Follow TV Tropes


Series / The Knick

Go To

"I'm not leaving this circus until I've learned everything you have to teach."
Dr. Algernon Edwards

The Knick is a medical drama that premiered on Cinemax in August 2014, and is set in New York in 1900. It stars Clive Owen as Dr. John 'Thack' Thackery, the cocaine-addicted Chief of Surgery at the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York City, who succeeded his mentor and the previous chief, Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer). It also stars Andre Holland as Dr. Algernon Edwards, a brilliant and accomplished black surgeon, who joins The Knick as assistant chief of surgery, over Thackery's objections and despite the personal disdain of much of the hospital's all-white staff. Thack's work is overseen by hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), a highly competent bureaucrat whose well-informed racist Social Darwinist worldview takes a back seat to his ruthless pragmatism and air of politeness. Thack and Barrow also have to contend with the wishes of the socially-progressive Miss Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), who represents her father, Captain August Robertson (Grainger Hines), who is the financially-strapped hospital's primary benefactor.

Also in the mix are several supporting characters, including junior surgeons Dr. Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) and Dr. Bertram Chickering, Jr. (Michael Angarano), Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), midwife Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan) and New York City health inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro).

All twenty episodes of the first and second seasons have been directed by Steven Soderbergh, who already announced he'd leave the show in the hands of different filmmakers should the show go forward with a third season. However, in March 2017, Cinemax announced the series was officially canceled.

This series has examples of:

