Welcome back to The Knick, ladies and gentlemen. When last we met, we were introduced to Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), a surgery pioneer in turn-of-the-century (the 20th century) New York City. Thack – as his closer acquaintances call him – finds himself the head of the surgery staff after his mentor, Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), is driven to suicide by his gruesome – and often deadly – profession. Thack isn’t as clean as he would have his co-workers and patients believe; his brilliance is driven by a dependence on cocaine, and his fragile mental state is not improved by the introduction of a black surgeon (Andre Holland’s Dr. Algernon Edwards) to his staff. For all intents and purposes, that’s The Knick.
Normally it is the job of a second episode to reintroduce the premise and couch it in whatever the series’s actual status quo will be. Because director Steven Soderbergh shot the first season like one big movie, that won’t be necessary here… Yet it kind of happens anyway. There was nothing in the pilot to suggest extreme serialization, but I was a little disappointed to find the second episode so… episodic.
“Mr. Paris Shoes” opens with the juxtaposition of the poor treatment of women and black men in 1900 New York. As Algernon deals with the inherent inequalities of his situation, the daughter of the hospital’s benefactor, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) looks squarely in the face of a patriarch-led command structure. This view of race and gender looks to be one of the main focuses of The Knick, so the slow build Soderbergh and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler are utilizing can be forgiven. One interesting aspect of this theme thusfar is Algernon’s acceptance of his received prejudice, while Cornelia bristles at her comparatively lighter load.
The burden does weigh heavily on Algernon, despite his brave face. Constant dismissal by his colleagues and blatant disregard for his race as a whole place quite a pressure on him. Algernon’s acceptance in European culture casts him out among both whites and African Americans in New York. He does his best to handle this treatment, but – even at his strongest – Dr. Jekyll could not contain Mr. Hyde.
That monster inside exists everywhere. The Knick may depict the early days of the surgical arts, but at this point men have already been cutting away at each other for centuries. Thack keeps his monster at bay through self-medication, and that is a secret he needs to keep. Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) learned Thack’s secret in the first episode, and Thackery’s feigned earnestness in asking her to keep it to herself is possibly the most off-putting thing in the episode.
It is certainly more off-putting than the introduction of Herman Barrow’s (Jeremy Bobb) darkness. Barrow is the hospital manager at The Knickerbocker, and his newly revealed money troubles are the least interesting part of the new series. Barrow’s establishment as an unsympathetic pennypincher makes it hard to really care about his storyline.
So the series has a few steps to take narrative-wise. But a good portion of the series’s appeal is it’s director. This is Soderbergh’s most recent post-retirement project, so his technical contributions to the endeavor are as integral to the whole as the script and performances are. I’ll get more into the production in coming weeks, I’m sure, but Soderbergh is already experimenting with extended takes and parallel audio in ways that make me want to revisit the episode I just watched.
I won’t, however. Not just yet. There’s too much to do. Luckily The Knick is keeping me just interested enough so far. The more episodic and expository elements of the second episode do give way to slightly greater amounts of serialization as the hour nears its end. I don’t know for sure where The Knick is going, but for now the creative pedigree has got me hooked.