As she picks at her food in her parents’ New York dining room near the end of the Gilded Age, the camera closes in on Cornelia Showalter (Juliet Rylance) as if to impart a secret. Reeling from the news that her onetime lover, Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), is married, her downcast eyes are at the center of the image, but another, expressly political narrative is afoot just beyond the frame.
“What the [Eiffel] Tower shows to me is progress, that even the impossible is possible,” proclaims Cornelia’s father, shipping magnate August Robertson (Grainger Hines).
“I certainly benefitted from your progressive thinking,” replies Edwards, the lone black surgeon at Robertson’s Knickerbocker Hospital.
“If that’s the case, then why are [Algernon’s] parents not invited to this lunch?” Edwards’ wife, Opal (Zaraah Abrahams), asks pointedly, as the scene finally cuts away from Cornelia’s face. “I suppose we have different definitions of the term ‘progressive.'”
Stitching together precise characterization and a canny, complex understanding of Progressive Era politics, the moment—from this season’s crackling fourth episode, “Wonderful Surprises,” written by series creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed, shot, and edited by Steven Soderbergh—marks the transformation of “The Knick” (Cinemax) into a timely political drama, despite being set at the turn of the 20th century. Its once-schematic constellation of ideologies now layered into its human fabric, the series has become a provocative treatment of conviction and compromise in an age much like our own.
“The Knick” still bristles with formal coups, of course, as Soderbergh and composer Cliff Martinez plunge the viewer into history’s whirlpool rather than treat it with retrospect’s kid gloves. Even beyond the bloody viscera of the operating theater—faces in flames, crania pried open like milk cartons—the series’ aesthetic daring is unparalleled, with the possible exception of NBC’s now-cancelled “Hannibal.” The silhouette of surgeon Bertie Chickering (the winsome Michael Angarano, in one of the year’s best performances) whispers his risky plan to treat his mother’s cancer; later, during a conversation between corrupt hospital manager Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) and underworld figure Ping Wu (Perry Yung), the camera holds firm on a stack of bills as they’re piled, fanned, counted, and ticked off on the gangster’s abacus. In “The Knick,” no image appears out of place, no frame registers as an attempt at simply “covering” pages in the script. It is, without exaggeration, impeccable.
To this, writers Amiel, Begler, and Steven Katz have added an array of increasingly rich subplots, moving away from the flat-footed anti-heroics of the first season and toward a kaleidoscopic historical melodrama; the series’ sketch of the limits of Progressivism is now rooted in the characters’ particular personal histories, and not just a middling gloss on a good textbook. As Opal’s comment over luncheon suggests, the Progressive Era witnessed the rise of eugenics and the birth control movement, Black Nationalism and respectability politics, the demand for women’s suffrage and the push for Prohibition, often in startling combinations—combinations that would be alien to us were our own political moment not full of such strange bedfellows.
Soon after the malpractice suffered by his wife at the hands of a quack psychotherapist (John Hodgman), for instance, surgeon Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) sterilizes immigrant boys at the “idiot house”; Cornelia’s investigation of a health inspector’s death implicates her “progressive” father in corruption, murder, and an outbreak of plague; the high-minded benefactors of the Knick attend a charity ball with a minstrel show. (It’s telling, I think, that I’ve yet to mention the Knick’s chief surgeon, John Thackery, played by Clive Owen: his damaged-genius narrative is still mostly spinning its wheels, the exception that proves the rule.)
At a time in which race, immigration, and reproductive rights are once again at the center of the national discourse, thanks to craven fear mongering and vast disparities of wealth that would be all too familiar to the New Yorkers of “The Knick,” the series offers a forceful condemnation of the rhetorical excesses—whether, in 1901, the language of “Dagoes,” “coons,” and “whores,” or, in 2015, of Mexican “rapists,” “rabid dog” refugees, and “baby parts“—from which inhuman actions are born.
Yet “The Knick” is also at pains to suggest that no ideological position is above the use of unsavory means to reach desirable ends, employing this season’s most engaging characters to make us complicit in tactics we might otherwise abhor. I winced at Barrow’s slimy dealings with Tammany Hall, for example, but cheered when Cornelia and Cleary (Chris Sullivan), an Irish ambulance driver, turned to blackmail and bribery to free Harriet (Cara Seymour), a nun imprisoned for providing abortion services—not only because of my views on the subject, but also because Cleary and Harriet’s funny, tender friendship has blossomed into one of the series’ main delights. “The Knick” lets no one off easy, least of all its audience.
Approaching with new vigor both the possibilities of the Progressive Era and its most dangerous limitations—and, by analogy, those of our own age, mixing technological revolution and ideological revanchism—the series emerges as a form of aesthetic and narrative immersion in the contingent choices from which history is made.
Indeed, in “The Knick,” which positions even sweet Bertie at the center of the season’s most satisfying subplot and its most wrenching tragedy, this profound skepticism of the intended outcome, much less the inevitable one, results in historical fiction with the texture of an artifact: always open to several readings, depending on where you stand. The debate over the meaning of “progressive” in the aptly titled “Wonderful Surprises,” then, is also an argument about the meaning of “progress.” Both are in the eye of beholder, as Algernon reminds Thackery in an upcoming episode. “It’s the future,” he says. “You think it’s here too early, and I think it’s here too late.”
“The Knick” airs Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax.