When I began watching The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s prestige drama about The Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900’s New York City, I thought it would be the last show that I would be writing about, let alone thinking about on a daily basis. The show was dry, save for the litres of blood and guts spilled during the show’s obligatory operating room scenes (it’s not for the squeamish); the characters were cliché, save the one character, Algernon Edwards, that the audience was bound to love from the start because of his “underdoggedness”; the show was in almost all respects, aside from its beautiful look, cinematography and terrific score (the best on television) boring and bruising, a chore to get through. The Knick is positioned as a traditional hospital drama and it feels like a lot of other hospital dramas, at least early on. But then something strange happened. In episode 4, “Where’s the Dignity”, the show left me transfixed. For all of its “prestige”, for all of the moments that strived to say, “this is IMPORTANT” and “don’t I look beautiful?”, I was able to get a read on what the show was actually about. The Knick – at its bloody beating heart – is a show about the way move forward. It’s about revolution.
The Knick is an ensemble piece and a workplace drama, like many hospital shows that have come before it. The show is set in a hospital that serves a swath of humanity, the wealthy to be sure but also many poor, immigrant patients. We are alerted to all of this by the beautiful moving, fluid camera that travels to meet each character at the very start of the show’s first episode – the fluidity of the camera and the beauty and love with which is captures its subjects is, aside from the aforementioned score, the very best thing about the show in the early going. Essentially though the show is about three main characters (or four if you count Herman Barrow, the hospitals money-man, who I look at as a peripheral overseer at the moment – mostly because, as funny as some of his interactions with the mob are, I tend to find money talk boring): Dr. John W. “Thack” Thackery (Clive Owen), the hot-headed Chief surgeon at the Knick; Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), a newly hired assistant Chief surgeon who causes a stir because, despite being perfectly qualified for the position, he also happens to be black; and Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), the head of social welfare office at the hospital and the daughter of Captain Robertson, a shipping tycoon, who she also serves as proxy for on the hospital’s board of trustees.
Part of the issue with the characters above is that they are messy to be sure (and messy is good) but they are messy in many of the ways you might expect. Our preconceived notions about these types of characters only serve to make us feel like this is all something we’ve seen before – and in a lot of ways we have. This is never more apparent than with Dr. Thackery. Thack is the character that the show wants to convince you is its main focal point; the Don Draper of the hospital, at least superficially, but without much of the charm. Thack is the Chief surgeon at the Knick and he runs the place with a mixture of efficiency, pomposity and brooding. Thack has a serious cocaine addiction, he hangs out at an opium den in his spare time, he’s racist, and he’s angry for what I assume are a series of mysterious reasons only to be revealed when the show sees fit. The one reason we know Thack is angry is that his mentor, Dr. J. M. Christiansen (the recently prolific Matt Frewer), blew his brains out after a botched surgery (not the first time to happen at the Knick and not the last – the survival rate of surgery is awfully low). And so Thack is sad and angry and has skeletons in his closet. Even Thack’s shoes – these pristine, white, leather boots – seem like an outward dare to some invisible force. “Just go ahead and ruin me, make me bloody”, they say, “everything else is ruined already”. And yet, what’s underneath all of this is some amount of exuberance and passion for his job, life itself and the future. He can’t seem to keep it tamped down. And, as we see in flashback, where he recites “The Song Of Hiawatha”, a poem he learned in grade school, at one point he didn’t try. Thack’s cynicism might not be genuine or at least not all-encompassing. The problem with Thack in the early going that as an entry-point he is hard to align with. It isn’t until he deepens and softens that he becomes someone worth following. When Thack looks at beautiful nurse Lucy on her bicycle and decides that learning how to ride a bike (like a 6-year-old) is something he’d like to learn how to do, we finally start to see Thack in a different light. Show me excitement and I will be excited.
Algernon Edwards is the one character that kept me excited with the show in the early stages (from episodes 1-3 he was the ONLY reason I kept watching). Andre Holland is a true stand-out amongst the uniformly good cast and incredibly appealing as the newly hired surgeon, having more charm in his pinky finger than Thack has in his entire body. Dr. Edwards is a fiercely intelligent man – just as smart as Dr. Thack, maybe smarter, and he knows it. Dr. Edwards comes to the Knick from Europe where he trained but his reception at the Knick is cold, demeaning and downright racist. He is summarily mocked and laughed at by his colleagues and not allowed to help during surgery. The rest of the surgeons use Dr. Edwards’ knowledge without asking for the help of his hands. Edwards is justifiably frustrated and downright angry by not only the lack of respect shown to him but also the fact that the Knick won’t treat patients based on the colour of the skin. Edwards takes it upon himself to remedy this situation by setting up his own, secret practice in his office, shuttered away in the basement of the hospital. The scenes where Edwards works on patients in the basement, with its dim, almost non-existent lights are the series’ best and, often, its darkly funniest. We find out later on that Edwards the son of the Robertson’s servants and a cringe-worthy pet project of Captain Robertson, trotted out to guests as the amazing “black doctor”. The Captain sent a young Algernon to Harvard with his own children years ago. We also find that Cornelia and Edwards are true allies, confidants and perhaps even more.
