[Spoilers Below through Season Two of ‘The Knick’]
It was wonderful and then it was just so goddamn bleak.
Fighting through the last season of The Knick took so much effort. Not just in the day to day ho-hum regularity of watching Thack ingest paint thinner or seeing women and minorities shunted out of the power structure with a cool, institutional inevitability, but the way it was all tied up was increasingly depressing. In the same way that Game of Thrones often leaves the viewer rocking back and forth slowly as they embrace their powerlessness, so The Knick, in its second season (and possibly series?) finale made a play to completely destroy any lingering hope their viewership had for any of the characters. If ‘This is All We Are,’ we’re a sad, sad species.
So, Thack is dead, folks. He’s dead. You can cling to the hope that Bertie’s final home-run swing of an adrenaline needle to the heart pulled Thack back from the precipice, but he’s gone. He died on that table, in the operating room, with the scalpel. He did not have a fate different than the young girl he blood poisoned or of his dear Abby, whose own death sprung from a seemingly meaningless waltz of ether and laudanum. No one gets out of The Knick intact.
Take Cleary and Harry, for example. For pretty much the entire two season run, these were two of the most enjoyable characters to watch. And when it finally looked like there was one couple who might make it — who really had something ‘pure’ — we find out that Cleary destroyed Harry’s life to steal her from the arms of the Pope. Wasn’t it a grand romantic gesture? No. It was a betrayal of the highest order, and knowing that their relationship is built on that sort of deceitful footing doesn’t bode well for the future and for Harry, specifically.
Likewise with Barrow, who was so difficult to watch that I considered quitting the show. He is possibly the most detestable, disgustingly social-climbing swine ever portrayed on television. His emotionless speech to his wife about leaving her and his children made me feel a type of anger that I’m frankly uncomfortable with. Though you know him putting his accounts in his prostitute’s name will come back to bite him, seeing him have any joy rubbing elbows with actual fatcats in The Metropolitan Club was miserable. The beat about his wife having him over a barrel wasn’t satisfactory. I wanted to see him pay for all he’d done and the despicable choices he’d made. I found myself actually wanting to see him suffer, and longed for the old days where Bunky Collier would extract his teeth sans anesthesia. What parting message do we take from Detective Tuggle’s literal hat-in-hand apology? God that was insanely hard to watch.
Nurse Elkins, a fan favorite, who for a while seemed to nurture a desire to become a doctor, ends up using her feminine wiles and street smarts to become a queen instead. Her cathartic speech to her paralyzed, hypocritical father should have made me like her more but I found it filthy. Hearing her actually say it out loud was jarring, and while an argument can be made to applaud her realist’s nature and advocating a woman in an untenable position maximizing her every option, it made her seem cold and cruel to me.
But maybe that’s a good thing when you’re hitching your wagon to Henry Robertson, for whom patricide is a shoulder shrug. We could spend a long time chronicling the sad reveal of Cornelia, where it became obvious that the beloved brother and confidant who called her Neely Doll was a true monster.
Poor Cornelia. In one way, it’s empowering to see her get as far away from society life as possible. In another, it’s so devastating to know that she’s truly alone in the world. The turn of the century seems to have been a barren, frustrating place for an intelligent woman. Likewise for Algie. How sickening was it to see his intelligence and courage and patience and resolve constantly undercut? There was no sensationalism to the way society refused to let Dr. Algernon Edwards get ahead. There were just unscalable walls everywhere. How nauseating was it to see his ‘coming out’ surgery subverted by a hateful bigot? There are almost no words to describe how disdainful it was to see promotions and fame coming down the road Dr. Everett Gallinger. To see him planting the seeds of Eugenics in Germany. To see Algie bring reason and integrity to a court of white men about the neutering of wayward boys only to have that court scold him and send Gallinger away with a handshake. And then to see Gallinger destroy what remained of Algie’s eye? Almost too much to bear.
This was a dismal end to this chapter of The Knick. Cinemax has ordered scripts for season three, but Steven Soderbergh originally envisioned this show in two season segments and the next iteration is still in spitballing mode. We won’t see more of The Knick until 2017 at the earliest, and even then, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be the same cast, the same location or even the same era. What we know as The Knick is, for all intents and purposes, over.
So how do we bid farewell to Thack? How do we resolve that line between insanity and genius? How do we process a man whose ego did him in while still admiring his unquenchable, unrelenting desire to acquire knowledge and push the envelope? It’s fairly common to see someone with a gift in one area being deficient in another. What isn’t as common is seeing that portrayed so flawlessly on the small screen. Thack was insufferable, but brilliant. From the scenes about him inventing medical instruments to the scenes where he was sitting there in a drug-induced stupor, his life force was compelling. How do we process the show’s depiction of Dr. Zinberg as studious and methodical and yet somehow ‘less-than’ — even as Zinberg tries to stop Thack from dying in front of him?
Ultimately, the show gives us an amazing, if difficult to stomach, glimpse into an era with white men in charge as far as the eye could see. Be they the wealthy corporate monster tycoon type of Henry Robertson or of Hobart Showalter or simply the bile-inducing human epidemic of Herman Barrow, they all did their own version of damage. How sad is it that the greatest relief I felt in the conclusion of the show is that Cornelia escaped without being raped by Hobart Showalter? That was something I was sure would happen. Even with the depiction of the progressive white man like August Robertson and Dr. John Thackery, they were still comfortable enough to not push the state of race issues or women’s issues more quickly than was deemed appropriate. By them. You have a scrappy Irish ‘gorilla’ who is a scheming liar, an endless parade of officials on the take, a white mob of empty morality and a hospital administration structure that was the very definition of a boys club. It got so exhausting that I would be energized whenever Ping Wu was on screen because at least it’s not this ocean of entitled vanilla.
Stepping back for a moment, one cannot possibly compliment the strength of the individual acting performances nearly enough. With very few exceptions, the cast performed at a nosebleed level of competence. Clive Owen’s Thack was the anchor, but the simmering internal rage of André Holland as Algie or the repellent workaday villainy of Jeremy Bobb as Herman Barrow cannot be overstated. Players like Chris Sullivan (Tom Cleary) and Cara Seymour (Sister Harriet) showed that they are captivating on screen, and the contibutions of actors like Juliet Rylance (Cornelia), Eric Johnson (Gallinger), Eve Hewson (Lucy Elkins) and Michael Angarano (Bertie) are the foundation the whole ship of state rested on. It was outstanding casting and rock solid directing throughout, and though the tenor or the show shifted in season two and some characters went down roads we may not have adored, it was easy to ride it out because of the abundant quality of execution.
The Knick was intense and thorough, and while I enjoyed the first season more than the second, the series was powerful and relevant. Yes, I’m truly heartbroken over the loss of pre-Golden Lotus Nurse Elkins. The image of her on that bicycle was so…pleasant. I’m going to miss Thack in those dark suits with his white boots. I’m going to miss the sparring between Harry and Cleary and how I felt about him before he revealed just how Machiavellian his nature is. I’m going to miss having it as a regular reminder of just how (relatively) far we’ve come in a (relatively) short amount of time as a society and as a visual nudge about my own complacency, and how far we still have to go.
In the end, at least Bertie overcame his adolescence and became a man before our eyes. If the right honorable Dr. Bertram Chickering came out of all of this relatively unscathed, I suppose that’s about as much as we can hope for from such a curious and barbaric time.