It’s an ugly fact that human beings, when they die, become meat. Romance novels and Romantic poets and Miguel will wax poetic about flesh: its pleasures, its warmth, the way its blood jumps to meet some familiar touch. But lifeless flesh is meat: a thing that hangs from a butcher’s hook, or sits chilling in a refrigerated vault in a morgue after expiring on the surgeon’s table. American independent cinema icon Steven Soderbergh’s period medical drama The Knick, returning for its second season on Cinemax on October 16, is interested in human beings—and the wet stuff inside them—as meat.
As something fit for experimenting on. Or improvising with, as in the first episode of the season, where Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen)—resident antihero, dope fiend, and brilliant white man who could really change the game if only these by-the-book squares would get out of his jittery, drug-addled way—puts the finishing touches on an informal nose job using the gold hoop earring he takes from the comatose patient and straightens, before forcing it into the bone beneath the skin of her face, the thin tissue flipped up and away from what’s beneath, like if you turned only the wrist of a glove inside out. Our bodies are only objects in space to be manipulated by tools, and by Soderbergh’s camera, too—especially by that.
(I’m not unaware of the irony in being slightly bored by The Knick’s most conventional aspect—the white male antihero, so brilliant and so damaged!—while also championing The Knick for the singular vision of the brilliant white man behind the camera.)
Pay close attention to the man behind the camera; the camera is making the series. You can watch Grey’s Anatomy to see what it looks like when, say, two people get impaled on the same object—how’s that for people as things stuck together by other things? And ER didn’t spare viewers any of the gory details. Stripped down to the paraphrasable content, The Knick is a hospital drama set in New York at the dawn of the 20th century and follows a prickly, difficult genius who makes life and work very difficult for the administrators, nurses, and fellow surgeons around him. Like House, but with uniquely Victorian problems: tune in next week to see if they can bake syphilis out of this pig!
What makes it more than this is the way composition, camera movement, and editing transform the story and its setting and characters in ways that challenge the viewer to consider questions TV doesn’t normally ask: why place the camera there? Why not cut away to that person, since they’re talking—why only focus on the face of the listener? What’s it mean that these characters, when they make love, are shot from a high angle that a contemporary viewer might associate with the anachronistic perspective of a surveillance camera, whereas another couple enjoys a warm close-up when they kiss?
Untangling these decisions to discover how they relate to the story being told is the particular pleasure of this show’s meat (for this writer, at least).
If you need a refresher on last season, recall that Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) is locked up for her commitment to reproductive rights in a time when abortion was illegal; sour hyper-Aryan surgeon Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) is sulking because his wife Eleanor (Maya Kazan) is suffering in a nightmarish sanitarium that believes very deeply in tooth extraction as the path to mental health; the charmingly boyish Dr. Bertram "Bertie" Chickering, Jr. (Michael Angarano) is sulking because Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), the highly capable nurse from West Virginia, isn’t in love with him; Lucy is sulking because the man she loves, Dr. Thackery, is in rehab; and Dr. Thackery is, duh, in rehab for his coke addiction, where he’s making new friends (with heroin, mostly) and doing whatever he can to score, including those back-alley nose jobs. The esteemed, stately, but unfortunately masochistic and pugnacious Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), amidst all this sulking, is trying to hold down the chief surgeon position at the Knickerbocker Hospital because, a) he’s a great surgeon with a strong sense of responsibility for his fellow man and b) everyone else is too busy sulking. (There are other characters in various conditions of unhappiness, too, but I have a word count my editor will hold me to, and also maybe this series has too many balls in the air?)
Only the first four episodes were made available for screening, but this season appears to be tackling how we humans like to violently separate ourselves into groups (as opposed to accepting that we’re all the same aging flesh, trudging along until we die, united as one race under mortality). The season opens in the early months of 1901, in New York City, and rich white people are really, really worried about immigrants. Eugenics is a fun conversation starter among the scotch-and-cigars set. Please, keep the Republican presidential candidates from watching this show—they’ll be so into this whole “let’s close the ports to keep out those crazy Italians and, while we’re at it, why not sterilize the ones that are already here?” plan that gets floated in one episode.
Uptown, in Harlem, Dr. Edwards is talking with other black doctors about how these crackers (note: my descriptor) won’t play a fair jive. He gets to be a shining example for the so-called progressives running the Knickerbocker, their own member of the Talented Tenth to parade around, but what good is that privilege if his parents stay servants caring for the same family that runs the hospital, if, as he puts it, he’s still “just another n*****.” There are more black characters this season than last, but because of the preponderance of white characters, The Knick isn’t yet passing the racial Bechdel test proposed by James Poniewozik in the New York Times: even when you only have black characters on screen, they’re talking about race and power in relation to whites. But a new character might change that in later episodes.
Like many shows set in the past, the subject of The Knick is the future: it’s arriving every episode in ways carefully manipulated by the show’s writers and creators, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, so that it’s never far from the thematic center. There’s a car in the premiere to replace the horse and carriage. There’s a woman asking hard questions about why all the men in her life will only use and abandon her, and what little sense that makes when she’s capable of undertaking multiple clandestine tasks at the hospital—why shouldn’t she get to be a doctor, too? There’s impolite lunch conversation about what constitutes progress between black and white Americans (not to mention Jews and Presbyterians). There’s the rift between old-time (patriarchal) religion and the ringing clarity of scientific fact.
Of course, this doesn’t always feel like life, where change accumulates slowly, where we can’t see where we’re going. Have one character incredulously quip about Mr. Thomas Edison eventually putting phones in automobiles, and the viewer at home gets the joke. But in the present moment, there’s no telling what might arrive for us, whether that development be technological, political, social, medical—we can’t know what’s around the bend. So there’s a satisfaction in a story where the route can be meted out mile by mile, issue by issue.
But what makes The Knick special is how that familiar storytelling technique is perverted by the bravura cinematography and the unsettling and still surprising electronic score from Cliff Martinez. Sure, you can see the rise of a feminist thinker coming, and nod that yes, women’s suffrage on a national scale is less than two decades away, but what does that foresight mean if you don’t know what your eye should be attending to in a long take where the majority of the frame is obscured by carriages and supplies, and the only human activity you get is two sets of feet and ankles picking their way across a busy construction site? What you can see coming, and what you’re not sure you’re looking at in the moment—that’s what this show is about. That’s the tension of this show, between grand vision and in-the-moment confusion. That’s the pressure point The Knick drives a needle into.