There’s one word that comes to dominate the events of tonight’s The Knick, and despite the episode’s title, and that baroque last scene, it’s not “dad.” The hour is indeed replete with paternal dynamics, whether it’s the bookending acts of terrible fathers and fathers-in-law, or the way one of the show’s figurative father-son relationships comes together, before quickly being put in jeopardy. Throw in Gallinger’s chance at redemption through adoption, and Thackery’s success in succeeding his own father figure, and “Start Calling Me Dad” seems to serve up its operative word right in the title.
But it’s Thackery’s repetition of “sheath” that really stands out, and the word fittingly envelops the entire episode. It’s used in reference to a new device Thackery has invented to finally crack the previa problem that’s been hanging over his head since Dr. Christenson killed himself. Looking outside the box -or rather, inside the patient- for a solution, Thackery’s B.B.B. (that’s Basketball Bladder Bullet) lets him guide a deflated airbag into his patient, expanding it to apply pressure on the bloody wounds that have caused all other previa cases to bleed out. All it takes is one little sheath, and the Christenson-Thackery-Chickering Placental Repair is born tonight, along with a wailing baby.
Granting Thackery the achievement of finally saving both the previa mother and her child seemed like the sort of thing Amiel and Begler would have wanted to do closer to the season’s end, but “Start Calling Me Dad” is very much interested in how these characters protect themselves as they move forward. The previa quandary has been solved, capping off Thackery and Bertie’s burgeoning mentor-protégé relationship with a huge win, and maybe helping Thack put to rest some of his remorse over Christenson’s suicide. It’s one small step for Thack and the hospital, but progress has no end point: there will be more problem cases, more inventions required, and more discoveries that need to be made before lives can be saved. For a moment, Thackery and Bertie touch something new, and it’s exhilarating; every moment after that, the effort and struggle that went into making the B.B.B. is now just dried ink in a medical journal.
The Knick opened with Thack giving his impassioned (and self-aggrandizing) views on death, wherein raging against the dying light was better than doing nothing at all. That melancholy romanticism has always been Thack’s emotional armor, and a healthy cocaine habit has kept him shielded physically from the demands of his pursuits. This is Thack’s sheath, the thing that protects him as he pushes forward against each new medical problem, and that blocks out the sound of his existential funk that’s always knocking at the door.
This was evident in Thackery pretty much since day one, but “Start Calling Me Dad” sets out to explore the means by which other characters guard themselves. Ignorance and self-delusion is a popular choice: Gallinger’s wife, edging on madness after losing her child, has tricked herself into believing Lily will come back. Gallinger knows this is a sadly foolish thought, and recognizes the depressed fog his wife is in. But when offered the chance by Sister Harriet to replace Lily with an orphan, he has to consider it. It wouldn’t be enough that Ms. Gallinger forget that her child has really risen from the grave; for Gallinger, a new baby girl gives him the chance to erase the guilt he feels for inadvertently causing his own child’s death. If his wife believes Lily didn’t die, maybe he will too eventually.
More steady minds are nonetheless faced with figuring out how to rationalize their actions, especially those that aren’t accidental. In the superlative-exhausting knockout scene of the hour, a two-minute tracking shot follows Cleary and Sister Harriet as they stroll down a market street. They’ve just successfully completed another abortion, and the two are finally comfortable enough with one another to open up about their motives. Cleary, despite his curt manner, has often seemed among the most clear-headed staff of the staff at the Knickerbocker, yet his upbringing under the thrall of vicious nuns required a tiny self-deception in his handwriting. It was that, or take a beating. Cleary maintains no illusions about himself, or the world: he’s simply taken enough licks to toughen up into a domineering, hard-to-harm callus.
Sister Harriet’s dilemma runs deeper though, as the contradictory forces of her faith and her conscience are weighing heavily on her. Her armor is the most obvious, intentionally so. Wrapped up in her nunnery garb, she hides in plain sight, as demonstrated by how Soderbergh keeps Harriet and Cleary looking unassuming as they amble down the road, openly discussing their illegal business without anyone paying attention. The pairing is only remarkable for the surface contrast between a nun and a brute. In truth, they’re more alike than most, two weary, troubled souls that have found a person to expose their demons to in one another.