Racism and Medicine, Soderbergh Style
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
I arrived a little late to The Knick party, but having caught up with the first four episodes, this is a fine entry to Cinemax and the prestige drama circle in general. Steven Soderbergh, who had announced his retirement from the film industry (hopefully that’ll change) comes to the HBO sister channel to direct the ten-episode sojourn of New York City medicine in 1900. It’s a phenomenal debut season so far and considering how Emmys love film directors who come to television, Soderbergh could very well be looking at Emmy love. The Knick ultimately is about the torturous beginnings of modern-day medicine at the beginning of the twentieth century and it does not back down from any of the horrors from the era. There’s gore, corruption, lack of hygiene, plenty of racism, and what seem to be the most uncomfortable medical procedures in the history of television. If you’re familiar with The Hostile Hospital from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, operation theaters are all too real in this world and it’s even more uncomfortable than you could imagine.
The pilot largely serves to draw us into the world of 1900 New York and if there’s one sense I’m getting from all of the period dramas on television right now (Game of Thrones’s medieval universe, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, Boardwalk Empire, and The Knick for example), it’s that there really isn’t much truth to “the good ole days”. There isn’t even working electricity in the hospital until the end of the pilot. The hospital itself is drawing in patients in a sort of mobster game. Men pick up bodies from wherever they can, selling them to hospitals to make a quick buck themselves. It’s a grim world of muck, dirt, and medical terror where liquid cocaine is substituted for anesthesia. Method and Madness does an admirable job of establishing the world and drawing us in.
The performances are fantastic. Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery, chief surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital (after his colleague’s suicide), is a brilliant surgeon. He’s also a misogynistic, racist asshole who is completely unapologetic for any of his behavior. Clive never allows the audience to wallow without his character’s pure nastiness and it’s a riveting performance. In the vein of House and Nurse Jackie, Dr. Thackery is also hooked on drugs, even asking Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) to inject him in his penis. She obliges, although I’m sure she wasn’t ecstatic and Eve plays that scene like a pro. Matt Frewer makes a brief but solid appearance as Dr. J. M. Christiansen. Dr. Christiansen has never failed at a surgery but C-sections in this day and age were notoriously difficult. A placenta praevia surgery follows, but the surgery is a botch. He shoots himself in his office in a shocking moment. André Holland is perfect as Dr. Algernon Edwards, a qualified doctor and a graduate of Harvard University who is sneered at and berated simply because he is black. André’s performance is extraordinary, his facial expressions perfectly imbuing the realization of how good he is at what he does and how something that was utterly beyond his control is holding him back. Juliet Rylance portrays Cornelia Robertson, the hospital’s benefactor after her father’s death. She is one of the few sympathetic characters on display who does the right thing for the hospital. Her father and she had found Dr. Edwards qualified for the position, his race be damned. When Dr. Thackery dismisses Dr. Edwards in one of the most horrifying racially charged speeches I’ve ever heard on television, Juliet doesn’t back down from playing dirty. She had an ace card with funding for electricity and the hospital benefactor isn’t afraid to use it. Jeremy Bobb, Michael Angarano, Chris Sullivan, Cara Seymour, Eric Johnson, and David Fierro round out the talented cast.
Steven Soderbergh’s direction is very angular and sharp, reminding me significantly of his work on the stellar thriller Side Effects and the virus drama Contagion. The way he frames the surgical shots especially are stark, echoing an uncomfortable sentiment of the theatricality of the medicine. The lighting and framing of Dr. Thackery when he first meets Dr. Edwards is my favorite direction moment of the episode. He sees his fellow doctor’s darker skin color as a mark of inferiority but in that moment it is he who is swallowed by the dark and Dr. Edwards is the one who is bringing in the light. Cliff Martinez (Soderbegh’s long-time, frequent companion composer) gives an excellent, modern score that’s evocative of Contagion. The score often works as a suspense piece, but can from time to time become a bit distracting.
The plot is pretty simple, considering Method and Madness is a pilot. Outside of the character introductions and world-building, the large portion of the episode belongs to Dr. Thackery and Dr. Edwards (the latter whom is retained in exchange for the electricity that is installed at the end of the hour). Dr. Thackery’s blatant racism is offensive and most people watching the show will wonder how on earth anyone could be so racist and so damn unapologetic about it. Yet if one looks around the world today, that aspect of society hasn’t changed very much at all. In 1900, the racism was perhaps more open, but the way Dr. Thackery looks at Dr. Edwards isn’t that far different from how some people these days look at their fellow human beings. The lack of apology for the putting down of a black doctor simply for being black, despite his qualifications, is echoed in so many segments of society today it’s tragic. Modern medicine certainly has advanced exceptionally in over a hundred years, but society unfortunately has not.
Episode Title: Method and Madness
Writer: Jack Amiel & Michael Begler
Director: Steven Soderbergh
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