Check it: The drugged-out muffle of gas and giggles plays our welcome to The Knick. A blink of an iris lets the sultry underground light into a perspective shot of our hero’s crossed shoes. He’s kicked back like he owns the place. No, he’s passed out. The camera’s handheld, the view ever so slightly rocking, alive with energy. A white sans-serif stamps the time (1900) and the place (New York City) over the only thing in focus, the white proto-Converses. How can they say this medical procedural is old hat? The Knick is such modern television it’s like a shot of cocaine between the toes.
That modernity is the skeleton of Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s screenplay about an arrogant surgeon with a cocaine addiction and a racism habit (Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery) thrust through three gateways at once. He’s promoted to chief of surgery, which entails working with a female administrator (Juliet Rylance’s Cornelia Robertson) new to this power thanks to her ailing father, whose financial stake in the hospital demands the hiring of a black deputy chief of surgery (Andre Holland’s Dr. Algernon Edwards). So Thack holds a new position with a new woman in his ear and a new Negro he resents. In exchange for hiring Dr. Edwards, the Robertsons are paying to install electric lighting at the broke Knickerbocker Hospital. The pilot, “Method And Madness,” ends with a shot of the lights turning on in the ward. Dr. Edwards has electrified the place, which is quite a metaphor promotion considering he makes his grand entrance during the coal delivery.
The story is about the future, but the words are stuck in the past. With the exception of a couple quotations and wisecracks, the dialogue is stiff and dusty. Even Brom Garret could spin a phrase, and Deadwood was a quarter century earlier. The sturdiness has something to do with Clive Owen’s performance, as quick and mean as Al Swearengen but nowhere near as theatrical. Thackery’s more exhausted, like he’s tired of these people, this place, this life. In the climactic surgery he takes the time to give an order to Dr. Edwards with a “Before you resign and leave us all in tears” introduction. He’s a bull even at his bitchiest.
What makes The Knick such splashy television is full-time director Steven Soderbergh and longtime collaborator Cliff Martinez. Martinez’s anachronistic electronic soundtrack hurdles The Knick into the future, tapping into the cutting-edge feel of the turn of the century with a pulsating industrial din and ‘80s vibrato whirs. Martinez turns a carriage ride through an old city into an early racing game. That’s what got me. The Knick seduces in three parts: first that modern composition, then the music, and finally the first action sequence. The Knick is edited and shot by Soderbergh, too. He’s so prolific and wonky that episodic television is a great fit. Not only can he realize ten scripts a year, but the regimented space of a TV season suits his appetite for process, by which I mean the specific, step-by-step way things happen à la Traffic or Haywire. Just as Contagion follows the outbreak of a disease from a citizen to her family to her doctors to the CDC to foreign agencies and on and on, charting everyone’s relative progress over time, “Method And Madness” maps out as much as it can about The Knick, the people and resources that go into it, the money and bodies that go out, the various procedures within. The antihero recalls a more fearless House, and the historical medicine evokes a dingier Call The Midwife, but the network approach is closer to St. Elsewhere. Only instead of a camera cutely dancing from doctor to doctor, Soderbergh cuts together a system of data like sections of an orchestra. And that data is information about life and death, god and science, the past and the future, social Darwinism and progressivism, and shots of cocaine straight into the spine.
So we start with Dr. Thackery, who leads us to the operating theater where we meet Matt Frewer’s chief of surgery, Dr. Christianson. After the failed procedure, Christianson shoots himself, Thackery delivers a eulogy, and then he stomps out of the church barely acknowledging a compliment from Cornelia. She’s walking with a nun, Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), and they’re joined by hospital money-man Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). Sister Harriet peels off and the other two take us into The Knick. Then we cut to two silhouettes flanking Sister Harriet’s arrival. The one with dialogue is Mr. Cleary (Chris Sullivan), an ambulance driver. He takes us to a patient, that patient arrives at The Knick, and Cleary meets with Barrow to get paid. Every new character connects to an old one, and the city is crawling with life.
Take Health Inspector Speight (David Fierro), a walking Thomas Nast cartoon, and the tuberculosis patient he sends to The Knick, an immigrant who relies on her daughter to translate. When Michael Angarano’s Dr. Bertie Chickering, Jr. hesitates to reveal her terminal prognosis, Cornelia tells the girl, “Please tell your mother that the doctor says her disease has made her very sick. She will not get better. She will only get worse.” The girl turns to her mother and then immediately looks out the corner of her eyes, trying to remember exactly what Cornelia said. It’s inevitable but surprising, a tiny pop of life in the system of The Knick. Her mother’s immediate response is to wonder what time it is. She doesn’t want her daughter to be late for her shift at the shirtwaist factory. We follow the girl to a cab where a close-up shows exactly how she steps up into it and dialogue assures us that she will safely make it to her work via her driver, Jesse. The scene emphasizes two ideas fueling The Knick. The first is that every action can be proceduralized. The second is that life in 1900 would have sucked.
