When you stop and think about it, that had all the makings of a great series finale.
Now, that doesn’t mean The Knick has indeed come to its conclusion — the future of the show remains up in the air as it has yet to be renewed; Cinemax is currently keeping mum on that front — but if it has, “This Is All We Are” settles the fates of the characters who populate the Knickerbocker Hospital quite nicely.
Obviously the big question here is: Did Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery end up killing himself on the operating table? The ending is ambiguous enough that there is the possibility he somehow survived turning his abdomen into his own personal butcher shop, thanks to Dr. Bertie Chickering Jr.’s lightning-quick decision to plunge an adrenaline-filled syringe into his mentor’s chest. But we don’t see the tormented surgeon following Bertie’s attempt to save him, and there’s some vague dialogue after the botched procedure between Dr. Algernon Edwards and Henry Robertson about how Edwards “owes” it to Thack to keep his addiction-treatment program in operation.
If Thack is dead, you couldn’t have picked a better way for him to go out. In typical fashion, the doctor comes up with his most hare-brained scheme yet in tonight’s season 2 finale, performing intestinal surgery on himself, with a spinal block as his only form of painkiller. His despair over Abigail Alford’s accidental death by an ether-and-laudanum overdose has made him staunchly opposed to the use of general anesthesia. And Dr. Levi Zinberg, who intended to treat Thack’s ischemic bowel, refuses to try his rival’s suggestion of a spinal block over ether.
High as a kite on cocaine — there’s a heartbreaking moment just before he injects the drug where he looks at the phone, forgetting for a split-second that Abby won’t be there at the end of the line to talk him off the ledge — a manic Thack saunters into a packed-house surgical theater for what may very well be his last performance.
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While he insists to his onlookers that his intentions are noble — if he succeeds in this risky procedure, he will have proved that surgery can be done without general anesthesia, and Abby will not have died in vain — Thack’s arrogance is through the roof here. Like an X-rated ringmaster, Thack disrobes in front of his captivated audience before tossing off subtle digs directed at Zinberg about the safety of his choice of sedative.
But it wasn’t so much the spinal block that was the problem here, it was the fact that Thack believed he could Ginger Rogers his way through the surgery — performing it backwards (through a mirror) and, instead of in heels, upside-down. We watch as he hacks deep into his belly, pulling out grisly intestines and ignoring the pleas of Bertie and Dr. Everett Gallinger to stop the madness. He is going to do this or die trying.
One has to wonder how much he’s doing this for Abby — and how much of it is really for himself. “The show must go on,” he insists. And boy, does Thack deliver. He gives the performance of his life, where his slow, painful death is acted out for a willing audience, both watching on TV, and in the surgical theater. Eventually, he begins to bleed out. Upon realizing what a mess he’s made of himself (not just physically), he begins to narrate his own death, commenting on his weakened peripheral vision and dropping body temperature, and uttering what might have been his last words: “This is it. This is all we are.”
As his POV goes fuzzy, Thack sees the ghostly images of little Sonya and Abby, while we’re left to wonder if he is now indeed resting peacefully among them.
NEXT: “Papa, can you hear me?”