When Steven Soderbergh made The Informant!, the bitterly funny account of an agri-business exec who exposed a price-fixing scheme that his company Archer Daniels Midland was involved in, the director put a small twist on the story by casting mainly standup comics like Paul F. Tompkins and Patton Oswalt to play more serious tertiary characters.
I’m starting to suspect that a similar but sneakier ploy is going on within The Knick. Amid the dramatic fireworks and body horrors of the show, we see faces like those of John Hodgman, Todd Barry, Tom Papa, and Jim Norton taking small parts in the series. I have no hard evidence to back this up, but I feel like Soderbergh is trying to subtly clue viewers in that he knows how sometimes ridiculous and almost parodic this show can become.
Look back, for example, to the small scene between Henry Robertson and Phillip Showalter at the fundraising ball. The two exchange some wry small talk until the former asks his buddy about his dealings in Ohio. Phillip explains that he hired some chemists to analyze the waste being left behind by their creation of kerosene, and was now using it to fuel their plants. “We call it,” he says, with a big pause for effect, “gasoline.”
I’ll never understand why shows and films that take place in the past have to make such a show of things like this. Especially considering how The Knick has already done a fine job introducing medical advancements in such a smart fashion. Of course, these healers would want to make a big show of the new developments and equipment they are introducing. That’s how they make their name in the business of medicine. Everything else the writers keep trying to shoehorn into the mix just feels gratuitous, or like a constant nudging in our elbows to show that they were paying attention when doing research on the show. “Huh? Huh? The invention of gasoline, right? That’s historical, right?”
That same feeling prevailed when, at the end of a particularly horrible week for Dr. Edwards—one in which he learned that he might not have a job at the new Knickerbocker Hospital and had his simple hernia operation upended by Dr. Gallinger’s illicit intervention—his now-doting wife Opal hovers over him to let him know, “There will be better days ahead… a lot better days.” It’s not hard to read the subtext of this line, especially when they have written been in neon letters. But there’s an irony to it that they’ve missed, particularly in the wake of all the absolutely gut-wrenching incidents that have inspired the #blacklivesmatter movement. They want us to be hopeful, I suppose, but any thinking person would know much better than that.
So why wouldn’t Soderbergh toss in a few wild cards for his own personal amusement, and as a buffer against the heavy-handedness of the plotting of the show he is giving his directorial all to? Tonight he was able to handle both incredibly intimate moments—like the first time Bertie and Genevieve sleep together—and the choreography that went into the tracking shot that ran through the ball with a steady eye for how to edit and frame each scene. He’s better than the material and he knows it. But he also seems to love a challenge. Like how to make a superfluous sequel to a massive successful male stripper movie look as incredible as Magic Mike XXL did.
In that way, I think Soderbergh very much sees a lot of himself in a character like Thackery. Both men have spent their careers being given such interesting challenges and have risen to the occasion relying on their fertile imaginations and genuine curiosity. No, the director isn’t saving lives, but he continues to push himself to the conceptual and physical limit with each project he takes on. If there are any demons haunting our beloved director, they certainly aren’t as deep and as terrifying as what Thackery is dealing with, but they are there. And like any good creative, Soderbergh works as hard as he does to keep them at bay. We’re just the lucky ones that get to watch him wrestle with them every week.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter.