“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Philosophers ranging from the upper echelons of academia to a small child coming to terms with what this life has to offer, have, for as long as time immemorial, pondered the question: What are we?
In the world of The Knick, historical fantasy allows us to delve into the innards of the hearts and minds, and even the guts of the characters who muddle their way through the first years of the 20th century. But for all our knowledge of what’s to come about in the context of world events and scientific advancements, the second season’s finale “This Is All We Are” reminds us that we are tragically confined to the present, forever stuck behind one pair of eyes, looking to the future and finding our own problems reflected back to us, blurry as they may be.
Dr. Thackery is bleeding to death.
Susan: Herman Barrow’s financially vampiric tendencies lead “Local Man” Jimmy and “The Most Monotone” detective in New York City to believe he was the one who started the fire at the new Knick that was responsible for the death of Captain August Robertson.
The Janus-faced Barrow is hounded by the fuzz, even in the privacy of the lavatory of the prestigious Metropolitan Club, of which he has just become a member; the scene plays out with Barrow facing expansive mirrors with his reflection from both sides reminding us what a two-faced scoundrel he really is.
However, he did not set the construction site ablaze, nor does the fire benefit his pocketbook. There will be no Uptown Knick, and there very well might be an investigation. He panics and signs over his assets to the bon-bon popping Junia. “What in the glory-fuck-hole are you doing?!” seems to be the only appropriate response to this course of action given that it’s obvious Junia’s going to take the money and run at some point.
After one of the affluent club members intervenes and has the detective drop the case and apologize to Barrow, it seems as though Hermie has wormed his way out of trouble once again. However, he may have gotten a final course of just desserts when we see — what one can only guess — the symptoms of syphilis on his spotted hands.
Peter: Barrow’s inevitable comeuppance via sexual infection is perfect. The man has been toxic since we were first introduced to him in season one at Dr. Christiansen’s funeral, and since then we have seen him taken apart by his insatiable greed. At first I thought he would actually be sent to prison for an arson he didn’t commit, which would have been less satisfying than the terrible fate that lies ahead of him. There is a thematic resonance in the prospect of Barrow having his nose fall off that reminds me of the season one removal of his molars.
For Barrow to fall apart while Junia bleeds him dry will be made all the more delicious by his steadfast delusion that he is coming out on top. This is a man, who, when looking to the future is happy to see himself, ignoring the blight that his heinous actions have spread across his face, hands and genitals.
He pulls his intestine from his abdomen, searching for the root of his discomfort.
Peter: Tom Cleary is bursting out of the confessional booth when he drops the biggest narrative revelation of the episode on us. Later we’ll get confirmation one of the main cast is a cold blooded murderer, but hearing Cleary confess to a major conspiracy in a church—to a priest of all people—was something that left me with my mouth agape.
With his feet dangling awkwardly out the back of the confessional, we’re treated to minutes of dialogue played over long, static shots of the booth from different angles. We’re never brought into the booth, as has become the trope for these sorts of scenes, and the only physical expression we get from Cleary is the occasional cartoonish foot-acting. We have to pay attention to his words as he spills his guts.
Tom confesses to ratting Sister Harriet out as an abortionist to a guy he knows at the police department. He arranged for her to get caught in the act so that she would be excommunicated from the church and he could marry her. It’s despicable stuff, very ‘season one’ Cleary, but in part because of the good will he’s accrued as a member of the series’ most lovable duo, I found myself forgiving him in service of a common need: I want this couple to work, dammit.
Cleary is at the church because he suspects that his guilt is creating some sort of aura that Harri can see, and is keeping her from accepting his marriage proposal. At the beginning of their arc in “This Is All We Are”, we find out he stole their $300 in contraceptive sales revenue to buy an engagement ring which she refuses to accept. Tom confesses out of a funny need to have God magically wipe clean whatever dirt is keeping her away. While the idea seems childish and cute in that special Cleary way, the punchline is that it actually works. The next time he encounters Harri, she’s wearing the ring.
The tangible effects of Cleary’s confession fit into a larger theme of the episode: the power of personal spectacle. Just as Thackery must present his deep, dark, necrotic insides to the world, Tom must air his festering guilt to God. It’s Church funded talk-therapy, and by god, it works.
Susan: But Peter, this is The Knick, for crying out loud. How long do secrets stay so? Will it be the priest who tells Harri about what the love of her life did to her? Tom mentions it was a nun who was an abortionist, and there really can’t be that many around. Or will it be Tom’s own guilt over his deceit and essentially spell casting over the unknowing ex-nun?
Adrenaline is administered straight to the heart.
Susan: Not everyone is experiencing guilt over his myriad sins. Cornelia finally gets wise to the fact that her brother is a homicidal maniac.
I’m not always one for self-aggrandizement but, CALLED IT.
Cornelia’s hubby informs her that it was Roberston Jr. who was the “wharf rat” responsible for the ships and ports. Therefore, it was he who brought the plague to the shores of San Francisco and The Big Apple. It was he who had Speight sent overboard. It was he who started the inferno that took their father’s life. And do you know what? He gives exactly zero goddamn fucks about it, and if Neilly doesn’t keep her mouth shut he’s going to toss her down the stairs.
With a wad of cash, she takes off for Australia, leaving the whole mess behind her. One can only hope she finds some peace of mind in the land down under where dreams come true and dingoes eat babies.
