This review of The Knick contains spoilers.
The Knick: Season 2, Episode 2
In my review for the first four episodes of season two of The Knick, I praised the show for its devotion to the broad and bombastic over the subtle. It felt right at the time and is still what I admire most about the show.
Then some time passed and the guilt began to set in…as it usually does when I make any kind of definitive statement, even if it’s completely benign. I wasn’t raised Catholic but the water in the baptism I received as an infant certainly had the magical guilt-instilling properties known to inflict the senior circuit of Christian sects.
Yes, The Knick is big and paints in broad, beautiful strokes. But is praising the show for that akin to continuously telling a beautiful scientist “sure, your cure for cancer was great, but your figure is divine”?
I hope not. There is plenty of depth to The Knick. The characters are thinkers and tinkerers, brilliantly dicing up human bodies not just because the bloodstains look so vibrant on my computer monitor but because that blood contains the answers to questions about the human body we’ve grappled with for time immemorial. Characters words reveal how they feel, not what they think — the hallmark of any well-conceived drama.
And The Knick itself has plenty to say about modern social issues even in its 1901 setting. The fact that immigration plays such a big role in both The Knick’s depiction of 1901 and the current U.S. Presidential clusterfuck isn’t merely a happy coincidence, it’s a byproduct of thoughtful, intelligent creators having their fingers firmly on the pulse of the human condition that beats the same, regardless of century.
Still, part of me doesn’t want to talk about The Knick’s brains…I want to talk about its brawn. Plenty of shows are deep and introspective. We’ve had an embarrassment of riches of such shows in recent years. The Knick has proved it can be subtle when it wants to be. “You’re No Rose,” proves several times, however, that The Knick is just as great when it’s an assault on the senses. Just listen to that score again! It sounds like a Donkey Kong Country underwater level.
Visually, take the sad case of the now departed Inspector Speight. “You’re No Rose” opens with the sight of his corpse being fished out of a lake. Clearly he is the victim of some sort of conspiracy involving a cover-up of the bubonic plague that’s made its way across the Hudson River. Speight has always been emblematic of The Knick’s approach to visual storytelling. He’s a gross, loathsome yet still honorable city health inspector…so he looks like a gross, loathsome yet still honorable city health inspector.
The Knick is a world where people’s outside appearance frequently match their inner-self.* That can be an iffy proposition. A lot of good visual art deals with the subversion of our expectations like say, a grimy health inspector being played by a 6’3 Danish model. And I’m sure that would have been interesting in a meta sort of way. But Speights is a creep! So they physically portray him as a creep. It’s an admirable level of economy in storytelling.
The death of Speight could have been a symbolic moment in which the show turns away a little from such broadly defined characters, of course. But that train of thought is almost immediately derailed when Neely takes up the Nancy Drew Case of the Dead Health Inspector. She meets with another city official to get to the bottom of this mysterious death and wouldn’t you know it, that city official is egregiously overweight too (by 1901 standards at least).
The Knick does tend to create broad characters. An overweight health inspector here, an out of touch wealthy person there* and you’ve effortlessly built a 1900s New York sandbox to play in. Plus, once characters have a visual stereotype, then they can begin the process of subverting them.
Cleary is physically the perfect representation of a hard-nosed Irish immigrant, He’s large, bear-like and bearded and his current C.V. reads: gravedigger, ambulance driver, boxing promoter. Though he has an inexplicable soft spot for the now imprisoned Sister Harriet, Cleary’s appearance belies his charm and has made his efforts to get Harry out of prison the sweetest of the season thus far.
Even Thackery, unclassifiable as he may seem, has a certain visual tough guy appearance that his behavior consistently defies. My favorite example in “You’re No Rose” is his assuring Bertie that virginity is an outdated, sexist concept when he’s upset about Thackery’s cavorting with Lucy. Of course, Bertie wasn’t even aware that Thack and Lucy boned so…whoops. Who knew they had women and gender studies classes at 1900’s rehab though.
“You’re No Rose” does return things to the status quo too quickly. Neely begins the city-wide season-long plot with her investigation into Speight’s death. And Thackery jumpstars his own personal plot with his announcement that he intends to investigate the cause of drug addiction.
The Knick is a lot like its protragonist: obsessively advancing forward like a meticulously-coifed shark. If you’re out of rehab and able to work, you work, damn it. Thack’s own obsessiveness blends so well with Soderbergh’s snappy directing and Cliff Martinez’s frantic score that it’s easy to run along with them, trusting that you’re getting something deeper but not particularly caring if you are. In that way, “You’re No Rose” isn’t much different from the cocaine and heroin speedball concoction Thack discovers at episode’s end.
*I’ll refer you again to Clive Owen’s Hair Index as a marker of John Thackery’s level of cray-cray.
*The Robertsons and their dinner-party not understanding how anyone in San Francisco wouldn’t care about their family names feels wildly unrealistic but is probably very plausible.