Cinemax’s newest series The Knick, created by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, began its first episode with a graphic intensity that stunned many viewers. Subsequent episodes have promised many conflicts in the premise of a (fictionalized) privately funded Knickerbocker Hospital, located in one of the poorer neighborhoods of 1900s New York, while its philanthropist sponsors force Chief Surgeon John Thackeray (Clive Owen) to “integrate” the staff by hiring an eminently trained black surgeon Algernon Edwards (André Holland) as his Assistant Chief Surgeon. Though the show still has some weaknesses so far, its strengths make it one of the best dramas in years, setting it right next to the debut season of HBOs True Detective and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful with its writing, acting, and setting.
Warning: Spoilers Abound
- Some of the “injustices” and inequalities suffered by black Assistant Chief Surgeon Dr. Edwards are simply fictionally unbelievable, given the show’s premise. Yes, the show is set only 35 years after the Civil War, and racism is rampant. (That still hasn’t changed in this country.) But to have Dr. Edwards’ office in the windowless basement and not have his egregiously wealthy sponsor’s daughter Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) complain vociferously about it and insist that he be given a proper office is simply not realistic. After all, if the Robertson family stopped installing the electricity when Thackeray didn’t want to hire Edwards in the first place, she would not allow him to be in the basement with the coal-men without getting angry about it. Seems odd that Dr. Edwards tolerates that arrangement, too.
- While several of the other characters, including minor ones, are being developed, the “star” surgeon, Dr. Thackeray remains relatively one-dimensional. Okay, so he had a past love interest. He uses cocaine and opium, both of which were legal at the time. He’s sarcastic and impatient. Other than that, however, he’s one of the least rounded characters in the show, and that’s just downright disappointing. We never see him anywhere except in the hospital and in the opium den, whereas we know more about the Hospital Director Barrow (Jeremy Bobb)’s private life than we do about Dr. Thackeray’s.
- Additionally, Dr. Thackeray is so addicted to cocaine that all his veins in his arms, feet, and ankles have collapsed, forcing him to inject the drug between his toes (except for the episode 1 scene where Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) injects it, under his instructions, into his urethral artery), and he seems to go to Chinatown to the opium den every night after his shift, yet he’s still highly functional. And he has too much weight on him: an addict using as much cocaine as Thackeray is supposedly using would have no appetite and would lose a noticeable amount of weight. (Even alcoholics lose so much weight that they look like AIDS victims.) Thackeray doesn’t even have dark circles under his eyes. His hair’s never even messed up, though he seems to come directly to work from the opium den, and return there right after work.
- Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) is even less developed than Thackeray, though episode 4 began foreshadowing her love interest in him (or, rather, in her romanticized vision of him, since he was pretty brutal to her in episode 1). Granted, she’s one of the minor characters thus far, but some of the other minor characters, like Sr. Harriet (Cara Seymour) and ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan), are being intensely developed. Why not this nurse, who seems to be the only one at the Knick with a name?
- Some of the contrasts between poor/wealthy, white/black in episode 2 were too heavy-handed. Dr. Edwards living in a tenement or a hotel of some sort where everyone shares the same bathroom, for example, while his own mother and father — servants of the hospital’s sponsor, shipping tycoon Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines) — live at his mansion was ludicrous. What, they can’t pay this brilliant surgeon trained in the finest European institutes enough of a salary that he could have his own apartment? Setting his morning routine with a bunch of ruffians spoiling for a fight with a black man in “Paris shoes” against Cornelia’s pampered, affluent one was an insult to viewers.
- Hair and makeup can’t seem to decide if Dr. Thackeray has straight, black hair, or wavy/curly dark brown hair. Maybe this seems really picky, but it’s distracting, and anything that distracts a viewer from the story pulls him out of its fictional world.
- The show’s handling of racism is mostly spot-on. Except for the heavy-handed scenes mentioned earlier, the racism is subtle and constant. Captain August Robertson tells a guest at Cornelia’s engagement party that Dr. Edwards is the “finest Negro surgeon” in the city. Mrs. Robertson greets Edwards at that party, then asks, “Are you here to see your mother [the Cook]? She’s in the back.” Some characters won’t shake hands with him. Thackeray tolerates — and even jokes about it — when Edwards’ major antagonist, Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) sucker-punches him during a life-and-death surgical procedure. Dr. Gallinger tells his wife that the hospital staff’s “nickname” for Edwards is “Dr. Darkie” and she giggles before saying that it’s not appropriate/professional/nice, her laugh belying her spoken objection. Those subtle presentations of racism are very effective, as are actor André Holland’s facial expressions when they happen.
- Thackeray’s constant sarcasm as well as his incredibly high opinion of himself. It seems like such a character should be obnoxious, but Clive Owen pulls it off in every single scene. He even makes the character amusing. Good acting at its best.
- The nature, relationship, and conflicts between Sr. Harriet (Cara Seymour) and ambulance driver Cleary (Chris Sullivan) are some of the strongest in the show. These two minor characters are heading for Best Supporting Actor Awards, that’s how powerful their performances are. Humorous, angry, mocking, and suspicious colleagues turned unwilling allies, the two have progressed from a playful teasing relationship to a coercive one involving extortion and dangerous secrets. The first time Cleary addressed Sr. Harriet as “Harry,” I laughed aloud while, at the same time, knowing that something very bad was about to happen.
- The special effects. The pigs Dr. Thackeray and others practice surgical procedures on because the Knicks’ Director Barrow is stealing bodies to sell them to other institutions. Beating hearts during open-heart surgery. Patients catching fire after electricity is installed and used during surgery for the first time. Thackeray putting his hands into a woman’s abdomen in an attempt to retrieve her unborn child which has migrated outside the ruptured uterus. Thackeray massaging a dead woman’s heart by putting his bare hands inside her chest cavity, which he has cut open after her death for this express experiment, to test his theory about its causing a pulse. The former lover of Dr. Thackeray who contracted syphilis from her husband and has no nose. All of it is just gory and realistic and gruesome and makes me really grateful I’m not a surgical patient at the Knick in 1900.
- The research behind the show, which includes actual archival photos of rare and deforming medical conditions (which Cleary is joking about as the other doctors are breaking-and-entering in order to steal a journal from a surgeon to learn a new procedure rather than ask the black surgeon Edwards about it).
- Dr. Edwards finally became a man who stood his ground in episode 4, earning the beginning of Thackeray’s grudging albeit mocking respect, when Dr. Edwards refused to “talk the surgeons through” the next step in a heart aneurysm-repair procedure, which he’d helped pioneer.
- The original music. Electronic and eerie and compelling.
- The set, inside and outside the hospital, including the rat-baiting scene in the basement of the bar. Very impressive. As good as the show’s special effects.
- The doctors’ shoes. Those have to be historically accurate. Otherwise, they’d be too bizarre to be realistic. And Dr. Thackeray mostly wears his without socks, so he can inject the cocaine between his toes more quickly.
- The hint of an attraction and a possible relationship between wealthy tycoon Captain August Robertson’s daughter Cornelia and the “best Negro doctor” in the city. Oh, please, oh, please, oh, please… Let’s be really brave.
If you aren’t watching Cinemax’s The Knick (new episodes Fridays 8p.m. ET, with reruns all week long), you’re missing one of the finest and most compelling dramas since HBOs Deadwood.
And that show can’t be beat.