Fable, Interrupted: Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick

by Bryan & Heather

America’s Gilded Age has been getting a lot of on-screen love in recent years, from HBO’s eponymously named series to the star-studded The Alienist. One of the earlier installations in this trend had escaped us until 2022, however, when we each came across it independently and recommended it to each other for some New Year’s Eve 2021 viewing material. We were instantly drawn in to Steven Soderbergh’s grimy, corrupt, extreme portrait of the Knickerbocker hospital in turn-of-the-century New York, and though it was admittedly the work of an entire year to get through its two seasons, the effort was much more enjoyable than that duration would suggest.

The Knick has a deceptively simple premise, following the staff of the show’s namesake as they pioneer medical procedures that laid the foundation for much of modern medicine, particularly in the field of surgery. Clive Owen plays the brilliant yet troubled Chief of Surgery John Thackery, whose quest to save lives through innovative procedures drives much of the medical drama of the show. Meanwhile, Thachary’s assistant chief Algernon Edwards struggles to have his talent as a black surgeon recognized by his white coworkers, one of whom, Everett Galinger, becomes a leading light in the nascent eugenics movement. Cornelia Robertson, daughter of the Knick’s primary benefactor, is always on the lookout for a new crusade, whether social or medical, to help the less fortunate of the city, while the Knick’s manager Herman Barrow is constantly scheming to see how much he can skim off the top while keeping the hospital funded by wealthy donors.. Nor is the hospital’s staff ignored; nurse Caroline Elkins learns just how different life in New York can be from small-town Tennessee, Sister Harriet struggles with the conflict between her faith’s teachings and the needs of women’s health, and ambulance driver Tom Cleary gets himself involved in all manner of schemes as he tries to make a fast buck however he can.

As can be seen just from a brief description of its major cast, the storytelling of The Knick encompasses more than simply a historical medical drama. Many period dramas of course try to draw in larger historical themes of their era, we’ve seldom seen one do so as naturally as this one. From racism to corruption to gender norms to social ills to the hubris of scientists, the subjects of the Knick can almost be seen as a series of modern fables that together capture the spirit of the Gilded Age. Its storytelling excesses (as befits its home network of Cinemax, there is a plethora of explicit drugs, sex, and gore–the latter of which was perhaps the main reason it took us so long to work through) may be a little wild for the usual audience of such dramas, but likely more honest to the truth of the era than other more sanitized fare.

Perhaps our only serious complaint stems from the show’s early cancellation: while all of the surviving characters do receive some form of resolution to their stories, many of them feel only half-baked, with certain villains–Gallinger and Barrow, in particular–never receiving their richly-deserved comeuppance. The Knick is also now the second show we have seen (after Hell on Wheels, reviewed here on Concerning History) to have one of its main characters abandon American shores and sail into the horizon in its conclusion, perhaps showing a gratifying modern trend towards rejection of the age’s corrupt society in favor of something more aspirational. These are small issues, however, compared to the stunning achievement of the bulk of the show’s episodes, however. Brilliantly realized and as rough to watch as an honest take on the Gilded Age likely should be, The Knick offers one of the more memorable viewing experiences we’ve ever undertaken, and we highly recommend it to any students of history–of an appropriate age, of course.

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