As the first episode of “The Knick”’s second season begins, we’re caught up to speed via a handy TV cliche: the reading of a letter from one character to another, saying what so and so has been up to since the last season finale, what’s changed, what’s new, can’t wait to see you again, where ya been, yada yada. Not much else feels stock. Things even feel different. The lighting, for one, is even darker. Sometimes it’s Rembrandt dark. One shot of a boat at sea as night is beginning to fall is so fuzzy it resembles a painting that could hang at MoMA — all blues and the faintest traces of a black shape bleeding together.
Technology changes rapidly, and “The Knick” shows how, even over a year, digital cameras have gotten even better than they were — which is saying something — at creating attractive images with next to no light sources. This frees up director-cinematographer Steven Soderbergh even more. The shots, when they move, are even more fleet, and often longer. A trick Soderbergh used sparingly last season — shooting a conversation almost entirely s a close-up of one person, sometimes one not even talking but instead just processing it all — is busted out four or five times in the episode called “Ten Knots.”
But, yes, what of the staff of the Knick — the old-timey New York City hospital from 1900, which grapples with changes both technological and social? The corny read letter is likely the most economical way to get it all over with given how far-off the cast has been scattered. Brilliant junkie Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) is in rehab. Abortionist nun Sister Harriett (Cara Seymour) is in jail. Wealthy proto-feminist Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) has decamped for San Fran. Crap-magnet bigot Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) has had his suspension lifted but is in no hurry to return. There will be reunions, all brief, some bitter, some not: Sister Harriett with saucy ambulance driver Tom (Chris Sullivan); nice guy-turned-passive-aggressive brooder Dr. Chickering (Michael Angarano) with Dr. Thackery’s stalker-turned-lover-turned-gopher Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson); righteously fuming race pioneer Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland) with old flame Cornelia; Dr. Edwards with arch-nemesis Dr. Gallinger; and finally Dr. Gallinger with Dr. Thackery.
The last one comes in halfway through the episode, where we’ve learned Thack — who’s been busying himself/scoring coke and now heroin too by performing super gross syphilis surgeries — has escaped from rehab. He hasn’t. He’s been kidnapped. He awakens on a boat far off at sea, lorded over by Gallinger, who’s committed to helping his colleague kick the habit. It’s not altruistic; Gallinger wants him back so that Edwards doesn’t claim Thack’s spot as permanent chief surgeon.
This thread is the only one of many that feels like a real narrative and not simply shuffling everyone back into position. Things are similar but different. There are new gadgets. The horse-drawn ambulances have given way to motor vehicles. There’s a motion picture camera, now being sold to the general public (read: rich people). Even the crimson red opium den, under new management, is trying to get snooty-but-decadent Knick manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) to open his hospital to weekly treatments from its prostitutes. And there are the gruesome, bloody (and barehanded!) surgeries, shot both clinically and for gorehound delectation. The new season isn’t three minutes old and there’s already a vom-worthy nose job. That’ll do, pig.
“The Knick” isn’t always the best written show. It’s not above certain lazy tropes, like the letter writing bit, or on-the-nose dialogue. (There’s a conversation about how the world moves too slow for progressives but too fast for regressives that underlines, italicizes, bolds and gives a bigger font size to one of the show’s biggest and most obvious themes.) But it’s always well-directed. Soderbergh, as Matt Zoller Seitz’s illuminating set visit recounts, makes these as 100-yard sprints every day, knocking out a frightening nine pages a day and doing scenes’ first edit on the car ride home (before going out for a night at the theater or the movies, which is just nuts). He films them balletically, dancing about his cast, improvising shots and blocking. No wonder he’s done with movies; they’re too slow for him.
You can sense that speed and that purpose in every shot, especially in the second season when he seems to have worked out some kinks and gotten more used to this physically and creatively draining method of working. It’s both frenzied and focused, and even when you can sense the scripts are spinning wheels before something really good comes along — as this episode sometimes feels — the thrill of imagining Soderbergh creating the images you’re seeing himself on the fly makes for richly rewarding viewing.
Token stray observations:
— Is the opening image — of the little girl Thack accidentally killed in last season’s finale, standing in front of a sky — technically a flash-forward? She crops up again in this episode’s final moments standing on a boat. If so, that’s so Richard Lester of Soderbergh, the world’s biggest Lester nerd.
— Compare and contrast the re-introductions to characters here to the ones in Soderbergh’s (great, underrated, hilarious, am I the only person who loves it?) “Ocean’s Twelve,” which are intentionally plodding: one after another after another after another, blah blah.
— No one glowers like Andre Holland as Dr. Algernon Edwards. The best of those bits where Soderbergh shoots most of a scene holding on person is when Edwards happens upon Cornelia, who then talks to her husband as Edwards stands there, awkwardly, like a third wheel who missed his chance to sneak away.
— Cliff Martinez’s electronic scores are uniformly killer, but rarely less so during that dynamic ’80s video game music-sounding jam that drives the montage of Tom’s new get-rich-quick scheme: underground fighting.
— PUSS OUT OF AN ARM