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 and part two is here.
Episodes Watched: Daredevil Season 1, Episodes 9-13
A word on Ben Urich to begin. Vondie Curtis-Hall is absolutely brilliant in the role. Many fans and critics alike have lamented his early death, and I too wish he was still around. (Imagine if he could appear in Spider-Man: Homecoming!) But ultimately his death gives an important gravitas to the series as a whole. When Fisk kills him it is an important link in the chain between unethical visionary and crime lord. This is the point at which fans no longer can sympathize fully with the Kingpin as a character. His back story is understandable. To this point, he has largely killed bad people, or at least limited his actions to death via intermediaries or intermediaries of intermediaries. But this is the murder of a character we love with his bare hands. This allows us to be fully on team Daredevil for the finale.
Going back a bit, episode nine may be my favorite episode in all of Daredevil. My personal education background is in theology and I see a lot of bad TV writing with theological (particularly Christian) themes. Everyone thinks they can throw in an image of a guy with his arms outstretched and meaningfully evoke Christology. This episode, however, nails so many things. The discussion of Satan and modern theological thinking on Satan is exquisite. Peter McRobbie acts like an actual priest may act, instead of the false dichotomy of so many TV pastors between a paragon of virtue and a sadistic abuser. While that interest may be peculiar to me, it really matters for character development. Matt Murdock as a character functions on the infamous “Catholic guilt” but also on the philosophical nexus between faith, law, and intuition. Often the righteous thing is not the legal thing nor the thing we want to do. The war between the Catholic, the lawyer, and the vigilante that rages in Murdock’s head is what makes him a character worth returning to, over and over again.
The Foggy and Matt fighting is something that really is a double edged sword in the series, between seasons. In season one, it makes sense to me. Foggy has every right to feel like Matt has been deceptive. Any person would be upset by the revelation, and the fact that others like Claire are relatively chill with the vigilante thing suggests imbalance on their part, not Foggy’s. When it gets to Season Two and Foggy is still fussing about things, that’s when I find it boring and repetitive. The near split of Nelson and Murdock here is dramatic and character driven, but in the next season, it seems like moving pieces in place for The Defenders. (In fairness to the writers, this is a troupe in the comics I find exhausting as well.)
These episodes are the part of the show where narrative wandering happens. The first six episodes where a well-defined arc and episodes seven, eight, and nine were careful retellings of the childhoods and young adult years of Matt and Fisk. By episode nine it feels a bit like the writers said, “How do we fill this out for another five episodes?” That’s not to say that they aren’t enjoyable or that there aren’t good moments in the episodes. One can just acutely feel the difference between the laser-like focus of the first half of the season and the more circumlocutious path of that second half. This distinction is a little sharper on a rewatch, because you can see the elements that really matter and the elements that don’t really matter, either in shows to come or in the final outworking of the season’s plot.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this slowing of the plot is the entire subplot of Mrs. Urich. Ben’s wife never serves any purpose in this show. The several scenes of Ben fighting the insurance system are completely tedious. One could argue that it is her illness that gives Karen an excuse to take Ben to Mama Fisk’s assisted living facility. The problem, however, is the only reason he wants to give up on the exercise at all is his sick wife. So she creates the problem that she solves. All of that unnecessary plot shenanigans does nothing for the show except to make Karen a bit of a monster. It allows Ben’s death to be her fault, instead of just part of his work. Ben’s wife eases those feelings, but again they wouldn’t exist if the extra wife plot wasn’t there to begin with!
One thing that saves some of that lack of focus is the way several episodes end with a truly shocking twist. Both the death of Wesley at the hand of Page and the death of Urich at the hands of Fisk are truly stand out moments of surprise for the viewer. Most fans likely remember those moments clearly, while not really remembering the other 43 minutes of the episodes. This is a great technique to encourage the binge watcher. Each episode feels like it gives you a huge reason to keep going.
Karen Page’s killing of Wesley also further sets up a plot that still dangles unresolved, more than two years later. What is Karen’s past? Was her question (“Do you think this is the first time I’ve shot someone?”) mere bravado, or does she have a truly dark past? This season builds up the question, with Urich finding something that gives even him pause. Season Two then sort of hints it’s a car accident. But we still don’t fully know. That mystery about Page is great, but it needs a major pay off. Her handling of the gun suggests that Karen has some heavy life experiences. The reveal of those needs to live up to the build-up.
Madame Gao, Nobu, and the Hand deserve a quick paragraph. Those in charge clearly saw the long game of these series, leading into The Defenders. Rewatching the episodes the build up of later reveals are clearly seeded. The strongest example is when Nobu dies. Gao mentions that his body is “being prepared for what’s next.” The first time I watched the show I figured that meant burial and I don’t think I was alone. Many were shocked when Nobu reappeared in the second season. The dialogue is clearly an allusion to what they know will come, however. Often in shows with complicated continuity like with these shows there are little errors and points where it is obvious that no plan for the next steps existed. This universe is well planned.
The final episode I found far more fulfilling than upon first viewing. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the show is the way that the story of Murdock and Fisk are interweaved so thoroughly. One very subtle way is Fisk’s several allusions to Scripture and faith. He is a foil to Matt in that he is deeply aware of the Bible yet does not believe. This use of religion is obviously more than coincidence, because of the prominent place his “man of ill intent” speech. (Also his scenes about not praying play off of Matt’s frequent visits to confession.) Throughout the show religion, “my city,” plays on eyesight and vision, metaphors of shadows and masks, and other themes are always used for both Daredevil and the Kingpin. (The two characters even use the same tailor!) They are dual protagonists in many ways, despite Murdock clearly being the hero of the story.
In the end, this is what makes Daredevil Season One the greatest of the Netflix shows to this day, in my opinion. The show is “grounded” but not in the ways that make it unfun. Physics or biology never get in the way of Daredevil’s powers or ability to get a billy club to bounce back to him. Ninjas are a real part of the universe, no fuss made. Instead, the grounding is in the real to life writing. These people talk and think like people. Their life stories make sense and feel real. Most importantly, the villains are just as rich as the good guys. Ben Urich and Karen Page are great characters, but so are Wesley and Owlsley. That focus on the humanity of characters makes this show stand out above and beyond almost every other superhero TV property, Marvel or otherwise. The only other comparable show that springs to mind is Jessica Jones, our topic next time.