Cornelia, though, is a strange character. Not that we haven’t seen characters like her before: the strong, intelligent, independent woman who has an unusual role for the time. Rylance reads every line in this ethereal, faraway voice – as if every line is ADR – stilted and proper. It is an odd acting choice and one that keeps us at a distance. She’s a character that normally I’d be all over (Woman! Smart! In charge!) but there’s something so cool about her and it’s difficult to get too close. She’s not hard, she doesn’t have a steely exterior like many other women we see on TV in powerful positions. She’s just pitched towards this kind of calm that reads as vacant or maybe slightly high. This calmness has the effect of making her, not aloof, not pretentious, just not warm. Once she moves an inch towards warmth (and she most definitely will, these characters always do and she’s pretty much there already, having lovely scenes of vulnerability with Edwards in the past few episodes) I’ll be declaring her the best character on television.
There are a number of other intriguing characters rounding out the ensemble, too: Sister Harriet, a nun who works in the Knick’s orphanage and moonlights as an illegal abortionist; Cleary, (who may be the most fun of the minor characters) an ambulance driver, blowhard and dead-ringer for Bluto from Popeye; The aforementioned Lucy, a young, beautiful nurse who rides a spiffy blue bike and who everyone at the Knick seems to have eyes for; Bertie, a very young surgeon who still lives with his parents – if this were modern times, everyone would call him “Doogie”; and Everett, another surgeon whose life falls into tragedy when he brings home a deadly disease.
What I think the The Knick does expertly, especially in its earliest episodes, is dole out crucial information about its characters to the point where it can sometimes feel like withholding. When information about a character is revealed, the littlest tidbit can feel like a revelation. Take for instance a scene in episode 4 where a woman comes into the hospital after attempting a self-administered abortion. Thack calls upon Sister Harriet for help. Up to this point, Sister Harriet and Thack haven’t said much more than a word to each other. However, when Thack calls Harriet into the operating room we discover a number of things about their relationship without anything being stated outright: Thack knows that Harriet is intimate with this kind of issue, he trusts her enough to be present and he treats her expertise with the kind of respect that he gives few of the other doctors. The most important thing we discover is that he knows what she does and doesn’t judge her for it. In fact, he treats her – a woman – with as much reverence as anyone else in the room. We’ve entered a world that has been going on without us for years before we came along and it shows.
But by episode four the show also begins to embrace its soapier side and, on a sliding scale from pure soap to dry and chapped, I’m always more inclined to the suds. There is the drama of the operating room theatre, some of the dialogue is laughable and there are wholly unsubtle shifts in character (Thack, I’m looking at you), there are love affairs and race wars, drug use and secret rooms, an angry, Irish mob that looks a lot like something out of a zombie film, possible sexual assault and blackmail and almost certainly the only gurney-as-Trojan Horse/escape scene in television history (that is a scene that, no matter how you feel about the show, you most definitely want to see). The problem is that the show starts so molasses slow that these things, infecting the show as they do so suddenly, are at once refreshing, a lot more fun but also comically abrupt.
Where the show succeeds like gangbusters is the way it deals with technology, the astonishing advancements of the time, and the interplay that this technology had with humanity. And how, at this very specific moment in time, technology was used to try to make humans better than they were – almost super human – and how that succeeded and failed daily. As a salesman says in an early episode, “Technology and innovation will be the world’s salvation”. The excitement from the hospital’s staff about this technology is palpable and the surgeons – Thack and Edwards most notably – seem desperate to get their hands on the next best or almost best thing. The modifications that Thack and Edwards make to already existing products are ingenious. And the genuine glee that we see from people over various tools – the light, bulb, the vacuum, the X-Ray, the phonograph – is delightful. The modern, circular and propulsive score punctuates all of this. But of course, nothing is perfect – the electric light bulbs don’t always stay lit. Humans are often on the losing side of technological advancement. The Knick has a clever way of showing us how technology and the humans who use it are similar by showing us their successes and profound deficiencies. Thack and Edward are trying, with all their brains and skill and knowledge, to use technology to make themselves better at keeping people alive. And the bodies pile up in their wake.
The Knick is about a constant movement forward and a truly exciting time in American history. When the show embraces this excitement it fires on all cylinders. For a with such and interest in innovation it often feels a little stale. But maybe, like one of Edwards modified surgical devices, it needs the skeleton of something we know in order to eventually turn into something almost brilliant.