“This is it. This is all we are."
These are the final words uttered by Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackery as he (probably) passes off this mortal coil. You could read this as a simple materialist message. Steven Soderbergh, “The Knick”’s director and cinematographer, is an open atheist, and Thackery could simply be enforcing his belief: that there is no god, and when we die that’s almost certainly it. Amusingly enough, this bleak, no-nonsense end is ambiguous: we don't get stone cold confirmation that Thack did indeed die. There's a shot of a table with a white blanket that might have a body under it, which might be Thack. It all depends if there's a third season, which has not yet been announced either way.
But the episode is after something deeper than a mere reminder of the meaninglessness of existence in a godless universe. For “The Knick”’s two seasons Thackery has labored hard to transcend the limited time he has on earth. He’s tried to improve medicine, to modernize it, to find new ways to save the sick and injured. He’s experimented, sometimes recklessly, often while super high, with new treatments and methods. He wanted to save humanity, all while making a name for himself in the history books.
“We’ll all look back and see how many lives were saved on this day,” he crows as he embarks on the craziest surgery of his life, or at least on this show. He’s going to operate on himself, without the use of ether. He spent an entire episode clean before hobbling back to cocaine and heroin and much else besides. His body finally started really giving out, and though the procedure he was doing was actually a simple one (his colleagues tell them they can bang it out themselves in 10 minutes), he insists on showboating.
Armed with a carefully angled mirror, he does the deed himself. And it is the grossest, freakiest thing that’s ever been on this very gross, freaky show. After stripping down in front of a rapt audience in the operating theater, Thack cuts a big slit in his belly then starts pulling out his intestines. He narrates the entire time, and we gradually realize he’s basically narrating his own death. (He even gets to be the one who says, “Body temperature starting to drop.”)
Thack has failed a lot, sometimes on the operating table, on people he’d rather not lose. His decision to self-operate was a gamble, but it’s clear he was open to the idea of it turning into a suicide mission. He’s riddled with guilt, and riddled with fear that he won’t be remembered, except as that guy who died by his own foolish hands. He realizes that he’s lost everyone close to him, either to death or, in the case of Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) — whose response to his passing we never get to see — to his own terrible personality. He realizes he’s smaller than he pretended to be, than he thought and that his death will be both intimate and an event, viewed by an entire audience of his peers.
Actually, Thack is wrong. He still has an acolyte in Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano), who had decamped for Mount Sinai only to return. As Chickering makes a mad dash to grab some adrenaline, which will apparently prove fruitless, Soderbergh’s camera catches his feet, which are clad in white shoes — just like Thackery’s own gaudy fashion statement. And Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland), who managed to worm into the confidences of the once bigoted Thackery, is haunted by his death, as well as by all the shocking turns the plot has taken over these last few episodes.