Is there anything better than watching television about the past, when people were wrong about everything? The past, with its glamorous clothes, copious smoking, and easily judged mistakes? If you said, “Nothing, except perhaps television set in the past full of gory surgery scenes,” well, you’re in luck. Cinemax’s new show, The Knick (directed by Steven Soderbergh), serves up present day feel-goodness and old time gore in equal measure.
The Knick opens with our hero, Dr. John W. Thackery (Clive Owen) being awoken by a naked woman in a brothel. From the brothel, he hails a carriage to the hospital. On the way, he injects some cocaine into his foot. All in the day of the life, one supposes, of a TV anti-hero.
In any case, Thackery rolls into Knickerbocker Hospital, ready to operate on a pregnant woman . The surgery is risky, and the woman bleeds to death on the table in a genuinely horrifying sequence: her blood, which is being vacuumed by an assisting doctor into jars, goes from steadily filling one to filling many.
For the chief of surgery, Dr. Christiansen, this last failure is too much to bear; he walks back to his office and kills himself. Thackery is promoted to Christiansen’s place; the rich patrons of the hospital propose a new doctor, an outsider, for Thackery’s old position. The new doctor is black; this being New York in 1900, everyone reacts predictably; and so the stage is set for the rest of the story.
The Knick is not very good. That should probably be said before anything else. Its attempts at edginess are clumsy (at one point, Thackery orders a nurse to inject cocaine into his urethra) and its attempts at profundity are embarrassing (Thackery again, on why he will not give up on medicine even though it is “tilting at windmills”: “those windmills at which we [tilt] were created by men to turn grindstones and transform the Earth’s bounty into flour”). The characters that populate the story are much too broadly written, even for a first episode. Particularly its Irish-American characters, who might as well burst onto every scene screeching “Top o’ the morning to you.”
In its catalog of the sins and mistakes of the past, The Knick is unrelentingly preachy. This is not always a mistake: The real first black doctors in New York hospitals undoubtedly went through worse treatment than The Knick’s Dr. Algernon Edwards. But the show itself doesn’t really live up to its standards. Edwards is belittled by every surgeon he speaks to, and, in the surgery that closes out the episode, his judgment turns out to be incorrect, his presence unnecessary. Instead, the scene—like most others in the episode—is focused on the brilliance of Thackery.
It’s a scene that might have made no impression at all, had the show not spent its lead-up to the scene relentlessly reminding you that everyone is dismissing the input of a brilliant surgeon, only to do the same itself. Instead, one is left with the creeping suspicion that Edwards exists only to allow Thackery to grow as a person; just as all these reminders about the past amount not to reflection about the present, but simply self-satisfaction.
For all that, The Knick is beautiful in a way that holds your attention, even in its ugliest moments. When Christiansen succumbs to despair and kills himself, he and the camera slowly reel into his office, where he spreads a sheet over his couch, collapses, and shoots himself in the head. Christiansen’s methodical washing-off of the blood after the surgery, methodical spreading of the sheet to catch his own, shooting of the gun, are all rendered dreamlike in the sense that one actions leads to the next with reasoning that’s difficult at first to discern, but horrifying once you do.
Compared with the surgery scene just before, where death was suggested indirectly, through jars filling with blood and the patient’s rapidly fading pulse, this death is simple and direct—one shot, a little blood, and gone. There’s something here, in this moment, in these different deaths so close to each other, and not all the terrible dialogue to follow can entirely erase it.
But this scene also doesn’t make a lot of sense, which heightens its dreamlike qualities in the moment, but undoes them afterward. Why suicide over this death, surely one of many in a career in medicine? We are told later on that Christiansen has attempted the same surgery more than once without success, but even then, that doesn’t seem to answer the question of why this patient, right now.
When Thackery delivers the eulogy at Christiansen’s funeral, he rambles on about the march of progress and the inevitability of death. But this address seems more aimed at the audience watching the show, who know that medical progress will indeed march on and that death does remain inevitable, than it is at this suicide. Instead of illuminating it, in fact, it just makes it harder to understand. But Christiansen’s suicide, in the end, is tossed aside. By the end of the episode he seems entirely forgotten.
In addition to being very beautiful, The Knick is also smart about other aspects of its presentation. It avoids feeling too much like a bunch of people wearing period drag by using a soundtrack that’s all electronic music. Clive Owen, despite often being given remarkably stupid lines, does the work to sell them. And those surgery scenes are disgustingly hypnotic viewing. But on their own those traits won’t be enough to sustain it for very long.