With Halloween right around the corner, everyone is talking up their favorite horror flicks, the ones that give you the biggest stomach turning moments of gore. Well, friends, if it’s gross out moments you want, might I suggest The Knick, the Cinemax medical drama that is premiering its second season tonight (meanwhile, there’s a limited run of the first season on HBO). Set in the year 1900, as doctors were first adopting x-ray technology and still struggling with the mysteries of the human body, this series is riddled with moments that will have you watching the screen through your fingers or using the fast forward button on your DVR. Still, if you’re one of the daring folks that enjoys gruesome things, or want a refresher on some of the big moments before you head into Season Two, here are our picks for the best (or, is it the worst?) of the bunch. Warning: there are likely spoilers ahead.
The headstrong and drug-crazed Thackery thinks he has the issue of blood transfusions solved when he decides to use a young anemic girl as his guinea pig. He opens up both his track-marked arm and hers, and starts feeding his blood in to her veins. The view of their open skin is awful to witness, and is only made worse by the fact that the transfusion (and likely the cocaine in the doctor’s blood) ends up killing the young woman.
Committed to a mental institution following the death of her baby, poor Eleanor is given a most unusual treatment by her doctor (played with the perfect offhand authority by John Hodgman): having all her teeth pulled. “My research has shown conclusively that all mental disorders stem from disease and infection polluting the brain,” he says. “So, the teeth and gums are havens for bacteria and sepsis.” All well and good, until she attempts to flash a smile to her husband and instead gives him an eyeful of bloody gums.
Following a race riot that breaks out inside and out of The Knick, Thackery and the staff bring their black patients to a nearby “Negro hospital,” sticking around to help treat the many injured people. A fine deed, but it results in him having to forcibly amputate one patient’s arm. The view of the exposed bone and flesh was bad enough, but Soderbergh and co. added in some particularly yucky sound effects to accompany every pump of the saw and manipulation of the useless limb.
In the cold open of this tense episode, the show flashes back to Thackery dazzling a group in the operating theater by his method of locating the appendix in a patient. He follows that up with an incision to the body’s side, followed by his extracting a large, tube like organ from the cut. Yes, the shot was there to thematically parallel the big sex scene that wrapped up the hour, but it also haunted the rest of the episode like a sickening, penis-shaped specter.
As if the poor woman on the operating table trying to get saved following a botched abortion hadn’t suffered enough indignities, after she passes, Thackery decides he “must” try something. He proceeds to cut open her sternum, slide his hand up and start pumping her heart manually. The horror comes as much from the action as it does from Thackery’s weird glee at bringing this person back to “life,” if only for a few seconds.
There’s no blood, or exposed organs, or other such ickiness in this scene, just a long moment of unctuousness enacted by the future father-in-law of Cornelia Robertson. The piggish gent lets himself into her bedroom as she’s disrobing and starts revealing the dark, disgusting heart that beats in his body. “I believe our coming together is a wonderful thing that will provide rewards and pleasures for all of us,” he says as he edges closer and closer to Cornelia. Your skin crawls just thinking about it.
We’ve been shown hospital dramas before, no doubt. But right from the get-go, The Knick wanted you to know that it was going to be very, very different. In the opening scene of the first episode, Doctors Thackery and Christianson oversee a placenta previa case and it turns into a blood-soaked affair, with the surgeons and nurses trying desperately to save the life of both mother and child. We watch as the doctors fill bottle after bottle with the woman’s blood, and in the end, we are shown her distended stomach, tubes and metal protruding from it like small vines. If you planned on settling in with a meal to watch episode one, think again.
A young woman arrives at the hospital, and we follow her from behind as she walks through, people recoiling or pointing at her as she goes. She turns out to be Abby Alford, an old girlfriend of Dr. Thackery’s, and the reason for the gawking is that she has no nose any more. In (as far as I know) one of the show’s few uses of CGI technology, we get to see the open hole in this poor woman’s face, and get to cringe as the doctor inspects it with what looks a twinkle in his eye. It’s not the most graphic of scenes, but Thackery poking around in this new cavity in her face is… more than enough to leave us squeamish viewers reeling.
Thackery’s desperation to find a solution for a heart procedure leads him to spend a long night cutting open the carcasses of pigs, yanking out their gigantic hearts, and trying out different methods of stitching and cauterizing. Unless you grew up on a farm and are used to the slaughter of animals like this, it’s up to you whether you think the sight of all those dead pigs, or that of Thackery sweating over a huge pig heart sitting in a C-clamp is more nausea-inducing. Please, don’t tell us which one you choose.
How desperate were people for entertainment in the year 1900? So desperate, that they would place bets on whether a man could hold his own against a mischief of rats. As the show opens, ambulance driver Cleary is summoned to a dark room with a small square in the center. Into it steps a tall, clearly drunken gent. Then they dump in the sack of rats. The whole thing is shot for maximum chaos, with the camera swooping and spinning around the man as he desperately tries to stomp on these rodents before they bite him. You get to see the quick spray of blood and matter as his boot comes down. And you get to recoil when he slips and falls, knowing he’s likely about to get gnawed upon. At least they spare us the sound of squealing rats and screaming onlookers, by having the modular synth score be the only sound we hear. Merely cold comfort, though, when faced with scattering animals and the dizzying swirl of the camera.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste, and the author of Empire: The Unauthorized Untold Story, available in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter.