Remember, back in college, that first time you got really good and drunk on a school night? And then you had to sit through a seemingly interminable 11 a.m. seminar the next day with a blinding hangover, everyone’s words mixing into a harsh unintelligible buzz, just taking deep breaths and trying to keep your eyes focused and get through it?
Well, after hitting a definitive climax last week, The Knick came through with an episode that is—both literally and figuratively—just one long hangover. Thematically appropriate? Absolutely. Fun to watch? Not so much.
Unless you are a film student, I suppose, as this was also an episode in which Soderbergh really flexes his avant-gardist muscles. To wit: approximately 1/3 of the screen time is occupied by close-ups of Doctor Thackery’s face. And not only when he is alone, but particularly while other people are talking and things are going on offscreen. Instead of focusing on those, we spend most of our time watching his reactions, or lack thereof, as he sweats and sallows his way through a serious case of cocaine withdrawal.
See, they’re right in the middle of the Philippine-American War. The Filipinos are sinking American cargo ships, including the ones with Thackery’s beloved coca leaves on it, and now there is a serious shortage of his drug of choice in American hospitals. Along with about 100 other things that are imported from the East, but Thackery doesn’t really care about those, because he’s an addict and right now there is literally only one thing on his mind.
Lucky for him, he happens to live in a time when cocaine is an important and commonly used surgical anesthetic, so it’s not super-weird that he keeps asking everyone about it. (If he lived nowadays, he’d likely be into some other drug that’s easy to get in a hospital. Meaning he’d basically be Nurse Jackie, and nobody wants that.) It still is a little weird, though, especially as he’s such a pale, shambling, sweaty mess; at least one or two people have to be getting suspicious that he’s all, “But what about the cocaine, my precious,” every twenty seconds.
Anyway, the hospital has bigger problems than a shortage of one drug. It’s (still) broke, and the repairs to everything damaged in the race riot are going to cost a lot. Barrow goes begging for more funds from Captain Robertson (it is strongly implied that Barrow has been pocketing oodles of Robertson’s cash) and for new funds from the Catholic Church, both of whom turn him down. Desperate, he fires two of the four boiler stokers in the basement to save money, but because they are black and therefore totally interchangeable to him, he basically does eeny-meeny right in front of them to decide who’s out of a job.
Cornelia and Edwards are still boning, as are Thackery and Nurse Elkins—the latter with the ongoing use of cocaine as a sexual lubricant, because apparently that is a thing. Imagine how screwed up you’d be if your introduction to sex and your introduction to severe drug addiction happened to coincide. That’s where Lucy is right now, and it looks pretty awful.
We find out her father is a preacher and she feels like she has become a sinner. And despite Thackery’s pretty little speech about how what they are doing is not sinful but beautiful, the constant presence of drugs makes his ethical stand feel pretty empty, especially the next day, when he can barely sit upright.
Lucy manages to find a few vials of the stuff, and he uses it to get through the opening-day proceedings of the Metropolitan Surgical Society, where he (hurriedly and sweatingly, but not totally awfully) presents Doctor Edwards’ inguinal hernia procedure on behalf of the two of them—because of course Edwards is not allowed at the conference.
On the other hand, they do let in the Jewish Dr. Levi Zinberg (Michael Nathanson), though clearly grudgingly. Zinberg has good humor about it all, even getting in some good zingers about his own religion as he presents his new revolutionary invention of the laparoscope.
The impaired and flailing Thackery immediately sizes up Zinberg as a rival—and so he is dismayed when Bertie’s father suggests that Thackery let his son go work with Zinberg instead. He blusters about it being Bertie’s choice, leaving Doctor Chickering Sr. indignant. See, all he wants for his son is to have a thriving practice and a family, not actually advance science or save lives, especially if that means working with a) Thackery and b) poor people.
Bertie is having a tough time of it himself. He has no idea Lucy is sleeping with Thackery, and still thinks they’re in the beginning stages of a romance. Which Lucy, by now well-trapped in a web of love, sex and addiction, has zero time or patience for.
Bertie is also called to be the Knick’s medical witness in the case against Typhoid Mary, who is suing to be released from quarantine because she doesn’t have any symptoms. Because Mary is the world’s first known asymptomatic carrier of any disease, the judge is skeptical that such a thing exists, and Bertie blows up at him. Ill-advised, but it’s nice to see some actual emotion from Bertie, who is usually hiding behind smiles and aw-shucks and fake facial hair. Mary goes free and proceeds directly to get a job in a kitchen infecting more rich idiots.
Oh and Bertie is going to present the placenta previa procedure at the second day of the conference. But Thackery, in the blush of his newfound jealousy of Zinberg and the very last of his cocaine, stays up all night and rewrites the entire presentation, giving it to Bertie on hundreds of crossed-out and scribbled pages that look more like Carrie Matheson’s conspiracy wall than a medical paper.
Thackery’s withdrawal finally comes to a head during surgery on a man with a mouth tumor, which he attempts to get through on grit, determination and a small dose of strychnine.
(Note to self: I don’t know what rock-bottom looks like, but if you ever find yourself taking actual poison to get through the day, chances are you’re there.)
Thackery’s plan is to go to his opium den and make them drug him into a stupor for the duration of his withdrawal. But instead of blissful peace, he just gets a flashback to finding Doctor Christensen with a self-inflicted hole in his head. As with the whole episode, we don’t see the body, only Thackery’s horrified face. And now we know that he really found himself reflected there. Before his bloodshot eyes finally close.