When John Thackery (Clive Owen) returns to his office at the Knickerbocker Hospital in The Knick’s emotionally exhausting second season, director Steven Soderbergh tellingly focuses on the patient’s chair where the doctor rests his jacket and bag, rather than show the man relishing in his quasi-triumphant release from a rehabilitation home. It’s a quiet nod to a fact that Thackery is still very much treating himself, attempting to fight off a slew of personal issues, including depression, with cocaine and heroin.
These drugs allow Thackery to look at disease and injury as problem-solving exercises, ways of thinking up ambitious surgical and medicinal advances detached from the fact that the bodies he treats are human. Even if he’s been presumably clean for weeks, thanks to a sobriety cruise of sorts with Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), it’s clear from the moment Thackery returns to the Knickerbocker that he’s still very much in close, constant communication with his personal demons, which make him at once a profound, decisive genius in his field and something of a madman.
Drugs have been a consistent fascination for Soderbergh throughout his career, from Traffic to Side Effects, and Thackery’s return to the Knickerbocker comes with a mission to find a cure for addiction. America’s attitude toward opiates and those who are hooked on them is presented as deeply complicated, as heroin and especially cocaine are recognized both as necessary elements of the medical profession and addictive substances that are hard to shake for the rich and poor alike.
And to sell the notion of studying addiction to his higher-ups, Thackery smartly aims at their wallets, suggesting the Knickerbocker could charge whatever they like for a drug-rehabilitation method. The Knick provides a wealth of nuanced history of early 20th-century medicine and social mores, and in moments like this, Soderbergh, along with writer-creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, envisions the long history of the deeply wrong-headed war on drugs in minuscule but effectively personal terms.
America’s lineage of racism is regarded with equal introspection through the travails of Algernon Edwards (André Holland), who was promoted to interim chief surgeon in Thackery’s absence. Throughout, the series makes clear that society at this time is more accepting of a barely recovered cocaine addict in a position of power than an African-American. It also, in the wake of Edwards being diagnosed with a detached retina, opens up the narrative to an exploration of the advances in the field of optometry during the early 1900s.
Both literally and symbolically, Edwards is going blind, and as we’re introduced to his thought-lost wife, Opal (Zaraah Abrahams), it becomes clear he’s kept much of his indignation about racism at bay for professional reasons. Opal is bracingly frank about America’s race issue, openly suggesting that it’s rude for the Robertson family not to invite and dine with Edwards’s parents at a celebratory feast. As she returns to her husband, much to his initial chagrin, he begins to open up, showing an ease that not even Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) coaxed out of him, a newfound intimacy exemplified in a gorgeous sequence at a Harlem bar and dance club.
The show’s societal concerns and obsessions also stretch toward its female characters, most potently in the storylines involving Cornelia, Lucy (Eve Hewson), and Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), who’s currently looking at a lengthy jail sentence for performing abortions. In one of the season’s most striking shots, Cornelia is told that her husband is taking a long business trip, leaving her in the care of her imposing, threatening father-in-law (Gary Simpson), whose back and shoulder take up most of the screen while Cornelia’s panicked eyes are visibly stuck in the upper-right-hand corner.
If Cornelia is the unwilling victim of rich white men, Lucy finds herself the victim of her own vain, savage preacher father, who’s seen as both thrillingly inspirational and energetic when he’s talking to his congregation and violently abusive when Lucy makes the mistake of confessing to him. Though each arc is tinted by a particular thematic interest (religion, aristocracy, abortion, etc.), each one of these characters comes off as fully fleshed out beyond these incidents, especially in Harriet’s relationship with Tom Clear (Chris Sullivan), the Knickerbocker’s oversized ambulance driver.
This is similarly true of Dr. Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano), who beats a path out of the Knickerbocker as soon as Thackery is reinstated as the head of surgery, more due to his history with Lucy than his drug use. The show’s consistent intrigue remains the collision of the personal and the public, the intimately instinctual and the political, and season two takes a close look at how the aftermath of these conflicts essentially created and engendered criminal enterprises. In a stirring sequence, Cleary uses his knowledge of the high-society women who Harriet helped in a blackmail scheme to pressure the holier-than-thou judge in charge of Harriet’s case. And yet, these same criminal enterprises are what help Thackery keep inventing and retooling surgical methodology, as well as medicinal breakthroughs.
The surgeon, what with his spaced-out ambitions, is an obvious reflection of Soderbergh, another seasoned expert looking to push his own boundaries, as well as the establishment. In the series medium, Soderbergh has found a brand new canvas to test out visual ideas and off-kilter storytelling devices, and The Knick’s intoxicating second season proves to be a dazzlingly detailed and vibrantly visual mural of his obsessions, bringing on a sort of imagistic high that would count as the famed filmmaker’s most obvious addiction.