Steven Soderbergh’s period epic The Knick remains a smorgasbord of scrupulous period detail, as the second season’s all-business opener, “Ten Knots,” picks up exactly where last season’s beyond-bleak conclusion left off. Disappointingly, the naturalism and economy of Soderbergh’s approach continues to run contrary to the dramatic straits navigated by the show’s writers, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. The eponymous New York City hospital has relocated uptown, relatively painlessly, and in keeping with the show’s pointedly unromantic vista on early-20th-century history, it continues to turn a profit, having severely curtailed its social-justice mission under the corrupt reign of administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb).
So much of the show’s first season dared viewers to imagine when and how the crazy, brilliant, morphine-addicted surgeon John Thackery (Clive Owen) would reach his breaking point—and it turned out to be a botched surgical procedure on a little girl who died in the process, and whose blank stare haunts him in the opening and closing scenes of “Ten Knots.” Thackery’s addiction and genius are on twinned display in the episode’s first actual exchange of dialogue, whereby he—an orderly after a bootleg surgery in his insane asylum—offers to perform an additional procedure on a young woman’s face for four vials of heroin (which he downgrades, in stiff desperation, to two—also to no avail). While Thackery may represent The Knick’s most compelling character, the episode isn’t precious about switching narrative threads; the action jumps to San Francisco, where the hospital’s ex-benefactor, Cornelia (Juliet Rylance), is seen assisting a Chinese doctor named Feng (Jeff Kim) in that city’s plague-quarantined Chinatown.
Given the personal hell Cornelia went through in the previous season, her anxious energy makes sense, but the character remains a construction of such spotless turn-of-the-century progressivism that, as in the first season, nearly every appearance serves to counterweigh her with more ignorant-minded personalities of the era. The Knick’s tactility rarely extends to its politics, so this means we first see her berating a racist cop while angling to send bushels of food in for the quarantine’s victims. Meanwhile, the Knick’s former resident nun, Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), sits de-frocked behind bars for the abortions she performed last season. She’s visited by a former mentor, who tells her: “What you are is a devil on Earth, a murderer of innocents. You have disgraced me, the sisters who loved you, the convent that saved you, the nurses that taught you, the Catholics that nurtured you and the God who loved you.”
Surgeon Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), brutalized without resolution in the first season’s closing minutes, returns much the same, but with a partial loss of sight in one eye—a secret he’ll be keeping to himself, we can only assume, as he fights to maintain his position as chief of surgery. The bigoted Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) attempts to return to the hospital, only to find himself rebuffed, if temporarily, by Edwards. In their characters’ one near-confrontation, both Johnson and Holland do a terrific job embodying their respective tangle of resentments for one another, buried just below the ongoing necessity/crisis of Thackery’s absence, at least until Gallinger drops a (perhaps unintentionally hilarious) tongue-twister, telling Edwards: “You’re as dumb as you think I think you are.”
In one of the few scenes that sees “Ten Knots” downright flatlining, Cornelia’s psychotic father-in-law, Hobart (Gary Simpson), turns up out of the blue to castigate her activities, presupposing she’s drifted from the influence of her parents, and unilaterally deciding to relocate his son and Cornelia back to New York. This is one of those twists which, for its apparent arbitrariness, does nothing more than stoke visions of plot machinations in subsequent episodes, drawing dramatic oomph from anywhere but the present moment. (Simpson’s creepazoid, borderline-comatose performance doesn’t help, though that’s apparently part and parcel with the elder Showalter’s character.)
In this vein, a number of brief expository twists occur in rapid-fire succession. Having brokered a deal with Barrow for a new motorized buggy, ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) visits Harriet in prison, pledging to raise funds to get her a lawyer. Elsewhere, Barrow visits Ping Wu (Perry Yung), the pimp who took over his debts from loan shark Bunky Collier in last season’s finale, and the two men agree that the Knick will treat Ping’s sex workers in exchange for a more lenient rate. And Gallinger—stunned, again, to the point of lunacy at the thought of Edwards one-upping his position—visits Thackery at the asylum where, in the episode’s most ludicrous plot twist, he opts to kidnap his former mentor on his family sailboat, for the purposes of a period of forced rehabilitation.
It’s hard to avoid feeling like the same issues of dramatic proportion and temporal flow that dogged the first season remain: While Soberbergh’s technique gives every fleeting moment a verisimilitude all its own, the fact remains that “Ten Knots” has enough concurrent plotlines to occupy a three-hour feature film. The premiere culminates in another juxtaposition of scenes: the groundbreaking on the new Knick, thrown against Thackery’s devastating withdrawal aboard the Gallinger family boat. Cornelia arrives in time for the ceremony, awkwardly reuniting with her former lover, Edwards, who watches, aghast, as she receives the news that she’ll be staying with her in-laws for four months. Brass band blaring in the backdrop, the moment is punctuated by her husband’s comment that “It’ll be fun!” Meanwhile, Thackery is shown to sober up in a too-brief period of time, but not, of course, without the lingering promise of future lapses and collapses to come. If beautifully photographed by Soderbergh, the episode’s oceanic conclusion gives this idea a bizarrely short shrift.
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