Given its home on out-of-the way Cinemax, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick” was always going to be a slow builder, especially since it took time for the virtues of Soderbergh’s direction (as well as his pseudonymous cinematography and editing) to win out over Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s often formulaic writing. (TV shows are usually identified with their showrunners, but there’s little doubt whose hand is on the tiller here.) But after last week’s tour de force episode, “Get the Rope,” which built to a riff on a real-life race riot, it’s hard to deny that Soderbergh is doing what Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz called “next-level work.” Seitz, who has given special attention to the role directors play in the process, goes so far as to call it “the greatest sustained display of directorial virtuosity in the history of American TV.”
Not everyone was sold on “The Knick” at first. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum was a notable dissenter, finding that its first seven episodes “promise something powerful [but] devolve into something far simpler: a Great Man tale, studded with lurid thrills.” But after seeing the last three episodes of the season, a home stretch that begins tonight, Nussbaum has reversed herself. “I Changed My Mind About ‘The Knick'” reads the headline — an admission as commendable as it is rare. Instead of a riff on the premium-cable antihero, Nussbaum writes, she found Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackeray becoming more of an “arrogant junkie,” his medical brilliance outweighed or at least threatened by his dependence on injection liquid cocaine — a matter brought to a head when the Philippine-American War cuts off the shipping trade.
“What’s more,” Nussbaum says:
I realized that I’d misjudged the show’s politics: the series is much grimmer than I’d understood, less preachy and more legitimately nihilistic about the circumstances surrounding scientific and social progress. In a few plots, “The Knick””is so spooky that it’s practically a horror show, verging into Ryan Murphy territory. I’m still not thrilled with the Oriental brothel scenes, or with Juliet Rylance’s stagey performance as Cornelia; I’m bored by the mobsters. But the surgical battles scared and excited me, and while I know that the scenes of gore have been off-putting for many viewers, I began to get into their ugly aggression, as well as Soderbergh’s vision of the body itself as a war zone. I fell in love with the season’s final shot. I would never apologize for a negative review, and I can’t go back in time, but I can add an addendum: a few weeks later, I no longer agree with myself. So if you were swayed by my earlier review… well, you might consider reconsidering.
I’ve seen the full season as well, and there are some moments in the last three episodes that give me pause: the wink-wink casting of John Hodgman in a pivotal role, the ongoing Bowery Boys caricature of Danny Hoch’s would-be menacing loan shark, and the final scene, which injects the kind of knowing historical perspective “The Knick” does best when it implies rather than leans on. (I won’t say more, except that it suggests Cliff Martinez’s eerie electronic score give way to a sad trombone.) But while “The Knick” seems almost adamantly resistant to taking on larger themes beyond the suggestion that 1900 was a really horrifying time to be sick or injured, it’s fabulously immersive, a weekly time machine that makes you grateful you live in a more enlightened time — and wondering what people a century hence will think of our present savagery.