Take Thackery, for instance: what about him do we find fascinating beyond his ability to do his job? What does anyone on this show see in Thackery, other than a pair of very skilled surgeon’s hands? Exploring this line of inquiry is another important issue that “The Busy Flea” handles in frustrating fashion. Through the most heavy-handed means possible, we get some insight into Thack’s personal life and history, thanks to the appearance of Abbie Alford, and old flame of Thackery’s that’s now suffering from a disease passed onto her by a disloyal husband (who, of course, is the only other man she’s been with, other than Thackery).
There’s been a lot of talk about The Knick’s visual strengths covering up for, and excusing its shakier writing. I don’t subscribe to this opinion just yet, but were you to use Abbie as Exhibit A of The Knick’s script shortcomings, it’d be hard to refute. The first scene between Thack and Abbie is just plain bad, she, dumping exposition and praise on Thackery like they were rain from heaven. We’re not only reminded at every turn what a wunderkind he is (“no one handles the unexpected like John Thackery”), but also of what an unstable partner he makes for (“you could never get used to what everyone else called normal”). It’s “tell, don’t show” writing at its most clumsy, and it’s hard to pick out anything of value from the scene that we didn’t already know about Thackery.
The same goes for Abbie’s surgery, which features some comically invidious commentary from Nurse Baker for no real reason. Yes, Abbie’s syphilis diagnosis might make her appear contemptible to some of the era’s prudes, but the degree to which Baker harps on the patient, mid-surgery no less, is as thunderously out of place as the suture-threatening slam from Thackery that shuts her up. Should Abbie really have been sent off, never to return again, just so that Thackery and Nurse Elgin can grow a little closer, it’ll make this turn at shading the show’s protagonist all the more baffling for suggesting any depth to Thack and Abbie’s relationship in the first place.
Like much of The Knick so far, the plotline does at better job at implying the inner conflicts of its characters than spelling them out. Much as the dialogue fails to create a full character for Abbie, the way her condition is treated by the camera does just the opposite. Getting back to the indictments The Knick has racked up so far, the word “grotesquerie” tends to pop up a lot. Blood and guts and viscera are one thing, but the degree to which Abbie and Thack’s first scene dwells on her facial disfigurement may strike some as exploitive.