The Knick has always been a series that boasted a wry and dark sense of humour, which was always necessary to offset the rather grim nature of most of its storylines. But for the season two finale—which may just be doubling up as a series finale, given the nature of how things play out, and low ratings—eschews even those small bursts of levity in favour of what may be one of the bleakest endings you’ll ever see.
It’s an hour in which every decent character—every one with noble intentions—sees their dreams crushed and their lives ruined, while those with ill intent and self-centred, narcissistic tendencies win out. It’s an exercise in crushing misery that may be too much for some, but the mere fact that it’s all so profoundly affecting and upsetting and frustrating is testament to how well drawn these characters are and this world is.
After the fire last week, and a quick chat with husband Phillip (Tom Lipinksi), the penny drops for Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) in regards to brother Henry’s (Charles Aitken) involvement in the schemes she initially pinned on their father. She confronts him (rather foolishly, knowing what she knows), and Henry instantly transforms into a cartoonish serial killer. It is, really, too drastic a departure into moustache-twirling villainy, and while there’s no doubting Aitken is effective, it doesn’t sit well with the general tone of the show.
Again, there’s great choreography between Cornelia and a member of her family, as Henry presses toward her, and Neely backs away; they’re like repelling magnets. And then there’s that shot of the stairs, with the roaring implication that Henry could so easily finish what the fire started with a single push. It’s an extremely tense moment, capped by the nonchalant arrival of Lucy (Eve Hewson), who joins Henry’s side: two monsters—two murderers—that thoroughly deserve one another.
As for poor Cornelia, she’s forced to flee her family, her friends, her country, and her life. “It’s a shame you were born a woman”, Henry tells her. Cornelia spent most of the show’s run trapped; in her body, with men she didn’t want, family she couldn’t trust, and in polite society that she didn’t care about. At least now she’s free, even if she had to lose everything to get there.
Gallinger (Eric Johnson) is another monster that comes out on top, having shacked up with his sister-in-law, physically beaten his work-rival out of a career (more on poor, poor Algie later), and is off to start a new life as The Travelling Prophet of Eugenics—starting in Germany, natch. “As good a place as any, I suppose” Everett says, with a barely contained wink to the history-savvy audience. If this is to be the final episode of The Knick, that Everett Gallinger is smiling the last time we see him will be particularly maddening.
But the most infuriating and upsetting moment of all comes in the devastating twist in the tale of Harry (Cara Seymour) and Cleary (Chris Sullivan). After a bold proposal—with a ring bought with money that wasn’t his to spend—Harry turns him down, and Cleary goes to confession. Except, he doesn’t want to confess. Rather, he wants the priest to say a prayer and magic up a solution. In doing so, Cleary recounts his story, and delivers the most gut-wrenching moment in The Knick’s history: he’s the one that turned Harry in to the police for her abortion clinic, knowing it would force her excommunication from the church and leave her with nobody to rely on but him. He may not see it this way, but Cleary manipulated her, destroyed her life, and built her back up to suit his own needs. God damn it. God damn it.
The scene of “confession” is wonderfully staged, too—shot entirely from outside the confessional, as if to preserve the sanctity of the action, even from the audience. Director Steven Soderbergh relies on Chris Sullivan’s distinctive brogue to recount the story, and it’s maybe for the best we can’t see his face at such a hateful revelation.
Harry and Cleary were meant to be the show’s happy ending. Throughout the run they’ve been the real heart of The Knick, even before they even knew it. If all of the rest of The Knick’s tragedies had come to pass, these two unlikely friends finding each other would’ve been a salve on the wounds. “At least we had Harry and Cleary”, we’d say, amid all the misery.
As it is, the moment we’d all been waiting for—the triumphant, overwhelmingly happy moment when Harry finally admits to herself that she loves him—is tainted in the most sickeningly crushing fashion. Harry steps out wearing the wedding ring, and smiles a warm and long overdue smile. They each giggle. It should be the perfect, joyous climax to one of the show’s best threads. Instead, it’s devastating. She’s trapped with a man that ruined her life in order to get what he wanted, and as far she knows, she’s fallen in love with him naturally. Cleary has—ironically—played God, and Harry doesn’t even know that she’s being controlled.
