“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.
But again: Is “The Knick” itself dead? Is Thackery even dead? It’s semi-ambiguous, not terribly unlike the way “The Sopranos” ended without offering obvious proof that Tony was whacked, birthing a cottage industry of conspiracy theorizers. Soderbergh uses one of his signature harsh cuts from Chickering pounding the adrenaline needle into Thackery’s lifeless body to later, with the operating theater empty and clean save for a body on the table under sheets. Meanwhile, there’s been no announcement of a third season for the show itself, which might (or might not!) have to soldier on without its most famous star.
If this is the end, it’s playful about karmic retribution. Some of its more dastardly characters got off scot-free; others think they did but did not. Take Jeremy Bobb’sHerman Barrow (please!). The Knick’s director has ditched his wife and kids to live with his prostitute galpal (Rachel Korine). He was (as it turns out falsely) suspected of starting the fire that killed Captain Robertson (Grainger Hines) last week, but now he not only gets to be proven innocent, he gets to have the intrusive detective who was harassing him come to his gentleman’s club and offer his sincerest, most awkward and humiliating apology. He’s smug about his future. And yet there’s a close-up of his hands, riddled with spots. Remember when he casually posed for an old-timey, rinky-dink x-ray machine? Well, those spots are radiation poisoning. Herman Barrow is going to die a pretty nasty death.
Don’t think “The Knick” doles out justice, though. There’s afar more devious, Mephistophelean character who appears to be set for life. Young aristo Henry Robertson (Tom Lipinski), it’s revealed, is the one behond the fire that snuffed out his money-losing pops. Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) pieced that together — the thrilling reveal of a season-long investigation that was, up till now, the show’s most puttering, thumb-twiddling arc. She confronts him, and is rewarded with not only learning her beloved brother is a total psycho, but gets to hear it as he stands inches away from her over a massive staircase. Soderbergh shoots some of this from downstairs looking up at the staircase, waiting for him to push her down. Instead he offers her a more chilling end: “an easy, comfortable life,” protected from the world by the family wealth.
This fate, on a show like “The Knick,” might as well be a living death. This has been a show about people pushing against tradition towards the future, told in a manner trying to find new ways to portray the past — some wildly successful, some less so. As we’ve talked about endlessly in these recaps, “The Knick” isn’t content to congratulate smug viewers on how much we’ve improved since 1900. As often as it’s shown something that died on the way to the future, like surgery without latex gloves or eugenics, it’s reminded us that we haven’t all changed as much as we should have. The casual, sometimes fuming bigotry seen on the show lives on in the 2016 presidential race, while it took till this year for there to be a concentrated debate about gender inequality.
If this is the end for “The Knick” it’s a good one: one where some people are punished for their villainy, others are not, and others besides pass on or live on just ’cause — just like in life itself. As the the final line of text in Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” goes: “Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” Brilliantly directed, beautifully acted, sometimes spottily written, “The Knick” hasbeen — and may continue to be — an exciting experiment. Can’t wait for what grabs Soderbergh’s interest next, even if it’s a third season.
Token stray observation(s):
— Just one: Huzzah for favorite “Knick” power couple Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and ex-Sister Harriett (Cara Seymour)! Much as Soderbergh’s a materialist, he’s not hostile towards religion. Here, Tom, sick of Harriett giving him the cold shoulder, proclaiming she’s still God’s wife, goes to a confessional and begs God to turn her around. The next time you see them she’s wearing a ring and they’re happily enjoying breakfast, preparing for the thrill of spending the rest of their lives together, selling condoms and who knows what else. Good job, God! Now get Soderbergh onto his next project. Maybe a movie?