The Knick Season 2 Episode 1
Near the end of The Knick’s excellent season two premiere, one character in an operating room observes, “that’s a big abscess.” The beauty of The Knick is that there is no doubt soon after that line is uttered, the aforementioned abscess will be spraying blood, pus and tissue all across the room.
The Knick is refreshingly unsubtle and entirely brutal. Gore abounds in its version of a turn of the 20th century hospital more readily than an abundant than a horror movie.
The medical realities of the early 1900’s as depicted by The Knick are reminiscent of debates over the real cause of the American Civil War. Everyone likes to discuss states rights and agricultural societies vs. urban while downplaying the slavery aspect because that’s just too easy. How can something we all learned in the 6th grade really be the primary motivator for such a complicated conflict? Similarly, how can surgery in 1900 be as bloody and barbaric as we think it is? Aren’t we usually wrong about everything?
Then The Knick steps up and cries “You’re not wrong! This shit is as bloody and terrifying as you think it is. Now watch me reconstruct this chick’s nose with my bare hands. YOLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
The Knick is broad, bold and stylized. Not normally what we’ve become accustomed to from period dramas. It’s also wildly entertaining and deliriously fun.
The only misstep from season two (the first four episodes were made available for this review) is that it returns to the status quo a little too quickly. The Knick season one ended in a fascinating place with Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) entered into drug rehabilitation for his cocaine addiction. The treatment for which in 1900 is, of course: heroin.
Season two opens with Thack in treatment still experiencing guilt from the botched surgery that sent him to rehab in the first place. Things at the Knick are largely in a holding pattern. Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) still struggles with getting respect or even basic recognition from his white colleagues, though an unwelcome visitor from his past soon throws everything into flux. Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) still struggles with trying to find help for his mentally ill wife, Eleanor (Maya Kazan)*. Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) makes a bold change but is still the “kid.” Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) and Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) all largely remain themselves even in new, mostly stressful situations.
*I can’t say enough good things about both the character of Eleanor and Kazan’s performance. The loss of the Gallinger’s baby (two, actually) was the most unexpected and disturbing aspect of season one. And Kazan captures the descent into madness with her frail frame and huge, doe-like eyes alone. Every time she appears onscreen I’m immediately sympathetic to the character and then subsequently tense for whatever fresh hell awaits her.
Based on the first four episodes and their similarity to season one, it’s clear that The Knick has a format in mind and wants to stick to it. There are individual patients that come in and out of the Knick, some of Thackery’s hare-brained experiments and at least one citywide health crisis – the plague replaces typhoid as Cornelia Robertson’s (Juliet Rylance) Nancy Drew mystery of the year.
While adherence to a format may prevent The Knick from becoming an all-time great pantheon show, it’s still perfectly watchable and riveting stuff. We’ve had our Mad Mens, give us 60 minutes of entertainment with lots of blood to boot, pretty please with sugar on top.
Speaking of Mad Men, The Knick presents an interesting foil to the now-retired AMC classic. Mad Men was a show about a particular time in American life, the ‘60’s, but did not let the setting or time period dictate its primary themes. Mad Men was always about bigger ideas of alienation and identity crises that just happened to be complemented nicely by the time period it chose to tell the story. For The Knick, the setting and time is the story. The Knick is more closely married to its setting and era than almost any other show has ever been. Mad Men successfully avoided becoming the show about how silly we all were in the ‘60s. “That doctor’s smoking in front of his patient? You’re crazy, ‘60s!” But The Knick has no problem with this. The Knick is the “people from the past are weirdos” show and it’s great, albeit in a much different way from our more literary-minded television classics.
It doesn’t hurt, that the production work is absolutely stunning and totally believable. It boggles the mind how well The Knick’s production team creates a 1900 version of New York out of thin air when Boardwalk Empire struggled to make a 100-foot section of a Prohibition Era of a New Jersey boardwalk.
Narratively, The Knick is also well-constructed show, thanks undoubtedly to showrunner Jack Amiel. Still a large portion of the credit will continue to go to director Steven Soderbergh, who has directed every episode of the show thus far. Television remains a writer’s medium but the presence of ultra-auteur and star Soderbergh is the biggest challenge to that prevailing theory yet. Soderbergh directs each episode with a perfect, anxious and exciting pace that gives the show a profound visual identity. Between Soderbergh’s twitch hand behind the camera and Cliff Martinez’ urgent score, The Knick often feels as though we’re directly embedded in the irregular, jumpy pulse of its main character: John Thackery.
The Knick earned plenty of plaudits for it’s excellent season one despite being on the still somewhat uncharted territory of Cinemax. Somehow though Clive Owen’s depiction of John Thackery still feels underappreciated. A lot of this is undoubtedly due to the excellent work turned in by the show’s supporting characters and actors. But Owen, who retains his movie-star chiseled jaw and weirdly expressive hair*, burrows into the role with near eerie totality. Thackery is the thrashing, blood-spurting heart of The Knick – even when he’s not onscreen.
*The disheveled-ment index of John Thackery’s hair can tell you a lot about where the character is emotionally from scene to scene.
In the age of subtlety, The Knick continues to be able to tell a compelling story in exciting, broad strokes. Season two of The Knick is a big abscess. Gross, excessive and primed to pop.
I love it.