And yet… they are perfect together. Cleary does love her, even if the way he went about winning her is entirely reprehensible. And she really does care for him, even if she doesn’t realise she’s been manipulated into it. If they live happily ever after now, do the ends justify the means? Ultimately, it’s all predicated on a lie and a betrayal, and it’s just too hard not to view Harry as being as trapped and as much of a victim of outside (male) forces as Cornelia was. Damn you, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. Damn you for one of the most upsetting twists in recent memory. And damn you for using it so well that it doesn’t even feel like a cheat.
At least when it comes to Barrow (Jeremy Robb), who spends the finale under intense scrutiny from a detective convinced he burned down the new hospital, his happy ending is set to be short-lived. Not only does he sign over all power of attorney to his recently freed whore/girlfriend Junia (what could go wrong?!), but during his triumphant moment at the club, having used his new friends and influence to humiliate the detective, it’s revealed that the result of too many x-rays has left Barrow with hands riddled with melanoma. For a while it looked like he might go down for Henry’s crimes—and wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Barrow had fallen for something he didn’t even do?—but being ruined by his manipulative new girl and then dying horribly of cancer is no less than he deserves.
As for Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), he gets arguably the best scene in the episode, when shortly after a nicely scored and sombre montage at Captain Robertson’s viewing/wake, he and his father Jesse have an intense conversation about their lots in life. Algie is wounded, physically and emotionally, and every iota of that shows through on Holland’s face. It’s a phenomenal scene, shot in extreme close-up to highlight the gravity and intimacy of it. And, in Holland’s case, the anger of it.
And then, of course, there’s Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen). Cliff Martinez’ score is energetic, buzzing like an angry wasp as the excitement drums up for Thack’s latest stunt—an ill-advised self-surgery, performed without anaesthetic, in order to prove that ether is dangerous to use after Abby’s tragic accident. Thack gees himself up backstage like a performer, glancing longingly at the phone he once used to call Abby on to bring himself back from the brink.
But Abby is gone, and so Thack doses himself up with cocaine, giving us a last look at Owen in hyper-manic Thack mode, as he speaks very much like a ringmaster when he steps out into the theatre. The show has long used the analogy of the Knickerbocker being a circus, but perhaps never more explicitly.
The following sequence is dynamite from start to finish. It’s also ghastly and difficult to watch, and electrifying and exhilarating, with Owen superb throughout, from the hyperactive opening to the slow realisation that this is one medical feat too far, and that it’s cost him his life. You have to wonder if this wasn’t what Thackery wanted—a way out, one last trick, one last show. Having failed to cure addiction, and without his beloved Abby, what does he have to live for? Go out with a bang. John Thackery—ever the showman!
For a moment, though, it looks as if he may earn a reprieve. Bertie runs to get the adrenaline, and it’s stupendously thrilling—it’s literally kill or cure at this point—but the instant he stabs the syringe in, we cut to silence. A clean, pristine surgery. The onlookers gone, the blood wiped away. The circus is closed. It’s such a sudden start, and so disorientating after the pulse-pounding action that came before, that it feels like it’s us that’s been hit with the adrenaline.
The episode—and perhaps the series—ends with Algie, his defective eye having removed him from his lifelong passion and profession. He takes up Thackery’s research into addiction—Abby’s research, really—and begins counselling the last remaining addict on Thack’s ill-fated ward. Never, ever has a man looked so defeated as Algernon Edwards when confronted with his new career. “I have bad dreams”, says the patient, and after a long pause, Algie responds “tell me about them”.
For many of our characters, the last few years of their lives have been a bad dream, and the hope for any brighter ones to come has been extinguished.
The Knick has been a wonderful series, particularly heightened by Cliff Martinez’s anachronistic score and Steven Soderbergh’s superlative directorial efforts. But there were rather too many plots that went nowhere and amounted to nothing. What, for instance, was the point in introducing Algie’s secret wife Opal? She appeared in, what, two episodes? Three? At least we can be glad that frightening Hobart Showalter never got to act on his impulses toward Cornelia.
The Knick started as a show full of hope—a new dawn, a new age of medicine and science was just kicking off, and technological advancements were changing the world. It ends—perhaps forever, perhaps just for now—in cynical fashion, in which the hopers and dreamers of the world find themselves trodden down, trampled, and exploited by the relentless machine of capitalism and it’s various structures. The rich, white, men come out on top, while women and POCs are marginalised, abused and ignored. The Knick was set in 1901. My, haven’t things changed?