  • Abortion Fallout Drama: When Cornelia becomes pregnant after having sex with Edwards, he initially reluctantly agrees to perform an abortion so that it will be safe, but then backs out. So she goes to Sister Harriet. He isn't happy with this, but knows that being together is socially impossible, and them running away would mean giving up their lives in New York forever. People who don't know that Edwards is the father suggest that Cornelia pass off the baby as her fiance's, which she knows wouldn't work.
  • Abusive Parents: Nurse Elkins was clearly beaten as a child by her father, something that continues into adulthood.
  • The Ace:
    • Dr. Edwards is in his prime, a graduate of Harvard University, and has worked with some of the foremost surgeons in Europe. He's at least as good a surgeon as anyone at The Knick. And yet all anyone sees is the color of his skin.
    • Thack was this but his addictions have him slipping.
  • All Asians Know Martial Arts: Ping Wu lays some impressively bloody smackdown on Bunky Collier and his henchmen. We knew he was dangerous, but not dangerous in quite that way.
  • Affectionate Nickname:
    • Dr. Bertram Chickering, Jr. is called "Bertie" by most of his colleagues, but "Bertie the Wise" by Dr. Thackery. He has to explain to his father that this is meant affectionately, not mockingly. As it happens, Dr. Thackery may have intended the sobriquet ironically, as Bertie is the youngest, least experienced, and lowest ranking surgeon at the Knick, but it turns out to be true, as Bertie is also the most mentally balanced and moral among the surgeons (and perhaps of the entire cast).
    • The Wise nickname is one that Dr. Christiansen used for Thack as his protege. Now that Thack has a protege of his own he has continued the tradition.
      • Its indeed affectionate, as episode six shows when Thack calls Bertie "the Wise" when he makes a guess Thack considers excellent. He even says "Bertie the Wise indeed!"
  • Back-Alley Doctor: Edwards becomes one at the beginning of the series in order to take care of black patients the hospital turns away, operating in the hospital's own basement for weeks or months thanks largely due to the dismissiveness of his white colleagues. In a testament to his skill, he only loses one patient in that time despite subpar conditions and then only because the patient didn't follow his post-care instructions.
  • Badass Bookworm: Algernon Edwards is a highly competent surgeon, at the edge of technical innovation. He also is able to pick up a fight and knock his opponent down on at least two separate occasions.
  • Birds of a Feather: Dr Edwards and Cornelia Robertson are both excluded and looked down upon because of their race/gender.
  • Blackface: In the seventh episode of the second season, a vaudeville duo performs in blackface to entertain the partygoers in a ball. Oddly, considering how progressive they otherwise are regarding their race, both Edwards and his wife seem delighted by the performance.
  • Blackmail: Speight blackmails both Barrow and a building owner by threatening, respectively, to send city patients to other hospitals and to report his building for code violations.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor Eleanor Gallinger. Her baby dies of the meningitis that her husband brought home on his unwashed hands; she drowns the foundling that Gallinger and Sister Harriet wanted her to adopt; she gets carted off by the men in white coats, and the psychiatrist decides that the best way to treat her madness is by removing all her teeth.
  • Break the Haughty:
    • The writers are merciless to Gallinger in Season 1, Word of God confirming it. Completely reversed in the second season.
    • Also, by the end of the season, Dr. Thackery is committed to a mental hospital as a result of the complete mental breakdown he has suffered as a combined result of his drug addiction and accidental murder of a girl.
  • Broken Pedestal: Bertie clearly admires Dr. Thackery and stays with him in The Knick despite his father's insistence. But when Thack's insane and paranoid obsession unwittingly kills a girl, he loses his faith in him and has him committed to a recovery clinic for his cocaine addiction.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Thack in many ways follows the classic model. He's a drug addicted, snarky and arrogant surgeon, who skates by on his genius. Clive Owen has compared his character to a rock star.
  • Butt-Monkey: Gallinger, again. By the end of Season 1 his home life is in shambles, and his career is dead in the water.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Gallinger's decision not to resect Mr. Gentile's bowel leads to the climactic surgery in the pilot.
  • The Chew Toy: Barrow. He's a weaselly little embezzler who gives his wife's jewelry to his favorite prostitute (blaming the maid for theft, of course) and who continues to find new and inventive ways of making his situation of being in debt to Bunky Collier worse and worse. And his Hail Mary pass of asking Ping Wu to murder Collier and pretending that it's at Thack's request blows up in his face when Ping Wu sees through the ruse and cheerfully takes over Barrow's debt to Collier.
  • The Corrupter: Thurman Drexler acts as this to Gallinger. While Gallinger was already an unpleasant Bigot Drexler’s the guy who introduces him to Eugenics and encourages him to become even worse.
  • Circular Reasoning: Thack's defense of his racist refusal to hire Dr. Edwards is this. He claims that he refused to hire him because no patient would consent to being treated by a black man, but the only reason people refuse to be treated by black men is because they are racist. Therefore, Thack is essentially arguing that, because of racism, it wasn't racist not to hire a black man because he is black. Miss Robertson points this out, and that they must show people that Edwards is at least as good as any white surgeon. Thack responds:
  • Cool Teacher:
    • Christiansen to Thack. Thack idolized him, and Christiansen appears to have been Thack's mentor. He's also the man who got Thack hooked on cocaine.
    • Thackery to Bertie. In 1x06, Thack requests Bertie's assistance in the early morning in order to perfect a radical new approach to c-section surgery with the welcome assistance of two lovely Chinese prostitutes after 2 days worth of brainstorming on cocaine and madness.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat:
    • New York City health inspector Jacob Speight takes bribes from building owners to let them slide on code violations, and from hospitals, so he'll steer more patients (whose bills are paid by the city) to their wards.
    • Also Barrow, who is shown to be pocketing hospital funds and trafficking corpses.
