The Knick is often referred to as a circus, and in “Williams and Walker” there are plenty of nods to that. In the opening scene, Thack (Clive Owen) is still persevering with his own hypnosis techniques, having been inspired by a more literal circus, and it would seem to be bearing fruit. It’s curious that Thack would be able to perform hypnosis so effectively, and it seems strange for the show to be advocating it as a successful means of treatment. That’s one piece of “medicine” that truly does belong in a circus…
Bertie (Michael Angarano) strolling out in nothing but a towel and a top hat, meanwhile, brings to mind a clownish comedy routine—emphasised when he lets the towel drop and expertly positions the hat over his privates. It’s an outrageously adorable scene, as he and Genevieve (Arielle Goldman) attempt to have sex for the first time, giggling away like two nervous teenagers. Their tender, giddy exploration of each other is contrasted with the smash-cut edit to pimp Wu (Perry Yung), ploughing away at one of his whores, and made even more starkly seedy when he shoves a foot in his mouth as he climaxes. The reveal that the foot belongs to Lucy (Eve Hewson) is even more unsettling, and it’s not the only time in the hour that fast edits seem deliberately designed to keep the audience off-guard.
Of course, while the conjoined twins from last week might not be in a real circus any longer, they are still a major attraction for strangers to pore over. Their surgery is ultimately successful, but not before Thackery has a major crisis of confidence. As he retreats to his office and hunches over his desk, Cliff Martinez’ score ditches the synths in favour of clanging metal and clinking chains to underpin his fidgety state of mind, and it looks for all the world like he’s going to use to help get him through the surgery. But he doesn’t—he phones Abby (Jennifer Ferrin), instead, and her words of encouragement are all he needs. Abby is his new drug, and the effect is marked—he’s happy and sober throughout the entire episode, and all of his medical procedures go well.
At first it feels like a cheat that we don’t actually get to see the twins’ surgery, especially as Thack’s speech to the onlookers in the Knick’s version of a big top was so rousing and captivating, but ultimately it’s not an issue. Thack’s crisis of confidence was the drama, and it’s no longer evident as he holds court—the ringmaster of this particular show—and so the surgery runs smoothly. Thack’s on his game, and so there’s no drama for us to dwell on.
Having everyone back together in the Knick and interacting with one another again has immediately livened things up. D.W Carr’s (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) arrival at the hospital forces Algie’s (Andre Holland) hand in being more proactive in standing up for the treatment of black patients—something to which Gallinger (Eric Johnson) obviously takes exception, which in turn leads to a fiery confrontation between Thack and Algie. “Is that a provocation?” Thack demands of him. “No, it’s the future. You think it’s here too early and I think it’s here too late”. Andre Holland has barely finished delivering the line before another smash-cut edit comes down like a cleaver, emphasising the urgency of the argument and the power of the point. The future may not have arrived at all yet, however, as Edwards later discovers that Robertson’s endorsement of him can only go so far, and that he may not even have a place at the new Knick.
Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), meanwhile, finally makes some interesting progress in her investigation of Speight’s death, uncovering her own father’s hand in a plot to allow sick immigrants into the country because it’s cheaper than having to ship them back. As if that weren’t enough, she also has another run-in with her ghastly father-in-law (Gary Simpson), whose domineering form—both physically and emotionally—is terrifying. As he affixes jewellery to a vulnerable and underdressed Neely, he’s too large a presence to even fit on the screen, and Neely’s claustrophobia is palpable. It becomes even more suffocating when it emerges that he’s the only thing keeping her own family established in high society—Captain Robertson (Grainger Hines) is nearly broke, and relies on Mr. Showalter’s finances entirely. Cornelia is imprisoned in her own life, and there’s no obvious way out. One suspects it will get worse before it gets better.
And then the big act, and the episode’s centrepiece: the Charity Ball, in which The Knick goes full Jane Austen, which allows director Steven Soderbergh the chance to play once more. He again takes us on a dizzying trip through an expansive set, bursting with incident and extras, in a masterful unbroken shot that includes stop-offs for conversations with half of the cast. It’s mind-boggling how often the show pulls these off, especially with such busy scenes, but the camera follows, swoops, spins and dips marvellously, and it’s hard not to be enraptured. It’s also very curious to see a Jane Austen-style ballroom dance scored to Martinez’ pulsing electronic score. The anachronism of the music continues to work wonders.
The party comes complete with a rather more uncomfortable kind of circus act, however, in the shape of the titular minstrel show. Period pieces like this often use a scene of black-face and/or inappropriate entertainment from the past to shock modern audiences (perhaps most famously in recent times with Roger Sterling blacking up in Mad Men), but the jarring effect never diminishes. Even if Algie and Opal (Zaraah Abrahams) themselves raise tentative smiles.
And the most despicable circus act of all is that of Gallinger, whose sleight of hand is so effective as to basically constitute a magic trick. Along with Mr. Showalter, Gallinger is the series’ principal bad guy, and here he’s shot every inch like a serial killer in a horror/thriller. His actions are despicable: not only does he sabotage Edwards’ surgery of Carr—the success of which might have opened the door to more black patients—but he also rides to Carr’s rescue in order to cover his tracks and raise his own standing. He’s discredited Edwards in the cruellest and most perfect manner, and much like Neely with the Showalters, Edwards has no obvious way out from under it.
The episode ends with Edwards poring over the details, trying to make sense of what’s happened to him. There’s great editing work, as his voiceover continues even as none of the shots we’re shown actually depict him speaking. It’s an effective way of demonstrating his fractured state of mind: internally, he’s all over the place trying to piece it all together, yet with one overriding thought dominating: “How the hell could it go so wrong?”
Aside from Edwards and Cornelia, though, everyone else in the episode actually does rather well. Thack and Abby are happily paired up, while Bertie and Genevieve appear perfectly in love. Lucy continues to manipulate men—Wu into the money for a dress, Henry (Charles Aitken) for a way into the high life—in a way that leaves everyone happy, at least for now, while Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) gets out from under one of the men getting in the way of his scheming.
And, of course, everyone’s favourite odd couple Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and Harry (Cara Seymour) have a blast living together. Harry simply cannot keep the smile off her face in the company of the good-humoured hulk, and Seymour’s face lights up the screen.
It’s difficult to mine drama out of happiness, though, and it’s surely only a matter of time before the pendulum begins swinging back the other way. Although for Edwards and Cornelia, it’s more a worrying question of how much further there is to fall?