger, and Edwards as swimmers treading the choppy waters of their partner's complicated lives: As events dictate – and in drama they always do – each and every one is faced with a choice of allowing themselves to be pulled under, or pushing back and just maybe finding a small patch of dry land.
There's plenty to suggest Lucy is just fine with being swept away with Thackery, but the same is certainly not true for Dr. Gallinger or Dr. Edwards. There is tremendous weight to the events in both men's lives, even though they're drawn up and handled so differently. Gallinger's loss of yet another child – this time by the hands of his mentally ill wife Eleanor – occurs almost entirely off-screen. Soderbergh only provides a glimpse of the poor child, while treating Eleanor being carted off by John Hodgman with great care, allowing Cliff Martinez's score to be the only sound that's heard: taking a complicated moment and rendering it down to the scene's chief emotional components.
The trouble is, Gallinger's woes have begun to feel a little like misery heaped upon misery for sake of dragging an unlikable character through the muck. It will be worth it if he comes through his experiences a changed man, but so far, Everett hasn't been around enough this season for these events to be impactful for anything more than the shock of losing two children in such awful ways. The moment asks you to ponder the extent of the damage done to Everett and Eleanor, and that's a good thing, considering how the show needs to find a way to get the audience thinking about its underdeveloped characters.
That question pops up again when Cornelia asks Algernon to abort their child, adding to the throughline of characters suffering, largely due to circumstances out of their control. Of all the sinking relationships on display, however, Cornelia's fear of raising a child that would never be accepted and Algernon's reflexive, doctor-like attempts to correct the issue – going so far as to suggest a move to Liberia – perhaps resonates deepest within the series' established themes.
The Knick concludes season 1 next Friday with 'Crutchfield' @10pm on Cinemax.
Photos: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax