Were you to only catch certain scenes of The Knick - such as when a patient has the top of his skull removed, his brain exposed while Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) prods it with electricity as well dressed, bespectacled old men watch in bemusement - then you might think it is a horror anthology rather than the beautifully shot, carefully crafted, highly original hospital drama that it is. Set in the early 1900s at a fictional Manhattan hospital, The Knick details the lives of the surgeons, nurses, administrators, and sundry workers as they attempt to save lives, keep the hospital lights on and, perhaps, etch out something of a living.
It centers on Thackery, Chief of Surgery at the Knick who is highly skilled and inventive, but also erratic and addicted to cocaine as well as a number of other substances. At the end of last season, he was sent to an early version of a rehab facility. This is where we find him in the first episode of the second season, none the better for the treatment (which as the final scene of the first season revealed involved healthy doses of heroin). When we first look in on him, he’s not so much recovering as scheming via secret surgeries on other patients for extra doses of his “treatments.” By the end of the first episode, Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) has snuck Thackery out of the facility and onto a boat where he forces him to detox before returning him to shore.
This is not some form of gallantry on Gallinger’s part but rather a cynical, political move as he found - upon returning to The Knick after helping his wife recover from her mental breakdown - that Dr. Algernon (André Holland) has become acting Head of Surgery in Thackery’s absence. He figures that returning Thackery to work will better place himself in the pecking order. Algernon, meanwhile, suffers from a worsening dislocated eye socket which he’s received from his near nightly fist fights in the streets of his neighborhood. He’s hoping Thackery never returns and that the board will vote him in as permanent Head of Surgery. These dreams are quickly squashed as you can't keep a good Thackery (or even a bad, drugged-up one) down. Nor the inherent racism of the Knick’s board of directors.
In other goings-on, Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) tries to recover from Thackery’s insistence that they cannot maintain a romantic relationship by returning to Jesus (and her father who is a high spirited preacher). Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) is in jail, having been caught performing abortions at the end of last season because her friend, ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), was on a bender and neglected his protecting of her. Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) finds herself living in San Francisco with her husband as the Plague sets in over the city. And last but not least (though probably the smarmiest), Mr. Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) continues to scheme and steal while trying to keep The Knick afloat as its moving to its new digs uptown.
Yes, Season Two continues Season One's trend of blending together a myriad of storylines and an every growing cast list. It does so with great attention to detail and the greatest sense of style of any show on television. Much praise belongs to Steven Soderberg who directed every episode. It says a lot about the state of the film industry versus that of television when one of the biggest and best film directors of our time takes a long sabbatical from movie-making to create, produce, and direct what is essentially a nine-hour movie for Cinemax. We are all the better for it. Soderberg brings his unique sense of camera movement and imaginative color palette to every scene.
It is a wonderfully beautiful show, even when its diving deep into the grotesqueries of its surgery scenes. And it really loves those surgery scenes. Most medical dramas love to make the audience a bit squeamish by showing a bit of blood and perhaps a surgeon's cut or two, but The Knick absolutely delights in pushing its premium-cable credentials to the gore-filled max by unflinchingly pushing the camera right in the middle of its turn-of-the-century surgical-theater centerpiece. Yet with Soderberg’s steady hand it never feels gratuitous.
The cast, likewise, deserves every praise. Clive Owen is a master at portraying Thackery’s slightly unhinged genius. André Holland plays Algernon with a detached coolness that seethes with rage underneath over his inability to show the world how great he is due to the color of his skin. My favorites, Eve Hewson and Chris Sullivan, are a delight to watch in every single scene they are given.
I would be amiss to discuss The Knick without mentioning its score. Written by Cliff Martinez (who also wrote the music for Drive and Spring Breakers amongst many others) the music is modern, electronic and very hypnotic. It's not at all something that one expects from a period drama, but it works brilliantly with the action on screen. Pulsing with energy, it helps shape the story like few scores are able to do.
Season Two continues where Season One left off. It doesn’t do anything particularly new, but advances the characters stores in interesting and wonderful ways. I won’t spoil the ending except to say that it was originally only contracted to be two seasons and Soderberg seems to have no intention of coming back. Season Two ends in a way in which I am satisfied if the series ended there, but I’m also excited to see where it can go from here.
The audio and video on the Blu-ray looks and sounds remarkable. As noted the visuals and score of the series are incredible well done and the Blu-ray allows them to shine. Each episode includes a “post-op” which is really a short, clip-heavy feature where the cast and crew discuss the episode you just watched. There are also several nice features on the medical procedures of the show, the sets, costume design, and one just for the massive charity ball from Episode 7. Select episodes include audio commentary from cast and crew as well.
In a world filled with more must-see TV than one can reasonably expect to watch, I highly recommend slicing out some time for The Knick. Season Two is a knock-out.