It starts with the morning routine of young nurse Lucy Elkins as she prepares for her day: washing in her white corset, riding a carriage to work, gliding down less-than-antispetic halls. A voice over in the form of a letter to her former lover, Dr. John Thackery, quickly catches us up on the events of the Knickerbocker Hospital's staff. It's all very staid – disconcertingly so. And then, a quick cut to a cringe-worthy close-up of a layer of detached nose skin being flipped away from a woman's face, followed by the sickening noise of a mallet breaking bone.
And we're back!
Steven Soderbergh's turn-of-the-century medical drama achieved many distinctions in its first season, not the least of which was showcasing some of the most barbarically gory surgical scenes this side of Botched. But the cinematically retired director's skills — paired with an evocative, fully realized historical era, a cool score and some truly gripping performances — elevated the series above its bloody, audience-catching premise. Never mind the difficuly-men tropes; this was a must-see moody dream piece, and with this solid second-season premiere, The Knick appears ready to build even further on that foundation.
It's now winter, 1901; the amount of months that have passed since last season's finale is a little ambiguous, but it's clear that not much has changed since that episode blew everything up. Clive Owen's gifted-but-drug-addicted doctor is still confined to a woodsy treatment facility, much worse for the wear after subsisting on a steady diet of cocaine and its "cure," a little wonder drug called heroin. Out in San Francisco, shipping heiress and progressive do-gooder Cornelia Robertson is making the most of her marital exile by tending to the plague-quarantined masses in Chinatown. Meanwhile, her former disease-hunting Hardy Boy, Health Department Inspector Jacob Speight, tracks down the mystery of sick immigrants entering New York City on her family's steamships.
Back at the Knick, administrator Herman Barrow continues his scheming to build a new hospital (and pay back whoring debts); Dr. Everett Gallinger seethes at his loss in status; Eve Hewson's perpetually mopey Nurse Lucy still pines for Thack; Dr. Bertie Chickering broods about Lucy; and Dr. Algernon Edwards, heroic acting chief of surgery, is over these crazy white people, while struggling to keep his eye-rolling in check.
But all is not well for series MVP André Holland's man of medicine: After a season of fight-club self-flagellation, the resulting detached retina could ruin his career at any moment. Meanwhile, the show's second most noble (and perhaps most likeable) character, Irish nun and all-around badass Sister Harriet finds herself confined to the clink, arrested for her abortion work. The good sister is no snitch, however, refusing to flip on her partner Tom Cleary, who's finally traded in his ambulance wagon for a real motorcar, even though he has no idea how to service it.
Basically, it's a tangled web being woven in the world of The Knick, and so this season premiere occupies itself mostly with untying last year's narrative knots and getting the band back together – which it manages to accomplish in lightning fashion. Within 55 minutes, Cornelia's creepy, Cosby-esque father-in-law strong-arms her back to New York City, Cleary puts together a plan to laweyer up and clear Harry out of a murder charge, and — in perhaps the most dubious but dreamiest plot development — Gallinger kidnaps Thackery in the dead of winter to keep him captive on his very small and improbably heated sailboat. The plan: get Thack to dry out by teaching him to tie sailing knots. Then, he'll be re-installed as chief of surgery, thereby returning his abductor to a previously held superior perch.
The plot mechanisms grind a little too neatly – cleaning up a season's worth of mess in a single episode so that everyone is restored to their former positions (or at least, on the obvious path towards that goal) should never seem this conspicuously tidy. But we do get to meet some new characters, including the hospital's architect, played by Girls' Andrew Rannells, and Cornelia's brother Henry, whose affection for Dr. Edwards rivals his sister's. (You may begin your slash-fiction writing now.)
Taken all together, it's a relatively muted return, more concerned with table setting than the superbly staged Soderbergh set pieces and cinematic fireworks that's characterized the best of the first season. But glimmers of that earlier magic peek through, mostly through the continued transformative performance of Owen, who ricochets through the hour like a man possessed. With sores on his lips, he narrows his body to become a shell of a man, seemingly withering away in front of us. The hour ends with Thackery at sea, hallucinating of the child he killed, determined to change his future. All the while, he's fingering his rope, ready to start twisting his life, and the lives of everyone else back at the Knick, into thrilling new knots.