The exquisite historical Cinemax series The Knick depicting the birth of modern medicine has been thrilling fans for a couple of seasons now; yet its Season 2 finale had a number of shockers and seemed to wrap up most of the story lines, while its future still remains in limbo.
It would be a shame if it were not picked up for another couple of seasons at least as it is one of the most interesting and inventive programs out there with the experienced and talented director Steven Soderbergh at its helm. Below are some of the things that make the series unique and different; but they may also offer some reasons why it is not - and has not been - to everybody's liking.
If you cannot handle much gore, this series might not be for you. The surgeries can be more than a handful at times, and since this is the era before modern medicine, it can get quite bloody. The series does not shy away from such images, but we become witness to them the same way the spectators of the medical showroom are exposed to those scenes.
Moreover, the surgeries are not always successful making this series quite realistic in its portrayal of the medical profession. As a result, each procedure is also nerve-wracking and a source of tension. Although the doctors are some of the best of the times and quite knowledgeable to boot, many unexpected or unforeseen difficulties can arise.
Two of the most unflinching surgical scenes occur in the second season. In both of them, the patients are medics themselves, and what's more, they are fully conscious. In the first one, Doctor Algernon Edwards has one of his eyes operated upon. Just the anesthesia needle entering the eyeball making it immobile is a scene that raises every hair on my skin, let alone the surgical procedure itself, which does not turn out too well.
The second gruesome instance occurs when the arrogant protagonist Dr. Thackery in a gutsy (pun intended) move decides to operate his innards by using a mirror in front of him. Let me just add that he is also impaired by having snorted a little bit too much cocaine before the stomach-churning surgery, and you can imagine the thrills but mostly agony of witnessing that scene. Not for queasy stomachs indeed!
The whole series has the trademark of Steven Soderbergh's clinical detachment. The camera is at times distant from the characters and often shot in long takes, which take the edge off the occasional melodramatic moments, but which also, for better or worse, make it difficult to empathize much with the characters as we observe them as witnesses from the sidelines.
There are various beautiful shots with bluish tints of the outdoors, but many of the indoors scenes are shot with (what appears to be) natural light. This causes a problem as it is at times hard to see the actors and their facial expressions due to the candle lights and the general lack of lighting. This also gives the whole an air of authenticity as we come to believe that it is all playing out in the turn of the twentieth century with its limited sources of light.
Finally, there are also nods to stylistic flourishes of other film-makers. For example, the ballroom scene reminded me of the elaborate tracking shot in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and all of this gives the series a depth and gravitas it would not have had without the unique style and trademarks of the talented and immensely knowledgeable Steven Soderbergh.
Some do not like the fact that this historical series has an electronic score. However, it is that clash of the modern with the past that makes the series even more thrilling. Apart from being heart-pounding and exciting, the score also makes a meta-statement about the film transcending its historical period and becoming more contemporary.
That also helps bridge the past with the now, so when we are dealing with themes of racism and eugenics, we are reminded and even asked to look upon these issues from our modern standpoints. We come to see how in some ways we have evolved and overcome ignorance, while in others we still delve in both, despite it all.
As mentioned above, the themes can be quite depressing, but nonetheless they show us the historical period, while also commenting on the present. Racism is ongoing and taken for granted in those times and our main character Algernon Edwards is incessantly struggling with those issues. Many things, such as universal health care is taken for granted today, but this was not the case in a society rooted in openly defiant racial discrimination.
In fact, to treat some of the colored patients, the African-American doctor Algernon Edwards set up his own hidden medical practice in the basement, the bowels of the hospital, and he had to operate his patients in hiding under shady lights and with shoddy equipment.
The most openly racist and arguably most despicable character of the series is Gallinger who is a fervent supporter of eugenics; he has volunteered to sterilize teenage boys suffering from mental illness to better the future of society in his distorted view. He is always vocal and unequivocal about his hatred for Algernon Edwards, and he even sabotages one of the African-American doctor's surgeries.
Finally, there is also the issue of addiction that is not glossed over but presented in its many struggles. Addiction afflicts the protagonist Thackery, while the rehabilitation clinic he is sent to at the end of the first season only makes it worse (see the final ironical shot of Series 1). In the second series, Thackery does attempt to study addiction and wants to find a cure, but with very minimum success, if any, for that matter. The series is not afraid to show us the darker side of human nature, be it in the form of racism, envy, or addiction.
Speaking of human nature, we are presented with a kaleidoscope of flawed characters; perhaps with the possible exceptions of Cornelia Robertson and Bertie Chickering Jr., no other character can be seen as good and decent. The protagonist Thackery is an arrogant coke addict who may be a brilliant doctor, but he does take advantage of a number of people and situations, including Nurse Elkins.
However, Nurse Elkins who is the daughter of a pastor is not quite the innocent dove herself as she partakes in both sex and drugs, which were particularly shocking for the times; later on, she begins to manipulate others since she feels herself slighted in love. Her father, the reverend, also has his share of secrets and his own dark past, while she has her own way of revenging his abuse and maltreatment towards her.
Even our colored surgeon Algernon Edwards is not just a heart of gold. He gets into physical fights to reduce his stress level; he treats women, including Cornelia and his wife with disdain, and at times he lacks the courage to stand up for himself but lets other influence and guide him. Moreover, in order to break even with Gallinger, he breaks into his office and steals documents, which he then presents as evidence for the court to little avail.
The most evil characters are the blatantly racist Gallinger, the creepy director of the hospital Barrow who robs hospital funds so that he can buy the freedom of his favorite whore while rejecting his wife and two children without any remorse. Finally, another surprising twist (which I will not spoil here) shows us pure evil in a character we thought was essentially good and trustworthy.
All in all, this makes for a fascinating, startling but also occasionally uncomfortable viewing. I thought the first season of The Knick to be more thematically intriguing, but the second season to be more assured and daring in its stylistic approaches. I can only wonder what the third season brings forward, if and when it does come our way.