The Knick, Ep. 2.05, “Whiplash”

The Knick, Season 2, Episode 5, “Whiplash”
Written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Airs Fridays at 8pm (ET) on Cinemax

As I’ve been noting throughout The Knick‘s entire run, this is a show with a shocking propensity for gruesome imagery, and “Whiplash” is the most egregious and stomach-churning example to date.

Of particular note is a series of scenes that shows Thackery (Clive Owen) pulling back the protective layer which covers the brain and prodding it with a series of electrical currents in order to stimulate certain areas of the brain. It’s worth mentioning, of course, that the patient is alive and awake during the process. While the brain feels no pain, as Thackery reminds his fellow doctors, the scene is particularly disturbing when Thackery exploits the patient’s emotions to demonstrate the operation of the brain. While forceps dangle with scalp tissue firmly clasped, and Thackery jabs an electrical prod into the brain, the patient begins to alternate between laughter and tears (“Stop, please.” he begs) in a manner that makes the notorious brain cannibalism sequence from the Hannibal film seem tame by comparison. In a show which so regularly wows viewers with its vividly convincing makeup effects, “Whiplash” sets yet another horrifying new bar to marvel at.

But the blood doesn’t stop flowing there, quite the contrary. With an accidental dynamite blast in the new subway construction comes the arrival of dozens of new patients to the Knickerbocker over the course of a few hours. As the staff puts in hour after aching hour of overtime while dealing with literal life-or-death pressure at every conceivable moment, shrapnel is removed, blood spurts generously, and cries of agony become mere background noise. Yet, even under such insanely dire circumstances, Gallinger (Eric Johnson) can’t help but bristle at the advice of a black man. Again, it’s hard not to wonder if the writers are addressing the audience directly when Thackery barks that even an inanimate brain is tired of hearing the doctors argue about race.

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Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t for a moment deter Gallinger from his new eugenics obsession, and with his storyline closing out the episode with a grimly dark conclusion, the castration of unwitting simpletons at a mental health facility, The Knick is set to descend into even darker territory yet. This disquieting subject matter takes another step still toward the abyss with Thackery removing a portion of a patient’s brain in hopes of treating his addiction to morphine, only to leave him in a state of catatonia.

Indeed, there is little room for joy in this trying hour, as elsewhere Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) leaves his wife in tears in order to secure the freedom of a prostitute and Bertie (Michael Angarano) finds his mother closer still to the icy touch of death. While Bertie’s plotline finds some colorful levity as a risque joke breaks the tension at the dinner table, even these moments are colored by the bleakness that carries throughout “Whiplash”.

While scarce moments of joy become apparent during the romantic subplots, as usual these appear as a weakness on an otherwise excellent hour. Series like The Knick which soar in almost every other area, yet still sink during their love stories, show just how difficult it is to pen a compelling romance angle into a weekly serial, with each of the four relationships explored in “Whiplash” leaving little for the audience to cultivate. Only Bertie’s romance with a fledgling journalist leaves even the briefest of aftereffects on viewers, even as Nurse Elkins’ blossoming feelings for the blisteringly phony Henry Roberston (Charles Aitken) showcase a particular episode lowlight.

Conversely, Henry Robertson is slowly emerging as an intriguing character in The Knick‘s second season, and his conflict with Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines) over the future of American capitalism, even while his business venture severely hemorrhages their joint funds, looks to be a surprisingly compelling throughline for the remaining episodes.

Though it has its problems, “Whiplash” is still a very strong hour, and one that introduces a few compelling new plotlines while delivering pulse-pounding sequences that are sure to induce anxiety and nausea for viewers.

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