    • A policeman asks Barrow to introduce him with the mobster who he's in debt to, so he can funnel freelance prostitutes into his control.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Thack's decision to anesthetize Gentile with an injection of cocaine into the subarachnoid space between his six and seventh vertebrae.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Thack snarks constantly, even while he's injecting cocaine into a living person's spine. Mind you, this is a procedure that's only ever been tried once, on a dog, and the dog died. Which he also snarks about. In the hearing of the fully-conscious patient.
    Thack: It's been tried once before, on a Labrador retriever.
    Edwards: What happened?
    Thack: There isn't a day that goes by where I don't miss that dog.
    • Thack isn't the only one.
    Thack:If he dies because of your horseshit I will stab you in the throat with my father's Union Army Sword.
    Edwards: I would've thought Confederate.
  • Death of a Child: Poor little Lillian And poor little Grace.
  • Deep South: Subverted with Nurse Elkins. She has a southern accent, but she's from West Virginia, in the Upper South.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • A ton of it. Barrow is an enthusiastic racist and social Darwinist, while Gallinger is extremely resentful of Dr. Edwards on account of his color. The Knick's board are also casually sexist towards Miss Robertson, who has to present a signed copy of her father's proxy in order to participate in the meeting.
    • During the second season, eugenics is treated as a legitimate science (especially by Dr. Gallinger).
  • Determinator: Dr. Algernon Edwards is a black surgeon determined to make it in a white man's world. He is so determined, in fact, that he resolves to remain assistant chief of surgery at The Knick despite being despised by pretty much everyone, after he witnesses Thack successfully save Gentile with his crazy anesthetic solution and a device he invented himself.
  • Dirty Old Man: Mays has traces of them sniffing the vaginas of prostitutes and flirting with a way younger nurse talking about how many nurses he knew ended up marrying their doctors they served with surgically.
  • Downer Ending: Both seasons ended on a down note.
    • Season one ends with Cornelia and Edwards ending their clandestine relationship with the former married to a man whose father has made troubling advances towards her and the latter being beaten in a fist fight. Thackery accidentally kills a patient and the combined guilt and cocaine withdrawal convinces Bertie and Lucy to check him into a rehabilitation facility. Meanwhile the hospital itself is closed due to dwindling funds, thus depriving much of the poorer citizens of vital health care.
    • Season 2 ends with Dr. Thackery attempting self-surgery and killing himself in the process, Cornelia discovering Henry killed their father, and choosing to flee to Australia, Harriet accepting to marry Cleary, who is revealed to be responsible for her excommunication, Barrow leaving all his assets to Junia and contracting radiation induced cancer, and Dr. Gallinger going to teach eugenics in Germany.
  • Driven to Suicide: Dr. Christiansen shoots himself after failing a fourth time to save a mother and baby through a caesarian section, with both dying in the process.
  • Dr. Jerk: Thack and Gallinger.
    • Edwards has his moments, too.
  • Dramatic Irony: See affectionate nickname, supra. Bertie is called "the Wise" ironically by Thackery, but it's clear that the writers mean it sincerely.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Even before he accepts Edwards Thack is somewhat disturbed when Bunky threatens to lynch him, and also fights to save people during the race riot. Clearly likewise is disgusted at the violence displayed by the mob and helps save innocent black people.
  • Evil Is Petty: Gallinger's embrace of Eugenics is largely due to jealousy against Edwards; he even sabotages Edward's surgery to one up him.
  • Gadgeteer Genius:
    • Thack is a bit of an inventor, designing new medical devices in his spare time.
    • Edwards as well who modifies a vacuum cleaner for use as suction during surgery.
  • Genius Bruiser: Edwards finds it difficult to walk the tightrope between his persona as a respectable gentleman to the white folk, and a tough negro to his neighbors. The result is a brilliant doctor who picks bar fights in his spare time. Though in his final scene of Season 1, his Bruiser status is taken down a notch in one such bar fight with a man known as the "Big Nig".
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Discussed and mostly averted. Sister Harriet is an abortionist and reassures one of her patients that God would understand. Cleary doesn't like it, but his scruples don't stop him from extorting part of Sister Harriet's payment when he finds out that she performs them. Later, when Cornelia becomes pregnant after having sex with Edwards he initially agrees reluctantly to perform an abortion so that it will be safe, but then backs out. So she goes to Sister Harriet. He isn't happy with this, but knows that being together is socially impossible, and them running away would mean giving up their lives in New York forever. People who don't know that Edwards is the father suggested Cornelia pass off the baby as her fiance's, which she knew wouldn't work.
  • Failure Hero: Christiansen kills himself after his experimental surgical procedure fails for the twelfth time, resulting in the loss of both the pregnant mothers and their children.
  • Fighting Irish: Cleary. He uses physical violence and intimidation to steal patients from other hospitals' ambulance drivers. When Cleary brings in a good-paying patient, he gets a cut of the profits.
  • Flashback: Thack has a flashback to when Christiansen introduced him to cocaine.
    • Episode 9 of season 2 begins and ends with a flashback of Thack meeting Robertson in Nicaragua, with Robertson offering Thack a job at the Knick.
  • For Science!: Pretty much Thackery's unspoken motto.
  • Functional Addict: Both Thack and Christiansen are dependent on cocaine, but it doesn't impact their performance. However, after the Philippine-American War causes shortages in cocaine, Thack slowly unravels going through withdrawal.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Gallinger's resentment for Edwards springs largely from the fact that Edwards is better than he is.
  • Historical Domain Character: Both Christiansen and Thack incorporate elements of real-life pioneering surgeon William Stewart Halstead, who invented many new surgical techniques and aggressively promoted aseptic surgery. He was also one of four founders of Johns Hopkins University Hospital, one of the best hospitals in the world, attached to the best medical school in the world. He was also dependent on cocaine and morphine for his entire professional life.
