[This is a review of The Knick season 1, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
After the harrowing events comprising most of last week’s ‘Get the Rope‘ gave way to a pair of unexpectedly intimate scenes, The Knick continues its trek into intimacy by spending more time than it has in the previous seven episodes roaming around inside the head of one Dr. John Thackery.
In a sense, ‘Working Late a Lot’ is the payoff for Clive Owen’s performance thus far. It is a chance for Owen to take Thackery’s usual bombast and irascible genius and bury it underneath the painful symptoms of withdrawal just to see what comes of it.
The result is a man wracked with what are perhaps the unfamiliar pangs of weakness, stemming not only from the absence of cocaine in his system, but also the sense of inadequacy he must feel – as a result of recognizing the depths of his dependency as well as the threat of other doctors’ achievements overshadowing his own. (The latter having as much to do with Dr. Edwards as it does the recently introduced Dr. Levi Zinberg, played by Michael Nathanson.)
Thackery has always been walking on the razor’s edge; there are indications throughout the series up to this point that adequately demonstrate just how defenseless the doctor is to his own addictions. But this is the first time The Knick has been able to delve into what the ramifications might be, if circumstances beyond Thack’s control allowed his dependency to gain the upper hand. Even in the series premiere, Thackery’s solitary moment of vulnerability – instigated by his own desire to do without the drug – was undercut by his willingness to perforate his unmentionables and inject more cocaine in order to get back to work.
But the safety net of supply has vanished, and it comes just after Thackery had opened himself up to accepting Dr. Edwards as a colleague and beginning a (mostly physical) relationship with Lucy Elkins. It’s as though Soderbergh and the series’ writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler wanted to take Thackery through a series of transformative experiences before making an attempt at getting deep inside his overworked brain.
It was a risky move, seeing as how, despite his otherwise commanding presence in nearly every episode, the psychic distance between Thackery and the audience resulted in him becoming more or less a cipher. But without risk there is no reward (something a man who would willingly ingest strychnine for a quick pick-me-up before performing a surgery might know a thing or two about).
And waiting until now to really focus on Thackery (and Owen) – by giving his character such a specific and familiar need and then placing him in a series of competitive, stressful situations that underline his dread of inferiority – delivers tremendously gratifying results. The same can be said for how the episode’s tension ratchets up, as the limits of Thackery’s ability to connect and be in the moment with someone else is demonstrated when he chooses working on his and Bertie’s paper over Lucy.
In a way, Thackery reminds one of Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood when Plainview says, “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed…I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” Both men are fiercely competitive, and both are largely controlled by their personal and professional addictions. Still, despite sharing such objectionable qualities, Plainview is not necessarily bad company to be in – at least from the standpoint of appreciating fictional characters.
There are other threads running through ‘Working Late a Lot,’ like the eternal struggle between Bertie and his father, Gallinger’s well-meaning but ill-advised attempt to adopt a six-moth-old child while his wife is clearly in the midst of a nervous breakdown, and Inspector Speight‘s failed endeavor to keep Typhoid Mary off the streets and out of any New York City kitchen. There’s even a brief, blissful interlude with Cornelia and Algernon that, like the episode’s other storylines, carries a great sense of impending doom.
And that’s fine for now; they’re all interesting in a table-setting sort of way, but nothing onscreen holds your attention like the long shots of John Thackery doing everything in his power to keep from crawling out of his own skin.
Soderbergh brilliantly frames two scenes by training his camera on Owen, while keeping the rest of the action (a board meeting and a medical conference) largely in the periphery. During these moments, Owen reduces himself to little more than a quivering mustache and a bucket of flop sweat, and yet John Thackery is somehow more captivating than ever because he’s more human and flawed than ever.
It’s a testament to the directorial prowess of Soderbergh, then, that he can switch gears from the hectic turmoil of last week’s racially charged mob violence to something as intimate and single-minded as ‘Working Late a Lot.’ And the lingering image of Clive Owen slowly succumbing to the copious amounts of opium does what few parting shots can: project the weight of an episode onto the face of a single man.
The Knick will continue next Friday with ‘The Golden Lotus’ @10pm on Cinemax.
Photos: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax