The pains that The Knick’s writers have gone through to put their progressive politics front and center in the series have been handled admirably, if a little hamfisted-ly at times. It’s appreciated that Jack Amiel and Michael Begler offer up reminders of how far we’ve come as a country since the dawn of the 20th century, and how much they look down on the racism and sexism of the era. There has never been an agenda implied in this; just a simple, unblinking reiteration of the truth. This week, though, Amiel and Begler brought to life the reality of just how much further we still have to go as a society when it comes to our treatment of people of color and women.
To the former, the episode only touched briefly on the subject, but left a deep bruise. At a reunion of his Penn classmates, Dr. Gallinger happens upon a conversation on eugenics going on between two fellow doctors (one played by Rent star Anthony Rapp) that sounded dangerously similar to the bullshit being spewed by many current conservatives with their fears about black people, gays, and anyone coming from outside the country to spoil the broth. The chatter also had an inadvertent but powerful correlation to the immigrant crisis happening in Europe right now, giving it an even more terrifying spin.
The focus throughout the hour was instead on the [mis]treatment of women. Outside of the sweetness of Bertie courting a Collier’s reporter shadowing his new boss at Mount Sinai Hospital, and Dr. Thackery taking a detour from his work finding the root cause of addiction to trying to cure syphilis in hopes of helping his beloved ex before it’s too late, the rest of the major scenes with female characters were, at times, brutal, disappointing, and distressing.
Nurse Elkins, for example, had to deal with the slavish attention being directed on her by Henry Robertson, the kind of guy who obviously doesn’t get told “No” very often, and then the harsh punishment meted out on her by her preacher father after she confesses her many sins to his congregation. Cornelia, on the other hands, was knocked back a few steps after she expresses her desire to help Sister Harriet pay for her legal fees, leaving her husband aghast and disgusted. And speaking of the poor former nun, she faces a lifetime in prison after he pretrial hearing was cut quickly short by a Protestant judge looking to make an example of her in the name of stamping out Catholicism.
As Amiel and Begler remind us, we are not that far removed from a world like this. The news of Republican lawmakers trying to roll back abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, or stories of women having to wade through waist deep piles of garbage online if they dare speak out in favor of feminism is sadly very present in our modern age. It’s not hard to imagine Henry as the basketball throwing kid in that recent viral video. I would not be surprised if he tries to exert his force upon Nurse Elkins even after she shut him down in this episode.
The impact of these important messages were often dimmed, though, by the writers shoehorning as many other pieces of the ongoing story of The Knick into the hour. What purpose did it serve to have Cleary accidentally kill the wrestler he manages by shooting him up with a dangerous dose of cocaine? And how much more of Barrow’s despicable behavior trying to skim money from the new hospital construction—while also trying to rescue his beloved prostitute (who is most certainly playing the guy for a fool)—are we going to have to suffer through? I’m also not convinced by the soap opera-like reveal at the end of the episode that Dr. Edwards has a wife he hasn’t told anyone about who pops back into his life. All of this even managed to push into the background the big scene that kicked off the episode, showing Thackery using his wiles to keep using heroin and cocaine but without needing a needle by cooking it down into a powder and snorting it. There’s a big challenge with any TV series to find ways to set up plot points that will expand through the next few episodes, but even after a full season and change, Amiel and Begler still haven’t found a good rhythm yet.
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 follow him on Twitter.