“This is all we are,” in the context of this episode ofÂ The Knick, is a phrase with layers.
It’s a statement of fact, because the guts and blood and tissue are literally all that we are. But it’s also a suicide note, a condemnation on the profession that Thackery has chosen. This is all we are, he says, as the blood pours. They are all Thackery; they are all blood and guts; they are all just playing with tissue and bone. They’re mechanics, nothing more, and just as uncaring and egotisticalÂ about their work.
But it’s also a farewell note from the show itself. For better or for worse,Â The KnickÂ is a show about Doctor John Thackery, and Doctor John Thackery disembowled himself in front of a live studio audience. The show has shown no interest in being anything different. All the storylines have come to an end, or at least the characters participating have fled. Cornelia goes with Phillip to Ohio to escape the monster that her brother has become. Algernon, with his permanently damaged eye and without Thackery to back him up, has decided to study the addicted as a way to pay tribute to his deceased quasi-mentor. Even Gallinger is leaving, taking the cushy job of eugenics evangelist to Europe. They are all leaving behind the whirlwind of The Knick, or at least the surgical theater.
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All except for Bertie.
It’s not a coincidence that as Thackery bleeds out on the table, we got a shot of Bertie wearing the white shoes. It’s not a coincidence that he uses a mostly untested chemical like adrenaline, trying to restart Thackery’s heart. I wrote before about how Bertie was a mix of Zinburg and Thackery; how the two mentorships turned an effective assistant into an effective doctor. But if there is a life after death forÂ The Knick, even if that life is only in the minds of the viewers, it rests with Bertram Chickering. He may not have enough of the raw brilliance and daring of John Thackery, or the studious and methodical nature of Zinburg, but he’s got enough of both to make him a better doctor than either.
Â He’ll be doing it without Gallinger, and without Algernon. If the Knickerbocker survives with Henry at the helm, it’ll require a lot more from Bertie than he’s ever had to give before. But I have hope. It is interesting to note, as well, that Henry and Bertie are the only two left standing; the actual son of August Robertson and the spiritual one of John Thackery are going to run the Knickerbocker now.
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The thing about this season ofÂ The Knick, and what ultimately made it worthwhile (in most cases), is that it finally revealed itself as a product of the time it existed.
The failures of the show are that it felt too modern; that it felt like period piece written with too much distance from said period. The Robertsons, Cleary, Algernon: all felt like products of an era that had been shaped by activists that would come after. The world that Algernon wanted and acted as if he operated wouldn’t be real until years and years later, after activists like his friend Carr made it be so. Cornelia was the same; she predates even the suffrage movement. And Cleary, with the way he treated Harry like an equal, and respected her; that was such a difference from the world around them, that while I may have enjoyed and taken comfort in these storylines, I also found them to be unbelievable.
And I was right, in a sense. You saw it some with Captain Robertson, but you see it fully expressed in Henry. He cares about Algernon, and wants to help, but he also could just as quickly turn on helping African Americans, and leave Algernon with nothing. Henry is complex, and pragmatic, and cold, and dark. Henry was and will be a capitalist robber baron, even if his inclinations tend toward the positive in some occasions.
Cornelia, unfortunately, is just a bad character. I’ve been critical of her before, but the final scene with Henry in which she not only knows that he brought the plague to the city but also murdered Speights and their father, was totally ludicrous in premise. Do you really think, with Henry having murdered his own flesh and blood to get control of the business empire, that he wouldn’t kill you. too? The scene was only redeemed by the incredible malevolence of Henry’s character. We finally got to see him as he truly was, and it was exhilarating. My only complaint with that is that if he truly was that way, he never would’ve let Cornelia leave that place alive. If she goes to Ohio and then confesses to her husband? That’s too big a risk for someone who was written like Henry to take.
But the real heartbreaker of the episode was the reveal of who Cleary really is.
Henry is a monster, a murderer and a manipulator, and a reckless bastard. But to do what Cleary has done to Harry is so intimately evil that I can’t even fathom the depths. To put her in such danger, and to remove her from her ability to help others, all so that he can have her for himselfÂ is an action from the blackest pits of Hellish evil. He took everything away from her so that she would have no one else but him; he lied, and cajoled, and pleaded until she gave in. There is something to be said about doing the right things for the wrong reasons, but him helping her with abortions and with the condoms is so far beyond the pale. He is helping others so that he may violate and rape Harry, and make no mistake, that is what he is doing. She is consenting because she believes Cleary to be a man that he is not; she is consenting because he has tricked her into believing that he is a good man, and he is not. Harry is a woman of God, in the most true and human sense, and he took that from her so that he could have her as his prize.
He is like Gallinger in this way. These two can never come back from what they’ve done, but they are allowed to do what they’ve done because the world around them condones that type of behavior. Gallinger can mutilateÂ young boys and Cleary can violate Harry because the era that they live in allows them to. Even now, especially in Cleary’s case, we see things like this happening. You’re supposed to take women to dinner and pay for it, and take them to movies and pay for it, and be as nice as you can and wear a nice suit because that will make them love you. But when you’re together, you can be who you really are; and we paint that initial courtship as romance instead of manipulation, and the reveal of our true selves as intimacy instead of deception. Men don’t pay for movies and for dinner and be nice because they believe it to be true and good; they do it so women feel obligated to give them something much more then they themselves have given.
All of the men in this show, save Bertie and Algernon, have done what they’ve done to get what they want, regardless of the consequences. They will most likely never pay for these transgressions, and they will be revered as Bertie will be and Algernon should be. That is the tragedy ofÂ The Knick, and that is why this show ultimately redeemed itself; it showed us a world that was pushing back against the worst of human nature, of those who were trying to break down the door and let the light in. We could see slivers of an improved future, but many of those were professed to be pushing on that doorÂ were exerting no effort at all.
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MaybeÂ The KnickÂ is going to come back for a third season. Hell, maybe even John Thackery has lived through the horrors of his surgery.Â But in the event that it won’t, and that he didn’t, I want to say one last thing.
The KnickÂ isn’t a perfect show. Too often, it was a facsimile of better shows; they were too often in black and white, and it paled in comparison to the color that came before them. But there were also many good and interesting and worthwhile parts. It never reached the heights that it should’ve, and relied too much on Soderbergh and the actors to make the world and plots interesting. But it gave it a shot, and sometimes it shined bright, and that is a lot more than you can say about most things.
It was a grand experiment, and it was sometimes fun, and good, and great.
[Photo via Cinemax]