The show’s critique of the (past and current) state of women’s healthcare in the US doesn’t end there. In another storyline, the proprietor of a brothel seeks gynecological care for the women who work for him. All of the doctors spend their spare time soliciting at brothels, and yet the women they see are medically neglected. Unsurprisingly, the male doctor who’s finally asked to treat them exploits the situation, telling the women that he needs to see them each individually, and that they can use his shoulders — instead of stirrups — to balance their legs.
But the hypocrisies surrounding sexuality, manifested consistently in how the public stifling of sex only leads to more dangerously desperate sex, are perhaps most visible in the continued story of Thackery’s ex, Abigail (Jennifer Ferrin). Last season, Abigail first appeared in a sexy steampunk version of Groucho Marx glasses — and when she removed them, she exposed a hole where her nose once was. Turns out, her adulterous husband had given her syphilis, then abandoned her.
Now, this symbol of sexual shame has eaten through her face. (The likely cause of her husband’s illness: sex workers who hadn’t received medical attention.) Last season, she had reconstructive surgery — her arm was affixed to her face for weeks until a flap of its skin grafted to form her new proboscis. In Season 2, she’s in need of further treatment, as the disease is giving her seizures.
Eleanor Gallinger likewise wears inequality permanently on her face now. As a housewife, her identity was more tied up in parenthood than her working husband’s, and she went mad after their child died. Her psychiatrist has now removed all of her teeth, believing that “all mental disorders stem from disease and infection polluting the brain.” Meanwhile, in an early episode of Season 2, Nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson) is forced to walk around bearing the bruises of her pastor father’s beatings, which he inflicted when she confessed to losing her virginity.
Then, of course, there’s the intersection of sexual body-policing and racial body-policing, which is where the series grows even more merciless. Dr. Gallinger, who’s envious of Dr. Edwards for wooing the un-wooable Thackery, channels his ire into racist sentiment, and seems ominously taken by a couple of scholars casually espousing a new medical idea: eugenics. He looks as though he’s taking particular comfort in their claim that if people of color “mix in” with white people, “we’ll forfeit potential greatness for mongrelization of our species.”
The introduction of white supremacists’ ideal combination of policing reproduction and race becomes a disturbingly pervasive presence, showing how, in the wrong hands, medicine can be a rather sinister form of control (especially when set against the plot of Dr. Thackery having been prescribed heroin to cure his cocaine addiction). All of this is seen from within the walls of the hospital, which themselves are physically threatened by a system favoring the lucky. The hospital’s imminent closure and move uptown — where fewer working class immigrants reside — reveals even the Knick itself to be a core symbol of American imbalance.
The Knick’s progressivism extends far beyond its balletically handheld digital camerawork, its anachronistic score, and its unflinching focus on the human body. Both its heavy gore and its heavy Soderbergh aesthetics are mere conduits revealing a map of the causal forces, past and thereby present, behind so many forms of bodily harm. “Like the best historical fiction… [The Knick] takes us over a century into the past, and it shows us the future,” James Poniewozik recently wrote in the New York Times.
Obviously none of this is to make the ridiculous claim that The Knick and the now are identical in matters of oppression — to do so would overlook the fact that at least now the forces fighting various forms of discrimination aren’t so marginal. But the fact that all of the sociopolitical issues examined on the show continue, in their own contemporary fashion, to plague American happiness makes The Knick seem far more like an admonishing appraisal of the present than a comparative lauding of it. Because the fact is that when you watch the show, it’s the tools and procedures that all seem the most alien: One is struck by how far rhinoplasty has come. One is struck by how we used to torch patients with equipment just as likely to set doctors aflame. One is not struck by how we no longer police abortion. Or by how America has become a hospitable place for its black population. Or how America generally prizes the safety of non-white bodies, or the health of poor bodies. The backwards science of The Knick is almost otherworldly; the social issues — and the ways they’re made physical — aren’t at all.