Why ‘The Knick’ Can, and Should, Continue After Its Dramatic Finale


Warning: the following is teeming with spoilers from The Knick‘s Season 2 finale.

After The Knick‘s Season 2 finale, it seems clear that Clive Owen’s character Dr. John Thackery is utterly dead, although things are left somewhat open-ended for people who demand a body as proof of a character’s demise. Following the airing of the finale, however, The Hollywood Reporter published an interview with writer/creator Jack Amiel and Variety spoke to Clive Owen (who had only been under a two-year contract for the show). Both men suggested, but did not entirely confirm, that the finale was really the end for Thackery — but that it didn’t have to be the end for The Knick.

One could see what was coming when, towards the end of the finale, an exceptionally coked-out Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) cantered into the Knick’s operating “theater,” laid himself down in his steampunk gurney, and, while his colleagues fretfully looked on, began opening himself up, pulling out his intestines, and narrating enthusiastically all the while.

In talking about the real-life doctor who performed a similar surgery to that depicted in the show, Jack Amiel said, “he lived, which would stand in marked contrast [to Thackery].” Owen simply said, when asked if this was the last we’d see of his character, “It certainly looks that way.” Though they’d expressly planned a two-year arc for the characters, and though Amiel says he feel they’ve concluded those arcs, he said he could definitely see the show continuing without Thackery. And Cinemax has officially ordered a script for a potential Season 3 premiere. It’s hard to think of a better scenario for the show.

Thackery’s combination of being at once cavalier about medical precaution and desperate/self-destructive in his personal life led him to the fatal collision of his at-times revolutionarily reckless medical practices and his penchant for self-harm. Performing a simple surgery — one that actually isn’t so simple, because he’s performing it on himself — he punctures an artery. The cavity in his stomach fills with blood. He continues to narrate. “This is all we are,” he informs the onlooking crowd nonchalantly, as he realizes he’s just committed suicide. As he speaks these definitive (and frankly, unnecessary — as it’s pretty implied) words, his innards dangle from his midriff, making him look almost like a grotesque version of The Wizard of Oz‘s Scarecrow.

This final image is the perfect farewell to Thackery, in that it’s rapturously disgusting yet unyieldingly matter-of-fact. It’s fitting for a character who’s never shied away from a clinical treatment of bodies and the personalities that are inseparable from them. And a hasty end — after two seasons of being the central character — is a similarly impeccable choice for a character at once so self-important and so self-destructive. He began the show with moments of towering centrality and importance to the hospital and the people around him, then through drug use and general instability, he began to figuratively dismantle it: in the final scene, he does so physically. To bring him back would go against the way his fate has so beautifully/repulsively emulated his personality.

Emily Nussbaum wrote two pieces about The Knick‘s first season — the first a negative review, and the second, a piece titled, “I Changed My Mind About The Knick.” She’d written, “I’d initially perceived the character as yet another variation on the cable anti-hero, his ‘bad’ qualities really just sexy scars. But over time, this arrogant junkie struck me as an actual arrogant junkie, whatever his knife skills.”

Indeed, in Season 2, Thackery became even less a Walter Draper Soprano than one might have imagined: he may have sparks of genius, but his addictive personality renders him nonfunctional. His descent into complete delusion was played meticulously by Owen, who spoke to Variety of how knowing what would become of his character shaped the way he structured his performance. “We have the full arc of the whole journey of the character before we even begin,” he said. “For an actor that’s great, you have time to plot things through properly.” As this season was coming to an end, and as the show killed off Thackery’s rekindled flame, Abigail (the one person who could shake sense into him), Owen began to go all-out. Thackery was not a renewable character. Owen seemed to be playing the twitchy, sallow, track marked doctor with an expiration date.

By his end, he became a representation of his anti-individualist statement. “This is all we are” applies not only to the pile of intestines drooping out from his Clive-Owen shaped encasement: the deterioration of his body mirrors that of his mind, showing how any character, any personality, could be a series of actions fulfilling the desires of their twisted innards. It’s a dark, positivistic and over-the-top take on the human spirit — or lack of a true human spirit beyond a body’s wants. But it’s a fascinating, unifying foil for the way the show depicts social injustice derived from perceived differences of class, race and gender.

Despite his centrality on all of the posters (due to his being the star of the hospital and the most famous star participating in the series), the show in its second season ultimately became far more of an ensemble drama. Thackery was far too unhinged for it to have sustainably followed him. Doing away with him altogether — and then continuing on — would be a good way for the show to subvert the white patriarchal structures it so often questions. As Vulture pointed out, in Season 2, two new characters were introduced, implied to be important, and given far too little screen time: Algernon’s surprise-wife, Opal Edwards (Zaraah Abrahams) and the Jewish, female journalist Genevieve Everedge (Arielle Goldman). A shifted focus away from the historically accurate sausage-fest of the operating room and further into the lives of these intriguing but underutilized characters would benefit the show that made a point of prodding patriarchal structures.

To end the show following the death of Thackery would only perpetuate some notions the show critiques in its tendency to link the past to current-day social issues: the suggestion that the world of The Knick would cease to exist once its white male leader died would be an unfortunate takeaway. There’s no reason not to know more about the lives of everyone who surrounded Thackery, and what will become of them as they find their footing following this decentralizing death.

It’s fascinating that the show depicted everyone scattering in the final episode. (Cornelia (Juliette Rylance) goes to Australia after realizing she’d be trapped beneath her brother’s tyranny in the States, Lucy (Eve Hewson) unknowingly shacks up with Cornelia’s patricidal brother to further her career, Algernon (André Holland) begins to work in psychoanalysis after being disabled by the racist Gallinger, ex-Sister Harriet is now happily engaged but is unaware of the duplicity that brought about her engagement, and Gallinger is medicalizing his racism elsewhere with further studies in eugenics.) The sudden dispora shows the importance American society assigned (/assigns) its white male leaders (for August Robertson, the hospital’s financial core, was also killed off). It’d thus be cool for the show to continue without its main patriarchal figure, all the while showing the difficulties an institution like the Knick may have encountered in losing someone society would have deemed so central.

The Knick creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler may have figured out the best way to handle a finite contract with a lead actor: literally have his character tear himself up. Knowing that they’d likely only have two seasons with Clive Owen, it seems clear now that the character’s whole purpose was to bring us to the conclusion found in the title of the final episode — essentially, that we’re all mangled guts. It’s a pretty basic atheistic message, but in a show that’s predominantly about how society dichotomizes groups based on superficialities and thereby forms complex and tenacious systems of oppression, this is an arresting statement in context, at once direly nihilistic and unifying. They should absolutely be among Thackery’s final words. They shouldn’t be the among the show’s.

UPDATE: In an interview with Indiewire, The Knick director Steven Soderbergh revealed that Thackery is very much dead. He told the site, “I just said [to Owen early on], ‘If it matters to you, we are going to kill you at the end of Season 2 just so you know.’ He was like, ‘Okay. Good to know.’” He also mentioned that they’re working on stories for Season 3 and 4, and that the idea is that a different director would take each season and give it their own vision. Read it here.