When Steven Soderbergh quit movies, it was widely assumed it would be a Jay-Z-style retirement. He would return, we all thought, before we even got a chance to miss him. But “The Knick” — the old-timey hospital show he directs, edits and photographs — seems to have bewitched him, giving him the artistic fulfillment he claims was lacking in his film work.
If movies can’t have him, then at least the seventh episode of his show actually feels like a movie — a mini-movie, that is, one plopped down in the middle of a lengthy narrative. It’s one sustained block of feverish intensity, bringing together numerous plot threads and ideas into one unified, killer chapter. “The Knick” has followed the TV tradition of painstakingly building its world, jumping around numerous storylines and character arc, working towards something. It turns out what it was working towards was this seventh episode, when all the hell you may not have been sure would ever break loose breaks loose. It just cooks.
The instigating incident happens quietly: Phinny (Collin Meath), an Irish cop we’ve seen in a few previous episodes, in plain clothes here, propositions a well-dressed black woman he thinks is a prostitute. She angrily informs him she is not a prostitute. The man she’s waiting for, also black, emerges. Phinny starts a fight with him. The man stabs Phinny several times in the chest. Phinny is rushed to The Knickerbocker, operated on, nearly saved, then suddenly dies. His mother, distraught and hitting the sauce, foments a race war among Phinny’s many congregating well-wishers, many of them other Irish cops who don’t mind ignoring the law.
What follows is Soderbergh’s “Rio Bravo.” Among the staff, of course, is Dr. Edwards (Andre Holland), the brilliant black surgeon forced upon the hospital by the board, who last week finally won over Thackery but whose presence still rankles Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson). But now Gallinger is in the minority; Thackery et al. are finally into a segregated hospital and think nothing of taking in black people who’ve been roughed up by the angry mob. Discovering this, they seek to break into the hospital. It won’t be long before they do, and the Knick staff have to find ways to hide their black patients, and then spirit them to safer places.
This is the shortest episode of “The Knick,” running only 43 minutes, and it’s a concentrated bout. Soderbergh has a detached aesthetic that lends itself well to the gruntwork of television. But here he kicks things up a notch. The episode moves frantically, observing quick-thinking people fumbling about to escape a violent outcome. Even the look of the episode is different; Soderbergh shoots it in a urine yellow filter, and his camera — already very mobile — rushes along with the speedy action.
The whole thing is such a rush that it’s only appropriate that it winds down with the equivalent of an after-sex cigarette — which in this case is actual sex. Turned on by the frenzy of the incident, which ended far better than it could have, as well as by having seen new, attractive sides of each other, four of the characters pair off: Edwards with Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), a childhood friend who earlier in the episode teased him about seeing him naked as a kid; and Thackery and his mysterious stalker, Nurse Elkins.
The latter get a reprise of one of Soderbergh’s greatest film sequences: the sex scene from “Out of Sight,” which crosscut between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez talking in a hotel bar and them engaged in some pretty hot foreplay. (Soderbergh freely admitted to stealing it from a much more randy sequence in Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now.”) Here he cuts between hell-red-colored stumping to Elkins, alone, getting ready in the morning after, a strange grin crossing her face. We still don’t know what Elkins is up to — if her obsession with Thackery is just a crush or something weirder. And the giggle that closes out the abrupt ending leaves the question tantalizingly unanswered, reminding us that there’s more story to tell and this is a TV show, not a movie.
Stray observations (well, one):
—It’s worth noting that, while Soderbergh clearly enjoys television, he’s doing more or less the same thing he’d been doing for his last handful of films. He found himself drawn to scripts that were, for lack of a better term, beneath him: a silly twist thriller (“Side Effects”), a stripper drama (“Magic Mike”), a silly action film (“Haywire”). We won’t presume to guess why he was wanted to make these, but the way he directed and put them together transformed what possibly would have been mediocrities in others’ hands into fascinating, formally adventurous works that showed a filmmaker pushing himself. (It’s reminiscent of how Orson Welles took on “Touch of Evil” because it was the worst script he was offered. He wanted to see if he could turn dreck into gold. Except these scripts aren’t dreck.) “The Knick” isn’t greatly written, but it is greatly directed, meaning he’s doing much the same thing. The major difference is the scope; he clearly loves working at long-form storytelling, especially since it affords him to dig deep into how things work, much the way the four-and-a-half-hour “Che” allowed him to explore how revolutions work.
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