“Besides, you didn’t take a vow of misery. There’s no harm in a few smiles now and then. In ten years or so, chances are we’ll be in the ground.”
– Tom Cleary
What have you got to lose? And when it’s gone, what will remain? Perhaps you’ll be over-burdened. Perhaps you’ll be mutilated and imprisoned. Perhaps you’ll be dead. Maybe you’ll have been deserving, or maybe you’ll have been an innocent martyr. You could succumb to the comforting arms of vice and denial; you could pick yourself up and find the cure to addiction.
“Not Well At All,” the third last episode of The Knick’s second season, is aptly titled. Anything that begins well ends in loss, and by the end of the hour, the most accurate (though perhaps slightly understated) way to describe the state of the show’s various plots is by paraphrasing the deranged Eleanor Gallinger: nothing, including her, is well at all.
Perhaps the most notable detail in the episode is that it is one hundred percent bloodless. For a show that so readily trades in gore, this is an unsettling characteristic. When variation is introduced into a set pattern it is a kind of violent artistic act. Once a status quo has been established, to change it is foreboding and, in many cases, disturbing to an audience. It’s a sign that something is off. And while that might be ironic in this specific case—citing the lack of on screen human viscera as a violent variation in storytelling—I can’t think of a time on The Knick when the credits have rolled and so many characters have been so utterly destroyed spiritually, morally and literally.
The episode opens with the season’s invisible big bad claiming a life; addiction takes hold of the alcoholic Dr. John Thackery hypnotized into hating the bottle last week. While a strong dose of trance and suggestion had a remarkable short term effect on the patient, it turns out Thack’s instructions to vomit at the sight of his vice didn’t stick. Sneaking out of bed and into the mortuary, the fragile man drinks an intravenous pouch of embalming fluid being used to preserve a corpse. Thack finds his patient, already half embalmed, and we get the title card.
On one level, “Not Well At All” is about comeuppance. Many characters find themselves punished for past deeds, and there seems to be a cosmic morality balancing its scales. Beyond the devastating effects of narrative karma, however, there is also a very painful extraction from those who don’t deserve it. Everyone with something to lose loses it in this episode, even if some take it better than others.
Starting with one of the more satisfying failures, Mr. Brockhurst, the sideshow sleaze who was exploiting the conjoined twins Thack liberated, is already without a steady income at the top of the show. We catch up with him as he drinks up the courage to enter the Knickerbocker waving a pistol and demanding he be given back the girls that pay his bills. He is, thankfully, unsuccessful.
In a fantastically comic scene that uses tempo to deliver catharsis from a telegraphed expectation, Tom Cleary applies his much brandished but never used baseball bat to Brockhurst’s skull. The high energy and frantic movements of Brockhust are juxtaposed with Cleary’s deliberate and almost too slow approach from the background. Chris Sullivan brings his usual knack for physical nuance to the sneaky lead up to his assault, and when the crack is delivered, it’s as satisfying as watching a batter hit a home run. The fibbing circus man, who was already out of a living, is parted with his consciousness and left stunned on the floor.
In a way, Brockhurst had it easy. At least he’s too stunned to let the weight of his loss sink in. The same can’t be said about the rest of the losers this hour. Cleary and Harriet, the Gallingers, A.D. Elkins, the Barrows and especially Thack and Abigail all end up on the negative side of sacrifice.
Sticking with Cleary, we see the loss of something truly fantastic. Throughout the episode, he and Sister Harriet continue their courtship by another name. Their contraceptive startup business has Tom behind his curtain in their apartment testing out the condom prototypes Harri’s making, and their banter is as lively and flirtatious as ever. Later, they go to the circus on a double date to continue winnowing away the room traditionally left between them for the Holy Spirit which has been thus far keeping them from sealing the deal on their relationship with a kiss.
Tom, wanting the apple of his eye to stop frowning and live a little, appeals to Harri with fatalism. Each of the only has about ten years left to live, he tells her, why not spend it having a laugh when you can? The tension of a first date continues to build until Cleary makes a move to kiss Harriet and is blocked by her continued devotion to the one man Tom can’t assault with a baseball bat: God.
In that moment, all of what the two business partners/roommates/reluctant crushes have built up falls apart. With nowhere else to go, they are stuck in Tom’s home, but Harriet hands down divine instructions to stay the hell away from her.
The Tom and Harri breakup is a comeuppance of sorts, as their blossoming relationship was in trespass of God. It’s unfair, of course, since much of the pain and suffering on The Knick is caused by the man upstairs and the laws his followers adhere to, but there are consequences to trying to smooch the only person who understands you when she’s married to a deity.
Speaking of God’s vengeance, A.D. Elkins makes his return in “Not Well At All,” and he is presented in a satisfying state. Lucy’s father, who lashed her for confessing to her druggy exploits to him at chapel, has suffered a stroke when we come upon him in the sex dungeon he’s been frequenting on a daily basis.
The punishment of Preacher Elkins feels cosmic. As he lies in an infirmary bed at the Knickerbocker, eyes frantically searching, Lucy and Thack—his two most vehement critics—stand over him. Last we heard, Thackery wanted to beat the abusive man of God silly for what he did to Lucy. Now we saw that he’s done that to himself and payed a great penance.
