Steven Soderbergh's new period medical drama, set during a revolutionary era in surgery, premiered Friday night on Cinemax.
Here's our rundown of how viewers met Clive Owen's groundbreaking (and drug addicted) surgeon Dr. John Thackery and his "The Knick" circus crew, in an episode titled "Method & Madness."
Party Like It's 1900
It's 1900 in New York City when we meet Dr. John Thackery, a man who is living on the edge. At 7:30 AM, a nude woman in a den that appears to be a brothel of some sort, wakes him up and he heads out (in sunglasses) to a waiting horse-drawn carriage. "The Knick," he tells the driver, insisting they take the slow route.
Inside the cab, John removes his sunglasses, revealing heavily bloodshot eyes. As the carriage cuts through street after street, Dr. Thackery tends to himself, removing one of his white, lace-up leather ankle boots, pulling out a syringe, and injecting a substance (we'll later learn is liquid cocaine) in between his toes.
A balding, bearded doctor – Jules/J.M. Christiansen -- dips his facial hair into a bowl of water to sterilize it, as men in white bring in a patient – a pregnant woman who needs a Caesarian. "Please save my baby," she pleads before she is put to sleep.
Dr. Christiansen addresses the small theater of men who have gathered to observe his surgery, and then begins the procedure. It's Dr. Thackery who narrates for those in the audience as Dr. Christiansen struggles through the operation. There's blood, and more blood, and even more blood. It's no use. She's gone. The baby too. "It seems… it seems we are still lacking. Now, if nothing else, this has been instructive for you all," a crushed Dr. Christiansen tells the silent crowd.
Clive Owen, Matt Frewer and Michael Angarano (Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax)
Back in the clean-up area, Dr. Thackery tries to improve the spirits of his friend and mentor, telling him the surgery failed, but Dr. Christiansen himself did not. Dejected, Dr. Christiansen heads to his office, neatly places a sheet on the couch, reclines his body on to the soft surface and commits suicide.
"We live in a time of endless possibility. More has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years, than the last 500," Dr. Thackery says as his attempt at a motivational eulogy. "Eventually, the train tunnels will crumble. The dams will be overrun. Our patients' hearts will all stop their beating, but we humans can get a few good licks in battle before we surrender," he says, before telling Dr. Christiansen's wife that he personally will remember Jules as he continues the fight.
On the way back to the hospital, we meet Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), the strong and striking daughter of The Knickerbocker hospital's benefactor, who is chatting with The Knick's business affairs man -- Mr. Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb). They take the lead at a board meeting that afternoon, where Dr. Thackery is asked to take over as Chief of Surgery. "With great regret," Thackery accepts, recommending one of his fellow surgeons -- Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) -- for his old job, Deputy Chief. Cornelia has other ideas. She and her father want them to consider a bright surgeon named Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), who went to Harvard, and worked under esteemed surgeons in London and Paris. Not the least bit thrilled by the idea, John promises to meet Edwards, but he's still going to stump for Gallinger.
On a New York street, a groaning man is carried on a gurney to a waiting ambulance, but new character Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) has other ideas. He and his colleague want the patient for The Knick and they're willing to use baseball bats to get him. They walk off with the prize patient, and escort him to The Knick, where Cleary and Barrow discuss details. He's at least a two-week staying patient with good financial resources. Barrow commends Cleary and promises to pay him his cut at the end of the month.
There's a little flirting before rounds begin as Dr. Bertram "Bertie" Chickering Jr. (Michael Angarano) bids good day to stunning nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson). When it's time for the medical updates of rounds, it's Gallinger who talks the docs through the case of Mr. Gentile, who was hit by a street car and is now suffering from bronchitis, following Gallinger's procedure. Looking him over, Thackery finds another problem. The dressings haven't been changed and Nurse Elkins gets an earful. "Weakness and self-pity have no place on my ward," he says, cutting her down when she offers her excuses.
Eve Hewson as Nurse Elkins (Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax)
Everyone's In On It
Cleary's patient mafia has a variety of ways to get people to fill the beds at The Knick. They have friends on the inside, like New York Department of Health inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro), who is happy to lead them to rundown spots where landlords haven't made building improvements that will keep people healthy. And why would they need to? The inspector is happy to take bribes from all sides (including later in Barrow's office over at The Knick).
