Peter Counter and Susan Stover will be providing recaps of The Knick season two, investigating the goings on under the big top that is Dr. John Thackery’s medical circus. They will be alternating episode to episode. This week Peter scrubs in to take apart episode two: “You’re No Rose.”
“What is that? Latin?”
Holiness comes face to face with progress in The Knick’s second season two episode, “You’re No Rose,” and in doing so positions the series’ cast of protagonists as outsiders. They circumvent the law, question authority, and perform experimental clandestine surgery, doing and making great things in opposition to the accepted social paradigm of the era. And while it may seem that The Knick is advocating for progress at all costs, “You’re No Rose” actually proposes a balance. There is a limit to the retro sci-fi innovation of blood, gore and technology, and while it might not be religious, it’s holy all the same.
“You’re No Rose” opens with a surprising death. Jacob Speight – a man whose lack of observance for the holy is rivaled only by his tenacity as a health inspector – washes up on shore in New York. When Cornelia Showalter is eventually informed of this, and learns that the going theory hinges on a late night drunken tumble into the water, she puts on her detective hat and sets to sleuthing. Speight was not a drinking man, and as Cornelia pursues his death further, she finds herself blocked by other interests.
In order to prove that Speight was sober upon on death, Cornelia asks Dr. Algernon Edwards to devise a blood alcohol test which he will perform on the inspector’s exhumed corpse. Having been blocked on an attempt at legally unearthing the body, she enlists former grave digger and current knuckle-busting paramedic with a heart of gold, Tom Cleary. In the middle of the night, Cleary digs up the waterlogged Jacob’s burial plot, only to reveal that the coffin is empty.
While shoveling away, Cleary points out the irony in his situation: he’s never considered himself a good man, but the people compelling him to commit felonies are Sister Harriet, a nun, and Cornelia, a society lady.
The grave digging scene is one of three major set pieces in “You’re No Rose,” and it is allegorical to how progress is treated on The Knick. The show is set in a world where values that we, as a modern audience, perceive as conservative are widely held and rarely questioned. The show’s ongoing themes of racial, sexual and technological progress are framed as heroically against this societal grain. Through an act of deviation, like digging up a dead body, our heroes uncover hidden truths, like Speight’s empty coffin, and are rewarded with direction toward enlightenment. Sometimes this enlightenment is a new medical procedure, other times it’s accepting other humans regardless of race or gender. In this case it likely has to do with business interests coming into conflict with health regulations.
It’s appropriate that the gravedigging scene occurs in this episode,because of the religious themes beginning to enter the show. Nurse Lucy Elkins is visited by her father, a Christian preacher, who prefers to go by his initials rather than a title: A.D. Elkins. He’s given a tour of the Knickerbocker, and while Lucy expounds on all of the spectacular things that have happened under Dr. John Thackery’s circus, her father shows little interest. He’s unimpressed and possibly a bit shaken by what he sees, declaring that the things made by man are of no interest to him, he cares only for the miracles of God.
Again, we see the holy coming into direct conflict with progressive thought. The surgical theatre in the Knick is filled with ritual, and the operating table is even positioned as a kind of altar. But it is investigative, meant to dispel the miracles of God’s bodies rather than reinforce them, reducing us to squishy machines that can be fixed with the application of cocaine and cutting. The episode’s second big set piece serves as the religious counterpoint.
A.D Elkins, in a small chapel, preaches to a small crowd containing his daughter. His speech is racist, and filled with a righteous anger, though he masks his xenophobia with a smile and an anecdote about his bafflement when he met a Sikh man in the streets of New York. He parades around, while Cliff Martinez’s anachronistic synth score reaches new sci-fi heights. A.D. proclaims that God glows in our bodies, before speaking in tongues and asking his congregation to sing for the pitiable godless masses.
The preacher’s performance is diametrically opposed to the type of spectacle usually seen in The Knick, which is gory and framed in the name of progress. Both offer enlightenment, but beneath Mr. Elkins’ facade is an effort to discourage new thought.
