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The Knick Review: Combining Tasteful Period Drama with Medical Gore

Elizabeth Harper | 8 Aug 2014 23:15
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The episode opens on Thackery in a Chinatown drug den, where he's woken by a nude woman -- the first sign that we're watching Cinemax -- with a limited grasp of English. Looking rather disheveled, he heads out to work, catching a cab (horse-drawn, of course) to The Knickerbocker. And here's where we get our first glimpse of Thackery's acerbic personality: he directs the cab driver to take a longer route, and dresses him down when he suggests a shorter path. (He has his reasons: when the cab is delayed by stopping for a trolley, he takes the moment of stillness to give himself an injection of cocaine.)

Throughout this -- and the entire episode -- the music drives the show forward. There's no elegant orchestral arrangements that you might expect from a period piece, but instead modern sounds with heavy beats that serve as the pulsing heart of the show -- growing louder and softer, speeding up and slowing down as tension waxes and wanes. The slightly unsteady camerawork -- not to the motion-sickness inducing levels of The Blair Witch Project, but notably unstable -- contributes to the effect, too. Nothing in this show is stable -- not even the cameras -- and it gives the series a sense of nervous unease before the actors speak a single line. As much as anything else, this sets the tone of the show to follow.

This opening provides an efficient introduction to the character, who arrives at the hospital and dives straight into surgery, where he and Chief of Surgery Dr. J.M. Christenson are performing a caesarean section. It's a procedure which they've tried and failed to perfect to the tune of 11 dead patients -- this woman will be #12. They explain the procedure to an audience of men seated above the operating theater, with Christenson stating he believes they've mastered the speed necessary to successfully perform the operation.

After they make a cut into the woman's abdomen, they continue to narrate, though it sounds increasingly harried as they rush to remove the baby and stitch up the mother before she bleeds to death. And there is a lot of blood that pours from the incision they've made, all the more notable due to the pristine white of the room and the robes the surgical staff are wearing. By the end of the scene, the woman, the floor, the doctors, the nurses, are all bloodied... and both mother and baby have died during the procedure.

Thackery insists that the procedure failed, not any of the doctors, but Christenson copes poorly with losing yet another patient -- and returns to his office to shoot himself. This allows Thackery the opportunity to deliver a rather self-aggrandizing eulogy which seems to sum up his medical philosophy: "We now live in a time of endless possibility. More has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous five hundred... I will not stop pushing forward into a hopeful future, and with every blow I land, every extra year I give to a patient, I will remember my fallen friend."

Though Thackery clearly thinks highly of Christenson, who's set up as a mentor of sorts to him, he's not exactly a people person. He chastises a nurse for changing a dressing improperly by telling her to go home to Kentucky where she can treat illnesses with moonshine. When a black man applies for work with the hospital, Thackery tells him off by saying "You can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you." Like Sherlock Holmes and Gregory House, Thackery is an unpleasant man with few social graces who is tolerated because of his genius.

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