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I have two tv series on the go at the moment: Guillermo Del Toro's The Strain, and Stephen Soderbergh's The Knick. Neither flabberghasts on a story level - The Strain is pure Del Toro schlock (think Hellboy with less monsters and lower budget), while The Knick seems content to tell the usual story of American life in the early 20th century: ie. a story about racism, sexism and science with a 'backward society clawing its way to enlightenment' theme. Still, both of them have their merits, managing to be good stories if not great ones. What's got me thinking about them right now however is how they share one odd trait: their apparent protagonists don't feel like protagonists.

Both The Strain and The Knick are ensemble shows, with a variety of plotlines ensuring all characters gain some degree of prominence, but, both shows are also built to keep one character in particular focus. Both of these characters are straight, white, male doctors from an affluent background, possessed of a scientific mindset and dramatic character flaws. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) of The Strain is a control freak workaholic who is pathologically wedded to preserving his nuclear family, despite literally everything in his life suggesting he is not quite cut out for that sort of relationship. John Thackery (Clive Owen) of The Knick is a drug addicted racist who treats people like things and who wears sneakers to work (I mean really). Both of them are of course brilliant, and for this reason each show seems to want to treat them as protagonists, a creative decision that has started to feel weird as both men become more and more unpleasant.

The source of trouble for both men, is a flaw in their self-perceptions. Goodweather for example, having just had impromptu sex with love-interest-but-not-wife Nora (Mia Maestro) in his ex-wife's house, suddenly finds his post-coital snooze interrupted by said ex-wife's best friend. In the ensuing comic scramble of clothes and recriminations, Goodweather states to said best friend that he still loves his ex-wife, right in front of the woman he just had sex with. Certainly the character does have very strong feelings for his ex-wife (though, again...not so strong that it stops him having sex with someone else), but the context of that statement is damning. Goodweather perceives himself as a family man. He isn't, but he clings to that myth, and even when the evidence is stacked against him would rather wound a lover than see himself differently. His clashes with Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) only solidify this impression - though in this case Goodweather argues in order to preserve some intellectual/social clout in a world where he isn't the boss anymore. Fet's barbs in return ring true - having a pawnbroker and a rat-killer know more than him definitely makes Goodweather uncomfortable. He is a man who likes control, and not having it keeps him constantly one step away from tantrums. More and more The Strain is painting Goodweather as a self-deceiving elitist who cares more about his vision of himself than he does about the feelings of others. As such, his protagonist status is starting to get weird.

The same goes for Thackery. In a scene I just watched, love interest Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson) invites him in for sex. She is however nervous about the pain, it being her first time. His answer: offer her liquid cocaine (a substance he knows is addictive) and hey presto - no pain, but a mountain of ick for me. Thing is, for Thackery, that's a perfectly logical decision to make - he's an addict, and turns to the drug automatically when a problem needs solving. But the act itself is an authority figure (he is a doctor offering a drug) offering an addictive substance to someone in a moment of total, mutual trust, and offering a chemical in response to a nervousness that demands empathy. The whole sequence is tensely discomfiting, as is the following scene which, hanging in Elkins' post-coital perception, feels preoccupied, uncertain, happy and unhappy. Thackery is not Goodweather. He doesn't deceive himself so much as he just doesn't see what it is he's doing. The same goes for when he decides to hire a couple of prostitutes for the weekend so he can conduct medical experiments on them, while also having occasional sex. He's using his ability to control their bodies to do things to them beyond their usual remit, in a context where his money means they cannot refuse: yet he clearly sees no problem with his actions. Because that's Thackery. He's a racist yes, and an addict, but his major flaw, growing ever greater, is the way he seems able to treat people how he likes without thinking about how they feel. It's not that he's uncaring. It's more that caring is an option for him, and one he often prefers not to select. As with Goodweather, Thackery's perception of what he does feels quite divorced from the role in the story he seems to play.

There is of course the chance that I have completely misread the position of both characters. The two are definitely designed to be flawed, and maybe that means I should start to see them as Walter Whites, as villains in the making. Or maybe I should accept the ambiguity itself as the effect sought by the artists. Those readings have about as much potential validity as the more negative interpretation: that the makers of The Strain and The Knick wrote their characters without understanding what their behaviour implied about them. But as a conclusion is needed, here is what I think now. I do not think these characters have fully slipped their writers' control. I think both Goodweather and Thackery are meant to seem both good and bad, sometimes well-meaning, sometimes hurtful, and that is how they are in their shows. However. To write that is a balancing act, and seeing how these characters have been behaving of late, I feel they may be tipping more towards the bad than their stories are perhaps prepared for.
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January 2016


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