Cinemax’s The Knick
Season 1, Episode 1: “Method and Madness”
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Jack Amiel & Michael Begler
* For a review of the next episode, “Mr. Paris Shoes” – click here
The first shot of the premiere opens with a faded view of white shoes, no socks underneath. A prostitute wakes Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen). They’re in an opium den. Outside at the carriage, John asks to go the long way over to his place of employment: The Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City. In the back of the ride we see who John is – to come down off the opium high, he injects cocaine in between the webbing of his toes. No wonder he didn’t have any socks on; easy access.
What’s most interesting about the opening of The Knick‘s first episode is the style. Not only do we get rich, gorgeous looking cinematography immediately, the score from Cliff Martinez readily pounds you. The electronic sounds mixed with the period piece story and the cinematography absolutely engages you from the first scene onward.
At the hospital, Dr. Thackery sets about his work. He’s an innovator in his own right, but works under Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), the leading surgeon. In comes a pregnant woman, and BAM – Steven Soderbergh, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler take us quickly back to 1900, only a little over 100 years ago, when even pregnancy was a possible death sentence, for both mother and child. On the operating table, Drs. Christiansen and Thackery attempt to do a C-section, along with Drs. Everett Gallinger and Bertie Chickering (Eric Johnson & Michael Angarano) helping at their sides. But things go from bad to worse, to terrifying. Soderbergh and his team show us exactly what it was like for surgeons in the early 20th century, going by the seat of their pants, not always successful in their efforts. The blood is very present, the practical makeup effects are at times gruesome, raw. An excellent way to start off a new series.
Most surprising, though, is later after the failed surgery when Dr. Christiansen decides he can’t take the failure any longer, he can’t be a part of medicine, nor the world either. I wasn’t expecting such an intensely morbid opening, yet here we are – in the thick of it. And really, it’s such an effective way to introduce the characters. Now, this obviously fragile man in Thackery is left with his mentor of sorts gone, the burden resting on him. Even further, at the outset (I’ve seen all the episodes of both seasons at this point) I expected Christiansen to play a large part in the first season at least. Amazing how the story lured me in quickly, then switched so brutally and fast. This whole opening ten-plus minutes was the grasp I needed. Every second, every frame hooked me.
Dr. Christiansen: “It seems we are still lacking”
An amazingly clear Thackery delivers a eulogy for Christiansen. It reveals his hope for the future, for the future of himself and of medicine.
Afterwards, we’re introduced to Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) and Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), as well as Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). Cornelia’s father owns the hospital, but she doesn’t get the deserved respect as a woman when he sends her to deal with the board. Barrow is a money man of sorts, running around worrying about funds for the building; worried over the “$30,000” deficit they’re tallying up. Little bit later there’s also Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) who drives the ambulance, and wouldn’t do too bad in a scrap either.
Things get shaken when apparently Cornelia’s father has ideas about who ought to be Deputy Chief of Surgery at The Knickerbocker. While Thack thinks Gallinger should have the position, Robertson rule says Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) is going to take it. We’ll see how Dr. Thackery sits with all of it. If he does.
The history in this series is already super interesting. Cleary basically has to fight people to get paid, so he can be the ambulance who takes the fares back to the hospital. Wild to imagine a sort of capitalistic struggle on the streets of New York between ambulance drivers.
Furthermore, there are lots more good makeup effects. We see Thackery, Chickering and Gallinger go see a patient whose wounds are still healing, stitches coming together, and so on. The early days of modern medicine are on display, from the method of the ambulances, the way the hospital works, to the procedures and surgeries themselves.
So much of the period comes through in each scene. When a Health Inspector named Speight (David Fierro) heads into an apartment building, the look of the place is pure 1900. Even the air itself hangs in front of you, foggy, dim, the lights barely giving any of the rooms the light they need. It’s impressive work on the technical side, as well as the tight writing and solid acting.
Finally, Dr. Edwards arrives at The Knickerbocker. He meets with Dr. Thackery, who is busy putting together improvements for surgical instruments. Algernon and John don’t exactly get along. Not that I suspect John is racist, I just really don’t see him as a man wanting to take on the responsibility of innovating in racial relations. Edwards leaves, unimpressed, as Cornelia wonders what to do next.
Inspector Speight meets with Barrow. They talk of infectious disease; tuberculosis, in particular. The two make a deal, ensuring any further patients with the disease end up at The Knick. We get a good bit about tuberculosis here, as well as a dip into early doctor-patient relationships and patient rights. Cornelia has to give a woman terrible news, made even more terrible by the fact it has to be translated by her little daughter. Emotional scene, but also gives us more of that history I’m digging. Also, I can already tell Cornelia has a good heart and hopes to do good throughout the city, as best she can anyways.
We get confirmation of my theory – Thackery confirms he doesn’t want to “lead the charge in mixing the races“. He sees it as too progressive, a “social experiment” he won’t have in his life. So, maybe he has a little racism kicking around. Or lots.
Dr. John Thackery: “You can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you, and I don‘t want you in my circus.”
Thackery reminisces of being introduced to injection by Christiansen. Then, he was bright eyed and bushy tailed. Cut back to his bloodshot eyes, his weakened state. It’ll be interesting to watch the progression of Thackery over the course of Season 1.
Meanwhile, Drs. Gallinger and Chickering examine their earlier patient, as Dr. Edwards is brought in and introduced. Bertie doesn’t have much issue with it, though, it appears Everett is slighted. Even more than that, Everett won’t have any of Edwards butting in on his patient. Lots of tension already starting, only bound to ramp up as time goes on.
Interesting scene sees Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) sent off to find Dr. Thackery. He’s at home, blunted to the bone and higher than any bird in the sky. She finds him in a terrible state, shivering, sweating in bed. Turns out he’s in withdrawal and needs an injection. This brings Nurse Lucy into the fold of his addiction, his dirty little secret. He was “trying to spend the night without it“, but obviously failed. This scene shows us the other side to John – there’s his brilliance and his determination as a surgeon, then there’s John the addict who rolls around in bed, sweaty and full of collapsed veins except for the one in his dick. There’s an intensity to this scene, which becomes quite personal, quite intimate, in a nasty way.
Flying back to The Knick, there’s Dr. Thackery in the operating theatre. They have to work on the aforementioned patient. He has bowel problems, specifically septicemia. Thack decides to inject a cocaine solution into the man’s spine. More intense moments, of a different kind, as the doctor goes about hi work. Very quiet, subtle bits here watching Thackery slowly inject the solution into this man’s spinal column. Great, great cinematography and wonderful writing, both bringing out the interesting days of early 20th century surgery. Fractured FX really give the goods here on the makeup effects, showing us the brutality of young modern surgical work in 1900. Even as a horror film buff, these scenes are some trying stuff. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
The finale of “Method and Madness” sees Dr. Thackery back in a carriage, full circle to the opening moments. He’s headed into Chinatown, Mott Street, apparently. At the same time, light is turned on at The Knick, the electricity up and running; all after Dr. Edwards was successfully welcomed into the fold, or well, unwelcomed.
Great episode. Looking forward to watching all these over for the second time since the original episode run. The next episode is “Mr. Paris Shoes”, which is another spectacular chapter in this first season. Stay tuned.