'The Knick': Thackery Looks to Reclaim His Glory in Season 2

“Cocaine was a suit of armor and it’s hard to go into battle without your suit of armor,” co-showrunner Jack Amiel tells THR.
Courtesy of HBO

When viewers last saw the once brilliant but now fallen John Thackery (Clive Owen) in the season-one finale of The Knick, he had been committed to a clinic for drug use where his cocaine addiction was being treated with heroin.

In Friday’s season-two return, “Ten Knots,” the show picks up a month later, with Thackery still self-medicating and Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) running the hospital in his stead — with surprising numbers for just a short month’s work. Meanwhile, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) is adjusting to married life and Lucy (Eve Hewson) is anxiously awaiting word from Thackery.

While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Thackery will return to The Knick, thanks to previews audiences know he’s headed in that direction. When he does, it will be a slow build to get him back into the operating theater, according to showrunners Jack Amiel and Michael Begler.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the duo ahead of the season-two premiere to dissect Thack’s eventual return, Algernon's battle and the show’s upcoming gruesome surgeries.

Why pick up a month after the finale?

Begler: We knew we didn’t want a lot of time to pass; we didn’t want Thackery miraculously better, we wanted to see just how bad it had gotten. That’s when we made a decision to just make it a month later, so that we can see the full effect and how quickly the heroin could destroy him and send him just deeper down that hole. Pretty early on when we were breaking the season we felt like that was really important, to dig that hole deeper for him.

Amiel: Addiction factors in in a huge way this season because there’s so little understood about it. Back in the 1900s addiction was seen as a weakness of character. We want to show a lot of the backward thinking of the era. One of the other weird, awful common beliefs of the time were that people got sick because they were weak, they deserved it or they were evil. It went hand-in-hand with this idea of the poor. Thackery sees addiction in much more egalitarian terms, and he will look for solutions that other people aren’t.

When Thackery does return to the hospital, how hard will it be for him to return to the operating theater?

Amiel: The Knick, from the moment we see it, is this beleaguered hospital and it has this one shining, renowned star, Thackery. Now they’re endeavoring to build this new modern, impressive, uptown hospital and it’s something worthy of the uptown wealthy neighborhood in which it will be situated. But that costs money and you need people who want to be connected to The Knick. That is Thackery. And if he’s not performing his miracles or not up to snuff or he’s decided to change his focus to something less spectacular, it suddenly hampers The Knick in a very real way in terms of fundraising and profile in the medical community.

Begler: For Thackery, that is stepping back into the hospital where it all went wrong. It’s the place of his greatest triumphs and the place of his greatest defeat. He’s very nervous. Part of it is he wants to find a cure for this addiction, but I think he’s also scared of holding that scalpel again. He doesn’t have the confidence anymore and I think it’s going to take a while. He needs victories to build up his confidence.

Amiel: It’s hard. When you talk to addicts, they don’t know how to love or be loved when they’re not in some state of distortion. They don’t often know how to do their job. Sometimes they think that’s where the magic comes from. There are writers and musicians and people from all walks of life who cling to their drug of choice because it may be a confidence booster. Or it may be the thing that makes them feel capable. For Thackery, it’s hard because cocaine was a suit of armor and it’s hard to go into battle without your suit of armor. But confidence does grow.

There are fewer surgeries in the first four episodes than in season one — will it get gruesome again?

Amiel: We don’t do it gratuitously. We know there’s a high blanch rate of people turning away. But as time goes on they also become quite used to it. We do it because it’s real and we want people to understand what these surgeons were dealing with and the brutality of what it meant to be a surgeon back then. This season we didn’t turn away from the surgeries, but we wanted to drill down deeper with the characters.

Begler: We’ve got a few surgeries this season that are pretty mind-blowing but completely real. We’ve got two giant surgeries, one at the middle of the season and one at the end of the season, which I think will be talked about a lot.

Would you agree this season is a little more female driven?

Amiel: Last year was really about how they’re being boxed into this corner. This year we wanted to explore — with both race and gender — limitations other people set. How do you defy the limitations; how do you make your version of your life in a world where it’s all being prescribed for you?

What can you tease about this murder that occupies Cornelia’s time this season?

Amiel: I can’t tip too much of our hand on that, but it goes to this idea that Cornelia is endlessly curious and she wants adventure. She wants a purpose and she wants to feel valuable. We have a scene in season one where she comes home after catching typhoid Mary with inspector Speight and she feels this surge of pride and adrenaline and value. Almost immediately that’s countered by her husband, who sweetly congratulates her on the little victory, but reminds her it’s her final act at The Knick before she gets married. So this is her finding another way to feel useful and valuable and to be spurred by a purpose beyond simple what’s expected of her.

Where does this leave Algernon?

Begler: In season one he was really fighting two worlds: the white world and the black world. He was trying to see where he fit in. It became a real issue until the end, where he fights this giant guy and he ends up getting the crap kicked out of him. In season two, he’s not out for himself anymore. He’s going to meet others like him. The Talented 10 were like the top 10 percent of the African Americans in America who were well educated and in high professions. Those were the leaders and those were the men who needed to come together to bolster up the African American as a whole society. That’s the journey that Algernon is going to go on, and he’s going to see that it’s not just about him.

The Knick debuts on Friday at 10 p.m. on Cinemax. 

How long do you think it will be until Thackery is back in the operating room? Sound off in the comments below. 

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