It’s only been one episode of The Knick, but if “Method and Madness” was any indication, there is a clear theme of the series: change, and the lengths various characters will go to encourage and prevent it. The setting of the show itself is a testament to that. New York City in 1900 was a city straddling a line between old and new lifestyles, evidenced by one of the major plot points of this episode: trying to add electricity to The Knickerbocker Hospital. Elsewhere, be it a rudimentary C-Section, a horse-driven ambulance, a shoddy beard cleaning, cramped living quarters, or the disconcerting lack of gloves and socks, it’s clear that The Knick will make our WebMD-addicted, helicopter-parenting, hand sanitizer-bathed society cringe. And I couldn’t be more into it.
The Knick is a show following the life and career of Dr. John Thackery, played by the criminally-underused Clive Owen (Children of Men, Inside Man, Hemingway and Gelhorn). As I mentioned in the preview earlier this week, there’s a glaring resemblance between Dr. Thackery and Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House. Like House, Dr. Thackery has taken a liking to self-medication—a fact we’re presented with immediately in the episode. But we’ve come to expect our television heroes to have tragic flaws: Walter White's greed, Ned Stark's blinding trust, Don Draper's womanizing/alcoholism/misogyny/etc.
So when we see Dr. Thackery’s wake-up call materialize in the form of a prostitute in a dingy brothel basement a mere 15 seconds into the episode, are we really that surprised that he’s far from perfect? Cocaine is Thackery’s drug of choice, administered between the toes while on the way to perform surgery. Spoiler alert: this won’t be the last injection we see in the episode.
I was completely prepared for a flaw like this, and to be honest, I was a little disappointed that The Knick was employing the doctor-addicted-to-drugs trope. If it felt like I’d seen this before, it was because I had—176 times in every episode of House. But what I wasn’t prepared for was to dislike Thackery. To quote Leonard DiCaprio in Django Unchained:
My disdain for Thackery stems from his reaction to insistences that he hire Dr. Algernon Edwards (played by André Holland). Dr. Edwards, to the surprise of Thackery, is black. But he’s also extremely qualified and well-versed in modern European medicine. Thackery, however, wants nothing to do with Algernon, specifically with his race. Now I understand Thackery’s pragmatism here. His thinking is that the rich, white demographic that the hospital is so keen to attract will balk at the idea of going to the Knick if there’s a black surgeon on staff. But as we also learned about Thackery this episode, he sincerely wants to save as many lives as he can. Dismissing Algernon because of “politics” is an easy way for Thackery to hide his racist feelings. And it’s not just Thackery who has racist feelings. In August, 1900, race riots broke out in New York City after an off-duty police officer tried to arrest a black woman for soliciting. The officer was stabbed to death by the woman’s friend, also black, and during the officer’s funeral, policemen went out and attacked any black man they could find. I’m not sure if we were given the month in which The Knick opens, but I hope that the race riots are shown, or at the very least referenced, as I feel that we've already been introduced to racial tension and an event like the riots would certainly evoke reactions. If shown, I can see the riots leading to one of two things: fuel for the racially-charged fire that already exists, or an opportunity for Thackery to prove he's changing as a person. One of the reasons Boardwalk Empire is so successful is that it weaves in factual events into its story. I hope The Knick does this as well.
Now I don’t doubt for a second that this is the beginning of a redemption arc for Thackery. He’s already proven in this episode that he wants to give up his cocaine addiction. I’m sure that his feelings towards Algernon will change when the inevitable Algernon saves the day episode airs. But it’ll be hard for me to forget where Thackery started. (This is not a bad thing, by the way. Walter White turned darker and darker as Breaking Bad progressed, and it was amazing. Tony Soprano was the same way.)
While we’re on the topic of misguided first impressions, let me make a few points about some of the other characters of The Knick, of which there are many. I find this to be a strong positive for the show, as it puts less pressure on the writers to ace Thackery’s story. Being that The Knick does not seem to be a procedural like House, each episode's story will need to contain more than a what’s-killing-him plotline.
Cornelia Robertson (played by Juliet Rylance) is introduced to us when she reports to the hospital’s board of trustees meeting, serving as her wealthy father’s proxy, where she insisted that Thackery hire Dr. Algernon. This was before we knew Algernon was black and also before we find out she’s also the head of the hospital’s social welfare office in a somber scene where a child is forced to translate her dying mother’s prognosis. I expected Cornelia to just be a rich, and therefore influential, pain in the ass, but she stood out as one of my favorite characters so far.
Another character I liked was the doe-eyed Nurse Lucy Elkins (played by Ewe Hewson, the daughter of Bono). Hailing from West Virginia, Lucy is new at the Knick and is promptly chewed out by Thackery for failing to properly tend to a sick patient. There is a scene later when Lucy is ordered to run and fetch Thackery, who is home sick in an attempt to sober up, that stands out in my mind and makes be believe that Thackery and Lucy will become close. I’m not sure if that means romantically or in a father-daughter type of way (hopefully not both).
Rounding out the rest of the Thackery’s surgical staff is Dr. Bertram “Bertie” Chickering (played by Michael Angarano—one of those actors whose face is infinitely more recognizable than his previous roles are) and Dr. Everett Gallinger (played by Eric Johnson). Bertie is a young, surgeon-in-training who spends the majority of his scenes exchanging googly-eyes with Lucy, and Dr. Gallinger is given such an unmemorable role in the pilot that I can only hope he doesn’t turn into a permanent set decoration.
On the administrative side is Herman Barrow (played by Jeremy Bobb, Boardwalk Empire and House of Cards), who is equal parts racist and greedy. His role seems to be split between improving the conditions at the Knick and paying people off so that they bring people to the Knick. I'm looking forward to seeing where his story goes.
That brings us to Tom Cleary (played by Chris Sullivan), a clearly Irish ambulance driver who receives kickbacks from the hospital for bringing in wealthy patients. Watching him threaten a competing ambulance driver with a wooden bat was a welcomed moment of comic relief. Teaming up with Cleary is Jacob Speight (played by David Fierro), a health department inspector who writes landlords up for unsafe living conditions not because he’s looking out for the betterment of mankind, but rather because he also receives kickbacks from the Knick for sending patients their way. Leaving the Knick and opening up the world outside was a smart move. It can get dreary staying inside a hospital all day; sometimes you need to step outside for some fresh air.
Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element who graduated from Marist College. He spends his time obsessing equally over the Game of Thrones series and the New York Giants, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.