Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick is exhilaratingly alien. Though the series is set in a rundown hospital in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century, the director doesn’t invite us to dutifully nod off to another dull wax-museum period piece that renders the past insufferably safe and platitudinous. The show’s so dangerously alive that it inspires gratitude that our society has somehow existed this long, as there’s a palpable sense here of the precarious strangeness of life, both on a micro and macro level. The doctors of the Knickerbocker Hospital are shown to engage in daily gladiatorial battles with the limitations of their own knowledge and of the human body, and their inevitable feelings of grandiosity are frequently cut down by the brutal, humbling biological, technical, and political specifics of their occupation.
In many medical shows, the procedures are abstractions, things that sort of happen while the characters spout expository information about themselves. The Knick places us disconcertingly up close to the operations, which, in 1900, are still terrifyingly reminiscent of the work performed in field hospitals. Soderbergh astutely parses out incidental details that stick and expand in the imagination: the thrumming of a pumping machine that sucks the blood out of patients’ wounds; the subtle drip-dropping sound of water in the background of the Knickerbocker’s operating theater, which affirms the institution’s worn-down fragility; a close-up of a needle, seemingly briefly suspended in time, before it’s to be stuck in someone’s spine as an act of administering a make-shift anesthetic. There’s a close-up, with all the gothic power of a fairy tale, of a woman who has her forearm’s skin sewn to her face to help graft over the hole where the nose she lost to syphilis used to be. There are other close-ups of metallic instruments, which the doctors sometimes appear to invent nearly on the fly while lecturing on the specifics of ruptured bowels and knotted-up hernias, which are also seen in images that merge the poetic with the rational. The hospital’s physicians often resemble a cross between magicians, an association exasperated by a supporting character’s bald head and sculpted pointy beard, and auto mechanics.
The Knick is informed by a hypnotic sense of old newness that’s reminiscent of Deadwood. Soderbergh conjures a past era and parallels to present-day United States in a tour of a still-relevant caste system that allows the audience to sort out the contemporary resonances for itself. There’s a great feeling of discovery to the series. The evocative opening image, for instance, highlights a doctor’s white shoes propped up in the foreground, pointedly and boldly alone, while the background reveals the setting to be a lamp-lit brothel den. A nude Chinese whore then crosses the room toward the white shoes in a gesture of movement that serves as the image through line. It’s a telling, compact encapsulation of the show’s estranged classist themes. Tracking shots frequently tie characters together with a grace that’s reminiscent of a Robert Altman film, while establishing shots are positioned from low to the ground, rather than from a typically high birds’-eye vantage point, so as to foster closer audience proximity with the characters and the setting.
We’re also often taken, in unbroken shots, from the foreground to the background of the image as the camera piggybacks on a character who assumes the brief position of a first-person surrogate so as to heighten the tangibility of the sets as part of something that’s living and breathing. It’s an impression that’s affirmed by composer Cliff Martinez’s great, throbbing, insinuating score. The period recreations of 1900s New York are as lush as you’d expect from a prestige show, but there’s a greater awareness than usual of the rot and stink of the business of maintaining a social infrastructure (we see the shit and garbage on the streets, as well as the stretch marks and scars on the patients), which complements the social outrage with the rich white prigs who speak to women and African-Americans as if they’re children or cattle. Human pretensions do little to disguise the fact that we’re all animals who eat and shit and fuck like most others, and certain diseases, such as typhoid fever, have a fashion of blowing away our erected façades of civility.
The Knick ideally suits the intention that governs all of Soderbergh’s work, which is defined by a pragmatic focus on processes as a route toward expressing traditional emotions in a fashion that’s new, or, at least, devoid of cheaply impersonal and easy Hallmark sentiment. His emphasis on tactility grounds the show’s melodrama in the quotidian, while the melodrama wraps the gory, real-life reporting up in a commanding soap-operatic structure. That combination, reminiscent of Dickens, and also of the director’s less confident Traffic, is weirdly, amazingly effective here: Soderbergh stages some of the expected scenes of the hospital serial with a misleading offhandedness that’s heartbreaking.
There’s a particularly astonishing short scene with a young girl who’s tasked with translating a doctor’s diagnosis to her dying mother, who only speaks her native Polish. The girl is strong and matter-of-fact, and that’s what’s so fiercely poignant. (Soderbergh’s one of the few contemporary mainstream American directors who understands that tragedy emotionally hits you on the rebound.) We’re seeing a girl adopt a stiff upper lip in a child-parent role reversal in a new culture that’s beyond her range of experience and imagination. Like the doctors, she excels without making a show of excelling. She’s seeing a brief glimpse of the business of casual miracles that aren’t so casual. And we, in a fleeting instance, see that she has to bite back tears between hearing of her mother’s tubercular diagnosis from the doctors and relating of the message to her mother. This is Soderbergh at the zenith of his powers as an entertainer: Revealing character through a devotion to process (in this case, navigating the tedium of multiple language translations at a quick, urgent clip) that also respects the character’s dignity.
That sort of moment is worth a hundred newspaper articles about the plight of the immigrants’ crossing over into America, and each episode has about half a dozen such scenes, which also elaborate on the physical and emotional contours of the ambulance drivers (who also sell bodies and rob graves), the nuns, the doctors, and even the often vilified upper class. The pathos and the attention to detail come to be wonderfully overwhelming, and Soderbergh eventually develops a habit of cutting away to a specific character, Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), as a shorthand of evoking a feeling of protective empathy. She’s both our dream girl, principled and gorgeous, as well as our Every Human who reflects our own discombobulated entrance into this past era that’s anything but quaint. Soderbergh takes us to the depths of known hell, and then occasionally cuts to Lucy’s face to show that the battles these professionals are waging are worth the risk. Her visage represents Soderbergh’s one indulgence of unqualified sentimentality—of hope that may or may not be rational—and he earns it because he shows you the work and bravery of maintaining such idealism.