"We now live in a time of endless possibility." —Dr. John Thackery
John Thackery, respected doctor at New York City's Knickerbocker hospital circa 1900, is fond of referring to his workplace as "my circus." The possessive is telling. In case there was any doubt that The Knick will be a Clive Owen highlight reel, the actor spends the 60 minutes of the Cinemax show's premiere establishing his flawed, compelling character with jarring, bloody strokes. The show is an exploration of the depth of Thackery's addictions—to success, medical advancement, and cocaine—as rendered in startlingly original fashion by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh and composer Cliff Martinez, who laces the adventure with a driving '80s-throwback electro-funk score.
We open on a naked Asian prostitute waking the doctor from his chemical haze in a Chinatown brothel/drug den. Naturally, he heads straight for the hospital. There’s a surgery to be done—an experimental one, a Caesarean section. Thackery performs the operation alongside his chief of surgery and mentor Jules M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer). After both mother and child die, Christiansen tells the observation room, "I hope, if nothing else, this has been instructive for you all." It was, we learn, his 13th failed attempt at a C-section. Christiansen's solemn, tremulous voice echoes coldly off the hard surfaces of the stark surgical theater, punctuated by the hushed murmurs of his colleagues, the pinging of metal tools being gathered, and the clacking of instrument-table wheels on concrete floors making way for his enormous despondency. Moments later, Christiansen shoots himself in the head.
And we’re off.
Though Thackery is the ringmaster of his circus, standing as he often does on the operating floor under the bright lights of his teaching hospital’s observation room, it’s the freaks and misfits in his circus that bring the spectacle to life. The Knick, is occupied by characters including smarmy hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), who growls at Thackery for not cooperating with hospital benefactors; Thackery team surgeon Dr. Bertie Chickering, Jr. (Michael Angarano), who's looking for love and enlightenment; nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), who is timid while also ballsy; world-wise nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), who is quite possibly the world's sassiest nun and runs the orphanage attached to the hospital; health department inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro), who demands a finder's fee for referring patients; and crude Irish ambulance driver, Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), who takes kickbacks for acquiring patients—by any means necessary—for the Knick.
But it’s with the mid-episode introduction of Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), an impressive Harvard-trained physician who also happens to be black, that the circus’s high-wire act starts to really take shape. The hospital's benefactor and resident social activist, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), lobbies for Edwards to become the new deputy chief of surgery. Thackery, who believes his finger to be placed firmly on the pulse of the average, racist American hospital patron, has little interest in integrating his circus. Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), the leading in-house candidate for the deputy chief role, has little interest in being blocked from the job he’s been chasing. And Edwards, a man possessed of dignity, and qualifications, and intellect (but mostly dignity), has little interest in not being wanted.
The tension comes to a head at the exact moment that a patient, one arguably mistreated during a previous operation by Dr. Gallinger, is found to be suffering from potentially fatal post-surgery septicemia. The men set their differences as far aside as can be managed in the interest of performing their doctorly duties, which brings viewers to the episode-ending main attraction: a complicated surgery, conducted under the heat of the teaching theater. It’s here that Thackery, at the peak of his powers thanks to a recent injection of cocaine into his penis (just watch the show), shoots the same drug into the spine of his patient so that it will numb his body, allowing him to remain conscious during the operation.
It’s a highly risky maneuver. It works. Of course it does.
After seeing the mad doctor at work, Edwards refuses to resign, saying "I'm not leaving this circus until I learn everything you have to teach.”
He might as well be speaking for the viewers.