Clive Owen has played the brooding antihero before (see his Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated turn as Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway and Gellhorn). In The Knick, Cinemax’s period piece that wrapped up its first season on Friday, Owen plays Dr. John W. Thackery, a brilliant but tormented surgeon in a turn of the century New York City hospital, known affectionately as “The Knick.” Thackery, along with his fellow surgeons and hospital administration, constantly strives to find cost-effective ways of stopping the numerous diseases plaguing the people of the city. Filled with cocaine-fueled energy and donning pristine white leather shoes, Owen’s Thackery feels at times like an archetypal television doctor, with the brilliance of Greg House along with the drug addiction. That being said, Owen’s gruff manner coupled with bouts of infectious eccentricity make “Thack” feel like a unique creation.
The Knick is not for the faint of heart. Director Steven Soderbergh, fresh off his large Emmy haul for Behind the Candelabra, does some of his best work in the operating theatre, exposing his television audience to the viscera troubling the doctors and their patients. Soderbergh has always been known for his sense of cinematic style, and he clearly enjoys utilizing the dimly lit halls and alleys and the imposing structures of 1900s New York. Thackery often moves quickly from the bright lights of surgery to the shadows of the opium den in which he spends much of his free time. As the season progresses, Soderbergh seems to let night win out more and more, starving Thackery of his drug-induced frenzies. Like with many of his films (the Ocean’s trilogy, The Informant!), Soderbergh thrives on lies, obscuring characters from one another’s view just as they obscure the truth themselves.
The first half of the season moved slowly, carried by Owen’s performance but lacking in captivating plots. This changed quickly as tensions in and around the hospital ramped up. Perhaps most notable was the show’s seventh episode, “Get the Rope,” in which racial tension and rioting almost overtake the Knick. In the episode, Thackery’s Hippocratic morals stand out, but most impressive is the work of Andrè Holland (42), playing the black Dr. Algernon Edwards. Holland’s role grows early in the season, but his work intensifies as Edwards’ professional and personal livelihoods become threatened because of his race. Edwards’ innovative brilliance and yearning desire to heal are matched only by Thackery’s, yet the black man cannot fully realize his role because of the prejudice of his peers and colleagues.
Even in its slower moments, The Knick makes for fascinating television. It leans towards absurdity, not because of inaccuracy but instead because of the antiquated attitudes and surgical techniques that turn the city and even its hospitals into ineffective, corruptible places. Moreover, watching brilliant, motivated doctors struggle with the appendix and hernias and blood transfusions makes for a surreal viewing experience. Inside and outside of the hospital, people die for reasons we know now to be treatable, and this misery takes its toll on Thack and his colleagues. Thack turns to drugs, Edwards to fistfights, and the rest to whatever cathartic outlets they can find. By the end of the season, no main character can find comfort in their circumstances. Each man and woman looks bleakly ahead, mired in intellectual and interpersonal stagnancy.
The Knick has already been renewed for a second season next year, and Soderbergh has left its world in utter disarray. Melodrama abounds in the love lives, health, and medical research of the Knick’s power players, and Soderbergh seems poised to strike through it violently, no matter which characters get left behind. The elite white men and women running the hospital finish the season decrepit and broken, leaving space for those deemed racially and socially inferior to bring revolution to the Knick in season two. Numerous conflicts simmer as the season closes, ready to boil over when the leaders of the hospital return.