The Knick: Lights Out

After last week’s attention-grabbing, gory pilot episode, Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick settles into more of a standard routine in its second outing. “Standard” for this show, however, just means they’ve cut back on some of the more intense (re: stomach churning) surgical scenes. The show still retains the brilliant anachronistic touches that Soderbergh employed in the pilot while further deepening his exploration of early 20th century social mores.

The pilot episode knocked me off my feet with its adventurous filmmaking and razor-sharp perspective. Its second outing, “Mr. Paris Shoes,” continues to similarly dazzle.

The Knick S01E02d

Soderbergh kicks off this chapter with a sequence that would be at home in any film school class. By juxtaposing the early mornings of hospital patron Cornelia Robertson and controversial deputy surgeon Dr. Algernon Edwards, he unexpectedly establishes a deep connection between the two characters. Looking beyond the obvious contradictions of their lodgings (she is wakened by a maid in wealthy splendor; he by a cockroach on his pillow in ramshackle housing), you can see them both as working outside of the confinement placed on them by their roles in society.

Cornelia’s father praises her for taking an active role in the hospital. Of course, given the era, his praise is something of a backhanded compliment: if she were a man, he says, then she’d be running the city. Her mother, head full of garden parties and a proper lady’s position, looks on with disdain.

In his boarding house, Algernon is assaulted by another black man for considering himself above his surroundings, which, given his surroundings, he clearly is. The “Mr. Paris Shoes” of the title refers to the nickname given to Algernon by the offending boarder who is envious of his Parisian leather shoes.

Soderbergh employs a light touch in these scenes, eschewing the overt drama that might corrode the story if it were a network television product. Still, the power of these scenes is undeniable in their multi-layered look at the characters and the society they inhabit.

The hospital itself is in the midst of an awkward transition as it moves from gaslight to electric light. Faulty wiring plagues the staff, causing a short in a cauterizing iron that sets a patient on fire and electrocutes a nurse to death. The bad wiring is later laid directly at the feet of the hospital manager, Herman Barrow, who is inappropriately cutting costs in an attempt to pay back a loan to a local mobster. As loan collateral, the mobster painfully extracts a tooth from Barrow’s mouth using rusty pliers.

Dr. Thackery still has a large presence in the show, but he seemed somewhat muted this episode as Soderbergh allows time for the supporting characters to ripen. He is given a brief flashback to his first days at the hospital where the excitement of learning new procedures from the now-deceased Dr. Christiansen was a greater high than the cocaine he now injects. We are also given a nice moment where he apologies to nurse Lucy for asking her to inject him in the penis. She didn’t seem all that bothered, to be honest.

That brings me to address one criticism that has plagued this show. I have largely tried to avoid other reviews, particularly for shows I greatly admire. But I have heard some reviewers detract from The Knick because of its surface comparisons to Fox’s House, a show I will be the first to admit I have never seen. Sure, both shows appear to center around an ill mannered, but brilliant, drug-addicted doctor and the hospital he inhabits. As good as House might have been, however, I don’t have the sense that it essayed the complicated social criticisms baked into The Knick. The comparison of the two doctors is truly a superficial one, and it disappoints me that critics would react to Soderbergh’s work in such a manner.

Moving on, most of the remainder of the episode involves Algernon who was given relatively brief screen time in the pilot. Here, he continues to fight for the respect commanded by his intelligence and medical experience. He is given an office in the basement and is allowed to do little surgically aside from the occasional stitches (much to the disdain of the patients). Discouraged, Algernon decides to establish a makeshift clinic in the basement of the hospital where he treats a black woman who was earlier turned away for care by an upstairs nurse. Call it foreshadowing of Obamacare.

Overall, I am completely absorbed into the show as I love the era and Soderbergh’s ability to pull the viewers into it without making it seem stogy and dull. He continues to employ a more modern soundtrack (more synthesizer, less strings), and the effect works wonders for me.

Again, I marvel at the prowess and storytelling skills of Steven Soderbergh, a man who gave up on Hollywood filmmaking and sought an avenue to channel more challenging material. If other great directors meet similar successes in television, then I fear for the future of adult storytelling in Hollywood films.

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