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The Knick: The Series (Seasons 1 & 2)

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Spoilers in Original,
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(Not in this Final Post)

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 It is with tremendous regret that I tell you that Cinemax’s brilliant series, The Knick, a fictional treatment — meticulously historically researched — of New York’s The Knickerbocker Hospital, will not be returning for a third season.

Not because of poor ratings, because they were excellent.

Not because of bad writing, because Jack Amiel and Michael Begler have given us some of the best scripted television in years. I haven’t seen a show this well done since The Tudors and Deadwood.

Not because of the actors’ performances either, because all of them — even if their characters were minor — were top-notch.

No, the sad truth of the reason The Knick will not be returning for a third season — or, if it does, it will be a completely different kind of show — is because director Steven Soderbergh and executive producer/principal star Clive Owen signed on to the show with the clear understanding that they were committing only to a two-year project.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 10: Director Steven Soderbergh (L) and actor Clive Owen speak onstage at the "The Knick" panel during the HBO portion of the 2014 Summer Television Critics Association at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 10, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

That’s changed what I was going to do this post on. Originally, I was going to tell you everything that had happened in season 2, with commentary, as I did with season 1. Now, I just want you to know about this magnificent show because if you missed it, you missed a classic, and you’ll want to watch both seasons (reading the associated blog posts afterward).

Clive Owen
as Dr. John Thackeray

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Clive Owen headlines the show as the brilliant but cocaine- & heroin-addicted Dr. John Thackeray. He performs daring surgeries, like attempting to separate conjoined twins being held captive in a freak show,

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trying to locate the source of addiction in the brain,

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operating on his former lover — doctors, especially surgeons, are not supposed to treat people they’re emotionally attached to — in an attempt to restore a semblance of a nose to her syphillis-ravaged features,

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even performing dangerous, life-threatening surgery on himself — refusing to allow any of the other surgeons to assist him, and talking to the surgical theater audience like a carnival barker as he does his “show.”

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That’s all going to be gone now, despite Cinemax’s claim that it’s in talks with writers Amiel and Begler for a third season, because Owen and Soderbergh will not be associated with any future seasons.

I should have realized that something was up, given Owen’s admitted distaste for long-term commitment to television series, which started his acting career. Now I know why he was on The Knick: he’d only committed himself for two years.

Our loss.

The Women
of The Knick

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Season 2 continued the trend of its premiere season, giving us strong, independent female characters, like hospital philanthropist, crusader, and amateur detective Cornelia (Juliet Rylance, above),

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Nurse Lucy (Eve Hewson, above R), who attempts to recover from a broken heart by ruthlessly pursuing a richer beau, without our knowing whether she really has any feelings for him,

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Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), former midwife-turned-abortionist in her mission to take care of women’s health and their moral rights,

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Abbie, John’s former lover, and, apparently, his one true love, who not only returns from a brief appearance in season 1 to become involved with Thack as well as with patients at The Knick.

And viewers were treated to a surprise when Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland, below L) was confronted by an woman integral to his life, Opal (below R), who, as a British black, not influenced by the relatively recent history of slavery in the United States, as Dr. Edwards and his family are, provided a refreshing and sometimes angry counterpoint to African-American characters’ acceptance of their status as “unequal citizens.”

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I’ll miss the women of The Knick.

Not only were they tough and strong and interesting, but their stories were integrally related to (the lack of) women’s rights of the time period (1900-1901), no matter their socio-economic class or race.

The Men
of The Knick

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Though the show’s storyline was dominated by the immense presence of Clive Owen and his character, Dr. Thackeray, plenty of attention was given to the other surgeons. Dr. Edwards’ relationship was vitally important to the show since it involved not only racial integration of The Knick, but the morality of treating people differently because of skin color. Thack’s and Edwards’ relationship continued to develop significantly in the second season.

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But Edwards also got to step out of Thack’s shadow as he investigated new treatments and procedures, as well as to oversee the professional behavior of fellow surgeons.

Dr.  Gallinger’s (Eric Johnson, below) relationships with both his fellow surgeons continued to evolve. When not distracted by his wife’s or sister-in-law’s behavior, he’s attempting to outwit Edwards so that he himself can be appointed Deputy Chief Surgeon, as Thack had originally wished when he was appointed Chief Surgeon by the hospital Board.

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Dr. Bertram Chickering Jr (Michael Angarano, below, R) — affectionately known as “Bertie,” to his private-practice-physician-father’s disgust — got to spread his wings, emotionally and professionally.

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Even the minor characters — those who weren’t surgeons — got fully developed treatment and fascinating stories, as was Ambulance driver Tom Cleary’s (Chris Sullivan) with colleague and friend, Sister Harriet.

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The only man whose character didn’t seem developed was that of the embezzling, lying, philandering, gambling Barrow (Jeremy Bobb, below), administrator of The Knick and social-climber. He seemed the same in both seasons, which was a surprise considering how well developed other characters were.

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Other than that, all the men were great.

And some of them even managed to hold their own against the towering talent and presence of Clive Owen, indisputably the star of The Knick.

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I will miss The Knick immensely, and I’m not going to jump on the #RenewTheKnick bandwagon unless Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh agree to come back. Without those two, the show simply can not be the same. And Clive seems to have taken his character as far as he could go, that is, without spending 7 years as another “Study of an Addict” as Nurse Jackie did with its show and star, Edie Falco.

If you missed any of The Knick, you can watch all episodes of both seasons on Cinemax (MaxGo) free if you’re already a subscriber. If not, you can purchase Season One ($1.99-2.99/episode, SD/HD, or $19.99/HD season) on Amazon Instant Video. (Season 2 is not yet available on Amazon.)

Here’s the trailer for Season One.

And, in case you’ve seen the first year’s episodes, here’s the official trailer for Season Two.

Related Posts

Season One

The Most Unkindest Cut of All:
Cinemax’s Brilliant Series The Knick

Knick, Knack, Paddy-Whack, Give the Doc a Smack:
Cinemax’s The Knick

Kudos to The Knick

It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times:
The Knick Season [1] Finale

The Knick: Season 1, Revisited

Season Two

To The Knick, to the Knick, to the Knick, Knick, Knick:
Season 2 Premiere

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Knick, Knack, Paddy Whack, Give the Doc a Smack: Cinemax’s THE KNICK

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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

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Weaknesses

  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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Strengths

  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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).

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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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.

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