Dr. Edwards Arrives
"I'm beginning to think you were not told everything about me," Dr. Edwards says to Thackery when he gets a cold welcome as the two men meet for the first time. "You envisioned something different, I take it. Something... lighter?" Edwards asks. In fact, Thackery was, bluntly telling Edwards (who is a black doctor) he is "not interested in an integrated hospital staff." Cornelia is there just in time to watch Edwards storm out of The Knick's door.
Dr. Edwards meets Dr. Thackery (Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax)
Cornelia Takes Charge
After breaking bad news to a tuberculosis patient and her daughter, Cornelia heads angrily into Thackery's office. "Your treatment of Dr. Edwards was indefensible," she says. "Are you're going to stand there and honestly tell me that the way out of our financial troubles is to hire a Negro surgeon?" he replies, as the argument heats up.
It is Cornelia, though, who has the last word. Her family withdraws its financial support from an electrification project, which was bringing light to The Knick. Knowing the hospital can't go without lights, Barrow tells Thackery they will have to hire Edwards. "Then I'll resign," Thackery threatens. "Again?" Barrow asks.
Thackery's mentor may be gone, but Dr. Christiansen is still alive in John's thoughts. Up late, he flashes back to how he got hooked on liquid cocaine to begin with. He simply asked his mentor how he was able to stay awake working on a problem. Jules' answer was to push over a syringe of coke.
A New Day, A New Problem
Nurse Elkins alerts the doctors that Mr. Gentile, the patient they were looking over the day before, has a high fever. Gallinger realizes his procedure wasn't a perfect success. They'll have to operate again. As they begin to fret, Barrow brings in The Knick's new Chief of Surgery – Dr. Edwards. Gallinger tenses up, but Bertie offers the man a warm welcome, and it prompts Gallinger to do the same. "Welcome to our circus," Gallinger says.
With the pleasantries over, Edwards walks up and examines Mr. Gentile, who is not looking good. He needs immediate surgery and an argument quickly takes place over who should perform the procedure. Eventually, it's decided Nurse Elkins must run and fetch Thackery. Adorably, Bertie gives her instructions on how to find John, and she takes off in her skirts and petticoats, darting through the streets of 1900 New York.
You Want Me To Put It Where?
It appears that Thackery had some concerns about his cocaine use and decided to go cold turkey overnight, so when Nurse Elkins finds him (after crawling through a window into his home), he's a mess, cramping and sweating in his bed. "You need to inject me. I can't do it," he tells her. She can't find a vein in his foot. "You want a bigger vein?" he asks, throwing his blanket back, to reveal himself. "Yes, on the underside. The urethral. Nurse. Do it!" he shouts.
The Circus Ringmaster
The injection did the trick and Johnny is back, strolling into the surgery theater to treat Mr. Gentile. Strong, confident and with coke running through his veins, Thackery is only mildly phased when he sees Dr. Edwards standing there, having learned on the spot that Barrow went ahead and hired the man (despite his wishes).
But, while Edwards is an annoyance to Thackery, he focuses on the patient. Unable to put Mr. Gentile under, Thackery comes up with an innovative idea. He's going to numb the man's spine with a cocaine solution. As Nurse Elkins works on prepping the syringe, there's time for Edwards to be insulted again. Disgusted at the latest insult, Edwards declares he'll leave The Knick after the procedure. "As per my oath, I will remain in the theater until the patient is out of danger. And then, I will resign," Edwards says.
Mr. Gentile, who has septicemia, is raised to a seated position so Thackery can numb his spine. The surgery begins and ends without complication to the awe of all, most especially Dr. Edwards, who has a change of heart. "I'm not leaving this circus until I learn everything you have to teach," he says.
Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
Walking past his late mentor's office as the day is done, Thackery pauses for just one moment before hopping into a horse-drawn carriage back to China Town.
Meanwhile, back inside the hospital, the electrical lights are powered back on.
"The Knick" airs Fridays at 10 PM ET/PT on Cinemax.
-- Jolie Lash
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