Before “The Knick” scatters its characters to the four winds, Steven Soderbergh offers one last, literal reminder that he thinks outside the box. When coarse ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) seeks counsel from a priest, his feet protrude from the confessional, and though his voice remains as sharp as if he were beside us, Soderbergh replaces the traditional depiction of penance—faint light filtering through the partition, illuminating a face wracked by guilt—with a far more ambiguous one.
Via a series of long, still compositions, venturing into the barren aisles and empty pews, the camera edges toward the opposite end of the cavernous nave, returning to the image of the Irishman’s shoes only when he reaches his reason for being there. In his slightly forlorn brogue, Cleary asks for a prayer that the disgraced Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) accept his hand in marriage: He wants her to be his wife, he explains, “So we ain’t alone anymore.”
If the first season of Cinemax’s sprawling drama developed a new aesthetic for historical fiction, and much of the second deployed this forthright style toward the particulars of the Progressive Era, this sequence, from the Emmy-nominated episode “This Is All We Are,” elucidates yet another layer in Soderbergh’s evocative work of art: the existential.
While “The Knick” was created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, Soderbergh, as the series’ director, cinematographer, and editor, has always been its driving force, enlivening the past by treating it as the characters’ fervent present.
Set in New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital shortly after the dawn of the twentieth century, “The Knick” thrums with noise and careens through space, reimagining the epoch by scuttling the forms with which it’s most often associated—silent cinema, black-and-white photography, the Ashcan school of painting—in favor of a startlingly modern combination of sound, color, and movement. In “This Is All We Are,” though, the crises at hand (of conscience, of confidence) run deeper than the political. Soderbergh’s direction is aimed squarely at the soul.
Though defined by the death of Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), the episode’s uncertain conclusion—with surgeon Algernon Edwards (André Holland) embarking on a career in psychology and philanthropic “New Woman” Cornelia Showalter (Juliet Rylance) fleeing for Australia—in fact hinges on the realignment of personal, not professional, relationships. As Cornelia discovers that her brother, Henry (Charles Aitken), is complicit in the death of their father, for instance, the sequence shifts from her wide, imploring features, eyes watering under the brim of an ornate hat, to the sight of Henry across the room, framed from behind her shoulder as if the camera were a friend in the moments before a fight. Soon, his menacing advance backs her to the top of the staircase, generating a shiver of suspense: Will he give her a final push?
As with the approach to Harriet in the couple’s cramped kitchen, tapping Cleary’s engagement ring on her arm, or the tight close-up of Algernon’s battered face, describing his anger at his, and his father’s, oppression, Soderbergh matches each tremor in the emotional terrain with potent, crystalline images; the shot of Henry’s paramour, Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), ascending the stairs as Cornelia departs is as important to understanding the latter’s shrinking power as her brother’s awful threat. It’s not that the dialogue is superfluous, exactly, but rather that Soderbergh focuses his energies on underlining the meaning, excavating the subtext, rather than simply “covering” it.
Compared to his formidable competition in the race for Outstanding Directing (Drama)—including Miguel Sapochnik (“Game of Thrones,” “Battle of the Bastards”) and Leslie Linka Glatter (“Homeland,” “The Tradition of Hospitality”)—Soderbergh scarcely wastes a single frame. Each composition is a distinct thought, or perhaps an argument, strung together into a cogent whole.
“A high-wire walker is only fun to watch if there’s no net below him to save him from disasters,” Thackery proclaims in “This Is All We Are,” and by the time Cornelia watches the New York skyline recede, it’s clear that Soderbergh’s direction of “The Knick” is indeed a tightrope act, most beautiful in its risks. To wit, after the blurry, gruesome images of Thackery’s fatal self-surgery, after surgeon Bertie Chickering (Michael Angarano) attempts to revive his mentor with an injection of adrenaline, Soderbergh captures another series of reverent images, this time from inside the Knick.
At the conclusion of an hour that sees the ensemble shatter into its constituent parts, the characters flung in new directions, the montage recalls the desolate site of Cleary’s plea, or the silence surrounding Thackery’s somber narration of his own demise. As the face of his one true love flashes before his eyes, the arrogant genius learns what the lowly ambulance driver knows instinctively: “This is it,” Thackery says. “This is all we are.”
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