As Edmund Blackadder once told his faithful dogsbody Baldrick, it’s the way of the world that the abused always kick downwards. And so it is with The Knick.
As we open in a bar in the rough end of New York, Mr Cleary (Chris Sullivan), the brutish Irish giant of an ambulance driver, descends into a basement with a sack. He upends it and a torrent of hairy black rats comes pouring out. As he and the other onlookers cheer on silently, their jeers drowned out by Cliff Martinez’s signature and distinctly modern score, we see a man violently crush them under his heel, spurting blood with every sickening impact.
Of course, as the man soon discovers, the problem with stepping on the little guy is that sometimes you slip in all the spilled blood.
In Where’s the Dignity?, writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler seem to enjoy themselves by putting characters in situations far above their station and watching the upper crust flinch in disgust. The health inspector Speight (David Fierro) has a whale of a time investigating a typhoid outbreak in the city’s affluent quarters, slurping coffee and asking widowers about their “toilet rituals”, while Dr Edwards finally goes to extreme lengths for a chance to contribute in the operating theatre for the first time.
It’s the best example so far of the show’s fascinating struggle between progress and social standing – a dinner party at which Thomas Edison shows off his fancy new wax recording cylinders is dominated by conversations about slave labour in South America and thinly-veiled disdain for the Jewish quarter of the city; the two sides continue to square off, but the old order is starting to visibly shake in its collective boots.
Equally interesting is this episode’s recurring theme of family – we see Edwards’ parents (a cab driver and a cook) marvel at their son’s medical prowess, while Bertie’s father despairs at his son’s choice to work at the Knick. “You should always be referred to as Dr Chickering Jr, nothing less,” he warns, without a trace of irony.
It’s commendable that in this episode just about everybody has something to do. While Edwards is squaring off to the staff and rubbing elbows with the socialites, Thackery is growing closer to Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), as one imagines one would to a woman who’s previously injected cocaine into your urethra, and rekindling his relationship with the recovering Abby Alford.
As we’ve said before, it’s the performers rather than the familiar character arcs that make this show worth watching. It’s a shame, then, that so much of the script still focuses on telling rather than showing, even after four of 10 episodes. Some scenes, such as Thackery’s reminiscing with Abby, almost drown in unnecessary dialogue, while others show, frustratingly, just how well Soderbergh can direct his cast; Nurse Elkins’ conflicting feelings for Thackery and the increasingly obvious chemistry between Edwards and Cornelia are handled with brilliant subtlety, through nothing more than facial expressions and fleeting glances. So why all this soliloquizing?
Not that a good long speech is unwelcome, mind; the episode’s title is a quote from Mr Cleary, an immigrant pondering on the futility of coming to New York in search of a better life. It’s a moving scene, and does a wonderful job of adding nuance to a character we were ready to dismiss as comic relief. Still, while the faults in The Knick are becoming more readily apparent, it’s never less than fascinating. Freed from the confines of the hospital’s claustrophobic corridors, Soderbergh delivers one of the most satisfying episodes yet.
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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