Mythological Mercury was the god who, at the behest of the deities, winged his way back and forth from Olympus to the Underworld. In Cinemax’s “The Knick,” directed by Steven Soderbergh, New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital, at the turn of the 20th century, metaphorically and efficiently does duty as both locations.
The hospital’s residential Mercurial imp is John Thackery (Clive Owen), the brilliant chief surgeon whose medical genius is the stuff of the heavens. On the other hand, his baser activities – frequenting brothels and injecting himself with cocaine – puts him on a trajectory to hell.
If the mythological gods controlled life and death, a power often ascribed to the medical profession, then Thackery rules the roost. He imperiously wields his caduceus, the rod associated with Mercury which, over time, became identified with healers.
In addition to Thackery’s sojourns from the heights to the depths, the entire hospital has its share of Mercurial archetypes. Some, like hospital administrator Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), city health inspector Jacob Speight (David Fierro) and ambulance driver Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), bring souls to The Knick in exchange for kickbacks and sometimes through violence carried out with a baseball bat. This trio evokes the Mercury who escorted souls to the ferryman Charon who, for a fee, brought his dead passengers to the Underworld.
On the higher end of the spectrum is Cornelia Robertson (Julia Rylance), the daughter of the hospital’s patron who, in addition to her wealth, has the compassion to make The Knick a safe haven for the dying – a beneficent transitional bridge – such as the critically ill female immigrant with a young family. Robertson also represents the conduit leading out of a narrow mindset and into a progressive outlook that aims to integrate the institution through the hire of highly qualified surgeon Algernon Edwards (André Holland), an effort that Thackery strongly opposes.
However, Mercury’s ultimate link is to the mind. And, as Thackeray expounds, the world has seen more medical advancement – a mental achievement – in the previous five years than it had through hundreds. Mercury, the archetype behind intelligence, teaching and communication, is here also tied to Uranus (lightning quick insights, exemplified by Thackery’s use of cocaine as an anesthetic to help a dying patient too ill to tolerate traditional anesthesia), Neptune (Thackery’s addiction) and, above all, Pluto (death – a lot of it – which resurrects new life-generating solutions and possibilities).
After just one episode, Soderbergh and writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler have gracefully woven a familiar archetypal theme into a relatively modern, hundred-year-old setting. When it comes to medicine, the mind operates 24/7.
Archetype: Healer, Visionary,Death Trickster
Astrology Archetype: ☿ (Mercury)