Before Betty Ford, before Promises, before “rehab” was even a word, people suffered from addiction.
Alcohol, opium, cocaine, heroin, none of these substances or the problems they create are new. In Cinemax’s early 20th century medical drama The Knick, Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) is looking for a definitive cure, with disastrous results.
Thackery has very personal reasons for his quest. At the beginning of season 2 of the series, he is just coming back from a stint in rehab himself and realizes that he is not cured.
Without admitting to his continuing addiction, he manages to convince the board of the hospital, The Knickerbocker, to allow him to build an “Inebriety Ward,” assuring them that the research will bring fame – and funding – to the hospital.
Pulling drunks and drug addicts off the street to fill the ward, he begins his experiments, hoping to find something that will help him as well as his patients. He also uses the corpses of addicts to look for a physical anomaly that might help him to explain the disease.
Finding nothing physical in the dead, he looks to the brains of the living, using a man who has suffered a head injury that exposed his brain to probe the organ to locate the centers of movement, pain, and pleasure. Once he finds the part of the brain that is now called the pleasure center, he operates to remove it, assuming that he has removed the source of addiction. Unfortunately, he leaves the patient in a vegetative state.
The patients themselves are no help, either, as one of them goes searching the hospital for a source of alcohol, ending up drinking embalming fluid, killing himself in the process.
Finding no answers in living or dead addicts, Thackery turns to the woman he loves to talk about his addiction, finding in the process that talking it out is the only thing that actually helps him. When he tells his only remaining inebriety patient about his own “cure,” the patient asks to speak to the woman, Abby, as well. Though she has no idea what she is doing, she does sit with the patient, and he also feels some improvement.
In the end, however, both Abby and Thackery are done in by drugs. Abby dies on the operating table from an interaction of the laudanum she was prescribed to help her sleep and the ether used to anesthetize her for surgery.
Thackery chooses to operate on himself to resect his intestine but gives in to his addiction just before surgery. He injects himself with heroin, and then proceeds to put on a show for his colleagues with his surgery. He makes a fatal mistake when cutting into the intestine , nicking an artery, and he bleeds to death in the operating theater as his horrified colleagues look on.
In the aftermath of Abby’s and Thackery’s deaths, Dr. Algernon Edwards, the lone black doctor at the Knick and one of Thackery’s closest colleagues, decides to carry on Thackery’s work with the remaining Inebriety ward patient, and the series closes on the patient telling Edwards about his dreams.
Although the story takes place in the early 1900s, The Knick feels remarkably fresh and contemporary. When Thackery first suggests that addiction is a disease, he is shot down by those on the hospital’s board, who believe fervently that addiction is a moral, not a medical problem, an argument that is still made in some circles today.
The program also illustrates the trial-and-error nature of medical research, and the lengths to which a forward-thinking physician may go to advance the search for answers to man’s illnesses. It was not unusual for doctors to test drugs and procedures on themselves or on the indigent. Yet, actions that seem beyond the pale in today’s society led to many of the advances and increased knowledge that today’s medical professionals rely upon.
In its initial two seasons, The Knick has tackled subjects such as corruption in politics, racism, abortion, scientific research, and, in this season particularly, addiction. The series has won awards for both its social analysis and its stellar production values. It has won a Primetime Emmy for production design, a Costume Designers Guild award, and the coveted Peabody Award, Now, it adds to its collection the 2016 Academy Honors.
Experience the touching moments with photo galleries and presentations/acceptance speeches from the Ninth Annual Television Academy Honors celebration.
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