“Crutchfield,” the stunning, status quo-shifting season finale of The Knick ended an enthralling season of television with everything in the air. Will Dr. Thackery ever overcome his debilitating and destructive drug addiction? Is Dr. Algernon Edwards dead? (He’s definitely not, but that The Knick dares to ask, is something.) Are Bertie Chickering’s days at The Knick finally over? Will Cornelia Robertson be able to escape her marriage and stay in New York City? Is this the end of The Knick? These types of questions aren’t all that uncommon in the grand scheme of a dramatic TV series. Leaving plotlines unfinished, fates uncertain and characters in peril at seasons’ end is something of an industry standard. However, crafting a tantalizing cliffhanger is one thing, but creating a dramatically satisfying season finale is quite another. It takes far more skill and ingenuity to build a rich tapestry of characters, themes and storylines and weave it together in a way that pays off on all fronts than it does to simply take a show to the edge and say, “cut”. And at season’s end, that is a large part – maybe the second largest, next to Steven Soderbergh’s truly exhilarating directing – of what makes “Crutchfield” and the season as a whole so impressive and affecting.
There are many themes at work throughout “Crutchfield,” but one of the most prominent is consequences. Or at least that’s the term that would feel the most natural in other weighty moral cable dramas, like Breaking Bad, for example. But here, I think, the more appropriate term might be punishment, because that’s certainly the way it feels. Some of the punishment is deserved, some of it is deserved but out of proportion to the degree of the transgression, and some of it is totally unfair but just The Way It Is. All of it, though, is painful to watch. And what makes it so painful is how these characters and their stories have been so painstakingly developed over the course of this series.
Cornelia Robertson was introduced as a privileged white daughter of old money. She had far more power and influence than most women in that day and age, but over the course of 10 episodes, we learned the cruel limits of her position. She was pressured to be wed to a man she didn’t love, essentially, out of the interest of business. She was in love with a smart, handsome and highly respectable man whom she could never be with because of the color of his skin, and when the two of them finally gave in to their natural desires, they were punished with what any other couple would deem a blessing: a child. In “Crutchfield,” Cornelia gets the abortion that Dr. Algernon Edwards previously couldn’t make himself perform. When she arrives, Tom Cleary removes the curtain that stands between Cornelia and her sad fate to reveal the identity of the secret abortionist. (Sister Harriet, of course.) Removing the metaphorical curtain to reveal what’s really going on is a reoccurring motif throughout this episode. The literalized version is a preview of what’s to come.
Cornelia and Algernon are being driven apart by their punishments, but really, theirs are two sides of the same coin. Although Clearly laughs at the irony of a beautiful, prim and proper virgin getting an abortion on the eve of her wedding day, her punishment has little to do with adultery. It’s about Cornelia’s attempt to push back against the status quo, her not staying in her predetermined lane. In 1900, there’s a place for women, and though in many ways she’s transcended that place, seeking total independence from the male hegemony is a bridge too far; choosing to be with a black man is totally out of the question. For Algernon, it’s a different song but same tune. Algernon, like Cornelia, represents a specialized case of a particular plight. The plight of the common black man in 1900 is far more severe than Algernon’s. He’s not banished to a coal room where he can be fired for no particular reason. In comparison, he’s the benefactor of an extremely privileged background that has allowed him to become sophisticated and highly educated. Since earning Dr. Thackery’s respect by going against the grain to make great discoveries, he’s been put at the forefront of scientific innovation, working alongside his former antagonist. But he still can’t be with the woman he’s always loved, just because of his skin color. And worse yet, he’s forced to give up his child with her. Moreover though, not only is he being punished for stepping out of his lane, he feels the need to punish himself for ever thinking that it was a possibility.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Herman Barrow and Dr. Everett Gallinger. Herman Barrow has secretly been in a bind of his own making all season. He owes a ludicrous amount of money to a very dangerous gangster, with his debt and desperation skyrocketing by the day. After a particularly brutal and humiliating confrontation with the man that leaves him with blood dripping down his face and ice on his testicles, he seeks a last resort in the form of Dr. Thackery. Pulling his own curtain for the first time, Barrow comes clean and begs Thackery to let him cash in on a favor owed to him by the mysterious “Chinaman” Ping Wu. But Thackery ominously warns him that Wu is “not a man to get involved with. He doesn’t believe he can die, and from the scars on him, he might be telling the truth”. Even so, Barrow meets with Wu and asks on Thackery’s behalf to kill the notorious Bunky Collier. It’s obvious that this isn’t going to turn out well for Barrow, but with his selfish and cowardly behavior throughout this season, he’s kind of asked for it.
Meanwhile, Dr. Everett Gallinger is a broken man. At the beginning of the season, he was the rising golden boy; he was tapped to replace Thackery as deputy surgeon, he had a pretty wife and a darling baby girl. Since then, his life has been upended by bad luck, bad science and his own prejudices and petty grievances. This season he was usurped by the more talented Dr. Edwards, abandoned by Dr. Thackery, devastated by the tragic death of his child and mortified by the decline in mental state of his wife (who killed the couple’s adopted daughter and was banished to a mental institution). When he visits his locked up wife and learns that the doctor has pulled all of her teeth, it sends him over the edge. (“My research has shown conclusively that all mental disorders stem from disease and infection polluting the brain. So the teeth and gums are havens for bacteria and sepsis.” And we wonder why there’s been such mistrust with doctors and medicine over the years!). Gallinger responds by bursting into The Knick and starting a fight with Dr. Edwards, and being put on administrative leave by Barrow. Thackery tries to go after him, but he doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on considering that he eventually chose Edwards over him. And so Gallinger leaves, betrayed, disgraced and broken. Gallinger has his faults, but he certainly didn’t deserve this kind of punishment for them.
