For the first two episodes of The Knick, director Steven Soderbergh pretty much stayed out of the way of the action he was filming. Instead, he concentrated on suffusing the screen with natural light, and making some keen editing choices, like cutting to the beatific face of the patient getting an emergency operation after he was injected in the spine with a cocaine solution. (In case you didn’t already know, Soderbergh shoots and edits his own work using pseudonyms.)
But at the end of episode three, in his cinematographic guise of Peter Andrews, he brought some actual flair to the proceedings. Using a kind of forced perspective, and possibly strapping his digital camera to the back of actor Andre Holland, Soderbergh was able to capture the hazy, fuzzy feeling of one stumbling drunk, yet still being in control enough to cause some trouble. For the character Algernon Edwards, that involved getting into a row with a braggart behind his local tavern. For all its blurry brutality, it was a gorgeous scene, as it cut between the blows the doctor was landing and his pained, sweaty face.
It also rescued at the last minute what was a fairly stodgy episode. This says a lot, considering the opening scene shows Dr. Thackery examining a woman with a hole in her face where her nose should be, eaten away as it was by syphilis (her husband got it boffing some girl in his office). The dialogue in The Knick has always seemed a touch on the cheesy side—not a huge surprise considering writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s previous credits include the 2006 remake of The Shaggy Dog, and The Tony Danza Show—but its overdramatic side came out in full bloom tonight.
The conversation between Thackery and his patient (a former girlfriend, no less) felt far more stilted than it should have. The same sense came out watching Dr. Gallinger chatting with his wife, as they try to translate Dr. Edwards’ medical paper from French, and in every word that spilled out of Herman Barrow’s mouth. There were some odd dramatic choices sprinkled in the episode as well. There must have been far more subtle ways for ambulance driver Tom Cleary to reveal that he knows about Sister Harriet’s work doing illegal abortions, rather than having him stand around the orphanage, making sidelong comments under his breath.
I’m also not entirely convinced of the necessity to emphasize Thackery’s good heart in this episode. True, it’s good of him to operate on a former lover, and defend her when a nurse starts making snarky comments during the procedure, but to have him then decide to work on a sick child, inspired by a kind comment someone made to him went too far against the character’s brashness.
The most successful dramatic element of this episode centers around Edwards’ efforts to hold an after-hours clinic for black patients in the Knick’s basement. We watch as he employs the men who look after the hospital’s boiler and two seamstresses to help treat patients. All is going relatively well, until a patient who had been operated on for a hernia tears open his stitches when he tries to go back to work. Without enough thread to sew up the wound in time, the patient bleeds to death, and Edwards is forced to have some men dump his body somewhere it will be eventually found. Free of much of the overheated chatter that upended the rest of the episode, there was a real sense of desperation and false hope strung through these scenes. If that weren’t enough, poor Edwards is advised that his colleagues will attempt his procedure to save a patient’s failing heart, but that he will only be there to talk the other doctors through it. Is it any wonder that he goes and drinks himself near blind later that night?
We’re only three episodes into this series, and there’s enough beauty and darkness baked into even the most overwrought scenes to give the The Knick a mulligan this week. It’s just going to take some subtler writing and commentary to help right the ship next Friday.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.