New York City at the turn of the century. In Knickerbocker Hospital, a medical theater oversees the formalities of anatomical procedure, documenting knowledge and progress as abstraction while the stakes are life and death and the stage is doused with blood. The “Chorus” of the scene is J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), whose confidence as teacher and ceremonial master is reassuring enough, yet he retains muted human warmth, smiling at the patient, a pregnant woman whose child is being strangled by her placenta, when she begs him to save her baby. Minutes later, mother and child are dead. The only consolation is reverting to formality, as the head surgeon struggles with his composure and says, “It seems we are still lacking. I hope, if nothing else, this has been instructive for you all.” “Backstage,” Christiansen’s colleague and protégé John Thackery aka “Thack” (Clive Owen) tells his gloomy mentor, “The procedure failed. You didn’t.” Christiansen accepts the friendly gesture, which Thack has padded with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part III (“And many strokes, though with a little axe, hew down and fell the hardest timber’d oak”), retreats to his private quarters, delicately lays a white sheet on a loveseat, says “Fuck it all” and shoots himself in the head.
The defeated march to death is spread on top of Cliff Martinez’ anachronistic electronic drones, the score conjoining the jarring and decisive moment of suicide to a closed casket decorated with flowers. Thackery, now Christiansen’s replacement, gives a church eulogy that becomes an impassioned manifesto, addressing God as an antagonist while men of science tirelessly will work to unriddle the maze of mortality. Thack will advance surgical instruments and techniques, struggling to satisfy the demands of hospital backers and the corporate hierarchy, with ramifications extending outside the hospital walls and touching the city’s government bureaucracy, bullying ambulance men, local religious parishes, and activism for social progress. He also, thanks to Christiansen’s tutelage, has a bugger of a drug addiction. It’s his burden and his elixir, the chemical supplication enabling him to function for ungodly hours.
This is The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s 10-part Cinemax series created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, launched into production after the filmmaker’s retirement double-feature of Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra. Unlike other acclaimed movie directors leaping into the business of TV by directing a pilot and then surrendering much of the control to the writing staff—think Martin Scorsese and Boardwalk Empire or David Fincher and House of Cards—Soderbergh, like Cary Fukunaga and True Detective last year, directed the entire series (in addition to photographing and editing it), and the formal flourishes are hugely affecting from the first shot: Thack’s POV on his untied white shoes in a Chinatown opium den and brothel, a loosely robed prostitute hovering in the hazy corner as the perspective tries to find focus. It’s a new world, not just in regards to setting, but tone.