“It needed to be studied. It needed to be perfected.”
– Bertie Chickering
Patience punctuated by moments of grand innovation with a lot of blood and lives lost in between: this is how the world of The Knick works. There is a great deal of high stakes trial and error on behalf of the characters—who want the future to come as quickly as possible, looking for sweeping change in medicine, romance, technology and social progress—but there is also a necessary period of waiting for the right opportunity to appear. “There Are Rules” puts the audience in one of those slower moments for an hour, setting the stage for future spectacle and asking us to enjoy the time in between. Halfway through season two, it’s time to explore the middle distance.
The episode is centered around the conclusion of Bertie’s arc at Mt. Sinai. Too bored with the process, and invested in the survival of his cancer stricken mother, Dr. Chickering takes a page out of Algernon Edwards’ book and sets his mom up with secret experimental surgery on the sly. After some X-rays of her throat to map out the malignant mass threatening to suffocate and choke her, Mrs. Chickering is brought to Mt. Sinai, after hours, for an emergency experimental procedure.
The whole thing is a terrifying mess. Assisted by Edwards, and accompanied by his now proud father, Bertie cuts open his own mother’s throat and injects her tumor with mercury and zinc, which he intends to ionize in order to kill the cancer cells and shrivel the mass. Under proper conditions, and with the right amount of research put in, things might have gone a bit more in Bertrum’s favor, but when the clandestine cutting club is found out, Dr. Zinberg puts it best: he’s operating on his mother using untested techniques assisted by a half-blind man.
Zinberg comes off looking great in the surgery room, quickly jumping into action to help rebuild Mrs. Chickering’s demolished windpipe. Dr. Z has been such a wet blanket all series, since we are forced to see him framed as a rival to John “Let’s Get High at Work” Thackery, so it feels good to see him as a master of his trade. It’s all for naught, however, as no one has ever succeeded in this procedure before, and Bertie has blood all over his hands as his mother passes on.
After Bertie resigns, he is reinstated at The Knick. With a hug from Thackery, his arc reaches its completion and he’s brought into the more mundane machinations of society life and the daily grind. He makes amends with Nurse Elkins, who urges him to take Genevieve to to upcoming ball, and he is present for a demonstration of Thackery’s procedure of the week: the application of clamps to prevent hemorrhaging of the liver during surgery. He kind of disappears into the rest of the episode, with his failure bringing a halt to his motivation. But while “There Are Rules” is, like all episodes of The Knick, about everyone, the hour belongs to Bertie.
Personal loss is transformative in The Knick. The show begins with the suicide of Dr. J.M. Christiansen, which motivates Thack to perform the highwire acts of human repair that he does. With Bertie having been personally motivated out of a love for his mother, taking her into surgery and then failing to save her, he has seen the price of failure. Gaining the acceptance of his father, who praises his courage, Bertie has crossed a threshold of maturity.
The rest of “There Are Rules” is filled with little victories on the path to grand spectacle. It’s filled with fun, but withholds conclusions, acting as a thematic example of the kind of patience Bertie should have practiced if he wanted a better shot as saving his mother. Nothing quite perfectly embodies this feeling of being in the middle than the much anticipated return of Doctor Cotton, played by special guest star John Hodgman.
Eleanor Gallinger invited the man who mutilated her in the name of mental health science to dinner this week. In a short sequence that amounts to everything we see of the Gallingers and Cotton, Hodgman’s mad scientist proclaims that Eleanor may be fit to have children again (no!), and then, over dinner, describes a successful example of his invasive techniques (double no!).
The dinner scene is extremely tense, dominated by a shot from behind Cotton’s head as the Gallinger clan beholds him in various states of boiling hatred. Everett, one of the most hateful individuals on the show is starting the demented doctor down during his condescending and horrific monologue, but little hints of something sinister really tip the scene over the edge. Cotton chokes on his wine, and must later excuse himself to attend the bathroom, before leaving the house with an unfinished dinner.
There is no ease to the suspense of that scene. My prevailing suspicion is that Eleanor poisoned Cotton’s serving in a patient act of revenge, but there are other possibilities. Previously we’ve been introduced to the idea of choking at dinner being the sign of malady (specifically with the the case of Anne Chickering’s cancer), and there’s always the possibility that Eleanor did something much more fucked up than poison her doctor’s food. Meningitis rats, dead babies, pages of Greek tragedies—they could all have been in his food and I would not be surprised. Whatever it is that happened to Cotton though, the only thing that’s clear is that the answer is forthcoming, as unsatisfying as it make feel at the time.
