Wow. That seems to be the only appropriate response to such a well-crafted and invigorating hour of television as The Knick’s latest, but it bears repeating: wow.
After four straight weeks of steady quality, one might suppose that it’s not much of a surprise how The Knick flounders away it’s seventeenth hour, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
After a veritable barrage of bad news over the last few weeks, The Knick seems to be on a more redemptive arc this week, and it’s a nice change of pace.
There couldn’t be a more apt title for the latest episode of The Knick, as “Wonderful Surprises” delivered a bevy of shocks and revelations at every turn.
The Knick is the rare case of a show that arrived precisely at the perfect time for it. Some shows arrive too far ahead of their time, and are thus canceled prematurely. Some shows arrive on the back of a trend far too late to really make an impact. But The Knick? It arrived precisely when it should have. The trend of filmmakers making their mark on TV is still in an exciting growth stage, and the medical drama has been in need of someone like Soderbergh to come in and tear up the sutures.
The Knick has made some strong and effective leaps in the last few episodes, but none have been as big or as game-changing as the revelation of Thackery’s addiction to the Knickerbocker staff, and a host of others in its inner circle.
This day was always going to come on this show. The moment we saw Thackery use cocaine in episode one it was clear that one day he’d be faced with the challenge of no cocaine at all. Soderbergh is right there with Thackery in the direction of each scene of his, often opting for long takes focused on Thackery’s sweaty façade. Whether it’s in a board meeting or an examination of a patient, Soderbergh opts for a one take that’s marvelous in its simplicity, focusing on Thackery while others around him chatter.
The Knick has set itself as the show to beat this week, with it’s most tense and taut episode to date. “Get the Rope” sets its sights primarily on race relations, an issue that has been sweltering underneath the shows sticky surface for a long time now, but this week, it boils into the spotlight with a cruel and ugly candor.
This week’s episode begins with Thackery living up to his more whacky reputation, calling Bertie into work in the middle of the night to ramble on about his new coke-induced placenta surgery ideas. Oh, and he’s got two high-priced sex workers there to keep him company for the past two days while he experiments on them: “Our budget won’t allow for pregnant prostitutes, so we’ll just have to make due with what we have here.” It’s absolutely bonkers, but the amazing thing is how easily the audience can buy into it. Of course Thackery would do this. The previous five episodes have been insisting how “renegade” Thackery is by referring to his antics – his coke addiction and radical ideas – but this is the first time the show really delivers on how insane yet brilliant Thackery is. Now this is how you open an episode. Naturally the episode doesn’t stay at that height of ludicrous antics, as not everyone at the hospital is spending their time testing revolutionary placenta surgery methods on sex workers, but what a great moment of triumph it is to see Thackery and Chickering’s surgery actually work! It’s completely predictable, but in the moment the success of their new approach, the fact that they finally pull it off, is astonishing.
Sometimes it’s the simplest things which bring us the greatest of joys. This is the recurring theme that echoes through The Knick as we reach the halfway point for its first season. From a first bike ride to a cold beer with a co-worker, it is the most basic of life’s pleasures that get our characters through another tough week at the Knickerbocker Hospital.
The episode asks the title question in just about every scene. Consider the opening jaw-dropping opening scene featuring Cleary dumping a bag of rats in a ring to be stomped on, all diegetic sound muted with only Cliff Martinez’s bonkers and wondrous score playing over it, making it all the more haunting. Where’s the dignity?
What’s striking about The Knick so far is that it’s not the sum that hooks you, but the way all the parts add up. One of the benefits of building a world — especially a period piece — on TV rather than in a film is that, in this case, Soderbergh has 10 hours to make it stick, whereas in a 2 hour film, every element must be given at once in an attempt to swallow the viewers’ imagination. Soderbergh gets to take the time to dole out little snippets of 1900s New York, opting for grimy streets rather than soaring overhead shots. TV is giving him the freedom to let the audience live in the world, rather than visit it.