A man sits in a chair in the Knickerbocker’s operating theater with his brain open and naked. He is wide awake. We see brilliant junkie surgeon Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) gently peel back the protective film to get better access. This gross-out moment — reminiscent of the unforgettable Ray Liotta scene in “Hannibal” — comes early in “Whiplash,” the fifth episode of “The Knick”’s second season, but it’s not merely about making us lose our lunch. It succinctly, grossly says everything about what the Steven Soderbergh-helmed and –shot show is doing.
Thackery is using this human guinea pig to test which parts of the brain trigger specific emotional responses. He jams a metal pick into one blob and he laughs. He does it to another spot and he cries. Thackery’s manipulating his emotions the way many film and TV makers do. We’re used to, even long for, shows and movies that tell us how to feel and when: the shot of someone experiencing a tragedy or an epiphany as music swells; pratfalls and quips designed to inspire mass cackling. Alfred Hitchcock, in an over-shared quote, boasted of playing the audience like a piano.
Soderbergh doesn’t do this, especially now, and especially with “The Knick,” which might be the most detached and clinical work of an artist who’s been paring his work down over the years to a skeleton. There are plenty of melodramatic fillips on the show, especially in its second season, with teems with broken hearts and fractured relationships. Before this scene Thackery entertained a silent check-up for drug use from his former flame, Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson), who went from his stalker to his lover to his loyal gofer, and is now a hardened woman who rebuffs suitors and can barely look at the man who broke her heart.
Back to the operation, which is really an experiment: Thackery isn’t really out to show how he can manipulate emotions through science, even as he does that to show off to his audience, a smirk across his face. He knows he could actually manipulate emotions if he wanted to. But what he’s really doing is testing, live, whether or not he can find the part of the brain that reacts to drug use. His literally open-headed patient is a morphine addict, and when he’s injected Thackery locates, or thinks he does, the very part of the brain that feeds on it. Rapturous applause. More Thack smirking. The next step, he believes, is to remove it.
We won’t find out whether snipping that part out does the job till the episode’s final minutes, and, lo and behold, it does not. He turns the man into a vegetable, partly because, this still being only 1900, science is not an exact science. That’s what “The Knick” is really about. It’s a show where we can reflect on the contrast and the similarities between then and now; it’s a show about progress vs. regression. But it’s also a calm, spiritually scientific show that delights when things prove messy and unpredictable.
It’s filmed guerilla-style, very quickly, in a way that looks both rough and polished. It’s largely shot in long takes — long shots that view the action from a remove; close-ups that, when sparingly used, hold so long on one person that we’re not only reading faces and emotions but staring at actors living in the moment. At one point the Knickerbocker is flush with new patients following a subway accident that leaves 160 injured. There is the usual madcap running about, done in acrobatic long takes, recalling the season one peak, “Get the Rope,” the one with the out-of-control race riot. Thackery calmly throws out instructions to his crew, then adds, “Anything else: just make it up as you go along.” That could be written at the top of every one of “The Knick”’s daily call sheets.