The Knick, Cinemax’s exceptional drama from Jack Amiel and Michael Begler debuted last year with a taut, 10-episode run. Amiel and Begler wrote most of the episodes (producer Steven Katz stepped in for a few), and that consistency of having the creators also crafting the show’s weekly narrative was augmented beautifully by Steven Soderbergh’s singular direction. Like Cary Fukunaga’s directing of the entire first season of True Detective, that creative continuity led to a beautiful consistency in quality and story. And unlike True Detective, everyone is back for The Knick Season 2.
It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about The Knick. It has a sprawling, swirling cast who occupy often vastly different realms of the Knickerbocker and beyond. The narrative is swift and complicated; characters are hard to pin down, and no one is clearly a hero or villain (even if they briefly appear to be). But without doubt, their interactions are beautifully orchestrated, with Soderbergh’s restless camera alighting on their naturally lit faces from unexpected angles, never allowing for a sense of viewer complacency. And yet, the atmosphere of The Knick often has an immersive warmth to it, which can be in stark contrast to the sterile cold of its surgical rooms and gruesome procedures.
The early 1900s has only recently become a popular setting for TV drama — surprising, since it’s the dawn of so many rocketing changes in medicine, society, technology, and class. The Knick plays with this in several ways, exposing class and racial bias, as well as the leaps forward in medical procedures. But not all notions of the age’s progress are so clearly positive; experimental days of early psychology, the rise of eugenics, risky medical procedures and the greed of Tammany Hall also play major roles as well, and all are examined within The Knick’s narrative context.
To that end, there’s always a sense of forward motion in the series (helped by the fluid choreography of the direction and the driving, quietly insistent soundtrack). Thack (Clive Owen) is wallowing in his addictions, until he looks at addiction as a disease to be solved and starts marching forth. Algernon (Andre Holland) is professionally on the rise, though he is still up against and Old Guard on the hospital board who cap his achievements. And, as always, he’s also up against himself and his complicated personal life.
Most of the characters feel a pull between where they are, and what they want to become, and almost all are hindered by where a restrictive society has placed them. Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), Lucy (Eve Hewson), Bertie (Michael Angarano), and Everett (Eric Johnson) all have ambitions beyond their current place, and it drives each to handle those struggles in ways that reveal their character, and serves to expand and change their roles within the series.
Though Season 2 kicks off almost immediately where Season 1 left off, there are many immediate changes that set a myriad of fresh courses for the new episodes to take. Yet some (as of the first four episodes available to screen) have very little to do with the hospital which anchors the series, and more to do just with the value of great characters, like in the case of Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and Sister Harriet’s (Cara Seymour) lovely friendship. Though it may tie into the larger narrative eventually (and to some extent simply exists to give another comment on the society of the day), even if it remains its own sidebar vignette it would be warranted, just as part of building such a strong connection to The Knick’s intimately knowable world.
And in that way, The Knick has course-corrected a few things from its first season, like finding ways to make Thack interesting again (as more than just another brilliant TV doctor addict), while also acknowledging that he’s not the show’s only star. Clive Owen is brilliant in his role, though, and the way he and Holland play off of each other as the two gifted physicians united in a desire for experimentation and change in their industry is always wonderful to watch. Rylance, too, is far more natural and less stagey in her performance this season, and Johnson finds unexpected, even compelling layers to his difficult Everett. Hewson remains a staid and earnest presence, while Angarano brings mirth. Bobb portrays Barrow as devilish and scheming as ever, while several newcomers to the show make strong, confident impressions. The world is changing, and the show’s exceptional cast shade those nuances and conflicts beautifully.
There are so many stories to explore, though, that the emphasis on surgery and research (the horrible scenes from which were some hallmarks of Season 1) largely takes a backseat in these first episodes to make way for meditations on old time religion, dates to circuses, unexpected boat rides (one of the most delightfully offbeat moments of Season 2 so far), and complicated personal issues. But for as many plots and characters that The Knick stuffs into its episodes, its proceedings are tempered by such a gorgeous minimalism that it’s never too much. There are a few questionable narrative turns and a few missed opportunities to get a little more radical in the exploration of The Knick’s characters, but on the whole, it’s difficult to find a more vibrant and gorgeously crafted show than this.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
The Knick Season 2 premieres Friday, October 16th at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.