'The Knick' And the Problem With Genuine Shitbag Protagonists
I would like to start off by saying that I genuinely love the hell out of Cinemax’s The Knick. I like how there’s a large roster of complex, intriguing characters. I like that one of them is a tough but kind-hearted nun who smokes, drinks, and performs abortions, because who the hell else is going to do it safely and without judgement in 1900 New York? (The performing abortions, not the smoking and drinking.) I like the stupid, impractical shoes the surgeons wear. (White? Really?)
I really like that post-“retirement” Steven Soderbergh is 100% out of fucks to give. He wants to do a movie where the selling point is a female MMA star beating up a whole bunch of attractive Hollywood dudes? Or a movie about male strippers? A spangly Liberace biopic (could there be any other kind)? Or, for that matter, a historical drama (with a synth and multiple graphic c-section scenes) on a station that practically no one has and that’s ingrained in the cultural consciousness as “that place you could watch late-night porn before the Internet was a thing”? Fuck you, and your mother, and your podiatrist—if Steven Soderbergh wants to do a thing, Steven Soderbergh will do a thing.
However, like all shows (except Salute Your Shorts, which is flawless), The Knick has a drawback or two. The major one has to do with its main character: Dr. John W. Thackery (Clive Owen), an irascible yet brilliant surgeon who sees what other, lesser beings at the Knickerbocker Hospital can’t see and does what they can’t do. He doesn’t have any friends because he’s kind of a huge asshole, but most everyone on the show admires him because he’s a ~*~*~geeeeeeenius~*~*~. To make the House, M.D. connection even more explicit, he’s also addicted to drugs, specifically cocaine.
Oh, and he’s also a huge racist.
He’s not as overt about it as some of the other characters—he never drops the n-word or threatens to lynch anybody—and the show tries to hide it under a veneer of “Oh, he just doesn’t care about ‘progressive politics’” (the Throwback Thursday version of “I don’t see color!”), but it’s there. He refuses to let a highly qualified black doctor (Dr. Algernon Edwards, played by the excellent André Holland) actually perform surgery because “I’m not interested in leading the charge in mixing the races… just as a shopkeeper would never stock an item on his shelves no customer would buy, I would not employ a surgeon no patient will agree have operate on him.”
[SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 6] When he discovers that Edwards has been running an illegal hospital for black patients in the Knickerbocker’s basement, he refrains from firing him (just barely) not because of any empathy toward Edwards’ situation or that of his patients, but because he realizes Edwards is really damn good at his job. Finally acknowledging Edwards’ ability is progress, surely, and there’s something to be said for watching a character like Thackery realize the error of his ways and come around to the not-racist side of the Force (if indeed that happens), but I’m uncomfortable at being expected to cheer for a man for not being as awful as he could have been.
And the “But historical accuracy! People were more racist back then!” argument doesn’t play here, because in other ways The Knick is very conscientious in how it depicts racism. Soderbergh goes out of his way to establish right off the bat that one character, an adorable muffin of a Doctor called Bertram “Call me Bertie!” Chickering Jr., is very much not racist, even though he was raised in a household—indeed, a society—that is.
There’s another character, Edwards’ parents’ employer, who’s very clearly the post-slavery version of the “nice” master. He sends Edwards through school, he treats him well, but he still looks on him as a pet whose accomplishments are both an amusing novelty and a neon, blinking sign proclaiming how very magnanimous a person he is. The show deftly points that out in a scene in episode four where he shows off an obviously uncomfortable and done-with-this-shit Edwards to a friend of his like he’s a prize poodle. And there’s Edwards himself, and the show’s depiction of how his psyche has been shaped by the way he fits fully in neither the black world nor the white one.
And yet we’re supposed to accept the fact that Thackery is racist, to overlook it, because he’s a compelling character who delivers really amazing insults (“Another word from you about anything other than the job at hand and I will sew your mouth and nostrils shut and happily watch you asphyxiate.”). Vikings, another show I love, has a similar problem—a large chunk of season two was devoted to giving a redemption arc to the character of Rollo, who previously betrayed his brother and, oh yeah, was shown early in season one violently raping a woman. Guess which one of those things was never brought up again.
I’m not saying all characters should be fluffy bunnies with nary a flaw, and there’s value in a show displaying shitteous behavior and pointing it out as such (though Vikings never did get around to even acknowledging that this guy they’re given a woobie plotline to is an actual rapist, and I’m not convinced that The Knick condemns Thackery’s racism so much as it shrugs and looks the other way), but it feels gross when shows like The Knick and Vikings ask us to sympathize with characters who engage in behaviors that hurt a hell of a lot of people outside the world of fiction.
Because here’s the thing. Though you may not know it if you spend any amount of time in YouTube comment sections, the vast majority of people aren’t heinous shitweasels. They’ve never raped anyone, and they’re not racist. (Not overtly so, anyway. There’s a discussion to be had about how rape culture and institutionalized racism normalize “everyday” forms of sexual harassment and racism to the point that a lot of people don’t even realize they’re participating in them—“What do you mean women are creeped out by catcalls? I’m complimenting them!”—but that’s another post. Or another 20 posts.) And I genuinely believe that any one of them could be the subject of their own TV show. The blogger in New York City. The dental assistant with 3 kids. The free-wheeling politician’s daughter in Paris. There’s something there in every person that the right creative team could tease out. And yet there’s this perception in TV that the characters with a “dark side” are the only ones sufficiently interesting to anchor a show. That being a decent person—not even a nice one, but one who’s just generally morally good—is somehow boring.
But that’s what I’m bored by. I’m bored by writers taking the easy way out and relying on characters that come with built-in conflict on account of them being awful, instead of teasing out the conflict that exists for most of us in everyday life. The antihero is all well and good, but we’ve reached critical mass. We’re awash in a goddamn sea of antiheroes waving their dicks in our faces and asking us to think they’re cool even as they do things that would make us want to punch anyone who did them in real life. Is there a certain amount of wish-fulfillment there? Sure. “Sherlock Holmes is a full-of-himself assbag, but I can watch Sherlock and imagine myself shutting down that stupid coworker or irritating acquaintance, and even though I was needlessly cruel people will still piss themselves to praise me, because that’s how better than them I am.”
To a certain extent, it’s understandable. But, as a storytelling device, it’s cheap. It’s overplayed. It’s time to move on.