Look on the bright side. It’s not 1900 and you probably don’t have syphilis… or if you do, at least your nose hasn’t fallen off. The Knick kind of likes to revel in how miserable life could be at the turn of the 20th Century (for rich and for poor) and, as if to prove that point, Dr. Thackery’s old flame Abigail Alford (Jennifer Ferrin) shows up at the beginning of episode 3 with a hole where her nose used to be.
As Thackery pokes and prods the crater in her face and describes to her the rather horrible and difficult process of grafting a flap of skin from her arm to her nose, Abigail gives us a few more glimpses into Thackery’s romantic past and personality. He was her first love, blah blah blah, but his dedication to his work was too crazy-making, yadda yadda yadda, and she chose to marry a more stable, less exciting fellow… who gave her the raging case of syphilis that destroyed her nose (cue Price is Right losing horn). It’s pretty obvious character development of Thackery as a man who chose work over love and has hardened into a lonely, bitter man. It’s this kind of unsubtle, kind of predictable writing that has been The Knick’s main weakness so far, but Seven Soderbergh (as director and as cinematographer “Peter Andrews”) orchestrates and shoots the whole thing with such subtle energy and class that it all seems much smarter than it really is.
It helps too that he’s got a terrific actor like Clive Owen to play the junkie doctor. John Thackery is another in a lengthening line of wretched, self-loathing, unlikable male leads on TV and it’s tempting (if way too obvious) to compare him to Mad Men’s Don Draper. Owen is potentially more interesting though. Jon Hamm’s a fine actor, but because he’s so ridiculously handsome and charming, it’s almost impossible not to at least empathize with Draper even when he’s being a shit. At Don’s worst, there still seems to be a decent man inside him who is just trapped by his demons. Owen on the other hand has a much darker and colder edge. He’s equally handsome, but that just makes it sting even more when he belches out some bit of noxious assholery to someone who mostly probably doesn’t deserve it. I think it would be more interesting if Thackery remains that way. Let him remain miserable despite being clearly given every gift and advantage in life. Don’t explain away his loathsomeness because so far the most interesting thing about him is whether he really is that big of a jerk or if he’s just navigating the tricky waters of a man in 1900 who is slightly ahead of his time.
Alas, that route probably leads to the show’s eventual cancellation (though it’s already been renewed for another season) so it’s not too much of a surprise that most of this episode seemed to want to point us in the direction of Thackery not being that bad of a guy after all. First there was his glimpse of back story, da then there was his upbraiding of the obnoxious nurse during the surgery on Abigail’s nose (much to the delight of Nurse Hawkins who herself has felt the wrath of Thackery but seems to have a thing for him anyway). Finally, a pep talk from Nurse Hawkins following the relatively successful surgery seemed to inspire him to perform another surgery on a perforated bowel he’d initially declined because even the best possible outcome would result in a difficult, unpleasant life for the young patient.
So, we know Thackery isn’t completely heartless. The question remains whether he’s a terrible racist. Three episodes in, he’s still bluntly resistant to having black surgeon Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) foisted upon him. Does The Knick have the nerve to present us with a racist heroic lead? It’s possible he doesn’t have any personal antipathy toward blacks and he’s just correctly assuming that his colleagues and patients will mutiny if he welcomes Dr. Edwards with open arms and there are already hints the show is moving in that direction. Yet, it’s only when it becomes absolutely clear that his colleague Dr. Gallinger is unable to perform an experimental new procedure originally proposed by Dr. Edwards (and on which Edwards himself co-authored a paper) that Thackery reluctantly agrees to let Edwards assist. To Edwards’ irritation, Thackery has no intention of letting the black surgeon actually touch a patient, merely to talk Gallinger through it. It’s not really clear at this point where Thackery’s true feelings lie and it’s these rough edges that make him interesting. I hope The Knick isn’t too quick to smooth them out.
On the bright side, there’s Dr. Edwards who incidentally we learn in this episode is the son of the maid of the hospital’s benefactor. He’s apparently not going to simply be the earnest and talented black surgeon who turns the other cheek while going about his job saving lives. In this episode, he ramps up his secret clinic in the boiler room complete with staff, but pretty soon it’s obvious he’s wading into a tide of poverty and racism that are likely more than he can handle. This realization combined with the continued professional snubs he receives at the hands of his white colleagues is starting to get to him. In the episode’s final (and best) moments, Edwards drunkenly picks a fight with a random stranger in a bar and then proceeds to beat the hell out of him in an alley. Soderbergh shoots the fight with a woozy, hallucinatory camera style and the scene is punctuated by more of Cliff Martinez’s terrifically anachronistic synthesizer score. Even as Dr. Thackery seems to be softening, Dr. Edwards is potentially getting richer and more challenging. The darkness of this is particularly jarring because, up to this point, Edwards has been one of the most rootable characters on the show.
In between the Thackery/Edwards bookends meanwhile, we’re treated to some business with a nun (Cara Seymour) possibly involved in racket to sell orphan babies. Also, we find Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bob) getting pressured by his once-rich wife for money and selling one of the hospital’s cadavers for money to pay off his debts, all before hiring a prostitute (Rachel Korine) and giving her his wife’s pearl earrings as she performs “The Busy Flea” for him…. a striptease act which gives the episode its name. I think this scene was meant to be a watercooler moment, but so far Barrow’s storyline is the most predictable and least interesting and it doesn’t quite work.
Overall, “The Busy Flea” wasn’t as strong as The Knick’s terrific second episode and there are troubling signs it might not live up to the full potential it’s shown so far, but it still had some great moments, especially the finale.