[This is a review of The Knick season 2, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Gritty, bloody, and often in need of a good scrubbing, The Knick is an unrivaled viewing experience. And at its core, that's what the show really is: a viewing experience. It is the rare kind of television whose every frame is striking in some way or another. Whether it is focused on the latest cringe-inducing medical procedure or simply resting on the still face of someone being spoken to, there is something unique going on in the composition of it all. At seemingly every turn and every edit, the show demonstrates a profound understanding of how each and every detail on the screen is there for a reason.
This is due to the exacting eye of director, cinematographer, and editor, Steven Soderbergh, who did the same with the series in season 1. While The Knick enjoys the talents of Clive Owen as the drug-addled "mad scientist" Dr. John Thackery, and André Holland as the fiery and ambitious Dr. Algernon Edwards, the series is most fascinating and watchable for its multifaceted nature. On one hand it is the captivating story of medicine and surgery at the dawn of the 20th century; that much alone should garner much viewer interest. But it is also a program filled with animated and engaging, but ultimately familiar characters, the writing of whom sometimes didn't rise to the level of the show being created around them.
Despite its shortcomings, the show has always been very good, and still is (actually, in season 2 it gets demonstrably better). But, in a way, even with its many terrific performances, The Knick can sometimes feel as though the star of the show was really the guy behind the camera, the one calling the shots and piecing the whole thing together when the day was over. And while it may seem odd to say, that's okay. Steven Soderbergh's contributions to the series are evident in everything that makes it onto the screen – and probably quite a bit those watching never actually get to see. Soderbergh is the element that makes the show what it is: a rare television program driven by the singular vision of the director.
It could be said, then, that both doctors Edwards and Thackery have something in common with the man behind the camera, but only as they are driven to achieve exacting standards set by themselves – or, perhaps, their previous achievements. What the season 2 premiere, 'Ten Knots,' demonstrates – unlike its director – is that there isn't a character on The Knick for whom some exacting standard does not exist, and yet no one is anywhere near achieving that desired expectation.
The series jumps into 1901, where despite a sense of optimism and perhaps pomp and circumstance surrounding the groundbreaking of the new Knickerbocker hospital, most of the main characters are in need of help. Thackery, who at the end of last season was admitted to a clinic that sought to treat his cocaine addiction with heroin, has resigned himself to a life of clockwatching until he can receive his next fix. Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) sits in jail, awaiting trial for the abortions she performed for women in need. Cornelia Showalter (Juliet Rylance) is in San Francisco, fighting an outbreak of bubonic plague, before facing the plague of her pervy father-in-law upon her return to New York. And Edwards finds himself at the mercy of a hospital board run by old white men who, as his friend Henry (Charles Aitken) describes are "not the kind of men who like to make history." In other words, these characters are stuck in situations they cannot free themselves from on their own.
Dramatically speaking, that's exactly where the narrative needs them to be, as it provides the actors a compelling platform on which to stage their performances. But it also affords the supporting cast the chance to play savior. Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), the aforementioned Henry, and surprisingly – though for his own selfish (and racist) reasons – Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) all make efforts to bring others out of the holes in which they find themselves. And although Gallinger's kidnapping and imprisonment of Thackery at sea – until he's clearheaded enough to tie the titular ten knots – is the most overt action taken in the premiere, it serves to underline an unexpected attitude for the series that is surprisingly reflected in the actions and desires of its characters.
In general, that attitude is one of an aspiration for greatness as well as progress. It seems odd for that to be the case – especially given the situations nearly everyone is in and how the storylines revolve around elements such as racism, women's rights, and most evidently, drug addiction – but for everything it is, The Knick is also the sort of period drama that looks into its own period setting and sees the present staring back at it. While some might see that as an indictment on how little things have progressed in an otherwise modern society, the doggedness of characters like Thackery, Edwards, and Sister Harriet keeps it from becoming all too bleak and hopeless.
Of course, Thackery won't find a cure for his addictions, and he will have to deal with the cravings for as long as he lives. In fact he's as certain to backslide, as he is to come up short in his search for a remedy, but failure can be an important part of progress. It's the resolve to move forward and achieve the impossible, and do what has never been done before that drives these characters. And that pioneering spirit is also what makes The Knick such fascinating and endlessly watchable show.
The Knick continues next Friday with 'You're No Rose' @10pm on Cinemax.