Peter: While Cornelia’s journey was one of descent, first going down the stairs and not stopping until she reaches the bottom of the world, it was really well juxtaposed with Lucy’s ascent. Not a lot of people actually get what they want in “This Is All We Are,” but Nurse Elkins does. As Cornelia walks down the stairs, away from the monster that killed her gross best friend and naive father, Lucy passes Neilly on her way to the top. She’s marrying into the Robertson family as the new Queen of the Knickerbocker (and subway).
His peripheral vision has faded away.
Peter: Dr. Algernon Edwards’ eye is fucked. Having been sucker-punched in just the right place to end his career as a surgeon by the eugenicist and all around bad guy Everett Gallinger, Edwards now has limited vision and a circle of blood around his iris. The effect is one of metaphor, after a season of terrible pain and suffering in the name of progress, Algernon looks like I feel as a viewer: beaten up and tired.
In a scene at the top of the episode, at Captain Robertson’s funeral, Algernon sits with his father, who asks why the doctor is so angry after having been given everything. He tells his dad that he’s angry on his behalf, that his father could have been so much more were he not exploited by the white society that gave Dr. Edwards the opportunities (and now inheritance) that he benefited from. Algernon summarizes: they made you scared to look up.
The line is reminiscent of Dr. Thackery’s possible final moments of life. Sitting naked on the Circus operating table, Thack remarks, after nicking an aorta and losing copious amounts of blood, that his peripheral vision is fading. It’s at this point that he lets his head fall back and he looks into the chandelier that has been used to give him a halo in his more Christ-like scenes this season. It’s the mirror image of what Edwards described as an oppressively limited gaze in his father: Thack is looking up to God and seeing a chandelier, vaguely confirming to us that “This is all we are.”
Susan: We are left with no clear answer about the fate of Thackery. Only Bertie filling his heart with a needle full of adrenaline and an abrupt cut to the sterilized operating theatre. Thack’s Circus: pure, white, empty, and silent. There’s even the absence of the unrelenting mysterious dripping noise.
Has his fear of the anesthetic ether caused his poor soul to dissipate into, um, the ether? My bet is no, that he lives another day with his mutilated body and disported mind. But even if his, what can only be described as a very elaborate suicide attempt, was successful: How does his legacy live on?
Peter, do you think (sniffles) he’s really gone?
Peter: I think that the strongest choice in terms of an overall narrative would be to have Thack die and live on through the doctors that survive him. In episode eight of this season, right after Abigail died, there was strong crucifixion imagery I took as an implication that he was on the path of self-sacrifice. Maybe he will haunt Bertie, Gallinger, Elkins and Edwards like his own ghost mentor did him in season one.
On the other hand, I don’t think we’re supposed to know. With the omniscient perspective taken away from us, the final act of the finale becomes a mirror of our own. We have to look into the beaten face of Dr. Edwards and tell him our bad dreams, confined to the imperfect addiction wards of our own skulls, impatiently waiting for a future we can’t predict.
On The Operating Floor
I Love Lucy
Susan: Okay, so if Thackery is dead, I propose that we leave Algie to his work in psychology (YAWN) and turn our attentions to the hand job givin’, penis dousin’, gynocological up-and-comer Lucy Elkins. She’s come so far, so fast and if I had my way (and knew less about how gender roles in the past worked) I want her to move on to become the head of Obstetrics at The Knick and after marrying Roberston. I want to see her get side action which she manipulates her husband like a marionette, and blazes the trail when it comes to women in medicine.
Peter: I support this predicted character arc. Though I have to take exception to that yawn. The final exchange of the season have me shivers, the alcoholic saying he has bad dreams and Algie,emoting through his blood eye, says, “Tell me about them.” For a show that’s so thematically on-point, I’m psyched to see some more psyche in season 3.
Susan: We started this season with a cross talk about where I guessed we would see Thackery perform surgery on his own brain in order to rid himself of addiction. The self surgery guess turned out to be correct, but it was less cerebral and way more fucking gross than I could have imagined.
Thackery’s turned his back on trying to solve the puzzle of substance addiction, but the showrunners haven’t shied away from the gore and one can only white knuckle through.
Peter: I thought there was a terrible dramatic irony to the self-surgery. Thack didn’t know Abigail had dosed on laudanum, so he was trying to fix the wrong problem by finding a new way to anesthetize patients. I think it’s safe to say addiction won this battle.
Peter: Susan and I both watch these recaps together as they air and I need to tell the world how good she is at predicting the events of the show. This last half of the season has seen a lot of me looking surprised as she victory danced. How many things have you predicted while we watched, Susan?
Susan: This ability is both a blessing and a curse. But it is my cross to bear. Really, I should just shut up and let everyone enjoy the show instead of yelling things out like, “OH HE DID IT” or “DON’T EAT THE SOUP DR. COTTON!” or, “HE’S GONNA FUCK HIS INSANE WIFE’S SISTER!”
But I mean, come on Peter, you’ve had your predictions as well.
Lay Down Your Scalpel
Peter: So, from episode one I’ve been calling a botched eye surgery on Edwards and it never came. This was a surprise for me, as I’d expect having his retina re-attached would be a major priority for Algie. Let this be a lesson to all you procrastinators out there: don’t wait for a eugenicist to punch out your lights before scheduling an important surgery.
Susan: Yeah, but you tried.
Read the rest of Susan and Peter’s The Knick Season 2 coverage here.