Season finale review: ‘The Knick’ – ‘Crutchfield’

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
10.17.14 43 Comments

Cinemax

“The Knick” has wrapped up its first season, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as your colon has to go as well…

“What have I done?” -Thack

“Crutchfield” did a nice job of bringing the major stories of the season to a boil, mostly while linking them to the series' larger questions about scientific and social progress.

“The Knick” is set in a time when modern medicine became, well, modern, and in some ways we can see how the work that Thack and Edwards (and, for that matter, Cornelia) are doing ties neatly with how medicine is practiced today. But this was an age of experimentation, which brought many, many misguided follies for every brilliant success, and we see that in action as so many of the characters' circumstances go from bad to worse.

Most obvious of these is Thack being taken to a primitive drug rehab facility after his mania inspires him to perform an experimental, unsound, fatal transfusion – using his own cocaine-riddled blood! – on a little girl. Placed in the care of Dr. Hackett – himself a dashing trailblazer in the Thackery mode – John is escorted to a lovely private room, where Hackett extols the virtues of Bayer's new wonder drug that should eliminate the misery of withdrawal…

… and it's heroin(*).

(*) Specifically, “Heroin,” which was an actual Bayer product intended to be a non-addictive alternative to morphine. Whoops.

In a season filled with plenty of quackery – including the bogus liniment that a desperate Thack offered to endorse last week in exchange for some coke – this is by far the quack-iest, and yet it was something that many doctors and and a major drug manufacturer actually believed in at the time.

Similarly, look at the treatment of poor Eleanor Gallinger, whose doctor(**) sounds wholly sane and reasonable as he explains to Everett why he removed all of Eleanor's teeth. If surgeons of the time were fumbling around in the metaphorical dark, psychiatrists were trying to find answers with their eyes shut and ears and noses plugged; so little was understood about mental health that many strange, terrifying ideas were tried on patients in no position to know better, or do anything to avoid being guinea pigs.

(**) Played by John Hodgman, in an era that's finally appropriate for his mustache.

Not every bad-to-worse story of “Crutchfield” was specifically medicine-related, though I suppose Barrow did need to have his groin treated after being abused for the final time by Bunky Collier. But in going to Ping Wu to escape his debt – which allowed Steven Soderbergh to flex his “Haywire” muscles with a brief but memorable action sequence – our resident weasel has elected for his own cocaine-to-heroin transition.

And with Cornelia now off in a marriage she doesn't particularly want – and with a father-in-law she really doesn't want – there's no one to block the vote to shutter the Knick's current location and move uptown. Based on how everything else works in “Crutchfield,” I'm guessing we will not return in season 2 to find the Knick North running smoothly and with a high profit margin.

Story-wise, this first season had its bumps and sluggish periods, but things rounded into satisfying form by the end, particularly in the ways that different stories intersected. Barrow's constant money troubles never much interested me until Ping Wu got involved, for instance, while Sister Harriet and Cleary's abortion business lined up neatly (and powerfully) with Cornelia's situation. And every aspect of Thack's life collided and fell apart over these last couple of weeks, with Lucy very belatedly opening her eyes to what the cocaine was doing to him, even as Bertie got to feel betrayed by both his mentor and the woman he thought he loved.

My hope is that the season 2 storylines will feel more compelling on their own, rather than just being a Soderbergh delivery system. But if that's all the show ever turns out to be, I'm okay with that, too, because Soderbergh is doing so many interesting things with the show he shoots and edits these episodes. (I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in relation to the withdrawal episode.) TV has long been a writers' medium, and I think the format overall is better-served by great writing than by great direction. But this new trend of having directors handle most or all of a season – Soderbergh here, Cary Fukunaga on “True Detective,” David Lynch on the upcoming “Twin Peaks” revival – is a really fascinating one. The ideal is to have a show with consistently memorable writing and direction – “Breaking Bad” being the most obvious example – and if not every show can achieve that balance, it's not a bad thing to have some shows that lean overly toward the director's end of things.

Story-wise, “The Knick” is like a lot of shows I've seen before. Directing-wise, though, it was special.

What did everybody else think of both the finale and season 1 as a whole?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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Alan Sepinwall has been writing about television since the mid-'90s. He's the author of "The Revolution Was Televised," about the rise of TV's new golden age, and co-author of "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time."

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