It’s incredibly frustrating when a once-great television show seems to stumble along the way. Last week, The Knick took a step back from its series forward momentum and spent the hour growing the characters and giving us time to wallow in the period detail. This week’s episode, “They Capture the Heat,” takes a similar leisurely approach, but, this time, the delay gives the opportunity to ponder the direction (or misdirection) of the series.
First and foremost, the episode criminally underuses Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), a once fascinating and important character who, at least in this episode, has been relegated to attractive window dressing. Cornelia’s initial involvement in the series was to take the place of her father on the board of the Knickerbocker hospital. There, she enforced the controversial hiring of Dr. Algernon Edwards and oversaw the introduction of electric light.
This week, she had the important task of notifying Edwards that his mother was in pain, suffering from a cyst on her kidney.
The Knick has few strong female roles, so the reduction of her presence in the overall story is strongly felt. The show hasn’t really provided a strong sparring partner against Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackery save Dr. Thackery himself, and it would be a strong, more compelling show if Cornelia’s role were more consistent, potentially serving as his foil.
Instead, we focus on hospital manager Herman Barrow whose entangling alliance to local mobsters takes the foreground. Indebted due to money lost in the recent stock market crash, Barrow buries his troubles in the naked breast of a hooker, this being cable TV after all. He then partners with a policeman interested in taking young prostitutes off the street and indentures them to the mobster / pimp, the highlight of this section being the surgery to repair the mobster’s henchman’s gunshot leg.
Barrow’s vastly more interesting story is his persistence in raising funds to purchase an X-ray machine, providing equipment to make The Knick a more competitive hospital. Consistently dipping into the mobster / prostitution storyline takes away from the nuts and bolts of running the hospital, something I’d imagine director Steven Soderbergh would have focused on more. Better yet, why not have Cornelia pursue the X-ray funding from her wealthy father over Barrow? It would have provided a more compelling direction for the series.
Edwards also seems stuck in a bizarre rut, given more scenes than other characters but all of them amounting to either the racism of the era (Barrow and Thackery share a stiff drink without offering Edwards the opportunity to drink from the flask) or his belowground surgeries on the ethnic and poor. This week, he fixes a hernia using a silver thread fashioned from his pocket watch, seemingly favorably contrasting with yet another failed attempt by Thackery at saving a pregnancy in jeopardy through c-section.
More positive forward momentum happens with nurse Lucy Elkins as she continues to develop her relationship with Dr. Thackery. At the end of the episode, she teaches him how to ride her bicycle in a simple, heartfelt demonstration of a charming personality within Thackery. It’s a good shift in her character, providing more for her to do than stand in the background and smile. Still, one hopes that this budding relationship doesn’t put Elkins in the category of “the woman who tries to save Thackery.”
Speaking of budding relationships, the growing partnership between ambulance driver Cleary and Sister Harriet is one of the greatest pleasures the show has to offer thus far. Under the agreement to help women in trouble, Cleary brings Sister Harriet to a woman who is seven months pregnant. Unable to preform the procedure, Sister Harriet joins Cleary at a bar for a pint or three – a nice scene showing the characters naturally relate to each other in a manner similar to Thackery’s bike lesson. Despite the abortion overtones, the friendship between the two characters feels well defined and appropriately nourished.
I could imagine a spin-off show in which Cleary and Sister Harriet travel around the country, solving crimes and performing abortions along the way.
All kidding aside, The Knick feels like a show infatuated with itself – particularly its era and the subsequent medical practices. It’s taking time to world build and grow its characters. But, lately, it’s felt stagnant, without momentum. I have never minded a show that takes time to smell the roses along the way, but, eventually, it has to have a destination, an end for the journey.
The rest of the season is in the can, of course, so one only hopes the remainder of the season and season two can correct these problems. At this point, the show’s destination appears clouded, fogged by its own ambition.