The Knick Reinvented the Period Drama

It’s easy to treat the past as a cozy prequel to the present. But in Steven Soderbergh’s hands, history is at once horrifying and so beautiful you can’t look away.

The Knick Season 2.
Charlie Aitken and Eve Hewson in The Knick.

Courtesy of Mary Cybulski/HBO

Steven Soderbergh’s gothic hospital drama The Knick, which returns for its second season on Cinemax this Friday night, is an amazing television show in the purest sense of that most overused word. It is dismaying, awe-inspiring, terrifying, and habitually breathtaking. Last season, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz called the show “the greatest sustained display of directorial virtuosity in the history of American TV.” If you haven’t seen the show, this might sound like hyperbole; if you have, it’s difficult to even think of other contenders. 

The Knick’s second season picks up more or less where the first season left us off: lower Manhattan at the dawn of the 20th century (the first season was 1900; the second is 1901). For the uninitiated, the show’s title refers to the fictional and precariously managed Knickerbocker Hospital, currently facing an impending uptown relocation. Initially and superficially The Knick resembles a circa-1900 version of House: Clive Owen plays John Thackery, a brilliant, prickly, drug-addled surgeon who’s equally gifted at saving and destroying lives. You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a cliché, and other characters can be similarly floppy. André Holland gives an excellent performance as Algernon Edwards, a brilliant black doctor who plies his trade amid vicious racism, but the character sometimes feels choked by didacticism. The same goes for a tireless feminist reformer, a beacon-of-tolerance young doctor, and a pro-choice Irish nun.

The first season of The Knick occasionally gave these characters too little to do, while the second season—at least through its first four episodes—feels like the writers have overcompensated and thrown a few too many balls in the air. Aside from its relentlessly gruesome medical crises, Season 1 took on subjects ranging from racial inequality to reproductive rights to political corruption to substance abuse; the second season swells to include a murder mystery, a Southern Gothic preacher, a budding eugenicist, public transportation, and amateur pornography.

All of this might sound like a bit of a mess on paper, but great filmmaking doesn’t happen on paper, and The Knick is great filmmaking even by the standards of Soderbergh’s increasingly incomparable career. In episodic television, visual choices have historically been subordinate to story choices, the camera frame primarily functioning as a space to contain plot. Cheersa perfect sitcom—was so cinematographically unadorned it often felt like watching a play; network drama’s most iconic tracking shot is remembered in relation to dialogue. The Knick seems to have flipped this relationship: The show’s script and story feel like rich but wet clay to be sculpted by Soderbergh’s camera, which works as daringly and precisely as Thackery’s scalpel. (Soderbergh serves as director, cinematographer, and editor of every episode, his process so intricate it inspired a 176-page e-book.)

The show is shot with hand-held cameras using only dusky, natural light sources, and as always, Soderbergh’s visual composition is extraordinary. In the first episode of Season 2, there’s a shot in the interior of a sailboat that begins with a close-up of eggs rolling about on a plate; the camera drifts shakily to Thackery’s hands, tying a knot, then suddenly swings outward to settle on a deep-focus image of the boat’s interior peeking out onto a pristine blue sky. The contrast between the dreary brown of the cabin and the piercing square of blue is perfectly framed, visually exquisite in an almost offhanded way. I have watched this few seconds of TV at least 10 times and could just barely tell you what happens in the scene it’s from. It barely matters.

All the more remarkable is that The Knick is doing all this in a genre that often lends itself to formal conservatism: the period drama. The cinematographic style of shows like Downton Abbey generally consists of pointing the camera at expensive sets and costumes. Attention to recreationist detail can bring about a sort of self-satisfied complacency in these shows and their viewers, dwelling in precious antiquarianism and mutually congratulating ourselves on our fact-checking. Even a great show like Mad Men was often overpraised for its verisimilitude, as though Don Draper reclining to the sound of “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a display of historical erudition greater than Googling “famous band 1966.”

The Knick’s approach to history feels adventurous and un-mothballed, even if the show’s details are, by most accounts, fairly accurate (Owen’s Thackery is modeled after the path-breaking surgeon and cocaine enthusiast William Halsted). Soderbergh treats the past as something spooky and uncanny, existing in a sort of canted reality that’s adjacent to our own, but unknowable. Everything is gloomy, benighted, sinister, devoid of romance or false nostalgia. There have been plenty of TV shows about hospitals, and there have even been period shows about hospitals, but they’ve mostly treated medicine as something fundamentally benevolent. By returning surgical science to the sins and errors of the past, The Knick manages to recast it as something more fundamentally ambivalent. The second season finds Thackery haunted by visions of a girl who perished on his operating table from a failed blood transfusion, the result of a callous, cocaine-induced hubris. Her death borders disconcertingly close to murder; we and Thackery both know this, and also know he might do it again.

While it’s admittedly a strange comparison, while watching the The Knick, I often find myself thinking of Dr. Octagonecologyst, the seminal 1996 weird-rap collaboration between Kool Keith and Dan the Automator in which Keith inhabits the character of Dr. Octagon, a diabolical and sex-obsessed surgeon from Jupiter. It’s the only other work I know that so deftly plumbs our latent, superstitious horror of medicine, all the things those of us who floundered through 10th-grade biology don’t want to know every time we go to the doctor. The Knick’s operating room sequences have been widely and rightly celebrated: For starters, they are anatomically unflinching and at times almost unbelievably disgusting. But they’re also visually stunning, for as long as you can manage to keep your eyes open, as various gushing hues of pink and red pop starkly off the black-and-white surgical outfits donned by the doctors.

In treating the cutting up of human bodies as an aesthetic act, Soderbergh forces us to wonder if the people tasked with doing the cutting have aestheticized it as well. Taken as a whole, The Knick throws open one hell of a Pandora’s box. What if scientific “progress” has been driven as much by arrogance and cruelty as by empathic humanism? What if the history of modern medicine isn’t so much a story of people living, but rather of people dying? It’s easy to treat the past as a cozy prequel to the present; The Knick treats it as a ghost story. I don’t know if that makes for more honest history, but it makes for amazing television.