  • Hookers and Blow: The very first shot of the show is of a coked-out Thack sleeping it off in Chinatown brothel.
  • Humans Are Special: Thack and Christiansen firmly believe this.
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Barrow appears to be this to Thack and The Knick in general. The Knick is in financial trouble, but Barrow manages to keep it afloat all by himself. It is however subverted, since it appears later that part of the hospital difficulties could be the result of his own embezzlements and contractor frauds.
  • The Irish Mob: It's New York in 1900, what do you expect?
  • It's All About Me: Thack. He's not quite a narcissist, as he does appear to genuinely want to help people, but his main motivation is improving his own reputation by pioneering surgical and medical techniques and technology. He even makes Christiansen's eulogy about himself.
    Miss Robertson: Lovely eulogy, Dr. Thackery.
    Thack: Thank you (walks away).
    Miss Robertson: (To Sister Harriet) If not a little self-aggrandizing.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Constantly Played for Laughs, if very dark ones. Perhaps the best example is the final shot of Season 1 - Thack has been checked into rehab, where a doctor prepares him an ambiguous medicine to ease his cocaine withdrawal, and reassuringly tells him "It's time to start getting better". Then we see a closeup on Thack's seemingly peaceful, smiling face, and focus on the bottle of his new miracle medicine - "Heroin".
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: The show is tock full of them. Two of the biggest ones are Inspector Speight and Thomas Cleary. The pilot shows both of them willing to break laws to make a few extra bucks but subsequent episodes show that despite his demeanour, Speight takes his job very seriously. Meanwhile Cleary shows a more human side especially with Sister Harriet, forming an unlikely partnership.
  • Jitter Cam: Averted. Despite being shot with handhelds, Soderbergh (who is his own cinematographer, going under a Pen Name) is an exceptional photographer, and so the frame moves just enough to give the show a little additional energy, which is perfect for the hectic setting, but without being particularly noticeable.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Dr Edwards' family worked in the house where Cornelia grew up, and they were raised together, becoming the trope indeed. Well, until they fall in love.
  • Loan Shark: Collier.
  • Mad Doctor: Edwards accuses Thack of being this just after Thack finishes injecting cocaine into a living person's spine.
    Edwards: (To Chickering) He's a madman.
  • Medical Horror: The surgeries are so explicit, the show verges on this. Still, assuming the show is accurate about the level of medical knowledge in 1900, it's sometimes amazing how much they actually do know. Many viewers will recognize terms and other medical elements from modern medical dramas.
  • Nasal Trauma: Abigail Alford, a former lover of Dr. John Thackery arrives at the hospital to ask him to examine her nose: is it happens, it's been ravaged by syphilis from her promiscuous ex-husband. Thackery suggests a grueling live graft procedure in which tissue on her arm is grafted to her face.
  • Nay-Theist: Thackery speaks of God as "the enemy" in his struggle to save people, which a nun characterizes as his "personal war".
  • Near-Rape Experience: The interaction between Cornelia and her soon to be father-in-law in the sixth episode comes off as this.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Played with. It's not clear whether Thack is meant to be American or British, but Clive Owen sounds almost the same as he always does.
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight: Pete the ambulance driver learned this the hard way when Cleary came by to poach their patient. Pete puts up his fists, and Cleary pulls out a baseball bat.
    Cleary: Now, as to my mind, you can either give us the goods or youse can all travel to the Knick as patients.
  • Nice Guy: Bertie, Nurse Elkins, and Miss Robertson. Bertie, especially, who often concerns himself with apologizing obliquely for the conduct of Thack and Gallinger and actually accepts Edwards from the beginning.
  • Nun Too Holy: Sister Harriet smokes, swears and moonlights as an abortionist.
  • Opium Den: Thack's favorite off-duty hangout.
  • Officer O'Hara: Most of the cops on this show are Irish, with the most notable one being Officer Sears.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Thack is an excellent surgeon, but an addict who while not as racist as other characters is not interested in integration either. At least until the sixth episode of the first season when Thack discover Edwards clinic and the innovations he's been working on, and then in the next episode when Thack opens the hospital to blacks injured in the riots outside.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Christiansen's suicide.
  • Plucky Girl:
    • Lucy Elkins, as seen where Gallinger dispatches her to find Thack, and she immediately sprints off, despite having no idea where he lives or her way around New York in general. Bertie helps her out.
    • Also Miss Robertson, who is determined to assert herself as a businesswoman despite the casual and pervasive sexism she faces at The Knick.
  • Robbing the Dead : Cleary has no qualms about snatching some valuables on the patients he transports if they arrive dead at the Knick (because when they're dead he won't have any finder's fee).
  • Self-Made Orphan: Lucy, after she kills her father in 2x09. Until we know what happened to her mother, this trope is in effect.
  • Slimeball: Jacob Speight is virtually a caricature of a Thomas Nast cartoon. Cleary is also a scumbag.
  • Smug Snake: Again, Speight, especially when he's extorting bribes.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To Hamlet. See Mad Doctor, above.
    • Thack gets a Shakespeare quote in about once an episode.
  • The Social Darwinist: Herman Barrow, the hospital administrator, is a committed social Darwinist. He's an equally committed racist.
    Barrow: The poor are just weaker than us.
  • Stay in the Kitchen:
    • Most male characters have this reaction to Miss Robertson's exercising proxy for her father.
    • After Cornelia played a critical role in apprehending Typhoid Mary in 1x06, her father, fiance, and father-in-law to-be's reaction is extremely patronizing.
  • Villainous Rescue: Ping Wu to Barrow. Averted since now Barrow owes Ping Wu the money he once owed to Bunky
  • We Hardly Knew Ye: Christiansen kills himself in the first five minutes of the show, though he does appear in flashbacks sporadically.