This The Knick review contains spoilers.
The Knick Season 2 Episode 6
It’s not a particularly well-kept secret that the MVP of The Knick is Steven Soderbergh and his camera. The veteran director’s work gives the show its own distinctive flair and soul.
“There Are Rules” features a scene that proves this notion as well as anything in the show’s run has thus far. Bertie, Bertie’s father and Alge huddle around a small operating room in Zinberg’s hospital to burn out the tumor in Bertie’s mother’s larynx. Soderbergh’s camera rests steadily on the exposed muscle and tumor that’s killing Mrs. Chickering. There is hardly a sound in the quiet O.R. besides the ticking of an unseen clock that seems unbearably slow.
Then one of Zinberg’s employees discovers them performing this unscheduled, un-approved procedure and runs off to tattle. Suddenly Alge and Bertie are “on the clock” as Mr. Chickering puts it. The camera pulls away to survey the whole room and as a byproduct there’s a strong sense of both urgency and futility. The clock which once seemed to tick impossibly slow now thumps away like a caffeinated heartbeat. And what once seemed so simple and focused seems next to impossible.
The camera that once let us watch the precise movements of machines burning away at that tumor, now has pulled away and we see the hands operating those machines are increasingly desperate and unsure. With good reason as it turns out as Bertie’s mother dies on the operating table despite his, Alge and the recently-arrived Zinberg’s best efforts. By the time Bertie is pulled away from his mother’s now lifeless body by his father, you realize that the camera has hardly flinched.
Scenes like this are the reason The Knick is worth tuning into every week. The camera knows what its doing and knows how to make you feel. Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t quite have the same ability.
“There Are Rules” is a good and watchable episode of television but there are aspects of it that simply don’t belong in a show as visually impressive as The Knick. Most of it has to do with how the show’s scripts are treating its secondary characters. We’re past the half point of the season and it’s clear that the show doesn’t know what to do with certain characters.
Alge has a penchant for being a supporting character in his own life. Part of this is that he is an admirable dude and generally likes to help out. Bertie doesn’t even work at the Knick anymore but Alge likes him so he wants to help him out. Part of this is also due to his status as Black man in early 1900s America. Alge isn’t allowed to be in charge of his own destiny. When he asks Henry Robertson to advocate on his behalf to the board regarding a hernia procedure he wants to perform on another Black man, Henry and his father quickly decide his fate without him even present to argue his case. The new Knick should be an integrated facility they conclude but having integrated doctors AND patients? That’s too much.
It’s understandable logistically that Alge would take a back seat in his own life to a certain extent. But The Knick still needs to show he has a life. Thus far in season two his eyesight has degenerated and he’s been out in Harlem a couple of times with his new/old wife. That’s not gonna cut it.
Neely is equally underserved by season two thus far as well and unlike the case with Alge, it’s not even quite clear why. It was kind of humorous last week when Neely popped up in just one perfunctory scene talking to a city official – like the show knew if had a one scene of Neely looking into the bubonic plague per episode quota to fill. This week it’s even funnier that the show’s version of exploring this is doubling her screentime to a whopping two scenes. By the end of the season, I’m sure Neely’s investigation into the bubonic plague will have proven fruitful and interesting but the way it’s being paced out now makes it all seem inconsequential and dull.
Even a character with strong goals and decisive forward movement like Lucy just seems to be moving in the wrong direction. Lucy taking control of her sexuality is a big change for her. She pops by Henry’s office for a quick H.J. to secure her invite to an upcoming Ball. She now seems to view her time with Thackery as a sort of crash course in sexuality and manipulating men instead of a hurtful waste of time. Bully for her! Seriously. The problem is what feels fresh and compelling for her as a character isn’t nearly as fresh and compelling for the audience. Far be it from me to tell Lucy how to spend her time and grow as a person. I just wish it was more novel and not so “young woman from a small town now on pay cable-y”.
Still there is a soul hiding in the writing somewhere. It’s not as strong and vibrant as the camera but it’s there. Dr. Thackery is pursuing alternative routes for surgery, including an unsuccessful dalliance with hypnotism. But while at the circus to take in the hypnotist’s act he comes across conjoined twins Zoe and Mika. He asks their “handler” is he can bring them to the hospital to examine. Their handler agrees but only for payment and while there makes it clear that he rents the twins out to men to sexually abuse. Thack with the help of Cleary rescues them and brings them back to the Knick to stay safe and prep for surgery.
All that plot in broadstrokes in interesting enough but it’s the small details in the writing that puts the storyline on par with the impressive directing. Somewhere out there is a script page for “The Knick 2×06” that reads something akin to “Zoe and Mika look on as Dr. Thackery examines a dog’s* liver.” It’s simple but something about the construction of the scene narratively makes it shine.
*Is Thackery operating on a dog or a cat? The creature’s body looked dog-like but the paws looked cat like. Help me out.
Good drama comes from small moments – like when a pair of Siamese twins rest comfortably for the first time in what must be their entire lives while their would-be savior tinkers away at a solution to pry them apart physically. You can feel the comfort; you can smell the room. The best thing the writing does for “There Are Rules” is make two characters who have ten minutes of screentime feel completely human. The next best thing the writing does is punt the de-conjoining of Zoe and Mika to another week. Not just because I don’t want The Knick to turn into a “case-of-the-week” style procedural but also because I want Zoe and Mika to have one more week together before Thackery hopefully safely sets them on different paths.
Now why can’t season two drum up similar feelings of investment for its characters with more than ten minutes of screentime?