'The Knick' Boss Talks Thackery's Fateful Decision and Series Future

"There’s a lot of ways to do this, absolutely," co-showrunner Jack Amiel says on if the show can survive without star Clive Owen. "[Executive producer] Steven [Soderbergh] always says the hospital show is the most durable format in television, and that’s true."
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the season-two finale of The Knick, "This is All We Are."]

While the first half of the second season of Cinemax's The Knick was perhaps more devoid of gory surgeries than usual, the back half didn't disappoint. Friday's season finale culminated in Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) performing surgery on himself in front of a packed gallery, all in a bid to prove general anesthesia wasn't always necessary. Unfortunately, the entire thing went belly up and he wound up on the brink of life and death, with no clear answer as to whether he — or the show, which has yet to be renewed for a third season — will survive. 

To break down Thackery's fateful decisions, the supposed blowing up of The Knick staff in the wake of Captain Robertson's (Grainger Hines) death, and whether happy endings are in store for some of the fan-favorite characters, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with co-showrunner Jack Amiel. 

Did you base Thackery doing surgery on himself on anyone historical?

Yes. There was a guy named Evan O’Neill Kane. He was a renowned surgeon; it was like he was Larry at the clinic down the block. He wanted to prove that you didn’t always need general anesthesia. And as we know in that era, there were a lot more mishaps with general anesthesia back then. So the idea that you’d want to prove to everybody that there was another way to do it was really attractive as a surgeon. The truth is the spinal block is used now for an enormous number of things. We do nerve blocks, spinal blocks and epidurals as a matter of course. So he was right in a number of ways.

Initially Kane did an appendectomy and he made jokes in front of a gallery of people. He got very close to some dangerous arteries, but he did it. The second time he did it, a few years later when he was almost into his 70s, he did a hernia repair for himself. They’re a fair amount of work, and from the reports we could read and gather he never really quite recovered as well. But with another surgeon doing it the outcome might have been the same.

Kane clearly had more success than Thackery then?

Well, you can’t be that successful if … it’s hard to double die! It’s not like Thackery died and took three with him. So yes, he lived, which would stand in marked contrast.

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So Thackery died for sure?

It seems that way, doesn’t it? Algernon said that he wants to continue “his” research, right? He “owes him that much.”

If that was a series finale, was it a poetic way to go out?

We’re in discussions with Cinemax about how to proceed. But look — yes, the stories arched. Everybody started in one place and has finished in another, and I’m very satisfied with where the characters are right now. Each one has come to a conclusion; whether or not it’s a happy conclusion is irrelevant. They’ve come to a new place in their lives.

Could you see this show continuing without Clive Owen?

Oh, sure. Sure. There’s a lot of ways to do this, absolutely. [Executive producer] Steven [Soderbergh] always says the hospital show is the most durable format in television, and that’s true.

Was it always the plan to blow everything up at The Knick so characters could go their own way if need be?

Yes, and there’s also the challenge that people care deeply about these characters. They may hate them, in the case of Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) or Gallinger (Eric Johnson), or they may love them in terms of Harriet and Cornelia. But the bottom line is they are fascinated as to where they’re going. It is sort of a Diaspora.

Can you break down that final scene with Barrow and his hands?

When someone says to him, “You should get an X-ray done,” he says, “Oh, I’ve had dozens.” It’s the start of cancer. In the first season, we originally had someone who was coming to demonstrate the X-ray machine for Thackery. The X-ray was something that a few companies used. One of the companies that used them at the time was Edison. Edison had an assistant named Clarence Gally. Gally was the first person to really have high exposure to X-ray because he demonstrated them for everyone as he went around the country selling them. Soon he developed spots on his hands and eventually had to have his hands amputated, then his forearms, then his arms below the shoulder, then his arms at the shoulder. And he eventually died. And he was the first person to die from exposure to radiation. So Barrow has the beginnings of something.

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If Lucy (Eve Hewson) knew all of Henry’s (Charles Aitken) dirty deeds, would she still be pushing for that proposal?

My belief is she wouldn’t want to be with someone who did something like that. The truth is her relationship with Henry is such that he’s a puppy dog. In her mind, she could never assume he’s a murderer. So as long as she doesn’t know that, there’s no inkling in her heart that she’s in any sort of dangerous situation. I always thought people would assume Lucy has something to do with the fire because Henry’s father had a belief as to who his children would marry, and it wasn’t her. But we didn’t really point the finger at her. Lucy wouldn’t be comfortable with Henry knowing what he did, absolutely not. But she doesn’t know what he did and she’s not going to find out. At least not as far as we can tell.   

After everything Tom (Chris Sullivan) and Harriet (Cara Seymour) have been through, do they deserve a happy ending?

I think it’s a happy ending. For the audience it’s a slightly mitigated happy ending. This is the sort of relationship and time when nothing is really unmitigated. There will always be something back there lurking in a relationship like that. They’re a story I would want to follow to the end of the earth. It’s a time and a place where you do what you have to to survive. Tom has to get that thing off his chest, but once he gets it off his chest, he can live with it. He believes he was freeing her from something that was a negative in his mind. The only pure relationship in the entire show is Bertie (Michael Angarano) and Genevieve (Arielle Goldman), because the relationship comes from their feelings and they’re young enough not to have the baggage.

Should the show continue, what kind of role would mental health play in season three?

Understanding human behavior was really in its nascent stages — there was an enormous number of people who were starting to look into the workings of the human mind. What you have to remember is that this is the progressive era. This is an era where man actually believed that he could perfect humanity. There was this idea that between these miracles of technology and miracles of knowledge, we all thought we were sort of tabula rasa. In other cases you’re looking and saying, "What happens post-birth that changes who you are?" ... the nature/nurture question. Then there’s eugenics; coming out of this new understanding of human evolution that really had become accepted, ironically it’s been challenged to this day, but out of that idea of natural selection there is social Darwinism. Thackery thought he could cure addiction like it was any other disease. But what he found — and what we found — is that there’s no magic bullet. 

What did you think of The Knick finale? Sound off in the comments below. 

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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