The finale of Cinemax’s bold series The Knick, on the (fictional version of the) historical New York city hospital The Knickerbocker, closed with some of the most fascinating — and with some of the most predictable — moments of the show. Still, it was most definitely worth watching, even a second time, to get all the nuances and the action straight as the writers tied Season One into a (sometimes-too-neat) little bow.
Ambulance driver Cleary’s (Chris Sullivan) philosophical commentary to wealthy hospital-patron daughter Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) as he escorts her to her illegal abortion, on the nature of sexuality and the relationships between men and women, was some of the most striking and profound of the series. That these lines about all economic classes of men and women “eating at the same table” were given to ambulance driver Cleary was a credit to the writers.
Their delivery was a credit to the actor, Chris Sullivan, who said them as casually and matter-of-factly as if he were Albert Camus discussing afternoon tea and biscuits as well as Existentialism with his philosopher friends, like Sartre.
The philosophical truths Cleary expressed were profound, and stated so simply and in such every-day language that they became even more powerful.
In fact, I would say they were some of the most profound “truths” of The Knick‘s season.
After Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) is unable to abort his own child, Cornelia is forced to seek help from some unknown source. As viewers know in advance, the illegal abortionist to whom Cleary delivers “clients” (for a 60/40 cut) is none other than Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), former midwife and head of The Knick’s orphanage, where babies and young children are regularly abandoned. Since Cornelia and Harriet are friends, each is shocked at the meeting.
In vain, Sister Harriet attempts to convince Cornelia not to end the pregnancy — believing the child to be, first, the fiancé Philip’s; and, second, another, unknown white man’s — telling Cornelia that Harriet will swear to Philip that the child, upon birth, is premature. When Cornelia, who is clearly suffering emotionally, says that there are “only so many times” she “can ask for this,” Harriet seems to understand why the abortion must be performed: because the child, upon birth, will not be able to be “mistaken” for Philip’s.
It was the most poignant scene of the entire episode.
Algernon’s treatment of Cornelia after the abortion was cold and brutal. It was painful to watch. To make it worse, he seemed to blame her for initiating the sexual affair in the first place. Yes, he had been unable to perform the abortion himself in an earlier episode, leaving her sobbing helplessly and alone on a mattress on the basement floor of The Knick, and I think viewers were supposed to feel sympathy for both of the characters.
But that scene didn’t make me feel any emotion for him. Rather, it made me, as a woman, feel greater sadness and pity for her, who, even with protection, would most likely have eventually gotten pregnant having sexual relations in 1900, long before reliable birth control was available to women.
His anger and resentment toward her decision not to bear a mixed race child only 35 years after the end of the Civil War in America made me dislike him for the first time in the show. I felt even more sympathy for her and for all women who were forced to bear unwanted children or risk illegal abortions.
The writers may have been attempting to make the viewers feel sympathy for Algernon as a potential father who could not legally or morally claim either the child or its mother, but the scene had the opposite effect on me. Since Algernon, literally, would not have to bear the consequences of their interracial sexual liaison, I found his treatment of Cornelia, about whom he professes to care, heartless and cruel.
Nurse Lucy’s (Eve Hewson) blind devotion to her lover and “boss” Dr. Thackeray (Clive Owen) has been so predictable and one-dimensional that it was no surprise that she stole the cocaine, to which he’s addicted, from another hospital in an earlier episode. Nor was it surprising that she ignored Dr. Edwards’ advice that she not give Thackeray additional cocaine in the finale, though he was clearly losing control (though still not losing weight, as most addicts tend not to eat). Her devotion and loyalty were so predictable that they were not surprising. Neither was the relationship itself, nor Thackeray’s consistently poor treatment of her (except when having cocaine-doused oral sex with her).
Poor Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) and his wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan) have had a rough time this season.
Not only did Gallinger lose his anticipated promotion to Deputy-Chief Surgeon to the “Negro surgeon” Dr. Edwards, but he unwittingly mortally infected his baby daughter with meningitis. After her death, he allowed Sister Harriet to convince him to take an abandoned baby from the orphanage home to his wife, Eleanor, still distraught and depressed from losing their own baby, Lillian. The orphan was neglected until she, too, died under Eleanor’s care.
Now in a mental institution, poor Eleanor, understandably distressed and unhappy, was forced to endure the extraction of all her teeth — apparently a real practice and “treatment” of depression in 1900 — by a doctor who believed that the teeth, as a source of potential infection, affected the state of the brain.
Horrifying cannot adequately describe the procedure, Eleanor’s condition, nor her husband’s reaction when he discovers what has been done to her.
Poor Bertie (Michael Angarano).
