We gave it a B+
Many of the best dramas explore the inner workings of the mind, but few investigate the body as brilliantly as The Knick. Returning to New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital, this time in 1901, season 2 revels in corporeal horror just as viscerally as the first season did. There’s a certain forbidden thrill involved in watching Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) peel back a patient’s nasal cartilage and pound the bone with a hammer until she looks like a Victorian Skeletor. And you can’t quite get that same excitement from contemporary medical dramas; since medicine has become so sanitized, it’s hard for characters to find a reason to dive elbow-deep into the messy gunk that’s pulsating inside all of us. Somehow The Knick is able to perfectly capture the early-20th-century mystery of flesh and bone and transmit it to modern-day viewers, maybe because it’s set at a time when bodies were still about as foreign to doctors as they are to the rest of us now.
But it’s not just the gross-out surgery scenes that make this show. The new season also offers sharp insight into the ways great minds can be reduced to mere bodies—socially, politically, and professionally. Thackery has started studying addiction, which allows the show to question the ethical implications of turning live humans into objects of experimentation. As a black doctor working on an otherwise all-white staff, Dr. Edwards (André Holland) is now acting chief of the hospital, but he fears the official title will go to another candidate because of his skin color, and a visitor from his past (no spoilers here!) seems determined to make his race an issue with his peers. Inspired by the Knickerbocker’s new work with prostitutes, nurse Lucy (Eve Hewson) is studying to become a doctor, though she knows her gender might make that goal impossible. And abortion provider Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) has been imprisoned for helping women like Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) whose lives might’ve been permanently altered by their wombs. The story line feels eerily timely, especially in light of current debates over Planned Parenthood.
Considering The Knick’s sophisticated view of how the body shapes us, it’s not surprising that the drama’s real pleasures are physical, not emotional. It’s the only TV show that I watch more for the way it’s filmed than for the actual plot. Though it’s created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, director Steven Soderbergh is the real auteur here. His vivid world-building somehow feels futuristic, even though The Knick is set more than a century ago. When a syphilitic patient undergoes a “fever cure,” Soderbergh lights the scene with a hallucinatory glow, as if we can somehow suffer through it with her. When doctors tinker with the latest inventions, he overlays the scene with the digital throb of electronic music, as if the hospital is working on technology’s cutting edge. During the most intense scenes, the camera follows troubled characters at a clinical distance, forcing us to observe them with a skeptical eye, as the doctors observe their patients.
The downside is that the storytelling can feel awfully cold. Moments that should be personally affecting are often used to illustrate historical truths instead. Lucy, who’s supposed to be reserved, ends up coming off strangely blank, and Hewson’s stiff performance doesn’t help. But these characters are still fascinating case studies for the mind-body connections we make as viewers: They’re better appreciated with the brain than the heart. B+