SPOILER ALERT: The following Q&A contains details from “This Is All We Are,” Friday’s season finale of The Knick.
For the past two seasons, Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery has been our guide through the gruesome history of turn-of-the-20th-century modern medicine. We’ve watched this anguished mastermind experiment with dangerously creative medical procedures, all the while battling a behemoth cocaine addiction. His charm, his wit and, let’s face it, his mustache have lured us in week after week, as he tirelessly worked to figure out his dependence on drugs, cure his girlfriend Abby’s syphilis, and separate a set of conjoined twins.
On tonight’s season 2 finale of The Knick, Thackery’s rampant drug use, as well as his ego, got the best of him. In true Thack style, the Knickerbocker Hospital’s chief surgeon decided to slice open his abdomen and perform an operation on himself to relieve an ischemic bowel. But the procedure ends up going horribly wrong, and as the episode concludes, we actually don’t know for sure if Thack survived. Our last vision of him is on a blood-soaked operating table, with Dr. Bertie Chickering, Jr. (Michael Angarano) injecting adrenaline into his chest.
Although the series was originally conceived as a two-year story arc, Cinemax tells EW that they have been “in conversations” with director Steven Soderbergh about how to continue with The Knick.
In hope of getting at least some answers on the subject, we had John Thackery himself, Clive Owen — who recently wrapped his run of Old Times on Broadway — provide some insight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with the obvious question: Is John Thackery dead?
CLIVE OWEN: It looks that way [laughs]. It’s not looking good for him, though, is it?
EW: Does this mean there will not be a third season of The Knick?
CO: When we began the whole thing, it was always going to be a two-season arc of the story. That was the thing we talked about. There’s always a possibility I think of carrying on — Steven [Soderbergh] might be talking to the writers and Cinemax now. [Ed. note: Cinemax told EW that Soderbergh is talking with his writers on how best to proceed.]
EW: So let’s dive into Thack’s self-surgery: The character is loosely based on a real doctor (William Stewart Halsted), but was his decision to operate on himself based in fact, or was that a writers’ creation?
CO: It is actually [fictional], but oddly, before I even started shooting the first season, I went to Dr. Burns’ place (Dr. Stanley Burns is The Knick’s medical adviser), and he had this incredible array of medical photographs from the period, and some of the photographs he showed me, were of doctors standing there, teaching students with themselves cut open, and the clamps hanging off their body, and operating on themselves. So it’s definitely something that happened at that time.
EW: What was your reaction when you learned you were going to be both the surgeon and the patient?
CO: I thought it was genius — I thought it was perfect [laughs]. The perfect ending.
EW: Thack insisted that his decision to do this surgery on himself, without anesthesia, was his attempt to save lives — making sure no one ever suffered the same fate as Abby. But how much of this was he really doing for her? It seemed, and this is what I love so much about the character, that it was just as much about proving that he’s still the best surgeon out there — and giving another triumphant performance.
CO: Thackery is a very complex character, and he’s hugely arrogant, so there’s no question that it’s driven by the loss of Abby, and it’s driven by his arrogance. He believes it’s that something he can pull off, but he also has a self-destruct mechanism in him. He’s always pushing himself to a place that he defends as right. And I think it’s a mixture of all of it, really. He’s driven, but also, I don’t think he’s this clear-thinking….because of what happens to Abby, he’s not in the most stable place at the time he’s making this decision.
EW: Do you think he had a death wish? Throughout the season, he’s been haunted by both the little girl who died from the blood transfusion and by Abby. When he lost Abby, it was a double-whammy: He loved her and she was his only way of combating his drug addiction.
CO: I think there is an element in that, yeah. Since we’ve seen him in the very beginning, he’s somebody who’s prepared to go very far. He’s taking enormous risks to make these discoveries. In his situation, there is an arrogance, but also, he’s aware of the risks involved. He’s not stupid. He knows that if he tries something that is possible to pull off, it’s hugely risky.
EW: Thack is a much more interesting character when he’s tormented. But, was there any part of you that was hoping he wouldn’t spiral back downward this season, that he would find a happy ending with Abby?
CO: I think that that was the journey. That was a phase that we go through, and that’s great, but when we talked about the whole thing, we had already mapped that out. It was great that he’s somebody who starts off in a terrible place, and it builds up and it looks like there’s hope. We go, “Oh, my God, there’s potential in this relationship and there’s potential for a new kind of Thackery.” And when that’s taken away, we see how he’s in a really bad place.
EW: Thack performed several theatrical-caliber procedures this season: He nearly cooked Abby to death, there was the brain operation, separating the conjoined twins, then finally operating on his own intestines. Did you have a favorite surgery?
CO: The separation of the conjoined twins. The writers had done their research and found out that the first time that happened was in 1901. So it was great that we could pull off this operation at this time and show people that it was possible — it was done then.
But the beauty of all those operations is that they’ve all been really thoroughly researched. This is what was happening at the time. Just the understanding that it was possible in 1901 to do that separation of the conjoined twins, so it was pretty great that we got to show that.
EW: Was there any particular story line from this season that didn’t involve Thackery that you were really interested to see play out?
CO: I think all of them. The beauty of certainly this season, is that it’s such a great group of actors on this show, and just watching all of the story lines really spread and develop. The stories go outside of the hospital and into the lives of these people. I just, I love the spread of the whole thing, really.
EW: Had you even heard of Thack’s condition — ischemic bowel — before?
CO: No [laughs]. Anytime there’s a medical term I have to go look it up or get Dr. Burns to give me a thorough explanation.
EW: How did he describe it to you?
CP: He just told me it would be extremely uncomfortable — extremely painful.
EW: Did you ever think you’d ever be talking extensively about your character’s bowels like this?
CO: [Laughs]. With Thackery? It’s always possible.
EW: If, by chance, Thack has indeed survived, courtesy of Bertie’s adrenaline shot, what kind of future is in store for him? How do you recover from an incident like this, both personally and professionally?
CO: I wouldn’t have any idea. But, you know, the beauty of this show is, I think it’s so unpredictable. The reason why I signed on to do this in the first place was, obviously, it was a wonderful script and I’d be working with Steven Soderbergh. But at the heart of it was this completely original, unpredictable character. And we’ve kept that ball in the air until now, and that was a joy to play.