Last week’s episode of The Knick suffered a fair bit for being more scattershot than the two episodes that preceded it. “Where’s the Dignity?” may be giving indication that this more expansive approach is congenital to The Knick’s storytelling, as it’s another hour that doesn’t really pull together around a particular strand. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but it does mean expectations need to be adjusted accordingly. Some of the show’s early detractors might have passed it off as House by gaslight, but The Knick’s attempting the much more difficult task of building an entire world for its show all at once, instead of exploring it in easily digestible bite-sized chunks.
Instead of case-of-the-week patients filling us in on some new facet of nascent 20th century life in New York, it’s the characters of the main cast who we focus on. There being so many of them, this means that four hours in, a lot of the folks at the Knickerbocker haven’t developed all that thoroughly, or at all really (Gallinger report: still a total prick). That being said, few shows ever take to this task without going through some growing pains, and fewer still find their way while looking as good as The Knick.
In defense of a more structured approach to writing the show are tonight’s Cleary plots: the plot involving Cleary as it exists in the show, the plot he gins up to extort Sister Harriet, and the plot of dug up earth he eventually take her to. In truth, the story is conveniently pat, introducing a conflict and resolving it using the week’s patient, but it’s an effective plot for the few scenes that it requires. Cleary’s taunting Sister Harriet over her abortion work last week, instead of outright blackmailing her, seemed like proof he was ultimately harmless. In truth, the guy was just waiting for Harriet to force the issue, and like every other bit of filth we’ve seen Cleary get into (this week: rat wrangler), he’s got his mind on his wallet.
Before there’s even time for Harriet to feel the pressure of a 60-40 split placed on her earnings, Cleary about-faces, after a particularly grisly call sees him watching over a young Russian immigrant dying from a self-administered abortion. Is it a sudden turn? Sure, but it’s one I like, simply for setting up a more interesting dynamic than what was being originally being pitched. Like with Barrow last week, it would have been a real disappointment for The Knick to decide the best thing to do with Cleary is just make him become a worse and worse person. A straight blackmail angle would have suffocated further development of Cleary and Harriet by forcing them into an adversarial position, but now that Cleary is going in as a partner on such a risky venture (still at 60-40, mind you), there’s a lot more potential to this storyline.
Just that ending scene alone does plenty to shade our understanding of Cleary, and The Knick as a whole. It does a lot to connect the whole episode visually, as an evening full of off-angle shots hits rock bottom from inside the young woman’s grave. More deliberately, the dialogue offers a window into the immigrant side of the American experience, with Cleary remarking on how his roots of an Irishman have taken him from digging graves, to a slightly more reputable position as an ambulance driver. Polish immigrants are now the ones digging dirt, and that’s all part of the cycle: a new group of people comes in to replace the old, and as the American Dream would tell it, hard work will get you to a better place in life.
The unfortunate reality of that dream is that the American melting pot always seems to have the same white rice floating to the top. As Chickering’s father and Edwards’ “father” both comment, the rich have picked up stakes and moved uptown in less than a generation. Both wax fondly on what a nice neighborhood The Knickerbocker used to be in, but it’s Dr. Chickering Sr.’s memories that are hypocritical. He struggled to raise his family up when doing undignified work, but is ashamed to let his son do the same. In what constitutes the main street of The Knick’s class divide, the wealthy treat the past like a golden age, and see the future as more of a novelty.