If you thought the characters of Cinemax’s hit show The Knick were unhappy, bothered, and bewildered at the finale of the first season, you’ll find them even more so in the premiere of season two, “Ten Knots.” Director Steven Sonderbergh, along with writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, took us into the premiere episode, set in the winter of 1901, as if we’d just seen the finale yesterday. All the characters at the (fictional version of) New York’s The Knickerbocker Hospital were where we had left them: still striving for love, happiness, fame, fortune, prestige, money, sex, and drugs.
When we last saw Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) — daughter of the philanthropist Captain Robertson, who keeps The Knick running — she had just gotten married and was driving away to her honeymoon, looking quite sad. Probably because she loves childhood friend-turned-lover Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), the only “Negro surgeon” at the Knick. Having gotten an abortion after she became pregnant with Algie’s baby, and having been brutally rebuffed by him for doing so, she went ahead with her marriage plans despite obvious misgivings. Furthermore, she and Philip went to San Francisco — against Cornelia’s wishes — to run her father’s business there. Now in San Francisco, Cornelia is trying to continue the community work that she did in New York at The Knick. She is trying to get suspected victims of Bubonic Plague — which exists even today, in arid climates, including in the SW area of the US — food and shelter: they are in a fenced area, as if they were in a cage. Later, Philip tells her that they will be returning to New York because his father has a building with an apartment available for them. Cornelia is delighted to be going back to New York.
Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), who became romantically and sexually involved with drug-addicted Dr. John Thackeray (Clive Owen), is still working at The Knick alongside the heart-broken Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angaro), who loves Lucy himself and had wanted to marry her. Lucy has apparently written many letters to Thack, who is in a treatment center for “cocaine sickness” and being treated with a “Bayer wonder drug” to reduce the withdrawal symptoms of cocaine: heroin. Lucy doesn’t even know if Thack is getting her letters because he has never responded, and he is allowed no visitors. She is depressed and lonely.
A former midwife, Sr. Harriet (Cara Seymour, above L) is in the worst position of any of the women. Despite being coerced into working with ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan, above R) to help women get safe abortions after he caught her performing them, Sr. Harriet apparently went alone to help one woman. The police were waiting. Sr. Harriet — or “Harry,” as Thack and Cleary affectionately call her — is in prison. She is visited by a nun from the orphanage where she herself grew up — the first time we learn that Harry was an orphan — who tells Harry how ashamed she is of what she’s been doing. When Cleary comes to visit, he brings food, and, of course, is much more sympathetic, but it’s also clear that he’s more worried about Harry betraying his involvement in the illegal abortions. She assures him that she will never reveal his part in any of it. But she is depressed and scared: that’s obvious.
At least one of my complaints about Dr. John Thackeray’s (Clive Owen) physical appearance last season has been addressed: Thack is thinner, and it shows in his face. He had far too much weight on him last season to be as addicted as he was supposed to be (when he went into treatment, he was injecting 12 grams of cocaine daily). But he had to kill a patient — by trying to transfuse his own cocaine poisoned blood into an anemic little girl — in order to allow himself to be talked into treatment. Thack, as he is known to some, is still in the treatment center, where he is performing illegal surgeries in exchange for vials of cocaine. So much for the heroin “treatment.” Thack is now addicted to cocaine and heroin. And he’s perfectly happy at the treatment center and has no wish to leave. Ever.
This does not make Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) happy. Without Thack as the Chief of Surgery at The Knick, Gallinger cannot be the Deputy Chief of Surgery. He visits Thack at the treatment center and asks him to return to the hospital. Thack refuses. After all, he has a pretty good thing going there: cocaine in return for plastic surgeries, one of which involved his hitting a screwdriver with a hammer to make a new nostril for a “patient” and putting part of her gold hoop earring under the skin to straighten the nose bridge.
Gallinger really and truly wants to be Deputy Chief of Surgery at The Knick, however, and not under Dr. Edwards, so Gallinger kidnaps Thack and takes him out onto the ocean in Gallinger’s yacht. He plans to “cure” Thack of his addiction by teaching him to tie sailing knots.
As if Gallinger didn’t have enough to worry about with his wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan), who was put into a mental institution after their baby Lillian died, and after Eleanor, in her deranged grief, let an orphan die by smothering it with a bag of ice. She was attempting to “bring down its fever,” as they’d done in the hospital with baby Lillian, whom Everett had unwittingly infected with meningitis. Eleanor, who had all her teeth extracted by the clever doctor at the mental institution, is back at home, with her sister, picking out teeth to replace her own. Teeth from cadavers. What a happy task.
Bertie is inwardly mourning the loss of Lucy to Thack while ignoring her as much as he possibly can, though he and Dr. Edwards are the only surgeons now at The Knick. And when he’s given a doctor in general practice as an assistant for surgery — to lance and drain an abscess — that doctor proves completely inept. In fact, I don’t think the doctor ever lowered his sterilized hands. He just kept holding them up in the air, talking to Bertie as he was trying to do the procedure on his own. Bertie is overwhelmed and unhappy. This might be the opportune time for his father, Dr. Bertram Chickering Sr., who doesn’t want Bertie at The Knick, to convince his son to join him in private practice.
