True to title, The Knick’s third episode is a harried one, and gets to be a little irritating at times. With a relatively compact ten-episode first season, the show has been bold to try dumping so many characters on us so quickly, but last week did a terrific job of letting us get to know a few of them better. “The Busy Flea” tries pretty much the same thing, but the characters and directions explored are way too familiar to the Cable Drama mould, so the whole thing winds up being a bit of a mess. Because this is an hour full of missing pieces and big risks playing out on screen, it’s more apparent this week where The Knick is currently lacking, and where it’s playing things too safe.
Let’s just try to push through the big problem element of the evening, which is Barrow, and his plight to pay back the reverse Tooth Fairies who ripped out one of his molars. Where last week let us get a closer look at the aspects of Edwards that make him likeable, and the flaws of Cornelia that make her human, “The Busy Flea” spends title to tail making us even less sympathetic to Barrow than we already were.
When it comes to shuffling funds around between various loan sharks and hospital expenses, he’s shown mixed success, but in all other venues, Barrow’s utterly inept. Getting a kickback on the electrical wiring job was a life-ending disaster that he’s had to throw good money after to fix, and paying back his other debts has gotten him out of one particular hole, but no closer to filling the ones in his pocketbook and mouth. The guy can’t even bargain himself a cadaver anymore, a minor inconvenience that nonetheless gives the episode a perfect record for making Barrow look more pathetic by the end of every scene than when he began.
So, for the show to then add an affair on top of all this is just gilding the turd lily that is Herman Barrow. Does he have to be a likeable person? No. Does he have to be central to the other stories going on? Not necessarily. But if Amiel and Begler want to spend this much of an episode on him, they’ve got to do something to make wallowing in his incompetence more interesting or original. Whatever game he’s running with the hospital’s pigs and recently passed patients (to be fair, watching Barrow drag a corpse out of the hospital was pretty great), it’s no doubt meant to palliate the financial woes he’s gotten himself into. If the con proves a success, great; regardless of the moral or ethical stakes at hand, a character who’s good at what they do is always more entertaining than one who isn’t.