“A servant doesn’t talk back to his master,” a loan shark tells a debtor in the early-20th-century period drama The Knick, which is far and away the best thing Cinemax has ever produced. It’s just a throwaway line, but it comes close to summing up this series from creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, who directed every episode. The Knick is not merely set in the past; it’s a statement about the past, and a warning about how the past can reclaim the present if we’re not careful. Servants and masters (literal and figurative) are everywhere. Power dynamics are in the foreground of each scene.
The show’s title is a nickname for New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital, where Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), a cocaine addict and casual racist, has just been installed as chief of surgery following a sudden staff upheaval. John butts heads with Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), who runs the for-profit hospital on behalf of her social-reform-minded new-money dad, as well as with pretty much everyone else on staff, including Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), an African-American surgeon with European hospital experience who’s been made the deputy chief of surgery, against John’s wishes, as a precondition of getting the place wired for electricity. As on all hospital shows, the building serves as a crossroads for the city and becomes a microcosm of the larger society, a petri dish in which social malaise can be treated and reforms incubated. Representatives of every class, race, and ethnicity pass through the Knick’s doors at one point or another, and the world’s issues are given an old-fashioned dramatic (often melodramatic) workout. Not since Deadwood has a period-drama production designed to a fare-thee-well and steeped in nasty atmosphere been so politically astute about who has power over whom and why—although the subtler brand of gallows humor and Soderbergh’s fondness for intricately choreographed long takes aligns The Knick with a different TV classic that Deadwood creator David Milch worked on, Hill Street Blues. (The show feels a bit like BBC America’s Copper, right down to the black doctor, but it’s set nearly 40 years ahead on the American time line and is artistically superior in every way.)
Whether it’s women trying to mine a bit of autonomy from the margins of a male-dominated society or newly arrived European immigrants struggling with whether to assimilate or wall themselves off from Wasp culture or African-Americans less than a half-century away from slavery fighting to define themselves, every scene admits that, to quote the song, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. TV dramas set in the modern era rarely examine this stuff in such a head-on way, urging viewers to draw inferences about power relationships simply by how they arrange the material, yet always keeping the scene’s meanings fluid and open-ended, so that one can never accuse the writers of making a single, simplistic point about history and congratulating themselves on their supposed cleverness.
Consider a playful bit of crosscutting in the opening of episode two. The sequence juxtaposes Cornelia’s wake-up routine (servant girl opening her bedroom curtains, cooks and maids serving her and her father and mother breakfast) with that of Algernon, who rents a room in a seedy boardinghouse with a shared bathroom. As Cornelia enjoys her leisurely morning meal and discusses hospital business with her pop, Algernon inches along in a line with other boarders, all of them black and male. The juxtaposition has a simple message that we grasp right away, but within seconds the scene has morphed and is making a series of increasingly sophisticated points. Cornelia’s father’s condescension toward her reminds us that, for all her monetary privilege, she cannot entirely escape the paternalism at the heart of her daily life. Back at the boardinghouse, a tall African-American menaces Algernon, demanding to know how a black man acquired such fancy shoes. “Paris,” Algernon replies, then adds—unnecessarily and surely out of resentment—“France.” “Nigger, I know where Paris is,” the man growls. Algernon barely has two dimes to rub together, but to this bully in the restroom line, he’s a rich brat putting on airs, and Algernon’s reaction to him isn’t drastically different from the way that certain whites on the hospital staff look at him: as if he’s an interloping nuisance at best, a threat at worst. (The confrontation over the shoes has one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve seen in quite some time, and its final shot is truly badass.)
Lest you go into The Knick steeling yourself for a glorified homework assignment, it should be said that at no point is the show concerned solely with the political dimensions of its characters—such matters grow organically from the predicaments they find themselves in. And its one-damn-thing-after-another plotting keeps moving all the major players relentlessly forward, so that you’re always learning new things about them—little revelations that add new wrinkles to their personalities while jibing with what we already knew or suspected. John’s volcanic dourness, which is complicated by flashbacks to his friendship with his mentor (Matt Frewer), is deepened further when an ex-lover arrives, asking help in treating a hideous disease; but John never seems soft or “sensitive,” because The Knick shows how committed he is to his racist attitudes, favoring a mediocre white doctor, Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), over Algernon even when his bigotry is causing an almost farcically ridiculous level of harm to the hospital. The chain-smoking nun Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour) and a looming loudmouth ambulance driver named Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) spar verbally when the nun is on smoke breaks, but what seems a somewhat typical (if hilarious) rivalry turns troubling as the show goes on, as a direct result of Cleary learning that Sister Harriet has a secret life of sorts—one that’s a natural outgrowth of the power inequities the show illustrates so deftly.
The Knick is the rare series that works through its themes in visual as well as literary terms. The arrival of electricity at the hospital acquires great significance as the show goes on; it signifies the point at which one century formally passed on and another replaced it, but the technological changeover is hampered by incompetence (patients dying during operations, nurses getting shocked), by graft (the Tammany Hall kickback culture shortchanged the electricians), and by individual resentments (John vents his mounting fury on a fuse box, plunging an entire hospital wing into darkness). Soderbergh’s direction makes maximum rhetorical use of darkness and light, staging clandestine activities and the lives of poor people in grottolike interiors and favoring the rich with allover illumination. The Knick treats the politically progressive instinct as a humanistic light source, guiding previously marginalized people out of the gloom, and implicitly warns that without eternal vigilance, we could easily return to the dark days. When Algernon, effectively shut out of the daily life of the hospital, opens a secret clinic for the indigent in the basement, the episode cuts between his dungeonesque facilities and the brightly lit and enormous operating theater where the white surgeons and nurses work. At one point, Algernon blocks a window on the door leading to the secret clinic with the front page of a newspaper. It’s The Sun.
The Knick: Cinemax, Fridays, 10 p.m.
*This article appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.