In their quest to surpass HBO, Cinemax may have finally gone too far. How far? So far that I will be spending the entire first season of The Knick waiting for news that the show has been cancelled (Editor’s note: it’s already been renewed).
Sure, HBO has vampires that will explode goo all over Anna Paquin’s naked breasts, and FX’s The Strain can blithely flush every penis on the planet down the drain. But The Knick ups the ante.
How? In the first ten minutes of the season premier, we are welcomed into the operating theater where we get to watch two surgeons perform an emergency C-section on a pregnant woman.
Congratulations Cinemax; The Knick now reigns supreme as the Grand High Poobah of televised gore.
That being said, I absolutely loved the episode. History buffs will love the painstaking detail that has gone into accurately representing turn of the century New York. The costumes are magnificent (especially Clive Owen’s shoes), the sets are perfect, the street scenes will fascinate. Anyone who enjoys Boardwalk Empire will fall in love with The Knick. But don’t be fooled; just like BE, this show gives us historical accuracy at its most vile and is not meant for the faint of heart.
I am not just referring to the ocean of blood we are sure to see, but also the blatant corruption and often times despicable cultural attitudes. You want racism AND sexism? Well you got it!
And the worst of the lot is the star, Clive Owen, as John Thackery, MD, head of the New York City Knickerbocker Hospital, circa 1900. He is a misogynist, a racist, a narcissist, and a drug addict. Basically, he is a dick. He is also a brilliant doctor; and there is the rub. Modern medicine was built on the work of people just like him. These were not men driven to save lives; these were assholes who were trying to beat death and become gods.
Case in point, toward the end of the episode, Thackery is about to operate on a patient suffering from septicemia (after his perforated bowel leaked shit all over his insides). He cannot dose the patient with ether. Instead he injects a tincture of cocaine into the man’s spine, rendering his lower body numb. He explains his innovative solution to the other surgeons as he has the nurse load up a syringe and then casually mentions that he once tried the technique on his dog.
When asked if the animal survived, he blithely answers that “not a day goes by that he doesn’t miss that dog.” Oh, and would the patient mind not coughing so much while Thackery sticks the needle in? For all his care, Thackery only gives two craps about his patients.
Crap one: the patient provides Thackery an opportunity to experiment. Crap two: the patient is a source of money.
But I digress. The episode opens on Thackery waking up in an opium den cum brothel. He takes a carriage to the Knick, shoots up between his toes, and immediately gets to work assisting Dr. Christiansen (played by a magnificently bearded Matt Frewer) in the operating theater. In comes that pregnant woman I mentioned earlier. She presents with a case of placenta priva (the placenta has detached from the uterus). Shit gets real; real ugly.
Despondent after twelve fatal procedures in a row (don’t worry, you only actually see #12), Dr. Christiansen washes up and then retires to his office and blows his brains out.
We should take a moment to congratulate Thackery, on his sudden promotion.
Unfortunately for Thackery, running a hospital is a tricky business. He will need tough ambulance drivers who can ‘acquire’ more patients for the Knick by beating up ambulance drivers from other hospitals and stealing their patients. Thackery will need to play nice with the Knick’s rich patrons, the Robertsons. No matter how vile their wacky, progressive, ideals might be. Especially since they are paying for the electric light installation in the hospital. Sucking up to the Robertsons means Thackery will have to integrate his staff with the Harvard educated African American doctor that the Robertsons insist he hire (the horror).
He cannot forget to scream at and humiliate the nurses on the floor of the ward. Extra points for accusing them of trying to kill the patients, in front of said patients, the patient’s family, the other nurses, a handful of doctors, and the facility administrator. Did I mention Thackery is a dick? Speaking of, he might not want to be too harsh with that nurse in the future, especially since he ends up asking her to shoot him up while he has the shakes from withdrawal. In the dick. Thackery has managed to collapse all his other veins.
Yes. In the dick. Take that, The Strain.
Oh, and in his spare time, Thackery manages to smelt a brand new laparoscopic tool (for use in the bowel resection) all while being an unconscionable prick to the black doctor, Algernon Edwards. He never even breaks his stride.
It was a busy episode. Like all new series, it will have growing pains. I am curious to see if the writers sand down some of Thackery’s rough edges. I wonder if they will go the predictable route with Dr. Edwards (OMG he has to step in and save a surgery/patient/colleague and thereby proves himself) or let his character develop in this conflict laden cesspool. I wonder if they will reign in the gore and the dream like quality of the cinematography and the music. Oh yes, the trance music definitely needs to go. I get that Thackery is running around, headlong in a drug fueled delirium. I don’t need his antics scored to modern trip hop, thank you very much.
Otherwise, I will freely admit that I am a sucker for gore. I found The Knick fascinating. Full disclosure: I had a C-section in March. It took less than 20 minutes and despite my doc’s comment that the baby was “really jammed in there,” there were no complications. Why? Because in order for my operation to be a success, a lot of women had to die on the table first.
The history of medicine is violent and uncomfortable. Here we see racism and integration, gender bias and women’s liberation, alongside the evolution of science in the modern age. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the human body lost its mystique and became a bag of meat to be conquered by sawbones like Thackery.