Steven Soderbergh’s cinematically shot hospital show The Knick makes you glad you weren’t alive and in need of medical care during the early 20th century. The surgeons operating at New York City’s cash-strapped Knickerbocker Hospital perform primitive, often experimental procedures in less-than-sanitary conditions on mostly penniless patients. They go under the knife of a genius, drug-addled doc, a brilliant black surgeon doing his best work in a dirty basement, and a naïve nurse willing to shoot cocaine into a surgeon’s penis to get him up for an emergency. Scrub in for our restorative overview ahead of the Friday night return of the compelling Cinemax drama.
There’s a visionary junkie surgeon …
Calling the shots in the Knick house of horrors is chief surgeon and mad scientist John “Thack” Thackery, the hospital’s resident cocaine (and opium) addict. Thack got hooked on the legal anesthetic by following in the footsteps of his mentor, Dr. Christiansen, who blew his brains out after his 12th straight C-section went south. Thack, however, is on a roll: He finds a remedy for the C-section problem with help from his devoted underling Dr. Bertram “Bertie” Chickering Jr; grafts skin from his ex-lover’s arm onto her syphilitic nose; performs an emergency tracheotomy on his opium dealer, Ping Wu; and cures a young typhoid patient. Unfortunately, his drug-induced rivalry with Mt. Sinai’s Dr. Zinberg to be the first to successfully transfuse blood kills a patient.
Where we left Thackery: When Thack sends Bertie to spy on Dr. Zinberg (whom he has a one-sided rivalry with), he realizes Thack’s transfusion theories are wrong and that he’s an addict. With his doctor-father’s help, Bertie gets Thack into a sanitarium, where his cocaine addiction is treated with a new drug — heroin!
… and an innovative doc dealing with discrimination.
Harvard-educated, European-trained Dr. Algernon “Algie” Edwards is so unwelcome at the Knick, Thack has to be blackmailed into hiring the African-American as his deputy by shipping magnate Captain August Robertson, the hospital’s patron. Thack’s surgical staff — Dr. Everett Gallinger, who was in line for Algie’s job, and Bertie — steal a copy of the French journal with the aneurysm procedure co-authored by Algie just so they don’t have to include him in a surgery. Gallinger’s wife Eleanor can’t handle the translation, so they reluctantly let Algie talk them through the operation. When Algie filibusters, Gallinger lets him take over — and gets into a fistfight with him when he’s done. (“Next time, kick the man instead,” Thack advises, because surgeons need their hands to operate.)
The hospital doesn’t treat black people, so Algie, whose parents work as cook and chauffeur to benefactor Robertson, secretly opens a basement clinic, using his salary to cover equipment. When Thack discovers the clandestine operation, he’s ready to boot Algie … until he discovers that he’s actually a kindred spirit! Algie’s improved a blood-suction machine and perfected a hernia operation.
Where we left Algernon: As a result of exposure to rat bites, Gallinger’s baby dies, and Eleanor has a breakdown, leading to her accidentally drowning another baby. After she’s committed and treated by a quack whose innovative cure is to extract all her teeth, Gallinger takes his anger out on Algie, punching him out, and the hospital cuts Gallinger loose. Now Algie is large and in charge, and by the looks of this season-two teaser, he has his eyes on the chief of surgery gig.
Smart women are sold short …
Not a lady who lunches, Cornelia “Neely” Robertson runs the Knick’s social-welfare office and is her father’s proxy. Still, she’s expected to give up the job she loves and is good at — having helped a health inspector track down the origin of the city’s typhoid outbreak — to marry her fiancé, Phillip Showalter, the son of a rubber baron. After her childhood friendship with Algie goes beyond what’s acceptable in polite society, she gets knocked up. Algie can’t go through with a D&C, so Neely winds up in the capable hands of Sister Harriet, the hospital midwife who runs an orphanage — and is a secret abortionist.
West Virginian nurse Lucy Elkins is a bike-riding preacher’s daughter — and the one who gave Thack that penis shot. Later she’ll explain the value of skin grafts, inspiring him to operate on the typhoid patient he’d deemed hopeless. It’s also her quick thinking that saves Algie and black patients during a race riot. Eventually her relationship with Thack becomes a folie à deux, with her procuring his drugs — letting Wu, the opium dealer with a foot fetish, give her a “golden lotus” (a sex act in which one puts a foot in his/her lover’s mouth), and stealing another hospital’s cocaine.
Where we left them: Neely is now Mrs. Showalter, and off to San Francisco with Phillip. Lucy is left loverless in NYC. (Meanwhile, Bertie is totally bummed: His idol is a madman, and his infatuation with Lucy was one-sided.)
… while devious staffers run sick scams.
Slick hospital administrator Herman Barrow has his hands in the pockets of everyone doing business at the Knick, but still owes mobster Bunky Collier nine grand. That’s because he embezzled from the hospital to cover a hot stock tip that didn’t pan out. He wants Wu, who owes Thack for that life-saving tracheotomy, to repay the debt by killing Collier. But he doesn’t plan on Wu picking up Collier’s I.O.U. after killing him — Wu, knowing he wasn’t really doing a favor for Thack, is now after Barrow for that nine grand.
Meanwhile, Barrow forks over cash to brutish ambulance driver Tom Cleary — who’s also never met a moneymaking scheme he didn’t like — for every patient brought to the Knick, because he gets a city kickback. The two men compete for corpses, also at a premium for research. When Cleary discovers Sister Harriet’s secretly doing abortions, he blackmails her into business with him, and gets a wad of dough from Neely after taking her to the nun in his carriage.
Where we left them: Barrow’s now beholden to Wu, and Cleary and Sister Harriet are closer than ever.