The Knick really makes you feel it, too. It’s graphic, with metal instruments prying apart skin flaps and blood soaking every surgery. The specific instruments are viscerally familiar to anyone who’s been to the dentist lately. Even outside the operating theater, Thackery’s cocaine addiction delivers a shot of the good doctor injecting himself between the toes and a shot of his face silent with agony as a nurse shoots a syringe up his dick. It’s like when Al Swearengen had kidney stones, only every episode. The gore isn’t just about the relative brutality of medicine back then. It’s also about bringing this world to life. Every wince keeps you in 1900 New York.
Which bring us to the medical part of the procedural. The operating scenes are action sequences, like fight scenes and just as bloody. The first one is a quick, rhythmic dance. “Please save my baby,” says the pregnant woman on the table. We get a shot of the mask put over her mouth and nose, then a shot of Bertie’s other hand holding the pump. A one and a two. “100 seconds,” Christianson and Thackery tell each other, and we’re off. An incision on one side, then the other. Thackery wipes up blood and throws the used cloths in a bowl one by one. He calls for a vacuum, so Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) inserts a tube into the woman’s stomach. His other hand cranks the vacuum. The other end of the tube starts filling up jars with blood, providing the steady soundtrack for the scene. Each section pops up again. Another shot of Gallinger cranking, another of a bloody cloth into the bowl. When Thackery pulls out the baby, he hands it to a nurse, who takes it to another cart, where a pump enters its mouth. Everything builds to a crescendo as they try to keep the mother alive, but when it’s over—the sound of the blood drive abruptly dropping out, leaving just a faint tick-tock—the nurse doesn’t hear a pulse. On cue everyone looks over at the nurse with the baby. She just shakes her head “No.” The final shot is the mother’s deflated stomach with all that technology hanging onto the flaps of her skin. It’s the most exciting operation on TV since Kyle Chandler visited Seattle Grace.
The details don’t bog down The Knick. They bring the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood to life. The world is faster than ever. New York is the second biggest city in the world. Life expectancy is more than 47 if you can believe it. Thackery, like Christianson before him, sees the endless possibility of the time and wants some of that glory for himself. He’s driven by ambition, haunted by addiction, devoted to technological progress and blind to social justice. At the end he slinks back to the Chinatown brothel he came from as the lights come on in the hospital. The Knick is just getting started.
- That experimental opening surgery is number twelve for Dr. Christianson. Eleven dead patients wasn’t enough to be conclusive.
- Some of the details picked up by the kaleidoscope: The Knick is running a deficit of $30,000 a year, Nurse Elkins comes from West Virginia, Cleary patient-jacks other ambulance services, and Sister Harriet has a midwife background which she uses to treat patients outside the purview of the doctors.
- Cornelia is new to running the board meetings and comes smartly armed with signed documentation assuring the others that her father intends her as his proxy. “If you strongly object to my father’s wishes, Mr. Habershorn, I will understand if you need to make your apologies and leave.”
- Another piece of the public health system: Speight solicits a bribe from a slumlord who claims he can’t afford to keep his properties up to code. So Speight gets fat and the poor get sick. Naturally, he’s a social Darwinist, and remember what I said about the starched dialogue: “The poor are just weaker than us.”
- Thackery also rationalizes his prejudice with ostensible reason. He says patients will refuse to let Dr. Edwards treat them, he says the hospital will lose money, he says it’s unfair to use emergency to persuade the citizens that a black doctor is qualified to treat them. “Please,” he implores Miss Robertson, “Find yourself another hobby.”
- Another modern sight: Looking up at a nun, stern as can be, smoking a cigarette. Call The Midwife this ain’t.
- Dr. Edwards knows he’s not wanted and intends to resign until he sees Thack’s innovations in intestine-stitching technology and cocaine as a numbing agent. Now he’s too eager to learn from him to leave. Thack claims to be driven by knowledge, but Edwards actually is. For Thack it’s all about himself, but Edwards is willing to put himself through the paces with a staff half full of racists just to learn from the cruelest one.