“Ten Knots,” the second-season premiere of The Knick, which returns to tonight at 10 p.m. EST on Cinemax, takes its title from a specific plot point of the episode. But it could just as easily refer to the episode as a whole, which sets up a second season in which its characters already, at the outset, find themselves caught in traps. Some are of their own making. Others have been set for them. All look like they’ll be hell to escape.
Behind the scenes, little has changed. Creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler remain on hand, writing both the premiere and most of the upcoming season. Retired filmmaker Steven Soderbergh returns to direct every episode. The premiere is powered by the same sweeping camerawork, restless energy, and an anachronistic-but-fitting electronic score from Cliff Martinez. The calendar’s moved forward to one year, to 1901, but the New York (and, briefly, San Francisco) glimpsed in “Ten Knots” remains that of the first season: one dragging itself, bloodily, into modernity. The doctors of the Knickerbocker Hospital know they’re on the cusp of a future in which, for instance, appendicitis is no longer life-threatening. They just don’t always know how to cross over.
It doesn’t help that there’s a lot dragging them back, as the season opens. (And here’s where those who don’t want to know what’s set up in the episode’s opening moments should probably bail for a few paragraphs.) Making a surprise return in the episode’s first moments: the ghost of the girl Dr. Thackeray (Clive Owen) killed during a botched attempt at a blood transfusion while high on cocaine. It’s the incident that sent him to the institution to deal with his addiction, one that offered a safe cure in the form of a new drug called heroin. Unsurprisingly, he’s gone from bad to worse, ranting in the common room and covertly performing surgeries, if that’s the right word, for vials of drugs.
Thackeray remains a fascinating character, thanks in part to Owen’s fine performance and in part to his creators’ smart conception of who he is, and who he’s not. TV’s current golden age is littered with bastards, but Thackeray isn’t quite that. He’s an addict and an egotist, but he’s always motivated by the desire to do good, and tortured by the moments he’s failed. He’s also visibly grown as a character. It would probably be a mistake to say he’s shaken off his old prejudices, but he’s also a man of science and the empirical evidence of watching Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) perform brilliantly as a surgeon has forced him to rethink his racism. If Breaking Bad was ultimately about Walter’s self-actualization by becoming a bastard, The Knick seems to be pushing Thackeray in a different direction. If, that is, he makes it out alive.
Speaking of Algernon, Thackeray’s not the only one still reeling from the events of last season’s finale. That beating Algernon endured has left him with a career-imperilling eye injury. It’s a hurt only compounded by Cornelia’s (Juliet Rylance) absence. But at least her new home in San Francisco keeps her far away from her lecherous father-in-law — for the time being. Yet Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) may have it worst of all. Under arrest for performing abortions, she seemingly has little hope beating the charges, and little comfort from the church. And so it goes down the line, and all the while a clock ticks in the form of the new Knickerbocker soon to be built uptown, far from the grime of the neighborhood around the current facilities.
When Soderbergh announced he was leaving filmmaking behind, the general reaction could best be summed up in two words: “Yeah right.” And, in some respects, that’s a legitimate response. Soderbergh didn’t direct Magic Mike XXL, giving the reins to longtime assistant director Gregory Jacobs. But he did serve as its director of photography (under the name Peter Andrews) and editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard). A full on return seems almost inevitable.
Yet The Knick raises another question: Why should he go back? What could Soderbergh (or Andrews and Bernard) get from a movie he’s not getting from The Knick, which gives him fascinating characters and situations and a sprawling canvas on which to depict them. There are shots in this episode — a carriage moving through fog, a boat cutting through the water — as beautiful as anything in Soderbergh’s features, to say nothing of a dream cast. Watch Eve Hewson try to hide Lucy’s emotions as he asks after Thackeray. Check out Holland’s expression during an unexpected reunion late in the episode. What they do here is as good as it gets. So’s the show around them.