Review: Can The Knick cure its own dark protagonist?

Steven Soderbergh's medical drama is now about a flawed genius, not a hopeless one

It's nothing new to bemoan the male-antihero-filled landscape of contemporary television. But it's also getting harder with every passing year to imagine an alternative kind of protagonist — at least, one that can flourish on prestige or premium cable. One recent successful example is the cadre of beleaguered idealists of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, who, despite their varying addictions and lack of social skills, are ultimately trying to build something. But the contemporary benchmark for me is still Enlightened's Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a self-absorbed basket case whose struggle to overcome her weaknesses and make a positive change in her world fueled the two seasons of the short-lived show. (I hesitate to say "regretfully short-lived," because Enlightened ended as gracefully as it lived.) Making the worst of things is an easy recipe for drama; there can be a uniquely devastating tragedy in watching characters try to make the best of things.

This review contains mild spoilers for the second season of The Knick and major spoilers for the first season of The Knick.

We've become untrained to find the pathos in a TV character who is not defined by their vices, even as the Tony-Don-Walt paradigm has long since lost its luster. I faltered on my first attempt to watch the first season of Cinemax's The Knick partially due to the outrageously gory operating room blooper reel that was its first few episodes, but more because the cocaine-addicted, bigoted, difficult genius John Thackeray seemed so rote, and such a waste of Clive Owen. As lush as its production design was, and as electrifying as director Steven Soderbergh's freewheeling camera work was, the man whose career and life we were supposed to take an interest in seemed exhaustingly dour and familiar.

This is the most real John Thackeray has ever been

I revisited the series in the run-up to its second season and came to appreciate, if not adore the show for its other considerable merits. Framing a period medical drama like a paranoid cyberpunk thriller on the order of Mr. Robot is a stroke of genius on Soderbergh's part, amplified gloriously by Cliff Martinez's Tron-like score. It's not a stretch, either; the doctors, nurses, and paramedics that populate the world of The Knick occupy the same role in their society that programmers and hackers do today. That alone made for a world I was happy to return to for 10 episodes, as long as I was sure to eat my dinner before clicking play on HBO Go. By the time John Thackery ended up in rehab, his career all but destroyed by his addiction, I wasn't so much concerned for his fate as much as I was curious about how much we'd get to see of a turn-of-the-century Promises.

The Knick

Not that much, it turns out. By the halfway point of tonight's premiere "Ten Knots," Thackeray has busted out, with the help of terminal asshole Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) who needs him back at the Knick to restore caucasian order in the wake of Algernon Edwards' (Andre Holland) takeover. What follows is a completely ridiculous sequence I can only dub "detox boat," a plot beat that at first glance seems to be a desperately far-fetched attempt to reset the show to its original premise: Thackeray, in the operating theater, with the scalpel. (This is not a spoiler; there are posters that give away as much.)

But to put Thackeray through a rapid (if improbable) recovery puts the show in a potentially exciting position; it is now a show about a flawed genius, not a hopeless one, a distinction that makes a world of difference. Owen sells the reformed Thackeray as someone who truly has a new perspective on the world and himself, even though his shortcomings are far from banished. More importantly, the show has at this point trained us to believe in Thackeray's ability to eventually prevail when it comes to medical treatments for theretofore incurable ailments, and his addiction is treated no differently. Thackeray has absorbed the calamitous consequences of his behavior and is trying in his way to move forward, but like the trial and error of the operating theater, it's a messy and incremental process. For all his season one highs and lows, this is the most real he's ever been.

The way The Knick's second season works through this is imperfect, and by the end of the four episodes I was given to review, I'm not even positive that it's where the show is ultimately headed. But Soderbergh shares something with Thackeray: a chilly, anthropological eye that favors movement over sentimentality. I rewatched both Magic Mike films last week (not for research; just 'cause), and it's there, too: a distance which denies us a conventional connection with his characters but somehow highlights their humanity with an almost documentary nuance. Thackeray's immediate inclination upon coming back to the Knick is to study addiction and try to find a real treatment for it; using his analytical skills to conquer his human flaws. It's an entirely new kind of endeavor to watch unfold on pay cable, and exciting precisely because we have no idea what kind of outcome to expect.

The Knick

Paul Schiraldi

If only creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler had as clear an idea of what to do with the rest of their expansive cast. The Knick's greatest fault is that it too frequently falls into a kind of dry Wikipedia-drama that characterized the slower stretches of Mad Men: look up whatever the issue of the day was in 19XX, plug your extant characters into it, and voila! An arc! Holland brings great warmth and charisma to Algernon Edwards, but the character still feels like its bound by the constraints of being the mascot of the black experience. Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), the society girl with a heart of gold, feels like she's reading a grocery list of Why Things Sucked For Women. Both those characters have been given a superfluous mystery plot this season that will feel discouragingly familiar to anyone who lived through Friday Night Lights' second season.

And that kind of soapy intrigue works in direct opposition to the careful tone Soderbergh has set. His fly-on-the-wall camera makes much more sense when characters aren't talking about their position in society so much as living it. The characters who fare best are the ones who explain themselves the least; namely, Thackeray and Eve Hewson's Nurse Lucy, a cipher who is still slowly unraveling as season two begins. Soderbergh often frames her from above, as if reviewing footage from a not-yet-invented security camera. We see the mundanity of her life, while having a tantalizingly incomplete picture of the complicated, morally ambiguous person that exists under her expressionless surface. These are the moments in which Soderbergh, Amiel, and Begler's 1900s New York feels the most alive — the moments when you realize that people back then had just as foggy an idea of how they fit into history as we do now, and all they could do was live one day at a time and try to make the best of things.

The Knick season two premieres Friday at 10PM ET on Cinemax.