A.D is on to something there too. Some people would rather not accept a new paradigm. As Lucy expresses to Thackery when she first encounters him in his office, now that he’s been reinstated she doesn’t want to start over, she wants to continue ignoring the dark personal discoveries they made together. Rather than accept a new reality, given the new information and circumstances presented by Thack’s condition, she would choose to live under a veil of ignorance and continue their romantic relationship.
Romance or not, she still has a job to do. The hospital board has selected Lucy to do routine skin checks on Dr. Thackery to ensure he isn’t injecting cocaine or heroin. It’s a beautiful dynamic that gives Nurse Elkins a great deal of depth. In the same scene that she asks to be allowed ignorance in the favour of love, she admits to possessing intimate knowledge that will help protect Thackery from himself. She knows all his secret injections sites.
Thackery’s return to the Knick leads to the third major set piece in “You’re No Rose,” and everything leading up to it illustrates why he is the show’s hero. The hospital’s board of directors is in no way cool with Thack returning and putting all of his efforts into addiction cures. They would much rather have him be the highly visible celebrity priest at the altar in the surgical theatre than hidden in a dark lab. Presented with the proper resistance from the squares that pay his bills, Thackery now has confirmation that he’s digging up the right metaphorical grave. Where there is conventional wisdom discouraging inquiry, there is an opportunity for innovation. Beneath the Holy (in this case, addiction stigma) lies hidden progress.
With Thack back, Edwards now has a surgeon he trusts with the experimental procedure he needs done on his eye. The two men, each with their own experience in clandestine surgery, head to the operating theatre after hours and set to work on a deliciously suspenseful eye surgery scene. Edwards’ bad eye is injected with cocaine, so it dilates and can’t move. Then, as Thackery prepares to make the first incision and begins hallucinating (due to the stress of being in an operating room where he killed a young woman via blood transfusion during the season one finale) we can only see Algernon’s right eye register terror. Superb acting on behalf of André Holland combined with the primal squeamishness of seeing a living eyeball so close to a scalpel elevates the scene to a great piece of televised body horror.
Algernon’s eye is spared, but not repaired, and he escapes with just a cut on the cheek. The botched surgery is set immediately after the aforementioned chapel scene, and as such emotionally underlines what remains holy to these heathenous progressive men: life.
Near the beginning of “You’re No Rose,” we see Cleary’s new motorized ambulance break down while carrying a patient back to the Knickerbocker. The futuristic engine that was supposed to give Tom the edge has set him back and he is forced to give up an endagered patient to a competing ambulance man. He is competitive and observes very little in terms of a social contract, but Cleary knows when another person’s life depends on his surrender. The same goes for Thackery, now that he has blood on his hands from experiences when he put himself and his quest for progress in front of others.
So, while The Knick privileges progressive thought over those who observe the dominant social ideology, it does have a heart at it’s base. The holy and the progressive are a lot like the drug habit hanging over Thackery’s new prostitute confidant, who uses both cocaine and heroin at the same time, injected into separate arms. Too much of one or the other leads to death, but get the balance right and they dance beautifully together.
On the Operating Floor
Suffer Little Children – “Your work with the orphanage and poor will help, although, any mention of your involvement with children will remind people of the ones you aborted.” – Tom’s lawyer with “real smart words.”
Mayday – Dr. Mays is an amazing addition to The Knick. Thackery says that he’d rather have Barrow operate on him with a spoon than allow Mays near him, and judging by his rapey attitude toward phylanthropic gynaecology I don’t blame him. Mays is a walking Chekhov’s gun, and I can’t wait to see who inevitably dies when he goes off.
Bye Bye Bertie – Bertie resigns in this episode, unwilling to live under the tent of Thackery’s circus. Here’s betting he ends up at Mount Sinai and suffocating under a pile of safe, totally not gory or suspenseful convention.
Wrestlemania I – Sure, Cleary’s attempt to make lawyer-money by managing a wrestler put him on the wrong end of a con, but I have strong hopes he’ll get what’s rightly his when he finds himself on the ground floor of the birth of pro wrestling.