This Week on Dear Television:
Watching The Knick — and Ferguson
By Sarah Mesle
August 22, 2014
THE KNICK’S second episode ends with what we might call, anachronistically, a moment of “black-on-black crime.” That’s a modern sociological category: does it fit the lives of the black characters in Steven Soderbergh’s new period drama? Here’s what happens: Paris-trained surgeon Algernon Edwards returns late at night to the seedy Tenderloin boarding house where segregation forces him to live. In the dingy hallway, an older and poorer man, resentful of Algernon’s elegant clothes and “uppity” manner, assaults him. Seemingly overwhelmed by such fiercely physical hatred, Algernon, wide-eyed, offers his best “hands up, don’t shoot” posture of surrender. But when his assailant lets go, Algernon quickly explodes into stylish punches; with a few well-placed jabs he leaves the older man twitching on the floor. The camera focuses strangely, in close focus, on the fallen man’s convulsing chest: how hurt is he? Algernon’s hand enters the frame from above, gently leaving some medicine on the fallen body. In the episode’s final shot, tempering the gentleness of the medicine, we dimly see Algernon’s elite “Paris shoe” — the episode’s titular object — nudging the fallen man’s hand out of his closing door’s way, the way you’d toe aside anything you didn’t really want to handle.
What is race doing in The Knick? And what is The Knick doing with racial violence? In the last week, America’s ugly racial history has erupted into a display of public horror. There’s no way Steven Soderbergh could have known that his show, which focuses partly on the African American experience of race, would play out against an unfolding real world moment that is forcing us all to ask what racial violence means. But it’s impossible not to place the two stories next to each other: one, a historicized fantasy of (among other narratives) black suffering; the other, an ongoing horror of lived racial oppression forced, through brutality, to the surface of everyone’s Twitter feed.
So the question for us watching The Knick now, in August 2014, is this: what does it mean to put Algernon Edward’s suffering alongside that of the black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, as we all must do? Can the way we watch one tell us anything useful about the way we watch the other?
If you haven’t seen it yet — watch out! Spoilers! — The Knick is set in and around a turn of the century New York surgical hospital. A friend described it as E.R. with carriages, which you’ve got to admit is an appealing idea — though I’d probably be more smitten if The Knick just went full on lady-time soap opera, all Grey’s Anatomy with corsets. I have zero problem spending an hour watching a suit-clad and cocaine-addicted Clive Owen make eyes at a nurse while a fantastic soundtrack plays — that’s fine television in my book.
But The Knick seems to be going for more than the relational pleasure of the middle-to-low brow network drama: it wants prestige, and racialized cruelty is part of its prestige-gaining plan. Hence its staging of uncomfortable moments of supposed racial vérité: one black man calling another “nigger,” black men humiliated, black bodies on the floor. These scenes, which come to be after the Knickerbocker hospital is forced (for somewhat unconvincing reasons) to hire Algernon, up the social stakes, I guess: we’re all familiar with the way black suffering, like women’s suffering, can be milked for artistic cache. This isn’t a soap opera, Algernon’s plotline seems to insist. The Knick is serious! It is about race.
Emily Nussbaum has said that The Knick is “designed to flatter rather than to challenge” its viewers, and nowhere is this more true than in its depiction of racism against African Americans. Modern viewers, the show reassuringly suggests, have figured out race. We know what racism looks like, and this episode reflects what a (white) modern audience already knows in perfect detail. Racism, for instance, took place through segregation: the kind of segregation that would lead white surgeons to reject Algernon Edwards, despite his impeccable surgical credentials. It’s that pat sort of racism when a black patient in pain is turned away for the color of her skin; it’s also racist when Algernon’s white co-workers opt to steal a printed description of a new surgical procedure rather than allow Algernon to explain it. (Is it racist for the show itself to parade the semi-nude bodies of Asian women around opium dens? Yes, but the show seems to not really care.) To the extent that racism here is a structure of feeling, it is one experienced, primarily, by mean people. (The most racist character, Dr. Gallagher, is not only mean but also a bad doctor. Because as we all know ideology and professional ability go hand in hand.) The show careful protects Clive Owen’s Dr. Thackery, its blunt hero, from our dislike by making his racism seem pragmatic rather than felt — he doesn’t want a black surgeon because he feels integration would be bad for the hospital — so the coast is clear for him to accept Algernon once Algernon’s medical value is experientially established. I can already imagine every element of Algernon and Thackery’s reconciliation and how clearly it will emphasize the comfortable lesson that reasonable people inevitably grow out of racism and learn how to work together towards a race-blind society.