Other set ups to future punchlines make for some endearing scenes: Lucy coerces Henry Robertson to bring her to the upcoming ball with the careful application of her hands to the region just south of the rich man’s umbilicus; Dr. Edwards sets about finding a way to operate on D.W Garrison Carr’s umbilical hernia; Tom Cleary finally convinces Rose to cut the cord with the fraudulent sisterhood that’s taken her in. Each of these scenes is compelling in its own right, but sets the expectation for bigger spectacle in the future: a lavish party, a squeamish surgery and a delightful roommate situation respectively.
Thackery is stuck in the middle, too, and his situation is made manifest through a plot involving conjoined twins. The episode opens with Thackery finding inspiration at the side show circus. He witnesses a hypnotism show, in which a hapless member of the audience is made to fear cats, and encounters two violin playing sisters who happen to be joined at the hip. Using certain angles on the closeups of Thack’s face, Steven Soderbergh communicates a sense of childlike curiosity in the weathered surgeon as he takes in these spectacles and finds inspiration.
Inspiration from the hypnosis show leads to the episode’s biggest laugh, when an attempt to invent hypnotherapy is co-opted by Cleary in a fantastic bit of trolley. Thack tries to make Tom disinterested in smoking his pipe, and when the paramedic wakes up from his trance he pretends to be terrified of his beloved smokable before snatching it back with a hearty laugh at all the hocus pocus. Chris Sullivan, who plays Tom (my favorite character, by the way), really nails the performance on the prank. I actually believed Cleary for a few moments in spite of myself, then joined in the laughter while feeling Thacks’ disappointment.
Having lobotomized a willing test subject last week by taking a full-on physiological stance on addiction, Thacks’ attempts at hypnosis are his swing to the other side of the spectrum. His trial and error has him stuck in a struggle to understand behavior. I wonder if he also sees the strange joke fate is playing on him with his new pet project.
Cleary and Thack liberate the conjoined twins from their sleazy legal guardian Lester Brockhurst and spirit them away to the hospital. As the twins only share a liver, the plan is to use the newly discovered clamping method to divide said organ in half so that it can regenerate in each of the patients’ respective bodies. On a metaphorical level here, we see Thackery convinced he can compartmentalize to strongly associated ideas by isolating the common piece that links them. Even the personalities of the twins compliment this idea: a quiet and intellectual young woman who is often spoken for by a more personable and easy to read sister. They are two different people who share something vital, the physical brain and human behavior personified.
Stuck between two big ideas Thackery is like the viewer, looking for distraction in the middle space. Not everything we see and do is successful immediately, sometimes it’s just process. Big things don’t happen without sufficient cause, and “There Are Rules” shows us that grand spectacle may grow out of terror, curiosity, failure and love.
The Operating Floor:
Just A Suggestion – How fun would it be if a few episodes from now Tom actually stops smoking because of the hypnotic suggestion?
Laps and Luxury – Herman Barrow showed off his new apartment to the secret love of his life. She was less than impressed with the view, and the height, but proved that if they can always use their imaginations when they fuck. I wonder if Ping’s collector will be living with them too, in Barrow’s fantasy second life.
The Plague – Cornelia’s investigation into Speight’s death continued to be unexciting. While her visit to a man suffering from black plague symptoms made for an interesting scene, the overall Cornelia Showalter detective agency subplot throughout the season is lacking in terms of interest. It’s so separate from the rest of the show right now that it could be removed completely without much of a care. That said, I’m glad that Cornelia has something to keep her out of the house and away from her gross father in law.
Squig Factor – It’s always a delight to see John Hodgman on The Knick. Doctor Cotton is absolutely terrifying to the point that sitting across from Everett Gallinger, a practicing eugenics doctor, he comes off as being the villain. Mutilation plays a large role in The Knick, and is at the heart of why last week’s “Whiplash” had such a disturbing ending: we saw unnecessary surgery performed on unwitting subjects in the name of confidence. Cotton is this nightmarish concept made human: a man so confident in his medical paradigm that he will elect to remove a person’s teeth, tonsils, gallbladder, spleen, colon and testicles, just because he is sure it cures paranoia. I never thought I’d write these words, but John Hodgman is truly a monster (…in this show).
When Harry Met Tommy – So, I’m not a big fanfic reader, but I would totally be down with some shipdom fan stories about Tom and Rose.
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