Not only does he have his Physician-in-Private-Practice father constantly berating him for not being professional enough (he allows everyone to call him “Bertie” instead of “Dr. Bertram Chickering, Jr.”), as well as for working under cocaine-addicted Thackeray at The Knick, he has to suffer the loss of his beloved Lucy, whom Bertie had intended to marry, to Thackeray. The penultimate scene among Bertie, Lucy, and Thack — when it is clear that Thackeray is an incompetent drug-addict and that, despite that fact, Lucy is blindly devoted to him — forced Bertie not only to come to terms with his disillusionment in his respected mentor, but his his more painful and heartbreaking disappointment about Lucy’s insurmountable emotional attachment to Thackeray.
Not to sweet, loyal, honest, loving, competent Bertie himself.
Maybe this was only confusing to me, but why Cornelia — who is passionately in love with Dr. Algernon Edwards, and who has been having a sexual affair with him — did not break her engagement to Phillip (Tom Lipinski), despite her own brother’s suggestion that she not only could but should, is quite beyond my comprehension. Why she married Phillip, though she was clearly unhappy both before and after the ceremony, was extremely mystifying. She told her brother, when he suggested that she call off the wedding, that she couldn’t, though she gave no reason why. Given her family’s wealth, power, and position, it’s unclear why she would have felt morally obligated to marry a man she clearly does not love.
Especially given the super-creepy behavior Cornelia’s future father-in-law Hobart (Gary Simpson) has been exhibiting (like the time he came, unannounced, into her bedroom while she was undressing and said some pretty inappropriate, vaguely sinister things). Perhaps the writers were trying to make some social commentary on the status of women, even the daughters of supremely wealthy men, during this time period, but I would have thought that said daughters, of all women at that time period, would have had the most freedom. Her decision to marry a man she did not love and to whom she’s already been unfaithful bewildered me.
to Viewers’ Intelligence
Any faithful viewer of The Knick knows that Dr. Algernon Edwards has been picking fights with other black men — and beating them soundly — whenever he feels frustrated, angry, ignored, or upset with his job, his own race, his position, his relationships, etc. But after he so cruelly and heartlessly abandoned Cornelia (symbolically and literally) on the mattress on the basement floor of The Knick (after telling her he couldn’t abort his own child), and after he unemotionally and unfairly blamed her for aborting their mixed-race child before her wedding to her white fiancé, it was not the fact that Algernon initiated another fight that insulted the viewers’ intelligence.
It was not even the fact that he got soundly and bloodily tromped for the first time all season.
No, it was the juxtaposition of the fight with Cornelia’s wedding against the background of a choir of angelic castrati males that insulted the viewers.
As if we could not have figured out why Algernon was getting into yet another fight but losing this battle on this particular day. I don’t know who thought the viewers weren’t intelligent enough to figure out the correlation and symbolism of the fight-and-defeat on Cornelia’s wedding day, and who, furthermore, wanted to slam the viewers in the heads with the addition of the castrati choir — the director (Steven Soderbergh) or the writers (Jack Amiel and Michael Begler) — but I found it so insulting that the entire scene made me cluck my tongue in annoyance rather than feel any emotion for any of the characters involved.
Most Unremarkable Cliffhanger
At the end of the show, we should get a cliffhanger that makes us curse the fact that we have to wait an entire year to have season 2 of The Knick beginning. Not so. In fact, since we know that The Knick has already been renewed (announcements about its return in 2015 began weeks ago), we can only assume that The Knickerbocker Hospital will remain as it is — financially struggling in the poorer, downtown NY neighborhood where it is currently located — since whether or not to close and relocate it is one of the major conflicts of the series.
Therefore, Captain August Robertson’s (Grainger Hines) first meeting (this season) with the Board members, after his daughter Cornelia’s marriage and honeymoon-departure, and its vote to “shutter The Knick and move it uptown” was more like a minor slip off a curb than a gripping cliffhanger.
Most Highly Anticipated
Yet Unduly Delayed
I’ve been commenting all season that Dr. Thackeray (Clive Owen) was using way too much cocaine to not be performing poorly on the job. (I’ve also remarked that he’s got too much weight on him for a drug-addict who’s using so much cocaine that he’s collapsed all the veins in his legs, arms, and feet, forcing Nurse Lucy to inject cocaine into his urethral artery in Episode 1.) Eventually, we got a glimpse of his not sleeping for days at a time and talking like a speed-freak. Still, there was no actual egregious mistake which could be attributed to his drug-abuse and addiction till the finale.
Yes, he did finally kill a patient, by giving her a transfusion of his own coked-up blood, while supposedly testing coagulation theories of different blood-types (competing against Dr. Zinberg from another hospital whom Thackeray views as his “fame” rival). The writers seem to have thought they made it more atrocious by having Thack cause the death of a child. However, viewers with any brains at all have known since the beginning of the season that no one so addicted to cocaine that he has to inject it — hidden in his office — between patients or surgical procedures could not be making mistakes all along.
