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There is a moment in the second episode of the second season of The Knick when nurse Lucy Elkins is showing her visiting father the operating theater of the Knickerbocker Hospital, circa 1901.
“You wouldn’t believe what happens here.”
AIR DATE Oct 16, 2015
It’s a moment, for anyone who watched the fascinating, cringe-inducing surgery scenes from season one, to let out a well-earned belly laugh.
It was often hard to believe what passed for medical care at the turn of the century — which is the still-riveting concept at the heart of The Knick.
Sometimes it seems like half of what makes a great series is coming up with a premise so unique it can’t be ignored or twisting a well-worn genre into something fresh. Of course, lots of series find themselves halfway to greatness and fall flat because they can’t conjure up the other half: execution.
But what The Knick did last season, when it burst onto the scene in an effort to make Cinemax a go-to destination rather than just another HBO property, was bring all of the elements together in a show that constantly impressed. It was a hospital drama set in New York in 1900, when medicine was trial and error — mostly error — and not the scientific and studied art it is now. In many ways, The Knick was a small horror show masquerading as a hospital drama.
Series creators and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler deeply mined the notion of what it would be like to view doctors not as saviors and healers, but almost like last-chance magicians who try to make your ailments go “poof” without fully understanding their causes.
And yet The Knick also stood out — way out — because every episode was directed by Steven Soderbergh. The Academy Award winner dedicated himself to what was essentially a 10-hour movie — a remarkable decision that came on the heels of his decision to “retire” from filmmaking (which he amended to be more of a “sabbatical”), a decision that marked the first such commitment by anyone of his magnitude to directing every episode of a television series.
And then there was Academy Award-nominated actor Clive Owen at the center, playing brilliant, cocaine-addicted surgeon John Thackery (aka Thack).
As The Knick kicks off season two, all of the impressive pieces are still in place. The first season ended with Amiel and Begler wrapping up a series of storylines, the most important being Thackery’s checking into an early incarnation of a rehab facility after his rampant condition — the cocaine fueled his passion for surgical experimentation, a rush to seek “cures” for myriad maladies infecting and killing countless New Yorkers in (seemingly) the most gruesome of ways — culminated in a dubious surgery on a young girl that went badly awry.
Meanwhile, the struggling Knickerbocker Hospital looks to be shutting down, as its financial backers seek to move it uptown and away, essentially, from the great mass of unwashed immigrants who can’t pay their bills. Thack is supposedly getting the therapy he needs (he’s not; he’s been prescribed “heroin” from the Bayer company — just one more in a long line of true-life medical stories that Amiel and Begler researched and mined effectively in season one), and while he’s out, Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) is the acting chief of surgery — a triumphant overcoming of racial injustice (though, of course, not entirely, which was one of the most compelling stories from the first season). Through the Edwards character, Amiel and Begler were able to add race to their list of issues (turn-of-the-century voodoo medicine, class structure, the emergence of city and nation under the microscope, etc.) while Holland’s brilliant performance was a perfect counterbalance to Owen’s, setting up a conflict between two talented, curious and competitive surgeons. Edwards, always fighting harder and suffering more because of his skin color, opens the second season with hopes of being made the permanent hire at the Knickerbocker, whether it moves uptown or not.
But it doesn’t take much guesswork to know that, despite his continued struggles, Thack won’t be away for long, and Edwards’ fight — the personal and professional one that drives him, in anger, to vent his frustrations in actual fighting in the late hours — will continue.
But that’s as it should be — 10 episodes wasn’t enough to fully treat the Thackery and Edwards stories, not to mention the fate of a struggling hospital. Season two begins to address those issues promptly, and all of the wonderful supporting characters — including personal favorites Lucy (Eve Hewson), Bertie (Michael Angarano), Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) — are present and doing wonderful work.
But there’s no escaping the fact that Soderbergh is the essential element to this series — he put 10 beautifully crafted episodes together last season, as well as a master class of lighting (no easy feat, given it was set in 1900) and mood-making that deftly shifted between the macabre (all the surgeries and ailments) and the mystical (Thack’s drug-fueled daily existence, demons and visions).
The second season picks up immediately with Soderbergh’s visual flourishes and sense of when to use music or make what amounts to a soundless cloud that surrounds his perfectly framed shots — we get the quickest of snippets of Thack seeing the girl who died in his last botched surgery. Then it’s the director swooping through the halls of the Knickerbocker, establishing characters and backstories, reminding viewers of where the first season left off. But what sets apart the first couple of episodes is Soderbergh telling the John Thackery comeback story, which partly consists of his zeal for drugs — the addiction never curbed the sharp, foxlike nature of his mind — and ultimately ends up on some beautifully shot scenes on a sailboat. You can tell that Soderbergh delighted in this unexpected detour because it gets his camera out of the dank, dark Knickerbocker, with all those black and brown tones, and out into the sun, where his gift for lighting scenes feels like a drug-fueled love affair with white sails, blue water and pale skin.
It’s yet another example of the visual delight that The Knick is — and one of those, “Oh right, a truly great director is handling every scene of every episode” realizations. For someone who can barely stomach the moments — three to five per episode — when The Knick seems hell-bent on making me want to throw up over a peeled-back nose or a groping hand inside a gurgling chest cavity, the payoff is watching how Soderbergh constructs them.
That said, The Knick is more than just a visual tour de force. The writing continues to stand out, and the characters evolve, while the acting remains top-notch. This is so much more than a hospital drama — it’s a rogues’ gallery of turn-of-the-century American types, documented through a social-studies lens, fueled by history, leavened by humor and set in a hospital with talented, visionary doctors who are, one year on, still more likely to kill you than they are to save you.
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