Fear of Needles
by RACHEL SYKES
creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler
This summer, TV seemed unseasonably dark, from the return of Hannibal and its totem pole of corpses, to the wonderfully pansexual Penny Dreadful, and the gruesome, woman-beating second season of Bates Motel.
Now, providing the season with its passage to September, Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick has aired its first episodes on Cinemax, showcasing a grotesque but uniquely historical approach to this season’s yen for horror. The Knick, like its predecessors, is straight from the Gothic tradition, exhibiting a kind of gross-out Gothicism which, much like Penny Dreadful, combines Victorian facades with blood, guts, and gore. The first episode opens in a suitably druggy haze, the camera slowly focussing on an opium den where Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) lies semi-conscious, surrounded by nakedly “exotic” women. So far, so period drama – except that minutes later Dr. Thackery is dashing off to The Knick, the show’s eponymous hospital, pulling off his coke-white shoes, injecting a needle between his toes and, only a little later, into the only part of his body with a visible vein: his penis.
This, in a nutshell, is how the show works, as a curious mix of turn-of-the-century repression and heavily mutilated bodies. Set in a downtown Manhattan hospital in 1900, The Knick follows Dr. Thackery and his team of surgical pioneers as they take-on breath-taking surgeries, staged in explicit detail before a gallery of starkly unmoved benefactors. And it’s not just the patients who suffer horribly: besides Dr. Thackery’s nerve-shattering addiction to cocaine, the show obsesses over the parallels between life-saving and/or endangering surgeries and the violent incidents that regularly afflict the hospital’s staff.
While the finance director (Jeremy Bobb) has his teeth pulled out by creditors, the hospital’s only African American doctor, Algernon Edwards (André Holland), is punching strangers in alleyways, where blood splatters onto the sidewalk and into the camera. The bloody tone is set most shockingly in the first episode when, after an exceptionally brutal caesarean section, and just minutes after Clive Owen shoots-up between his toes, Thackery’s mentor lays a sheet over his leather sofa and quietly, but gorily, shoots himself in the head.
Scrubs, this is not. In fact, the completely humourless set-up of The Knick reveals just how firmly Soderbergh has his sights set on History. The Knickerbocker hospital is real enough; the original was founded in 1862 although, located on Convent Avenue and 131st Street in Harlem, it was significantly further uptown than The Knick of the show. Up until the late 1970s, The (real) Knickerbocker gave free surgical and medical treatment to the “worthy sick poor” of New York City and, like the characters of The Knick, its employees regularly battled the high mortality rates and poor conditions that afflicted many down and out citizens in turn- of-the-century Manhattan.
Into this sound historical backdrop, The Knick adds Dr. Thackery, played so sternly by Owen that you can never be quite sure his face can move. Thackery’s gut-punching surgeries, numbering two to three per episode, anchor Soderbergh’s portrayal of the poor and the needy but curiously distance the viewer from the worthiness of the show. The Gothic elements of The Knick are a symptom of the city’s poverty and corruption; the flickering electricity that dims the lights, and fatally electrocutes one of the nurses, is not in any way mysterious or supernatural, but the result of bureaucracy and administrative extortion.
In much the same way, patients have their bodies turned inside out not only because it is their only hope for survival but also because we, as viewers, know that the goriness we are watching will lead to more successful procedures, to safer caesareans and quicker heart bypasses. We know, in other words, that the extraordinarily messy surgeries that Dr. Thackery and his team attempt will eventually be successful, but the benefit of hindsight effectively distances us from the shocking brutality of the show.
The problem with The Knick, then, is its middle ground between prestige and Gothic drama. At times, it’s like watching a version of Mad Men made only from its moments of shock, where lawnmowers continually eviscerate people’s feet and every employee presents Peggy with a sawn off ear in a box. Running throughout the first episodes of The Knick is also the suspicion that a more interesting show lies beneath it. This comes down, as ever, to gender and race.
Within the first three episodes, every male character has done something illegal and typically anti-heroic, making the men invariably complex whilst the women are presented as strong and, worst still, moral. The most interesting character, Dr. Algernon Edwards, is paralysed by the racist system he is placed in, left pandering to superiors who know less than him and observing on surgeries he initially pioneered. Although everything about The Knick screams its seriousness, the storylines favour tradition over innovation, patriarchy over matriarchy, and white men over black when the inequality it registers might have served as a better focus.
Perhaps, though, the show is headed somewhere different. As early as episode two, stifled by the short leash that Thackery has him on, Algernon takes matters into his own hands and begins to treat the hospital’s unwanted African American patients in an abandoned basement. A show about the challenges facing an African American hospital seems infinitely more watchable than the show that The Knick purports to be and perhaps, if Soderbergh leaves behind Dr. Thackery’s slow circling of the drain, The Knick will uncover its purpose in amongst its detail.
“Blue Movie” – Lowtide (mp3)
“Missing History” – Lowtide (mp3)