The burning of the new, under construction Knickerbocker Hospital was inevitable. At least, it seemed like a foregone conclusion after the Tammany Hall bruiser that has been helping shake down the contractors and architect working on the new building advised Barrow that unless he could “turn back the clock” on the project, there wasn’t any more money to be squeezed out of it. So, in pure desperation, the hospital administrator with a taste for embezzlement and high society, set fire to it.
There was little relief at all to be had in this week’s episode however, and almost no moments of levity outside of watching the two formerly conjoined twins walk on their own for the first time. Otherwise, it was one dour note after another, from Thackery killing his intestinal tract and refusing surgery, to the awful showdown between Edwards and Gallinger in front of the medical board. That Captain Robertson ended up dying by being in the right place—the new Knick—at the exact wrong time when flames started engulfing the building felt exasperating. After an hour of watching the people we’re rooting for get slapped down by the backwards thinking of the era and self-destruction, why not kill off one of the main characters at that point?
Captain Robertson’s unfortunate demise wasn’t even the most shocking death in the episode. That’s how bleak it was. That prize, if you will, goes to the murder of Reverend Elkins by his daughter Lucy. We’ve been trained to expect comfort and solace from nurses, so much so that watching her sit by her dad’s bedside and torture him with graphic descriptions of the sexual acts she willingly participated in, right before giving him a quick shove off this mortal coil with an injection, was almost unbearable. But it was also one of those unforgettable moments that should be in the conversation when thinking about the best TV scenes of the year.
What last night’s episode served up, too, was a reminder of how The Knick is, at least right now, circumventing all conventions of our storytelling expectations. We really want the good guys/women to win, but they don’t seem to be getting the opportunity. We wanted Gallinger to get his comeuppance, but he not only avoided getting in trouble for the death of Dr. Cotton, he also got a pat on the back from the medical board for his eugenics insanity. Barrow gets called out by his ex-wife for his misdeeds and instead of folding, he turns defiant and nasty. And he very well could get away with his act of arson. We don’t even get to hear Captain Robertson admit to his underhanded work that may have resulted in murder.
That’s surely why Steven Soderbergh and the writers bookended the episode with the brighter, greener colors of Thackery’s sojourn in South America. For those few brief minutes, we were reminded of how good he could be both as a doctor and as a human being. He went out of his way to cobble together a treatment for the smallpox patients and to inoculate those villagers who haven’t been infected. And he did it, in part, to help free Captain Robertson from his shackles. Faint glimmers of hope surrounding an otherwise harrowing hour of television.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can find more of his writing here.