The Knick season 1 episode 1 review: Method and Madness

Clive Owen shines as a driven surgeon in 1900s New York in The Knick. Now it's arrived in the UK, here's Michael's review of episode 1...

This review contains spoilers

1.1 Method and Madness

It’s not that long since it was all but impossible to read or write about Clive Owen without encountering the words ‘James’ and ‘Bond’. A perennial favourite to pick up the Walther, his claim seemed solid. Conventionally tall, dark and handsome but possessed of a rugged grit he has the quality, shared by Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton, of looking like he knows which knife to use during the fish course and which to use when slitting a man’s throat.

But he has another qualification too, a certain emotional coldness that, while it didn’t give him the keys to the Aston Martin helped him dodge the stifling tract of male romantic lead. It’s an aloofness that gives him plausibility not just as a killer but also as the practitioner of another trade in which he does the necessary tasks that most of us would sooner avoid.

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That trade is surgeon, perhaps the most brutally mechanical of all the professions in the care sector. Let’s be honest, it takes a certain mentality to be able to slice open a living abdomen and interfere with the mess of guts contained within. A steady hand, nerves of steel and a curious mixture of callousness and desperate caring. I certainly couldn’t do it, even today with all the modern world’s assistive equipment at my disposal. Performing surgery a century ago? Now that did take a certain personality.

Consequently, Owen is perfect as Dr John W. Thackery, and brings his customary aloofness to bear on a role that requires a great deal of acting skill to pull off, and even more to pull off as a lead. The simple problem (one that Owen solves with aplomb) is that Thackery is a selfish, dismissive, aloof prick. The kind of guy who tears a very public strip off a well-meaning, if naïve, nurse for failing to keep to his standards. Mind you, he’s the sort of selfish, dismissive and aloof prick for whom we should all be grateful. It’s this kind of guy who brought us the modern world.

It’s an apparent paradox, but one that makes total sense in the context of a show that offers the seeming incongruity of an electronic soundtrack in a period piece. It works because Thackery is so forward-looking and inhabits a drama set in the past but concerned with the future. In his (appropriately self-regarding) eulogy to his friend and mentor, Thackery outlines his awe at ‘the astonishing modern world in which we now live’ and marvels at living in ‘a time of endless possibility’ during which he is proud to acknowledge that ‘more has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous five hundred’. It’s a dizzying, hurried time, and Cliff Martinez’s pulsating score reflects it wonderfully.

Indeed, the times are so exciting that we can forgive Thackery’s impatience with himself and with others. He works at the searing edge of technology, so much so that he makes his own surgical instruments, ‘knife-hacking’, if you like and has little time for niceties, unless, as in the case with Miss Robertson’s demand that he employ the black Dr Edwards on pain of losing her family’s funding, he is forced to go along with it in pursuit of his higher goal.

His sense of purpose is made clear from the first moments, even if the opening is a bait-and-switch. We are invited to see a character roused from a seedy house of pleasure and making his way immediately to work to an electronic soundtrack as a sign that he is louche, a playboy surgeon. Owen’s swift, decisive movements (watch his confident swing of his foot as he prepares to inject it) support this. But, as the trackmarks and collapsed veins demonstrate, this is not drug use as pleasure, it’s too late for that. This is empty, desperate need.

Even his attempt at kicking the habit is presented as an experiment. ‘I was trying to spend the night without it’ he says to the horrified Nurse Elkins. It would appear that Thackery doesn’t even recognise himself as human and is prepared to use his own body as a curious test-bed for his ideas. In trying to reassure the despairing Christiansen, Thackery assures him that ‘the procedure failed. You didn’t’. It’s this ability to divorce his personality from his work that permits Thackery to press on where Christiansen fell.

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Edwards, who must himself possess a singular personality, is rather better on the people front. Notice that when he tries to impress Thackery with his credentials it is by appealing to his inventiveness and remarking on his lessons from a similarly innovative surgeon in Europe.  It’s clear to the viewer that these two men will complement one another well, even as they retain enough of a difference to generate drama.

The identity issues are handled well and in keeping with The Knick’s focus on changing times. However, the uncomfortable truth is that Thackery is likely correct when he cites public distaste as his primary objection to hiring Edwards (it remains to be seen whether or not it is his primary objection or just some convenient blame-shifting), but Robertson is also correct in her determination to press through her social reforms in spite of public opposition. They are two sides of the same coin, Thackery and Robertson, both working to drag the world into the twentieth century whether it wants to or not. That Thackery cannot see this shared aim is not just a fount of drama to come; it is entirely consistent with his character, the result of his inability to see anything that he cannot probe with his own instruments.

Robertson’s own instrument is money, and something that she is happy to wield (or at least threaten to wield) when necessary. It’s her family’s money that gives her a seat at the boardroom table and that allows her to insist on chairing it, despite –scandal!- being a woman.

The significance of economics both large and small cannot be overstated. The hospital’s thirty-thousand dollar annual deficit is a key driver of the plot, as is the availability of funds to pay for necessary improvements, such as the electrification conveniently illustrated at the episode’s climax. The economic value of patients is of major concern and portrayed through the dog-eat-dog working lives of the ambulance men (who are paid according to delivery) and the greasy bribery of Jacob Speight from the city council. As the realist administrator Herman Barrow remarks to Speight, ‘the poor are weaker than us’. Yes, but they are not without their uses.

The show is directed and photographed by Steven Soderbergh who brings his customary auteur’s eye to the project. His camera sweeps through corridors and into rooms in shots designed to resemble a modern medical drama, only much quieter and, it has to be said, dirtier. Several scenes are presented in a woozy half-light, while the operating theatre set-pieces offer a stark contrast between the darkness of the students and observers and the dazzling brightness of Thackery’s ministrations. The operations themselves are presented with necessary gruesomeness and add a visceral touch that wouldn’t look out of place on The Walking Dead. It’s an essential component that, coupled with stomach-churning foley work reminds us of the squelchy, confusing mess in which Thackery plies his trade. It’s not a job for everyone, but we can all be glad that it was a job for someone. 

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