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

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In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, when Marc Antony is delivering the eulogy of his assassinated mentor and friend, he claims that the knife wound left by Brutus, one of Caesar’s closest friends, was “the most unkindest cut of all” (1.2.183), and Cinemax’s brilliant new series “The Knick” abounds in “unkindest cuts,” not all of them inflicted by scalpels. And that’s what makes this show one of the best I’ve seen in ages.

Created by Academy Award winner Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen, “The Knick” is set in New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900, before surgeons had mastered, or even figured out, their craft, and when operations were performed in an auditorium, before an audience that could have included student doctors, but also seemed to permit anyone else who wanted to watch (perhaps I should clarify: any men who wanted to watch).

Clive Owen as Dr Thackeray, The Knick © HBO/Cinemax

Clive Owen plays Dr. John Thackeray, and despite the name, you wouldn’t find his character in the more humorous social-commentary novels of Thackeray; instead, he’d be in the gory, gruesome, bleak world of Dickens’ and the Brontë sisters’ novels. Addicted to opium and to cocaine, he seems to have the same “insatiable desire for fame” exhibited by his predecessor, Dr. Christensen. He also shares the same racism, misogyny, and arrogance that many of his male colleagues exhibit, one of whom doesn’t even want to remain in a board meeting when the hospital’s major benefactor is unable to attend and sends his daughter with his proxy. It’s to Owen’s credit and talent that he manages to pull off this intense, fierce character and make him sympathetic and fascinating.

Clive Owen as Dr Thackeray, The Knick © HBO/Cinemax

Not only is Thackeray addicted to drugs, he is racist — refusing a black doctor with impeccable credentials merely because of his skin color  and because Thackeray doesn’t want to “lead the social reform path of integration.” Unlike the wealthy daughter of one of the hospital’s benefactors, who, along with her father, basically force Thackeray to hire the black doctor. In fact, given the time period, Thackeray makes a credible observation when he asks why he should hire a doctor that the patients wouldn’t let touch them. Later, in a dangerous surgery where the black doctor is observing and/or assisting, the patient looks up at him and says, “He’s not touching me: I won’t have it.” The political commentary and the racism are woven so integrally into the medical drama that the show acquires a depth that enriches it immensely.

A confrontation in the operating theatre, The Knick © HBO/Cinemax

Blacks aren’t the only ones that Thackeray, who’s sarcastic and “cutting” to everyone on the staff, dislikes and insults. Thackeray is also misogynistic, dressing down a new nurse in front of a team of doctors as well as in front of the patient and his visiting wife. The poor girl is obviously pained and humiliated, but Thackeray doesn’t seem to notice or care at all. In an era when women were nurses and their jobs were to give injections, hand doctors instruments, change beds, and empty bedpans, this interweaving of the status of women, immigrants, and blacks in a world dominated by educated or wealthy white males makes “The Knick”  powerful social commentary as well as a highly charged medical drama.

The story of immigrants in New York city at this time period — immigrants who were starving, ill, poor, had children working in factories, and dying from diseases like tuberculosis — is interwoven with the hospital’s competition to get patients. In one of the more amusing scenes, two ambulance drivers fight another ambulance team for a wealthy patient “who’ll be able to pay his own bill at the hospital,” and the driver is promised a financial reward by the director of The Knick. When an immigrant dying from TB is brought it, the City Health Inspector informs the Director that the City, of course, will pay for all of the immigrant’s care — while he waits, rather obviously, for his kickback for bringing the woman to that particular hospital.

One of the most shocking things in “The Knick” is seeing surgeons operate without gloves, masks, gowns, mouth/nose coverings, or hair coverings. Watching them put their bare hands into the patient’s body cavities. With all the precautions taken over the last 50 years, along with the additional ones implemented after the identification of HIV/AIDS with its deadly transmission through bodily fluids, it’s absolutely horrifying to see the surgeons touching infections with their bare hands, putting their hands and forearms into patients’ bodies, and cleaning themselves up afterward. Still, the show has obviously been well researched, and has a surgeon on its staff of advisers. This photo is from Dr. Stanley Burns’ Archives, and shows an operating “theatre” c. 1899.

hospital operating theater c 1899 stanley b burns md burns archive

The dialogue is smart, witty, and cutting. Thackeray quotes Shakespeare (Hamlet). The allusions to race are handled frankly, yet without obscenity. One of the best exchanges is when Owen’s Thackeray asks Dr. Edwards, played by André Holland, why the latter’s race was not listed on his impressive résumé. Dr. Edwards asks if Thackeray’s race is listed on his own. Thack’s reply, “It doesn’t have to be.”

The characters are complex, complicated human beings with faults and strengths. Thackeray is an addict and a brilliant surgeon; he’s also sarcastic, cruel, selfish, and supremely talented at what he does. The black doctor that the benefactors want hired — Dr. Edwards — is supremely qualified, educated, and talented. He’s also as arrogant as Owen’s Thackeray, angrily expecting to be automatically accepted in America simply because in Europe, no institution regarded his skin color as an impediment to his working or learning in their hospitals.

The show also contains some wonderful wry humor, especially with the smoking nun and the ambulance driver Cleary, who has a crush on her. Those two minor characters are some of the most interesting and have some of the greatest lines, especially the ones about the “closed casket” and “worm holes,” and those about “girls running to God after seeing [one of the character’s] faces.” Those two characters and their lines are marvelous, and I hope they don’t get lost in all the medical drama and surgical explorations.

The official trailer to “The Knick” simply cannot show you how amazing and gripping this show is; it’s a tease, at best.

The only weakness I could see in the premiere was when the black Dr. Edwards claimed that he would be resigning right after he finished witnessing an operation by Dr. Thackeray, which was not only experimental but extremely dangerous. Afterward, Thackeray basically says “Good-bye” to Edwards, who responds, in effect, by saying that he’s not leaving until he’s learned everything he can from Thackeray. Not being a professional reviewer, I didn’t receive all the episodes in advance, so I don’t know how this is going to play out between the two men, but I have this dreadful feeling it’s going to be the old Active Dislike turns to Grudging Acceptance evolves into Genuine Friendship and Respect Theme. I just hope it doesn’t happen by the end of season one. That would be too, too dull because it would eliminate one of the major sources of conflict in the story and far too easily “solve” a problem that is still not solved in this country: racism.

Unless they bring in a female surgeon for the second season of “The Knick.” Then Thackeray and Edwards could both be misogynistic. Wouldn’t that be fantastic, realistic, and contemporary, though it’s an historical drama?

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Playing Fridays at 10p.m. ET on Cinemax, the show is airing all week, but, in a trend set by the channels showing “Penny Dreadful” and “Outlander”, Cinemax has put the entire first episode on YouTube free. Anyone can watch it, even if you don’t have a subscription to Cinemax. I want to emphasize that Cinemax itself put this Premiere episode of The Knick up free, lest you think it is a pirated copy and is hurting the actors or otherwise infringing upon Intellectual Property Rights. Unfortunately, embedding is not permitted, so I can only give you the link here, but you can watch it without guilt.

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