If there’s any show you need to catch up on this summer, Cinemax’s The Knick is it. Set at the titular Knickerbocker Hospital in 1900’s New York, the show centers on a group of surgeons working at the turn of the century, using the era’s boom in technological advancements to refine and improve their craft, and attempting to drive down obscenely high mortality rates.
So far, I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in watching the show unfold, but I’ve had a deep discomfort about the experience as well. As you may have deduced, 1900’s New York was not…. a progressive time in the history of the United States, and much of the storyline revolves around the racism that Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), the first black doctor at the hospital, must face not just from his colleagues, but also from the patients he treats and the world at large. The Knick does nothing to sugarcoat the prevalent racial attitudes of the time, nor does it make the show’s protagonist Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) suspiciously enlightened for his time. Rather, the show goes to great lengths to reinforce that pretty much everyone is racist, and it refuses to let you forget it.
There’s an element of respectability to Edwards’ story too, that I didn’t pick up on until I started writing this. Algernon Edwards is the best of the best. Having studied surgery all over Europe under the patronage of the family that owns the hospital (his mother is their longtime maid), Edwards is far and away the most qualified doctor at the Knick. He has co-authored and published papers in well-respected medical journals, and innovated surgical techniques and tools. His skills are unmatched by his fellow surgeons and yet, they refuse to work with him; Dr Everett Gallenger (Eric Johnson) is openly hostile to him within the surgical theatre and without, harboring perhaps understandable resentment that Edwards was appointed Deputy Chief of Surgery over him.
Edwards is reduced to running an illicit clinic for African-Americans in the subterranean office that was assigned to him in disdain in order to actually treat patients. Even under these conditions, he is able to devise a new technique for hernia repair, and create a new tool for suctioning excess blood during surgery (using a modified vacuum cleaner). The Knick goes almost above and beyond to show us that he does not deserve this; this being the racism directed at him from all corners. But what I think the shows misses is an understanding that it’s his inherent human dignity that should shield him from racism, and not his surgical qualifications.
That said, this show traffics in values dissonance in a very heavy-handed way that I personally have found to be quite triggering at times. Last Friday’s episode featured a mob attacking random black people in street in retribution for the death of a police officer at that hands of a black man. Never mind of course that said (corrupt) police officer had first propositioned the man’s wife and offered her a place at a brothel because “it’s always good to have some dark ones around” and pulled a weapon first. The mob scenes were understandably violent, but framed against the backdrop of real life police violence being done to black people in 2014, from Eric Garner to Mike Brown, there was almost something obscene about the way the show used faceless and nameless black bodies as the stage upon which it made its point about racial discrimination.
And while I’m definitely happy that The Knick confronts the race relations of the time rather than trying to side step it the way Mad Men does, or mention it in hushed tones the way Masters of Sex does, it’s unsettling to see that depictions of black suffering are the only ways in which it could think to do that. And that isn’t to negate that these things happened. After all, lynching is a particularly dark stain on our collective histories. But in a contemporary context, I’m disappointed that there wasn’t a more elegant way to allude to those events without subjecting the viewing audience to such intensely triggering imagery. One scene has a unknown black woman shoved against a metal gate and beaten across the face with a brick. And though the point was certainly made, I can’t get the image out of my head; another person who looks like me, mercilessly beaten for the crime of having been born with skin darker than society deemed acceptable. More than anything, watching this show has reminded me that not enough has changed, and ripples of these archaic and bigoted attitudes are still being felt today.
But don’t misunderstand me. I really do enjoy this show. It’s brilliantly acted, the music is fascinatingly appropriate and it is masterfully filmed. The sense of time and place is exquisite. I really like seeing medicine in the historic context of the 1900s: from chopping off limbs in barber shops, to using cocaine as a painkiller, to prescribing turpentine(!) for stomach ailments. It makes me wonder if 100 years from now the surgeons of 2114 will look back at our medical techniques and remark at how primitive they were. One of the storylines centered on sanitation and the spread of disease. (Apparently people didn’t yet know to wash their hands in 1900.) Another deals with a nun who performs illegal abortions for the desperate women who come to her. But the heavy handed treatment of race in The Knick transitions too quickly from poor sanitation to punching the black doctor in the face, and eliciting derisive laughter from his colleagues. The mood whiplash is so severe sometimes that it takes me out of the show.
For all my misgivings however, I’d still recommend the show. It is a brutal look at the social mores of the times, but perhaps a necessary one, given Hollywood’s inclination to whitewash things of this nature. Just once though, I wish we could have a period drama that didn’t evolve around a white protagonist.