The Knick, set in New York City in 1900, opens inside an opium den, where a prostitute wakes a bleary-eyed Dr. John Thackery, played by Clive Owen, who stumbles into daylight just in time to catch a carriage into work. On his way to The Knickerbocker hospital, aka The Knick, “Thack” shoots liquid cocaine between his toes to sober himself up enough to perform a graphically-depicted experimental surgery inside an ivory white operating theater surrounded by ornately mustachioed men in top hats. Never has a show hooked me so fast. So begins one of the greatest first seasons of television in history.
The Knick, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh, premiered in 2014 on Cinemax, where its audience was naturally limited to Cinemax subscribers. I think I caught episode one during a free preview and immediately shelled out for a subscription until the end of its run. As a rich, textural history of the Gilded Age set in Gangs Of New York‘s neighborhood featuring drugs, sex, and unsparing surgical gore, The Knick feels like it was designed specifically for me — a person obsessed with Edwardian-era history who watches pimple-popping and pus-draining videos for fun.
Paul Thomas Anderson has said he likes depicting eras in transition, like the porn industry at the dawn of video in Boogie Nights. The Knick has a similar appeal. Depicting three deaths in the first 10 minutes, Thack delivers the eulogy for one. I’m going to quote the whole damn thing, simply because it’s so amazing:
JM Christensen fearlessly took up arms in the battle to oppose the inevitable, throwing himself at an enemy that has never known defeat and as sure as I’m standing here never will. One could not be blamed for wondering whether JM came to see his life’s work as a fool’s errand, a rube finally realizing that the game he’s been playing will be forever rigged against him. But my dear friend JM was a fine man and certainly he was no fool or rube. He and I spent our lives tilting at the very same windmills. So why have I not lost hope like he did? Because those windmills at which we tilted were created by men to turn grindstones that transformed the world’s bounty into flour. From such humble beginnings grew the astonishing modern world in which we now live. We cannot conquer the mountains, but our railroads now run through them with ease. We cannot defeat the river but we can bend it to our will and dam it for our own purposes. We now live in a time of endless possibility. More has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous 500. 20 years ago, 39 was the number of years a man could expect from his life. Today it is more than 47. Eventually, the train tunnels will crumble. The dams will be overrun. Our patients’ hearts will all stop their beating. But we humans can still get a few good licks in battle before we surrender.
I’m not sure a single soliloquy has ever so perfectly summed up a show’s id and mission statement. It’s one of the most succinct expressions of humankind’s hope and hubris at the dawn of the modern era, delivered by its thematically perfect mouthpiece, a self-aggrandizing cocaine addict surgeon bragging about his ongoing fistfight with God. Performed perfectly, by the way, by Clive Owen, a brilliant actor who has never quite gotten his due, and who I like to think of as the Jude Law for whiskey drinkers. This flawless scene simultaneously brings tears to my eyes and makes me want to charge shoulder-first through a brick wall like the Kool-Aid man. I love this show.
Of course, Thack, said to be partly based on Dr. William Halstead, isn’t The Knick‘s only great character. He’s just the first one you notice, who draws you into an entire solar system of perfect characters, like McNulty from The Wire (another rascally American anti-hero with an odd accent played by an Englishman). André Holland plays the Paris-trained Algernon Edwards, The Knick‘s first black surgeon, hired by his childhood playmate, the hospital’s idealistic heiress benefactor, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance). In an early episode, aristocratic Cornelia teams up with the abrasive, pig-like health inspector, Jacob Speight (David Fierro) to find the original “Typhoid Mary.”
The show’s most enduring friendship eventually develops between The Knick’s thuggish, atheistic Irish ambulance driver (who occasionally has to fight with sticks and knives to secure bodies), Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and the dour nurse/nun, Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), aka “Harry” — two foul-tempered Irish sons of bitches with hearts of gold. Of course, every show needs a Ralphie Cifaretto, the slimy weasel (see also the Little Finger), and more than filling that role is the hospital’s crooked administrator, Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), who seizes every opportunity for skimming and graft in order to pay off his copious debts to gangsters and whorehouses.
Between rat-baiting, tertiary syphilis, and casual cocaine use, it would’ve been tempting to make The Knick simply a send-up of a backwards, violent time, flattering contemporary viewers’ sense of superiority, secure in our knowledge of safe blood transfusions and accessible antibiotics. The anachronisms consistently make it fun, but pedantry isn’t The Knick‘s purpose. The characters are all types (Barrow especially) that have their echoes in “modern” times, and especially in the 20 teens, our new Gilded Age. Mostly it’s about the drastic contrasts, of a time when one could have their life saved by complex hernia surgery or bet on how many meningitis-riddled rats a booze-addled oaf could smash in a bar basement. They’re all cavemen in fine suits, to varying degrees; so are we.
Which is to say, it’s about the place where humanity’s potential runs headlong into all the old biases, superstitions, and mortal failings. It’s about a fascinating time period, but in that way could be about any time period. It’s about grit, grime, and gore, but also possibility; one of my favorite shows of all time.