Delaying his mistakes and errors till the finale made it less effective. Instead, he should have been making errors in judgment that affected his patients’ care as well as their lives from the beginning of the season, mounting in intensity and severity, and ending with the death of a poor, innocent, anemic child. In order to be most compelling and forceful, conflict must rise and build upon itself in fiction, O writers, even in historical fiction, and not just be tacked on at the final moment.
So, despite Dr. Thackeray’s misguided assurance to the young girl in the operating theater — “This is certainly your lucky day. When you wake up, you’ll be cured” — which all viewers surely knew would most certainly not be the case, the highly anticipated and egregious error, so long delayed despite Thackeray’s injecting 12 grams of cocaine per day, was predictable and unemotional, at best. I didn’t even feel sorry for the little girl, let alone for Thackeray, whose failure finally forced him into rehab.
Most Superbly Nonsensical
Due credit and the highest praise must be given to the writers, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, for their content, as well as to the brilliant performance of actor Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackeray for the supremely and insanely nonsensical rant on the cause of coagualtion differentials among blood types. An actor on Star Trek once commented that it was easier to memorize Shakespeare than some of his lines on ST since the latter made no sense. Clive Owen must have felt the same about his “blood type” speech in the finale of Season One of The Knick because it made no sense whatsoever.
But Owen delivered the nonsensical rant so “rationally,” enthusiastically, and passionately that, for a moment, viewers could have almost gotten the idea that it should have made sense — and would have, except for the fact that they weren’t medical doctors. No, it didn’t make any sense. Young Disciple Bertie made that clear at the end of the scene, and afterward.
Bravo to the writers for superb writing.
Kudos to Owen for a brilliant delivery.
The best “insane” drug-addict rant I’ve ever seen (or read).
After causing the almost-immediate death of a young girl by transfusing his cocaine-toxic blood into an anemic patient “as an experiment” to cure her, Dr. Thackeray finally allows himself to be admitted to a rehab clinic. Touting themselves as highly successful in treating “cocaine madness,” the doctors there reassure him of his anonymity during treatment along with his lack of suffering during the withdrawal from cocaine.
Why no withdrawal symptoms? Because they have a “miraculous medicine from Bayer, the aspirin company, so it’s as safe as can be.” After injecting Thackeray in the neck with the miracle drug, the doctor leaves him to sleep. Close-up on Thackeray’s face as he begins to relax and smile. Close-up on miracle drug, which has been left on his nightstand, and which will help him get through the symptoms of cocaine-withdrawal without distress.
Oh, the beautiful, horrible, delicious irony.
& Best Line Ever
Ping Wu (Perry Yung) hasn’t been in The Knick very often this season, though he owns the opium den — and the prostitute — that Dr. Thackeray frequents. Imagine my surprise, then, when he got to perform The Most Awesome scene of the finale and say the Best Line of the entire series.
Hospital Director Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), deeply in dept to gangster Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch), goes to Wu, ostensibly in Thackeray’s name, asking that Collier be killed. Of course, the only way to get to Collier is to get rid of all his henchmen first. Though a bit incredulous that Thackeray has sent Barrow to speak for him when Thackeray and Wu have their own relationship, Wu seems to take Barrow’s word and request at face value.
Wu visits Bunky’s headquarters, where Ping Wu unleashes a Mixed Martial Arts attack of Supreme Awesomeness, both in proportions and weapons.
Wu is so marvelous that Bunky and his henchmen can’t even gather their wits let alone their weapons. Soft-spoken Ping Wu barrels in like a tornado or a typhoon or a hurricane, only worse and faster than all three combine, demolishing the “guards” and leaving Bunky with an unfired pistol in his hand and a hatchet in his forehead.
After reading about the massacre in the newspaper, Barrow cockily returns to his own office at The Knick, confident that all evidence of his $9K debt to Bunky has been metaphorically erased. There, he finds Wu sitting at Barrow’s desk, paging through Bunky’s ledger, remarking that anyone who owed Wu $9K as long as Barrow had owed it to Bunky would have been fed to Wu’s pigs long ago. Barrow protests, something to the effect that the ledger is not what it seems. Ping Wu then incisively retorts with the very best line of the entire season: “I can read left to right, not just up and down.”
Bravo, Wu, Bravo.
Despite its few flaws, which have been minor weaknesses since the beginning and which, unfortunately, flared in the finale, Cinemax’s The Knick is an exciting historical drama, with mostly brilliant writing, and outstanding performances by all its actors.