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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.