And then we have the twisty, lusty love triangle of Thackery, Nurse Lucy Elkins and Dr. Bertie Chickering Jr. It begins, however, not with any of them, but with an interloper, Dr. Levi Zinberg. The charismatic doctor approaches Thackery about collaborating with him and Thackery rebuffs him, even as it’s already been approved for Zinberg to perform a spleen operation at The Knick. During the operation, Zinberg asserts that the reason you can’t transfuse blood is because there are actually three different types of blood, and there’s a wonderful slow zoom on Thackery’s face as he realizes that Zinberg has the upper hand. From that point on, he’s driven mad with jealously; he cares far more about beating Zinberg than he does about advancing science. And the further he goes on his demented pursuit, the more he pushes people away. First, when Dr. Edwards voices his concern about Thackery making the blood transfusion mystery his main focus, he nastily says, “I did not ask what you think. I told you what to do”. Later, when he’s starting to come down from his high and he’s demanding that Lucy fetch his medicine, she pleads with him, saying she doesn’t like what it’s doing to him. “I don’t care what you like” is his detached response. (In the hallway, Edwards begs Lucy to let Thack go into withdrawal, but she refuses because she’s seen it before and knows how bad it is – and so do we.) And then, when Bertie The Wise returns from a silly undercover mission to find out what Zinberg has learned, Thackery insults his patient and kind pupil for not understanding his bogus conclusions: “I know it’s Sunday, but that’s no reason to leave your brain in bed”. Bertie, however, is starting to put it together, but the curtain hasn’t been removed just yet.
It doesn’t all go to hell, though, until Thack transfuses his own cocaine-infused blood into a poor girl who think she’s about to be cured. “What have I done?” he asks, his fingers frantically checking for a pulse.
With everything to come set in motion, the last fifteen minutes are a punishing tour de force. It begins with a poetic montage of Cornelia’s wedding intercut with a fight that Algernon picks with the biggest black guy that he can find. It’s then followed by the rush to save an ailing Dr. Thackery. In a panic, Lucy reaches out to Bertie, who is quickly confronted with a painful double whammy. First, he looks down and sees the syringes that Dr. Thackery has been using to self-medicate throughout the season. Then, as he sees Lucy wrapping herself around Thackery, it hits him that she’s been infatuated with brilliant, self-destructive Thack, and not Bertie The Wise this whole time. “So it’s all true, then,” he says in dismay and disbelief at his ignorance. When Lucy half begs, half-demands that he stays and help, he righteously explodes: “I DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING”. It’s long overdue, but Bertie is a good man, and he also just happens to be related to the one man who can help, the one man who’s been warning Bertie about Dr. Thackery’s influence for ages: his father.
In the midst of this breakdown, we check in on our other punished characters. Gallinger visits his mad wife, who’s showing no improvement from the teeth removal. (I wonder why!) Neely is riding off on a horse and carriage like a fairy tale, except for the fact that she’s playing the role out of necessity rather than romance, while the man she actually loves has gotten the life beaten out of him and is lying motionless on the ground in a puddle of his own blood. And that’s not even the most vicious scene. As per his promise to Barrow, Wu busts into the whorehouse and annihilates Bunky Collier and his men by slashing throats and stabbing guts– in broad daylight, as Barrow’s newspaper states. However, Barrow then returns to his office to find that Wu has found Collier’s debt book. He’s in an even more precarious position than he was before. Bunky Collier was a violent thug, yes, but he wasn’t a tomahawk wielding mystic! Sometimes, you reap what you sow.
Bertie, meanwhile, is hurt and angry over everything that has transpired. The curtain has been removed and he now sees that the emperor wears no clothes. He’s enraged at Thackery for being something of a fraud and at himself for believing that he was anything else; likewise for his realization that Lucy has feelings for Thackery, even now. When Thack intones that he was “so close”, Bertie doesn’t let it slide. “You were off by a mile,” he fumes. At a concerned Lucy Elkins: “There’s nothing you can do for him now. There’s no use sitting there and worrying about it”. He might be paying for his blind spots – and whether she knows it or not, so is Lucy – but he’s finally standing up for himself.
In the final five minutes, though, The Knick reminds us that, as all of our characters are going through their own personal versions of hell, there are greater stakes that they’re ignoring. The camera slowly zooms in on Mr. Robertson who brings the matter of shuttering and relocating The Knick to a vote. None of our protagonists are there to save it; they’re all indisposed due to their own hubris, flaws, allegiances or limits of modern society/modern medicine. They’re all being punished. And just like that, the ultimate punishment: The Knick as we know it is no more.
Its resident genius is now in rehab, where he’ll be treated with a safe new Bayer Aspirin Company product that will miraculously eliminate the symptoms of withdrawal. It sounds too good to be true. “It’s time to start getting better,” his doctor says before leaving the room. A blurry image of a bottle sits on the nightstand in the forefront; Dr. Thackery is lying helplessly in the background. The camera focuses on his face, his eyes closed. As the pain seems to subside, a smile begins to form and an eerily serene look crosses his face. It seems our embattled, brilliant doctor is finally on his way to recovery. The camera re-trains its focus, leaving Thackery blurry in the background now. The bottle reads “Heroin”.
It looks like, for the characters and the world of The Knick, it’s not actually getting better. Not yet, at least.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He’s currently writes about television for Voice of TV, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture and politics for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices,The College Fix, and The Wine and Cheese Crowd, among other places. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.
(Photos are courtesy of Cinemax.)