Three more instances of devastation round out the episode, each as upsetting as the others, but in unique ways. A New York City detective comes knocking on the Gallingers’ door, investigating the death of Dr. Cotton by poisoning. Eleanor admits to Everett in the kitchen that, using rat poison, she did indeed kill the horrible man who mutilated her. It is implied that she fished the remaining toxin out of the trash can to murder the gumshoe on her case, but that doesn’t stop her from being sent away, once again, to an asylum.
The Gallinger storyline is an interesting one, in that the family is almost wholly unsympathetic while always being completely compelling. Everet, the eugenecist, has sterilized 52 boys and has possibly ruined the career of Algernon Edwards based solely on the basis of his skin colour. Eleanor is a murderer who has killed an infant. The family and marriage that they’ve been trying to keep together all series has been falling apart for the show’s entirety, and become the stuff of uncanny horror.
Eleanor ends the episode back in the halls of a mental hospital, having lost her teeth, tonsils, mind, children and husband. Everett, meanwhile, has lost the life he once cherished and has turned to the placebo of eugenics in order to satiate the emptiness his wife’s plight has opened in him. He justifies an affair with Eleanor’s sister based on her genetic similarities. He has become a terribly real, terribly pathetic, American Frankenstein.
Herman Barrow is also a despicable man who hasn’t realized everything he’s lost. In fact, superficially, he has the best day he’s had in a very long while. He gains admission into the gentleman’s club he thought would be closed to him after the immolation of Dr. Mays, he buys Junia (the sex worker he’s in love with) from Ping Wu, he ditches the family he’s come to hate so much, and the high tech central vac unit he ordered for his new home was installed. But all of his winnings come at a great cost, and are likely fleeting. Herman’s wife, Effie, isn’t so blissfully blind of how much he’s thrown away.
Effie finds out about the secret house and assumes it is hers. Surprising Herman with a celebratory dinner, she springs her hidden knowledge on him only to find out that she and the kids are being abandoned and forced out of their home, which has been sold. Mr. Barrow is later shown victoriously entering the brothel to acquire his new life, walking in slow motion, grabbing Junia (who gives him an indifferent cheek when he moves to kiss her) and exiting triumphantly and naively into the blinding light of the real world, where consequence likely awaits.
Coming around to Thackery, it’s all about the nose. Abigail Alford, his true love, would like to have her proboscis restored to its former beauty, and as we saw in the first hour of the season, Thack knows a thing or two about rhinoplasty. What he can’t know, though, is what his nose job patients don’t tell him, as exemplified by the return of the woman who’s nose was fixed with a false gold earing, which is now corroding in her face and causing discoloured swelling. In the end, this reliance on the honesty of others will be his unraveling.
The irony of the situation is that Abigail is such an amazing communicator, yet it is her falling into the silence of addiction stigma that does her in. Thack even enlists her to act as a therapeutic ear to a man in the addiction ward, almost inventing the 12 step program of today. But, alone in her room before surgery, Abigail succumbs to her laudanum addiction, telling no one about the dose she’s taken before heading to the operating theatre. When Bertie applies the ether to put Abbigail under, her heart stops before even the first cut is made. Thack’s great nemesis, addiction, claims the woman who has helped return him to form and acted as an incredible support during his recovery. She was what he has been living for.
Torn apart by the tragedy, Thackery moves to the edge of the theatre. The camera frames him with the chandelier forming a halo around his head, his arms out stretched. He looks crucified. Forsaken for attempting something truly altruistic, Thack is left as an example that terrible things happen to good people, that nothing is ever fair, and that even God sent his own son to death.
The Operating Floor
The Ace of Speight – Henry Robertson is staring the potential loss of all he has in the face during a meal with Cornelia. The society lady sleuth made some horribly incriminating discoveries last week that implicates their father not only in bringing the bubonic plague to America, thanks to his cost cutting measures, but also the arranged murder of the late inspector Speight. A look crosses Henry’s face in this scene that seems to suggest the whole immigration loophole and public serviceman assassination will inevitably lead back to him rather than the kind hearted (but deeply flawed) Captain Robertson.
The Godhead – With addiction having struck so close to Thackery once again, perhaps he’ll make good on Susan’s prediction during the premiere that this season will see the surgeon go all Dr. House on his own brain. My money is against this (as amazing as I think that would be to watch), but I am very curious to see how Thack deals with the loss of Abigail. How many speedballs will it take to snort away this pain?
An Eye For an Eye – Edwards found hard proof that Gallinger is a practicing eugenics surgeon this episode, and also discovered that Thackery is unable and unwilling to do anything about it. This has primed a confrontation between Algy and Everett that will probably occur next episode and leave Edwards with a fully detached retina.
That Is All – I am very saddened by the off screen passing of John Hodgman’s demented Dr. Cotton. His occasional presence on The Knick was always truly horrific. In death, I hope his teeth will make some former victim of his smile wide once again.
The Next Big Thing In Medicine – With only two episodes left and nearly every character devastated in all the ways that matter, what do you think will happen before the season two finale? Let us know in the comments!