The Knick is one of my favorite shows for a variety of reasons. I love the acting, the writing, but I love the directing most of all. Helmed by Steven Soderbergh, the Knick was once described by a critic as “the best show you are not watching.” For this week’s essay, I will focus on Tom Cleary’s character arc in the first two seasons of the Knick and how it functions on a narrative level.
When we are first introduced to Tom Cleary, he is waiting in the ambulance bay with his co-worker, cracking dark jokes about the untimely death of the chief surgeon. He works as a paramedic, in practice this often means he is just transporting fresh corpses to the hospital for grisly medical experiments, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in his work. Nonetheless, Chris Sullivan—the same actor who played Taserface in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Benny Hammond in Stranger Things—portrays the character with impressive nuance and I imagine most audiences will understand well how Tom Cleary fits into the cultural milieu of New York at the turn of the 20th century. So inured is he towards violence that he sees nothing wrong asking Sister Harriet, in the almost immediate aftermath of a terrible accident, if nuns often break their vows on account of sexual curiosity. Much to his surprise, she responds by letting him know that “we get curious but then they show us a photograph of your sorry face and we all run right back into the arms of God.” Perhaps to add insult to injury, she also notes that “your ugly mug’s responsible for more girls staying virgins than the chastity belt.”
Cleary takes it all in stride and continues to trade barbs with Sister Harriet during their semi-regular interactions at the Knick hospital. By complete accident, he discovers that Sister Harriet secretly provides abortions to women of all walks of life and derisively refers to her as baby-killer from then on. However, after seeing a woman bleed out after a botched abortion, he changes tack and agrees to help her.
This decision engenders a great deal of risk since abortion is still illegal at this time but Cleary manages to evade the law. Sister Harriet, however, is not so lucky and season 2 begins with her awaiting trial. Cleary fears for her well being and dedicates himself to her legal defense with almost singular obsession. So desperate is Cleary to help her that he even pilfers medical supplies from the hospital in order to help pay for her bail as well as her defense lawyer. He succeeds in getting her the necessary money, though not without some terrible collateral damage, but life outside of prison isn’t much better for Sister Harriet as she ends up in the “care” of some truly awful people. Despite having little in the way of savings, Cleary sends money every week to Sister Harriet, only to discover that the money he has been sending has been getting filched. When it becomes clear that Sister Harriet will suffer terribly if the case proceeds to trial, Cleary even resorts to extortion to ensure that the well-off women who benefitted from Sister Harriet’s medical assistance will come to her aid. His unflagging support proves crucial as Sister Harriet is excommunicated from the church once others discovers that she has helped terminate numerous pregnancies.
Cleary’s actions are often brutish, a prime example being when he knocks a gun-wielding assailant unconscious, but they are understandable also. By the end of season 2, he is one of the most sympathetic characters in all the show and I think a great many audience members feel bad for him when Sister Harriet rejects his proposal. Cleary is nothing if not persistent though and when he visits confessional in his penultimate scene, he confesses to the priest that he intends to marry a woman essentially disowned by the church. Had Cleary’s character arc followed the expected path, this scene could have helped build up more good will for the character. Instead, Soderberg yanks the narrative rug out from underneath the audience and reveals that we never should have rooted for Cleary in the first place.
For most of season 2, the audience is led to believe Sister Harriet was caught simply because her luck ran out. As it turns out, she wasn’t caught so much as she was betrayed. The cops didn’t just discover that she was carrying out illegal abortions—they were informed by Cleary. Moreover, he informs them for the worst possible reason: he wants her willingness to provide abortions to become common knowledge. He knows that a sister would never be allowed to marry but he also knows that Harriet’s fellow sisters equate abortion with murder. Just as he expected, she is unceremoniously expelled from the church after being arrested, even Sister Harriet’s surrogate mother disowns her, and she never discovers his duplicity. As a result, the scene in which she agrees to marry him, the final scene for Sister Harriet and Tom Cleary, is all the more haunting.
Some might find this character arc frustrating—viewers who believed Cleary was a good person or viewers who wanted him to face some kind of reckoning—but I think that’s exactly what makes it work so well on a narrative level. Besides being a great example of the Kuleshov effect, Cleary’s character arc gives viewers some profound questions to ponder. Does the priest who took Cleary’s confession have a moral obligation to share the truth with Sister Harriet, even though it would violate his vows? What if Cleary is never seized by guilt and keeps his duplicity secret from Sister Harriet for decades? What if Sister Harriet never discovers his duplicity at all? They are tough questions to answer and I think Knick fans will ponder them whenever they reflect on the character of Tom Cleary.