Welcome back to a feature I’m doing this summer called “The Road to The Defenders.”  The concept is pretty simple.  Between now and August I am going to be watching the Netflix MCU shows a second (or third) time through in the build up to the monumental team up hitting Netflix on August 18th.  I won’t be reviewing the shows per se, more just reflecting on the way the episodes feel with the full scope of the first two and a half years of the project now in view.  In particular, I want to explore what feels different in retrospect from the first viewing.  For those who haven’t watched these shows yet, I will give a SPOILER WARNING that I’ll be talking about the shows without concern for revealing anything that happens in the story lines.  This week we continue with Daredevil.  If you would like to catch up, part one is here.

Episodes Watched: Daredevil Season 1, Episodes 5-8

Netflix has developed a habit of dividing their series into two halves, often with those halves marked by a villain shift. Daredevil Season 1 doesn’t stick in my memory as working this way, but it actually fits the model pretty well.  All the episodes through Episode 6 focus largely on the crime organization of Wilson Fisk, and Matt Murdock attempting to get a sense of what is happening.  The Russians are the direct challenge and Episodes 5 & 6 lead up to the tense hostage situation in the abandoned warehouse.  This is also the pivot point in the plot where Fisk manages to bring public attention to Daredevil.  The tone significantly shifts when Episode 7 comes.  The constant tension building of the first half dozen episodes is broken by a lot of flashbacks and world building in the episodes that follow.  Rosario Dawson also abruptly disappears at this juncture.

The standoff with the police following the destruction of the Russians’ facilities is a truly brilliant episode.  It is just good situational writing.  Every event if believable and ratchets up the tension.  The scene isn’t about adding super powers or magic or ninjas or anything fantastic.  Instead, the writers use the social context to heighten the stakes.  Daredevil cannot just attack the police, but he can’t trust them either.  His options are limited by the presence of the media and public image concerns.  Those two episodes work like a noose slowly tightening around Matt’s neck.  These shows would do well to return to a bit more of these situational challenges, though Luke Cage‘s standoff at the club is reminiscent.

One of the standouts on this watching for me is Nikolai Nikolaeff playing Vladimir, the Russian crime boss.  The first time through he really didn’t make a lot of impression as a character.  He does pale in comparison to the smoldering powerhouse presence that is Vincent D’Onofrio.  With some perspective, however, Vladimir is a fully formed character with a personality and values.  When looking back at a variety of other crime bosses in the shows, whether the Irish guy from Daredevil Season 2 or the host of red-shirt bosses from Luke Cage, it is now obvious that these characters can be totally flat and unimpressive.  I can’t give you the name or personality of most of the rest of the criminal underworld in the Netflix-verse.  But Vladimir I remember well.  Given the memorability of Owlsley, Nobu, and Gao, the writing is clearly partially responsible as well.  One of the reasons this season sticks out as one of the more excellent is because of how deeply the world was built.  There are a dozen fully formed characters circulating after five episodes, whereas some of the other Netflix shows struggled to give us a handful of great characters.

Speaking of Leland Owlsley, he is so much fun.  Bob Gunton has to walk such a difficult tightrope.  His lines could be overly humorous in a generally dire show, so his ability to deliver them with a certain macabre humor is invaluable.  He also has to be believable in his relationship to Fisk.  Too much cowering and he’d be obnoxious and whiny, but too much backbone and we wouldn’t believe that Fisk would allow him to breathe.  Instead, he is just confident enough, while still maintaining a little bit of whimpering weasel.  It makes sense that Netflix was not ready to make him a full-fledged super villain, and a transformation into the Owl might not have worked, but one could be forgiven for wondering what the next step might have looked like.

Another big piece of the world building aspect of these episodes is the introduction of Stick and the Hand.  I’ve never been a big fan of Stick, but this time he grew on me some.  Because he is a warrior in a battle that no one sees, so much of what he does can be misunderstood as cold, heartless behavior.  On this viewing, I tried to ask hard questions of myself.  “What if his treatment of Matt is the only way to make him tough enough for what is coming?”  “What if he really is the only one who understands what’s happening around him?”  Raising a child in a war zone cannot be easy.  This time through I felt for the first time that Stick’s coldness isn’t totally his desire.  He is merely doing what he must to prepare Murdock for the war coming.

I was totally surprised by how much an early conversation between Matt and Stick mirrors the infamous Punisher scene on the rooftop in Season 2.  Stick several times refers to Daredevil as a “half measure.”  If Stick and Punisher could ever be on screen together the interaction would be fascinating.  Season 2 probably doesn’t make the emotional connection as tight as it could.  There is a reason why Matt Murdock responds so poorly to Frank Castle, and that reason is because he hears so many echoes of Stick.  Castle is a peer who brings out all the philosophical issues with Stick, and probably calls to mind the abandonment and father issues as well.  This context also drives home how important Jack Murdock is to the myth telling of Daredevil.  Elektra, Punisher, and Stick are all evidence of how most people respond to the challenges of Hell’s Kitchen.  It is only the influence and morality of Jack that helps Matt to be different.

The Kingpin origin episode is also in this bunch.  That episode is a hard one for me to evaluate.  In some ways, it is one of the more remarkable of the season.  Marvel Studios and Marvel TV have both failed to create a better villain after six TV shows and 15 films.  Much of that is due to never spending time on the roots of the character like we have here.  The subtly of D’Onofrio’s performance makes it a joy to watch and rewatch and rewatch.  I feel a personal connection with Kingpin and feel for him at so many junctures (you know, minus the being a murder part).  The flip side, however, is that the episode really takes from the momentum of the plot.  It’s like the world’s best rest stop on a freeway.  For all of its value, it stops the momentum of the journey.

That’s true of both Episodes 7 & 8 and really brings up a challenge to the 13 episode seasons.  They are truly the beauty and ugliness of Netflix shows.  In the best seasons of these MCU properties, and I still consider Daredevil Season 1 the best, these non-plot moving episodes provide a rich background.  Characters become more real and human.  The canvas is expanded by including new elements and mysteries.  In the worst shows, they are just boring filler.  One of the reasons fans adored this series on first viewing was because there was space to breathe and build, particularly compared to a film.  But that also means the plot gets a bit lethargic.  Too often as fans or critics we lament pacing while also celebrating strong character work, but ultimately you have to sacrifice one to get the other.