What I’m saying here is that The Knick uses its period setting less to show us a deep history of a very troubled present than to emphasize a clear line that separates the past from today. As far as I can remember, every single moment in which a black character is on screen is staged so as to elicit horrified and sympathetic clucking from an audience who will not learn, from this show, anything new about race or racial animosity. Instead, The Knick will reiterate over and over again the message that a modern white viewer most wants to hear: you are not racist.
Thus to the extent that The Knick teaches us anything about Ferguson, it does so by negative example. I see few ways in which the character of Algernon Edwards (despite the fact that he is rather magnetically acted) can teach white viewers about the experience of blackness in America, particularly the anger that might motivate so called "violent" behavior that troubles the media so much — looting, for example. But instead, this show might teach us about the experience of whiteness, in the wake of a crisis. Because the dominant implication of The Knick so far is that reasonable white people will eventually come around to see through racism, to reward intelligence and diligence, it seems to support the point that those who are upset by events such as Michael Brown’s death should be patient, peaceful. They should make their case, and wait for justice to be served. Thus even as its narrative emphasizes black suffering, The Knick works to occlude an understanding of black rage. Its only if we watch with a removed and critical eye that The Knick is able to teach us a particular racial lesson — not about black rage itself, but about the way in which white viewers still manage to be surprised about black rage.
And then, this too. Thinking about the tensions in Ferguson is, in one way, to think about two perspectives on what counts as unreasonable violence. There have been many actions in Ferguson that are being evaluated: the theft of some cigars, some rude words, looting — bullets to the body, tanks in the streets, tear gas in the eyes, incarceration. Ferguson makes it impossible to miss that what makes a society judge a social act unreasonable is not the act itself but who performs it. It can be difficult for white Americans to see their own police as agents of violence in a systemic way, and one of the remarkable things about Ferguson is that the police actions have been so extreme that they’ve managed to shred the veil that, so often, disguises the racial violence that characterizes so much of the US justice system. Who can be patient, in the face of an armored vehicle on residential streets?
The Knick, too, seems interested in parsing these questions. At its best, it aims to explore a moment when what counted as “violence,” and who could be rewarded for commanding what kinds of it, was shifting. In episode two, for instance, we see a drunken Irishman brawling (the ambulance driver Cleary, particularly: let me tell you in passing how wearying I find him); we then see Clearly teeter down the street to spy on a woman performing illicit abortions — does this brawler find the abortionist violent? (Note: I am fairly certain we see her pour the aborted embryo down a tenement sink, and am looking to discuss what she does at that sink with other interested viewers. PM me!) We also see a class-jumping loan shark wrench a tooth from a fancy hospital administrator's mouth; we don’t like that smarmy administer guy, which makes watching him suffer so egregiously quite complicated. He’s lost a tooth — but on the other hand, his hospital mismanagement led to a nurse’s death. Is his violence any less egregious than the loan shark's just because it’s not conducted with pliers?
And most important of all is The Knick’s staging of surgery itself. Against the backdrop of a dirty and brutal city, The Knick takes us into clean white rooms where men dispassionately slice bodies open. Dr. Thackery is eager to take surgery “out of the barbershops,” to make it “legitimate.” But there’s no disguising from the viewer that Thackery’s science (let alone his drug use, or his casual treatment of the Asian women who enable it) is still a bloody vicious mess.
In this way, then, and for this viewer, surgical violence on The Knick is somewhat analogous to police violence in Ferguson: it’s a practice on the move, shifting back and forth between the realms of the legitimate and the scandalous. It’s conducted by authorized men, in clean uniforms, on the bodies of the angry and ill-equipped. And I think it’s here, rather than its explicitly racial plot, that The Knick might be able to tell us something important about how race works in America. What it tells us is that the authorized forms of violence, whether medical or legal, work to naturalize themselves. But in fact, they are historical, and they are vulnerable to pressure. They might, that is, change.
I’ve been rather hard on The Knick here, but let’s read generously — let’s give the final scene, the one with which I began, some credit. In the moment when Algernon uses his fists to deliver surgeon-like blows, when he partners his violence with his medical care, he then holds in his body all the possibilities for the future the show seeks to explore. I don’t know where The Knick is going; I don’t know where Ferguson is going either. But it was nice this week, if even for a moment, to look at a screen and see someone there imagine that a black man’s choices might be the instrumental force bringing the future into being.