[This is a review of The Knick season 1, episode 6. There will be SPOILERS.]
This is the age of the television showrunner. Thanks to the likes of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and anything falling under the creative umbrella of the one-woman industry that is Shonda Rhimes, the showrunner has become a vaunted position in our media-obsessed world. He or she who runs the shows, more often than not, also controls the more writerly aspects of television production.
As evidenced by the level of storytelling on display in many series, this works to the distinct advantage of the medium. There are exceptions of course, but even when a series is running a 10-episode season (or less), television feels like it has, in comparison to film, a lifetime to develop that side of its storytelling skill set.
That is what makes The Knick unique. By and large, the first five episodes of the series have benefited primarily from the impact of director (cinematographer and editor) Steven Soderbergh, utilizing his inimitable skill as a feature filmmaker to adjust the expectations of what television audiences are used to, especially in terms of the way a television show is composed. The show is more indebted to the directorial side of things than it is to the scripts that have aimed to wrangle in the surprisingly large ensemble that comprises the core staff of the titular hospital.
And while some of the scripting may have been clunky in the early going, the portions of The Knick operating more directly under the supervision of its director have not faltered a bit. In episode 6, ‘Start Calling Me Dad,’ however, there is a surprising synergy between the writers and the director that results in the best (or at least most fulfilling) episode so far.
The episode also owes a great deal to Clive Owen’s carefully regulated mania, making Dr. Thackery shine brighter than the spotlight he’s put in by the story. The opening sequence in which a cocaine-fueled Thackery calls Bertie in the middle of the night to work out a new system that will make the placenta previa procedure a success works like a window into the brain of each man, paying off the layering work that was done on Thackery’s character during last week’s episode.
It starts with that fabulous cold open, and continues with Tom Papa’s appearance as a soulless corporate shill and Thackery’s firm but poetic dismissal of his offer of sponsorship on a fraudulent liniment. Then the episode works its way around a series of emotionally varying scenes, like the Everett and Eleanor Gallinger’s mournful loss of their child or Cleary and Sister Harriet drinking booze in the street, discussing their worthiness in the eyes of God and whether they’re going to see the pearly gates or the furnace.
And yet, ‘Start Calling Me Dad’ isn’t simply a series of loosely connected updates on various storylines. Instead, it links its many threads in an elegant, subtle way that establishes a series of throughlines that enrich and enliven the entire episode.
This connection owes a great deal to the precision and cleverness of Soderbergh’s editing that moves from Bertie and Lucy discussing the intoxicating allure of Dr. Thackery and his brilliance to a literally intoxicated Dr. Edwards, being unsuccessfully dissuaded from picking a fight with an opponent seemingly beyond his ability to topple. Afterward, the cut to Edwards silently applying ice to his ribs makes those unseen punches land with such tremendous force the outcome of the altercation becomes moot.
Besides, Edwards’ real fight is with Thackery. The symbolic punching bags he’s made of his various opponents pales in comparison to the title fight he finds himself in when Thackery discovers his surgical clinic and, subsequently, comes to see the personal value in Algernon’s skills as both a surgeon and a surgical innovator.
It’s one of many complicated wins for various characters throughout the episode. Barrow gets a discounted X-ray device (complete with an hour’s worth of cranial exposure to radiation), Bertie winds up being co-author of a published piece on the bladder device used to successfully complete the placenta previa procedure, and Cornelia and Inspector Speight track down (and tackle) “Typhoid Mary.”
But more than offer characters a chance to experience an accomplishment they either craved from the series premiere (as with Thackery being haunted by Christiansen’s failure and suicide) or were never even aware they wanted (as with Bertie’s varied experiences with women and baked goods), the episode offers hints as to how those experiences will alter things moving forward and helps to establish the ways in which the status quo may have been altered.
Although its title sounds more like the failed Greta Gerwig-led pseudo sequel to How I Met Your Mother than an episode of a pay-cable drama headed up by Steven Soderbergh, ‘Start Calling Me Dad’ winds up feeling like an achievement for the series. One that comes across as delightfully overexcited and eager as Dr. Thackery on a two-day cocaine-and-“work” binge, while still managing to hint at the low that will inevitably follow, as it picks up with the tragic yet slightly incongruous goings-on in the Gallinger house and again with the intensely creepy and foreboding visit Cornelia receives from her father-in-law-to-be.
The Knick continues next Friday with ‘Get the Rope’ @10pm on Cinemax.
Photos: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax