October 18, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “The Knick”


One of the ways that, even at a time overwhelmed with quality TV drama, Cinemax’s THE KNICK has proven itself extraordinary has been in its subversion of the accepted TV template.  Conventional wisdom has had it that the auteurs of television are its writer/producers, with the directors as skilled craftspeople devoted to realizing the showrunners’ vision.  Knick creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, who wrote most of the show’s episodes themselves, did strong, incisive work all season, filled with fascinating insights about medicine, New York and society in general at the dawn of the 20th century.  The presiding vision of The Knick, though, has belonged to Steven Soderbergh, who personally directed, photographed and edited every episode (the latter two under his customary pseudonyms), and who’s already committed to doing the same for Season 2.  Soderbergh has created an immersive world of the past equal to the best historical cinema.

Amiel and Begler’s plotting tended, at times, to the melodramatic, but that actually worked well, because The Knick has been Soderbergh’s most Kubrickian work–not just in his masterful use (working with production designer Howard Cummings) of miniscule light levels in a way that specifically recalled Barry Lyndon (the series was shot on the RED Dragon digital system, which has allowed the same remarkable clarity of images shot with tiny light sources as the Zeiss lenses Kubrick had developed for his film), but in the detached tone of the narrative.  Just as Kubrick’s temperament made masterpieces out of genre stories like The Shining and The Killing, Soderbergh’s cool counterpoint brought out the compelling drama in the scripts while underplaying their excess.  Soderbergh has said that a lack of budget and time necessitated some of his visual choices like lengthy shots with the camera distanced from the performers and a minimal amount of editing within sequences, but they formed an aesthetic that contributed greatly to the show’s sense of time and place.  Soderbergh even managed what might be called a “reverse Kubrick”:  where the master revolutionized science fiction by scoring 2001 with classical music, Soderbergh used modern electronic music by Cliff Martinez as the background to action taking place a century before that kind of music would exist.  In both cases, the director forced audiences to experience what could have seemed like familiar settings with new eyes and ears.

Soderbergh has long been fascinated by history–after his breakthrough with sex, lies and videotape, he used his clout to next film the (unsuccessful) Kafka and King of the Hill, both set in the first part of the 20th century, and he shot The Good German with actual antique cameras–but his historical projects have been among his most problematic.  He’s gotten lost in his own commentary on genre, so that Che was more than anything else his anti-epic, and The Good German was his anti-1940s Warners war melodrama.  Being given a strong storytelling spine by Amiel and Begler seems to have freed him up to express his thoughts via the characters and their actions, rather than imposing a superstructure of ironies on the material.

There were already ironies enough in the story itself, typified by the very last sequence of the season, in which cocaine-addicted Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) finally melted down to the extent that his misconceived attempt to prove his new blood transfusion technique, bred out of his paranoid desire to beat a medical rival to the punch in claiming to have solved the problem, resulted in the death of a young girl patient.  Both physically and psychologically spent, he was checked into the 1900 version of rehab by his only remaining allies, his lover Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), and his protege Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano)–whose heart had been broken when he realized that Lucy loved Thack and not him–and told that his withdrawal would be controlled with a new wonder medication, made by Bayer… heroin.  Even that may have been exceeded in sheer horror, however, by the earlier sequence in which Dr. Gallinger (Eric Johnson) visited his poor mad wife (Maya Kazan) at the asylum where she had been taken, to be told with all earnestness by the head of the institution (guest star John Hodgman, in perhaps the first performance of his career that didn’t feel like a stunt) that to cure her madness, he had had all of her teeth removed because the mouth was a nest of infection–something he’d already done to his own children–and if that didn’t work, he’d go on removing her body parts, one by one.  Both of those sequences were based on actual events of the era.  (In terms of Soderbergh’s direction, it’s instructive to study the extremely spare, uninflected way he depicted the asylum scene tonight, in a manner that was far more effectively terrifying than the snake-pit loony bin sequences on this season’s Boardwalk Empire.)

The finale’s other major storyline, which brought the illicit relationship between heiress Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) and black surgeon Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) to a head as she broke up with him, after aborting their baby, and entered into a loveless marriage with the rich young man (with the extremely creepy father) her parents wanted, was worthwhile as a way to examine race in the north circa 1900, but less compelling than the medical narratives.

Apart from the show’s technical brilliance, Soderbergh has always been superb with actors, and that’s been the case with The Knick as well.  Clive Owen has never been better cast than as the brilliant, charismatic but arrogant and tortured Thack–the very aura of coldness that’s held him back as a Hollywood leading man was perfect for his role here.  Andre Holland’s Algernon, the closest the show has to an unambiguous hero, has been strong and admirable without seeming like a fantasy figure.  Hewson, Rylance and Cara Seymour, as the hospital’s nun who secretly performs abortions, have had the chance to play complex, contradictory female characters and performed them beautifully.  The supporting cast has been a wondrous pool of vivid characters, including Chris Sullivan as the hospital’s brutally practical ambulance driver, David Fierro as an ebullient health inspector, and Danny Hoch as a particularly nasty gangster, eliminated in yet another remarkable sequence, an action scene other filmmakers would have tricked up with slow-motion and fancy angles, but which Soderbergh dispensed with in a few expert seconds.

The Knick hasn’t rated particularly well (although one imagines its numbers look better when all the various platforms–which for pay-TV have the same value as same day viewing–are counted).  But while a blockbuster hit would have been nice, it was designed more to put Cinemax into the big leagues of its more respected cousin HBO, as a place where top talent would want to work, awards voters would pay attention and subscribers would find desirable original content.  In this it’s accomplished its goals, and earned its renewal.  The season ended with The Knick’s board of directors voting to close the hospital at its current midtown location and move it uptown to a part of Manhattan where richer patients would make up its clientele.  The hospital’s, and the show’s, decisions in its next season will be well worth our attention.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."