With the conclusion of its sophomore season, “This Is All We Are,” Cinemax’s “The Knick”—one of the best shows on television, and certainly one of the most searingly beautiful—comes to the verge of breaking apart. Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is dead by his own, arrogant hand; colleagues Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) and Algernon Edwards (André Holland) dabble, respectively, in eugenics and dreams; Cornelia Showalter (Juliet Rylance) leaves New York for now, or perhaps forever; Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) marries up, Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb) divorces down, and Harriet (Cara Seymour) and Tom (Chris Sullivan) settle in together. Only the sweet, sincere Bertie Chickering (the terrific Michael Angarano) remains more or less steady, though he’s just lost his mother and his mentor in quick succession.
Where does “The Knick” go from here?
I admit, after seeing the season finale, I wondered if the series should, or even could, continue at all. Not because of the loss of lead actor Clive Owen—as I wrote just last month, Thack’s “tortured genius” act was the one element of “The Knick” that always seemed to be purloined from another, lesser series—but because of the loss of Soderbergh himself. As director, cinematographer, and editor, Soderbergh has been the pulsing lifeblood of the series (with an assist from composer Cliff Martinez), and it’s hard to imagine “The Knick” without the modern, industrial jostle of his aesthetic, which enlivens historical fiction as never before.
After the filmmaker’s revealing, must-read conversation with The Playlist’s Rodrigo Perez, however, my faith—and my interest—have been restored. As Soderbergh says in the interview, “I told them that I’m going to do the first two years and then we are going to break out the story for seasons 3 and 4 and try and find a filmmaker or filmmakers to do this the way that I did. This is how we want to do this so that every two years, whoever comes on, has the freedom to create their universe… They don’t have to shoot it the way I shoot it. They don’t have to score it the way I score it. They don’t have to cast who I’ve cast. They have maximum freedom to come in and just go, ‘I want to wipe the slate clean.'”
If the auteurist form of TV pioneered by “The Knick” and a handful of other series weren’t radical enough, the possibilities raised by Soderbergh’s plan—dependent on Cinemax’s approval, of course—are wild indeed. “The Knick” would become, in this telling, an anthology series, offering a single filmmaker’s vision of its universe, however defined, every two years. As co-writer and co-showrunner Jack Amiel told The Hollywood Reporter, psychology and social Darwinism alike are potential points of focus for the “The Knick” going forward: “Steven [Soderbergh] always says the hospital show is the most durable format in television, and that’s true.”
Though we won’t know for some time what path “The Knick” takes—it may be 2017 before we see a third season, if Cinemax ultimately decides to renew the series—the fragmented season finale in fact suggests several options, including a panoramic, global epic of the Progressive Era. Might we follow the intrepid Cornelia to Australia, and do so in the hands of a female filmmaker? Sofia Coppola’s already done period pieces (“The Virgin Suicides,” “Marie Antoinette”) with a postmodern punk edge not dissimilar from “The Knick,” and Aussie native Gillian Armstrong (“My Brilliant Career,” “Oscar and Lucinda”) has a strong grip on the landscape. Might we see the birth of psychoanalysis through Algernon’s eyes, guided by Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) or John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”)?
Though I’d wager, if pressed on the issue, that Amiel and colleague Michael Begler approach this embarrassment of narrative riches with a time jump that finds everyone back in New York, fortune favors the bold, and I hope the new version of “The Knick” is even more strange and free-spirited than the original. Indeed, there’s at least one fan of “The Knick” with the cinematic expertise to shift the series’ focus from the blood to the nerves without losing its dynamism. “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Crimson Peak” filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has shown a knack for channeling tumultuous places and times (Victorian England, Franco’s Spain) into sumptuous psychological horror, and he says he loves “The Knick” “desperately.”
Are you listening, Mr. Soderbergh?