It’s typical for TV seasons to save their climax for the penultimate episode, with the finale a coda that plants seeds for the forthcoming season. The last episode of “The Knick”’s first season — a second was ordered before it even aired — was less intense than the one that preceded it, in which the brilliant but cocaine-mad Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) rushed around looking for his drug and appeared to hit bottom. When he first appears in the episode called “Crutchfield,” he appears to be back on his game, which is to say totally high. But what befalls him now that he’s back to normal turns out to be far worse. He’ll look back at the bit last week where, strung out, he begged a charlatan to put his name on a dodgy elixir with fond memories.
So yes, Thack is high again, swelling with cocaine vials, and this times nicely with the return of Dr. Zinberg (Michael Nathanson), who has evidently become his archrival. Zinberg wants to collaborate with Thackery; Thackery hates Zinberg and suspects he’s stealing his methods. (It’s not clear how much of this is anti-Semitism; Thackery has never felt threatened by Andre Holland’s Dr. Edwards, another medical genius and hated minority.) Thackery allows paranoia to turn him into a reckless monster. The sweats are back, but there’s something new: His dose is so strong that he’s now turning on his confidants and loved ones. “I think the cause may be more pharmaceutical,” Edwards patiently, caringly warns Thackery. “I did not ask you what you think. I told you what to do,” Thackery coldly replies.
And so we witness as Thackery burns bridges and loses his admirers. Even Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano), his dogged mentee, is flirting with decamping for Zinberg, and by episode’s end is angrily rebuffing calls to help Thackery. (Angarano, a reliable nice guy since his days as the younger Patrick Fugit in “Almost Famous,” has never been angrier onscreen.) Even his beloved stalker-turned-lover Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) is now his joyless assistant; the crazy laughing and passion are gone, replaced by a weariness and a realization that she may have picked the wrong horse. Eventually things get so bad that even Thackery realizes he’s bottomed-out. But then he’d have to think this: His new medical experiment winds up being tested on a little girl, and it does not go well.
Even Steven Soderbergh, the show’s director, editor and cinematographer, can no longer look at Thackery. He goes handheld during Thackery’s usual mad scientific spluttering sessions, but once he finally succumbs to rehab, Soderbergh can’t bear to go in close. He shoots his shuffling entrance to the hospital from afar, then films him from behind as he sits on the bed, having his treatment explained to him by his own, new doctor. Thackery will be weaned from one drug onto another, but one he’s assured is safe. You keep waiting for the punchline; this is a show, after all, that delights in people casually singing the praises of cocaine. And when Soderbergh rack-focuses from a creepily smiling, bloodshot-eyed Thackery on his bed to the vial, it’s hard not to respond with applause and a girl-laugh.
Thackery has it bad, but so does everyone else, with most of the cast’s problems resolved with solutions that will almost certainly prove worse. Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), pregnant with Edwards’ baby, patronizes this new underground abortion doctor everyone’s talking about, and is taken aback when it turns out that it’s Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), with help from ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan). (“It’d be nice if once in my life a lady wasn’t disappointed to see me,” he quips when he pulls up to Cornelia. Poor guy.) Cornelia was hoping Edwards would save her from her looming wedding, but Edwards, in the wake of the pregnancy and its subsequent termination, has retreated back inside himself, turning cold on her and assuring her that she'll look upon their affair as nothing but a fuzzy memory. (Meanwhile she's almost suffering a conniption.) From there on Cornelia takes on an insane-looking perkiness, forcing herself to find happiness in the bourgeois fate she hoped to escape. It’s a bit easy that her wedding is cross-cut with Edwards’ back to starting one of his back-alley fights — complete with the creepiest wedding song perhaps ever performed — but it’s the only way to close out this thread.
This being a story arc-resolving season finale, Soderbergh was able to try out various shooting methods, rather than keep an even pitch, as he did in last week’s episode and the thrilling seventh. More than once did he bust out one of his favorite tricks: holding on a close-up of someone as other characters debate something in the background and out-of-focus. This time he did that to Eleanor Gallinger (Maya Kazan — yes, a relation to Elia and Zoe), the now insane wife of Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson). Her doctor — who I originally thought was just a guy who looked like John Hodgman but is in fact John Hodgman himself — is convinced of a theory that insanity is rooted in teeth, so he’s pulled hers. Soderbergh doesn’t dwell on her now naked mouth, but watches as she sits there, now oblivious to the misery around her.
Indeed, Gallinger has turned from a kind of fourth wheel — the unlikable racist of the staff, who here starts another fight with Edwards — to a truly tragic figure: not just someone who’s suffered two dead kids and the mental deterioration of his wife, but has to contend with mediocrity. He thought he was Thackery’s number two, but even he would have to admit Edwards is the real star. It’s been quietly, stealthily heartbreaking.
Oh, and there was a pretty cool action scene. Hospital director Barrow’s (Jeremy Bobb) quasi-comic problems with pimp/loanshark/ne’erdo-well/scene-stealer Bunky Collier (Danny Hoch) have gotten worse, to the point where Barrow decides to have him killed. In typical “Knick” fashion, even this is done in a penny-pinching fashion: Barrow knows the one guy at Thackery’s opium den sidelines as a hired assassin, and he convinces him to do the deed out of debt to Thackery, who saved his life a couple episodes back. It's a fun scene,with some bitchin’ curved blades as the guy plows through Bunky’s staff; suddenly Soderbergh is revisiting his "Haywire" action movie digs, briefly turning this old-timey hospital show into a killer martial arts film.But even this produces an unfortunate and unforeseen kickback, because whenever someone tries to make their life better on “The Knick,” it only makes it worse.
Now that we can view the first season of “The Knick” as a 10-hour movie (or quite a bit shorter than that, since some episodes clocked in around the 45-minute mark), where does it fit on Soderbergh’s filmography? It’s not upper echelon, but it’s right near there. The writing hasn’t always been strong, but Soderbergh direction has been. It’s more than a Herculean feat; Soderbergh had to fight through shooting and editing over sustained months, which must have been more exhausting than any film. He’s given television a unique voice — not just the gorgeous but stately and tripod-bound work of “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” brilliantly directed as those have been. He’s mobile and minimalist, often lighting scenes with one light source, or staging whole scenes in one efficient, not show-offy shot. He paced the show well, then when we were calmed by the usual ensemble, digressive, patient style of television storytelling, he blew the lid off with mini-movies, like the entirety of episode seven. It’s sad that movies lost Soderbergh, but that’s to television’s benefit.
Token stray observations:
— BRAIN SURGERY
— “Nothing breaks a man like a good c—-punch.” RIP Bunky. He will be sorely missed.
— Perhaps I’m just a stupid viewer, but I thought it was intentional that it’s not immediately apparent if the church ceremony is a wedding or a funeral. I mean, this isn’t subtle, but it’s a nice tough nonetheless.
— Can’t wait for the second season to start with someone saying, “Good thing we didn’t shutter the Knick and move uptown after all!” See y’all next season, which can’t come sooner. Get to work, Soderbergh!
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge