The Knick, Season 1, Episode 2: “Mr. Paris Shoes”
Written by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Airs Fridays at 8PM EST on Cinemax
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.
For example, the opening of “Mr. Paris Shoes” shows hierarchies within hierarchies. Dr. Algernon Edwards may be the new Deputy Chief of Surgery, but he’s still stuck in low-income housing due to his race — and still isolated from the rest of the tenants there due to the high quality of his shoes. Cornelia Robertson may be working on her rich father’s behalf as benefactor to the hospital, but as the two talk, they reveal they’re outcasts within their social strata due to being considered “new money”, and of course Cornelia also faces institutionalized sexism on a daily basis.
The first episode, “Method and Madness”, introduced Clive Owen’s brilliant yet destructive surgeon John Thackery. Now that we know him, we get to turn our attention to the supporting cast, as the episode delves into the linking sense of isolation between them. Algernon does double the work for none of the credit or praise, and Andre Holland handles the subdued emotion of his character well. Cornelia feels familial pressure, masked as assurance in her efforts, to keep the hospital modern, while Superintendent Herman Barrow flusters his way through the episode trying to move mountains to keep the hospital electrically lit and his teeth intact. Neither happens.
That’s not to say we’re lacking in valuable time spent with Thackery. The flashbacks that continue through this episode are initially wearying. It’s far too easy for series to rely on scenes like these to fill airtime, but thankfully in this case, they add a touching note to Thackery’s development. We flash back to him first meeting J.M. Christiansen and there’s a certain freshness about Thackery that has clearly been drained from him. He and J.M. knew that in their endeavors to legitimize surgery, they would be fighting in trenches against an enemy bombing from the air, but they are convinced they will succeed. Cut to however many years later, and J.M. is in the ground and with the powder keg of a his cocaine addiction looming, Thackery may be on his way there as well. There have been no rewards, only costs.
As Mike noted in his review of the pilot, this show serves as an antithesis to other medical dramas that normally glamorize and sanitize the mechanics of the job. True to its time period, The Knick does just the opposite, with cleanliness an afterthought. Consider the way ambulance driver Cleary wipes his nose with with his blood-soaked hands without a second thought, and then proceeds to pat Barrow on the back — and that’s not mentioning the clinically grotesque surgery scenes.
There will be likely be plenty more to write about with each coming episode, so lest it fall through the cracks, I want to take this moment to praise the score by Cliff Martinez. At its core is minimalist synth, something traditionalists wouldn’t expect in a show set before the ’80s, but remarkably it does wonders here. It sets the pulse of the action and pacing in a unique way that catches viewers off guard while reeling them in.
There’s not much plot wise to connect the characters the way the pilot did, and “Mr. Paris Shoes” even feels somewhat aimless at points. And for now that’s okay! We’re only two episodes in and the methodical, yet mad way Soderbergh directs the episodes more than makes up for its shortcomings. There’s a certain manic energy that’s been pulsating through Soderbergh’s filmography since he began the road to quasi-retirement, and he infuses it into every scene here. Each shot feels unique from the others in a way that would wreak of desperation if it wasn’t so fascinating to watch.
There are a lot of great doctors working on this case — Soderbergh’s direction, Clive Owen’s performance, Cliff Martinez’s score — but there is a sense beginning to bleed through that this show still has a lot of work to do. It’s an early diagnosis though, and with the way Soderbergh has been feverishly cutting these episodes, it’s hopefully a false one as well. Soderbergh is a good doctor, and can likely heal this series before it gets sick.