With Thack gone, Dr. Edwards is the Chief of Surgery. He should be happy. He’s openly campaigning to keep the job, assuming that Thack will not return, but the Board isn’t having any of it. Because he’s a “Negro” surgeon. Additionally, it seems all his back alley brawls have detached the retina of one of his eyes. He can’t see well enough to do most of the surgeries, not even with additional light. So he tries to talk Bertie through procedures that Bertie’s never done, without explaining why he wants Bertie to do them. Despite Bertie’s confusion and reluctance, Edwards cannot do the surgeries himself, and he cannot explain why. After all, what good is a Chief of Surgery who cannot see?
The Director — and Chief Embezzler — of The Knick, Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) is still Barrow. Whether he’s participating in the ground-breaking ceremony of the “new” Knick, uptown,
or trying to bargain down his former debt to mobster Bunky Collier, killed by Ping Wu at Barrow’s request (pretending it was Thack’s request), who now “owns” the debt, Barrow is nothing but a thief in a suit. Wheeling, dealing, lying, stealing. This season, however, he might get more than a tooth pulled out if he doesn’t honor his debt or the arrangements he makes with Wu to make sure Wu’s “girls” are clean and that there are no unwanted babies.
• Now that she’s been lured back to New York by a promise from her oh-so-creepy father-in-law, Showalter (Gary Simpson, above, L), who did and said some extremely inappropriate things in her bedroom last season, Cornelia has learned that the apartment is not ready, so she and Phillip will be living with his father for four months. She did not look happy about the prospect of being under the same room as Phillip’s father. I think she’s right to be concerned. Danger, Will Robinson, Danger.• Also, as long as Cornelia and her husband were “safe” in San Francisco, Cornelia and Edwards were prevented from renewing their affair. Now that she’s back in New York, I assume she’ll renew her relationship with The Knick, which her brother is now supervising, and that will bring her into constant contact with Algernon, whom she loves. Slippery slopes ahead for those two.
• A pair of dentures made from the teeth of cadavers don’t seem a likely cure for poor Eleanor. I mean, once you’re deranged by grief, does it just go away because you get a new set of teeth? I think not. And her pretty sister’s presence under the same roof could add complications to the marital relationship if Everett, in his grief, turns to her for comfort while trying to deal with his unhinged wife.
• “My father made me learn to tie all these knots before he let me sail the yacht,” Gallinger tells Thack, whom he’s kidnapped and has tied in the cabin below. Gallinger insists that he won’t return Thack to land until he learns to tie at least the first ten sailing knots. What an innovative “cure” for addiction. If only a treatment like that might work. Poor Gallinger seems to think that good intentions and hard work always pay off, despite his experiences last season, with Dr. Edwards — who got Gallinger’s promotion — with his baby daughter Lillian — whom he inadvertently infected with meningitis, causing her death — and with the orphan Sr. Harriet brought home to Everett and Eleanor as a “replacement” child, and whom Eleanor unintentionally killed. I predict an even bumpier road for Dr. Gallinger this season than he experienced last season.
• Dr. Edwards won’t be able to hide a detached retina long, especially if he actually loses the sight in that eye. Also, Gallinger is not going to give up on his attempt to get the promotion he believes Edwards stole from him. And then there’s the relationship with Cornelia… Algernon has so much to handle already, I don’t know how it could get any worse for him. But it probably will.
• Though I doubt Harry will rat out Cleary, that doesn’t mean things will go well for him. After all, he was intimately involved in getting the patients for Harry (so he could split the fee, 60/40 in his favor). And things do not look like they’ll turn out well for Harry. No post-legalization-of-abortion semantics in this show; no “terminating unwanted pregnancies” or “aborting fetuses in the first trimester” or discussing “the rights of women/mothers.” In this show, in this time period, Harry is a “baby-killer” and no one will look kindly on her at the trial.
• While learning to tie those first ten sailing knots, Thack had an epiphany about his cocaine and heroin addiction: it was a sickness, so he should treat it as he did any other sickness, i.e., find a cure. We know how well that approach works. I don’t predict a return to the treatment center, since, technically, he’s “clean” now, but I do predict more patient deaths and cocaine-induced craziness from the good ol’ Doc Thack once he returns to the Knick, whether it’s downtown or uptown.
• Though Bertie’s already rebuffed Lucy’s attempts to make it up with him, he clearly is still hurting by the fact that she chose Thack over him. That means Bertie still cares for Lucy. After the way Thack treated Lucy at the end of the season last year, combined with his total lack of communication with her while in treatment (which may have been the norm, as it often is today with patients in detox or rehab units), she may rediscover some feelings for Bertie. Solid, reliable, kind-hearted Bertie. Maybe not as exciting at the Thack, but attentive and loving enough to cause her to get emotionally caught between the two men.
Cinemax’s The Knick is one of the best shows on television. Watch it Fridays at 10pm ET. Intensively researched, well written and directed, excellently acted, The Knick is one of the lights in the darkness known as TV-Land.
The Knick, Season 1, Revisited
(contains links to all blogs from Season 1, and summary of show)