Andre Holland's Dr. Edwards faces down a surly tenant at his tenement building in "The Knick"'s second episode. Credit: Mary Cybulski
For someone allegedly looking to reinvent himself in another medium, Steven Soderbergh is doing a bang-up job: “The Knick” really does feel like television. That’s not entirely true: He brings his patented detached — or more apropos, clinical — approach. “The Knick” looks and feels like no other show. It has plenty of “big” moments, but all of them underplayed through the way they’re shot. There’s barely a close-up in the show — no ways to typically underline dramatic moments.
That said this is still clearly television. If the first episode (which we recapped here) was a fairly standard introduction to a particular world, the second is the one that finds a groove and lays out, clearly, the major themes that will drive the show. They are: the need for money; progress versus tradition; the mad, sometimes self-destructive passion of creative types; and racism, with a sideline in sexism. (There’s also the great joys Soderbergh and his production team take in portraying the dirt and grime and occasional misery of 1900 New York City.)
The opening of episode two is, on its face, pretty blunt. It contrasts the home life (or “home” life) of Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), the enterprising and liberal daughter of the chief benefactors of the Knickerbocker hospital, with that of Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland), the new, black surgeon on the not exactly integrated staff. Cornelia enjoys a soft bed in a tony row home, while Dr. Edwards is stuck in a fetid, low income tenement building for black people, where the sink pours yellow water.
This isn’t exactly subtle, but there are a couple other angles here. Cornelia is fighting her own form of casual bigotry, as she is a woman given a position of power among the hospital’s executive staff. She and Dr. Edwards have different ways of dealing with being looked down upon. She’s still green when it comes to this thing, and gets outraged. “I expect these things,” Dr. Edwards tells her. “You’re upset because you don’t.” But it’s not clear if Dr. Edwards’ method is the better one.
Speaking of which, the show also doesn’t shy away from what could be read as Dr. Edwards’ snobbery. He doesn’t want to be associated with the prostitutes and the impoverished and especially not the surly guy on the bathroom line who asks him about his fancy French shoes, only so he can bristle at Dr. Edwards’ attempts at upward social mobility. Dr. Edwards is a loner, a man without an ethnicity, and neither Soderbergh nor Holland back off of what could be interpreted as a streak of arrogance.
Clive Owen (center) thinks about the brilliant way he's going to accidentally kill a patient in "The Knick." Credit: Mary Cybulski
Then again, Dr. Edwards does wind up becoming a savior. Outraged at a black woman with a swollen arm who’s turned away at the Knickerbocker, he uses a partly hidden portion of the hospital’s basement to open his own makeshift clinic, where he’ll moonlight tending to those denied health care. This probably can’t last long, but he can’t help himself, even as he treats everyone else with standoffish disdain — even Michael Angarano’s Dr. Chickering, the token nice guy on the surgical team, who goes out of his way to be treat him like an equal and only gets asked if he’s been assigned to monitor him. (It’s a good question, actually.)
Dr. Edwards dominates these early episodes, as race is the most tempting way to look at the distant past. But “The Knick”’s interests are more diverse. The second episode escalates the money concerns. Everyone’s scrambling about for quick cash, none moreso than Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), the prim chief administrator, who wants to make The Knickerbocker fancier and more attractive, but has to settle for an illusion.
The Knickerbocker has recently invested in installing electricity and light bulbs. But Barrow has had to cut corners, and the shoddy work results in an electrical blowout during a procedure that leaves a patient on fire and a nurse electrocuted. Meanwhile Clive Owen’s brilliant Dr. Thackery is demanding cadavers for experimentation. The desperate Barrow has even taken a large loan from a scary, hammy mobster (Danny Hoch), who isn’t impressed when Barrow thinks showing up in person to tell him he can’t pay his loan is a sign that he’s a real man.
What the mobster subsequently does to Barrow is one of the episode’s many shocking, almost funny peaks. Indeed, “The Knick” may be the goriest show on television, calmly presenting old-timey surgeries that tend to involve gaping holes in abdomens and experimental procedures that lead to spurting blood. Soderbergh’s direction is chillingly calm — underlined by the spooky modern electronic score by Cliff Martinez — but he’s depicting a world that’s held together by frayed threads.
Everyone’s struggling to keep it together, finding questionable ways to make ends meet — from Dr. Edwards and his secret underground clinic to Tom Cleary, the Irish bulldog of an ambulance driver (Chris Sullivan), who gets paid per patient and tries to deliver one who’s died en route. All the while Dr. Thackery is demanding money to fuel science — a practice that he confesses is slow and often results in nothing useable. Of all the characters, Dr. Thackery is the one who most lives in a bubble: He’s wealthy, he’s well-employed and he has no interest in listening to Dr. Edwards, even when he knows he’s right. And he has drugs, which allow him to just barely maintain his self-view as a brilliant pioneer who will one day save humanity. But like everyone and everything in “The Knick,” this all may simply lead to ruin.
— At one point the surgeons leaf through pictures of people with inflamed legs, inflamed testicles, and so forth. If this is your bag, get thee to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. — A true badass: In a flashback, Dr. Thackery quotes Shakespeare to his late mentor, Dr. Christensen (Matt Frewer). He responds, “Shakespeare? Never read ’im. — Soderbergh’s camera (wielded by himself, as ever under his cute pseudonym “Peter Andrews”) gets so close to the action that it utterly dismantles any possibility of this being tasteful Merchant-Ivory period business. At one point Dr. Thackery races from one side of a room to another (wielding an ax!), and he passes so close to the lens you can almost see his suit’s thread count. It’s all handheld too. — Dr. Edwards to a patient: “Have you had cocaine before? Truly a miracle.”