I have to wonder: Is there a large television audience out there that is just dying to be made totally miserable, week after week? Was this an untapped market that the premium cable networks rushed to capitalize on with horribly depressing shows?
First HBO gave us the despondent slog of The Leftovers, an extreme close-up of a worldwide case of post-traumatic stress disorder. And now we’ve got The Knick, which seems determined to make its characters’ lives just get worse and worse with each passing episode, as we look on in helpless despair.
This first season of the show began with drug use and suicide, it is true, but it also sounded a somewhat hopeful note at the start. The first operation of The Knick was a caesarean section, and though the procedure failed, the metaphorical message was clear. We were looking at the very birth of modern surgery, when innovation and discovery were saving more and more lives every day. This particular patient died, yes, but eventually (in episode 6, to be precise) they would solve the riddle.
Now look how far we’ve come from that bright outlook: Friday night’s season finale kicked off with an abortion. And the final surgery of the season is basically Doctor Thackery killing a young girl for no reason. Those dreams of a brilliant future for surgery and medicine have been strangled in their youth. We’re clearly still in the medical dark ages.
This couldn’t be more apparent than in the treatment of loonywoman Eleanor Gallinger. Everett goes to visit her in the sanitarium where they have placed her, and discovers, to his horror, that mustachioed quack doctor and Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman has pulled out all of her teeth. The mustache’s theory is that all mental disease stems from bacterial infection of the head, so he is eliminating every possible infection site. So poor toothless baby-killer Eleanor just sits in a dark room crying all day. Three cheers for early psychiatry!
Gallinger reacts by going nuts and attacking Doctor Edwards in the hospital, because he needs someone to blame and he has a handy black guy just lying around. So Herman Barrow suspends him from the hospital.
Barrow’s got pretty serious troubles of his own. We finally learn just how much he owes Bunky Collier: $9,000. He will literally be in debt for the rest of his life, even if he makes his regular payments. Which if course he doesn’t, instead spending his money on Junia the prostitute. So Collier walks in on them and has one of his goons punch Barrow in his detumescing dong. (Look it up.) And adds another grand to his debt, just for shits and giggles.
Barrow, despairing and humiliated, goes to Wu Ping, the owner of the opium den/whorehouse, to call in that debt for the emergency tracheotomy Thackery performed on him. He lies to Wu Ping that Thackery is deeply in debt to Collier and has asked Barrow to ask the rival whoremonger to kill Collier for him. Wu Ping agrees, and—in the only actually enjoyable scene in the whole episode—pulls off some crazy cool martial arts moves, killing all of Collier’s thugs and then lodging an axe right in Collier’s smug, obnoxious forehead.
Of course, Wu Ping knows quite well that the request didn’t come from Thackery, because the good doctor, despite being a whacked-out drug addict with paranoid delusions, always pays his debts on time. So instead of just wiping out the debt, Wu Ping took over Collier’s ledger, and now Barrow just owes him the $9K instead.
Besides Wu Ping, the only other character in the episode who ends up on top is Tom Cleary, who blackmails Cornelia Robertson after taking her to Sister Harriet for her abortion. He apparently plans to use the money to buy an electric car?
Cornelia ends up regretting her decision, but Doctor Edwards tells her that their mistake wasn’t the abortion but the affair, and she should marry Philip and have a bunch of white, legitimate babies in San Francisco. Then, instead of attending her wedding, he goes in his wedding suit to a bar and challenges a man to a fistfight, an even bigger dude than the last time he did this to punish himself for god knows what. He gets knocked down, and we don’t see him get up.
Meanwhile Cornelia goes through with the wedding to a man she doesn’t love, who doesn’t respect her or her independence, and who is going to take her away from everyone she knows and everything she loves. But hey, at least she got a beautiful pair of earrings from her nasty rapist father-in-law (her “something old”) and a massively ugly tchotchke carved from the tusk of an elephant that her new husband shot (her “something offensive on almost every level”).
Finally, Thackery has descended into total cocaine psychosis, and his irrational paranoia is finally becoming obvious to everyone around him. Doctor Zinberg offers to collaborate on discovering the secret of blood types, and Thackery, still stinging from the time when delusion that Zinberg stole his hernia thunder at the surgeons’ conference, instead decides he is going to compete with him and beat him to the discovery. Except that he’s years behind him on the research (not to mention bug-eyed crazy on drugs and unable to think clearly), so he sends Bertie to steal Zinberg’s work.
Bertie, still somehow under Thackery’s mentorship spell and unable to see what is really going on, goes to Zinberg under the pretense of wanting to collaborate, and Zinberg just up and gives him all of his research, unasked. Because he doesn’t really care who gets the credit, and thinks Thackery’s input could help them finally crack the code of successful blood transfusions.
But Thackery is too far gone, off creating some theory about there being five blood types that only exist in his head. He convinces Lucy to help him transfuse his own blood into a little anemic girl to prove his hypothesis—he just cuts right into his own unanaesthetized arm—and they kill the kid on the operating table.
The scales then fall from Bertie’s eyes, especially when he sees the vials of coke lying all around, not to mention Lucy hugging Thackery and acting like the concerned girlfriend. He finally grows a pair and chews them both out. Then he gets his dad, who checks Thackery into a drug rehab clinic. Where they have been getting great results weaning patients off coke, easing their withdrawal with a new miracle drug fresh from the inventors of aspirin: heroin!
So much for a bright new future for medicine. We’re right back where we started, only somehow worse.
And so the board meets, and decides that, with Thackery and Gallinger out of the picture, and Edwards incurably not-white, they have no choice but to shutter The Knick. So who knows what is in store for the second season? (Spoiler alert: most likely more gallons of blood, preventable disease and unremitting misery.)