Up until now, the most interesting thing about The Knick has been its complete lack of decorum in showing the messy side of medicine at the turn of the century. Vials full of coagulated blood, scalpels sticking out of patients’ abdomens; the problem with the cutting edge is all of the guts you spill on the floor.
Yet the third episode of the series goes a step further by showing a broken patient – not on the slab, but walking and talking and living – something that may be even more difficult to swallow. An old flame of Thackery’s, a Mrs. Abby Alford (Jennifer Ferin), turns quite a few heads on her way into the hospital. And after a few minutes of seeing only the nurse’s shocked reactions, we finally learn the cause: the camera puts Abby front and centre, and we’re forced to look with queasy fascination at the gaping hole in her face, left after syphilis took her nose.
It’s not only a great jolt to the audience, as the shock of blood was beginning to wear thin; it’s also a chance for Clive Owen to flex his muscles in his portrayal of Doc Thackery. His relationship with Abby (and the reasons it failed) are not exactly new – she loved him, but chose another man’s stability over his chaos – but the way he stares unflinchingly, almost gleefully, at this woman’s deformity says more than the dialogue ever could. And once the fire burns, it crackles along merrily with some superb lines. “One more word out of you,” Thackery warns a nurse, “and I will sew your mouth and nostrils together and happily watch you asphyxiate.”
So much of the actual drama that goes on between the various characters of The Knick can’t help but feel clichéd. There are none-too-subtle allusions to marital strife and extra-marital affairs, scenes of dinner conversation, in which the upper crust reveal how backward their world views are, and Thackery’s colleagues, Chickering (Michael Angarano) and Gallinger (Eric Johnson), continue to isolate Dr Edwards, even as we know we’re simply counting the days until the latter is allowed to come and sit at the big boy’s table.
What makes it worth watching is the performances. Some of the cast almost feel reptilian in their performances, a barely human shell disguising the hideous creature underneath; none more so than the excellent Jeremy Bobb as Mr Barrow, who’s fast becoming the most interesting part of the series. There’s something undefinably yet undeniably repulsive about him, the way he slithers among the dregs of human society in his fine suit and horn-rimmed glasses (we shan’t tell you what the titular ‘busy flea’ turns out to be).
Down below the hospital, meanwhile, Dr Edwards has developed a clandestine clinic for New York’s black community, hiring seamstresses and boilermen to work as orderlies and surgical nurses. In a series that’s spent so much time thus far with its tongue in its cheek about the ‘miracles’ of the modern age – Electricity! Cocaine! – this underground clinic feels like the first genuinely revolutionary twist in the plot. Watching Edwards’ veneer of sophistication slowly drain away under the stress is fascinating, and it leads to one of the most interestingly shot sequences of the show so far, which is saying something.
If the first two episodes of The Knick were about setting up the pieces, then The Busy Flea is where we see the first dominoes get flicked over. And as they begin to topple with greater and greater speed, this series begins to feel more and more like essential viewing.
All episodes of The Knick Season 1 are available to watch online on Sky On Demand – or on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. Season 2 starts on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday 12th January.
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