Airtime: Friday, March 18th on Netflix
Episode: Season 2, Episode 05-08 (S02)
Tweetable Takeaway: Matt Murdock fails at life in @Daredevil’s middle episodes and it’s amazing to watch
This middle section of DAREDEVIL’s second season is best subtitled as “Matt Fails at Life.” Pretty much every aspect of his non-vigilante persona crashes and burns. It’s glorious. There are two major facets to this: the first is that Matt’s love life gets muddled by his double life. The second is that he keeps screwing up Frank Castle’s case by serving his own agenda. I love how even as Matt keeps insisting that he’s doing the right thing, he keeps getting questioned about that on all fronts. Let’s explore.
Frankly, Matt Murdoch gets on my nerves. He’s sweet, and he’s fun, and his heart is in the right place, and I love him but I just want to box his ears most of the time. He’s too righteous and it leaves him out of touch. And yes, I know the irony of me saying this since Captain America is my favorite superhero period. The thing with Cap is that he is firmly contextualized as a product of his time. A superhero with Golden Age ideals actually from the Golden Age makes sense, and then his conflict becomes contending with the shifted attitudes and morality of the modern age. Matt’s just too obstinately optimistic about human nature for me. This is also why the Punisher is my complete and total downfall. Hold that thought, I’ll get to him. I think part of the reason I just flat out did not like the first season of Daredevil was that the narrative doesn’t question Matt. In season 2 Matt is confronted with the consequences of his actions and all his rosy intentions keep getting blown to bits.
I can’t pick if my favorite thing is all the romance in this arc or Frank Castle. I’ll be diplomatic and say my favorite thing is Karen since she’s in on both parts. I basically tear through television with a noromo blowtorch. It’s rare that I get told a love story that I buy wholesale. Here I got told two and I loved them both. The thing with most romances in fiction is that they’re difficult to do. They end up tacked on like plot tumors to fulfill a formula or forced in to appease various coalitions of fans/producers/etc. Matt’s relationships with both Karen and Elektra are superbly done. I always say romances need history, and Matt and Karen’s relationship is founded in the trust and caring that they developed last season. They also both maintain their personalities, by which I mostly mean that Karen has a life and interests outside of Matt. She’s majorly relevant to the plot besides being his girlfriend rather than being smooshed into the sole role of love interest. Kisses that make me warm and fuzzy are rare enough you could classify them as a critically endangered species. Every single of one of Karen and Matt’s gave me the warm fuzzies. This is a combination of good writing and superb direction and framing. The show gives the relationship space to breathe and all that oxygen actually lets it catch fire.
With Elektra, they had an even trickier road to convince me because there’s no history there for us. She just appears. The entirety of “Kinbaku” takes pains to give us all the history we could need. It establishes their past relationship and Elektra herself all at once. Elektra is also never squished into just being a love interest since she waltzes into the plot with her own business to take care of and only drags Matt into it seemingly to mess with him. I also adore that she’s frickin’ crazy. Elektra’s bloodlust is absolutely divine. It makes her ideologically a good foil for Matt, but it also emphasizes just how close the Daredevil side of him is to Punisher-style vigilante justice. Where Karen is Matt’s perfect partner, Elektra is Daredevil’s and the fact that he screws up both relationships only underscores that he can’t reconcile his dual identities. One of my favorite parts was Matt and Karen discussing the ethics of vigilante justice in his apartment. Everything Karen was saying was essentially Matt’s justification for dressing up in a ridiculous suit and going out to beat up bad guys. Yet Matt Murdock Esq. is shocked that she would believe such things. It’s a fabulously organic way for their relationship to hit the rocks, but it’s also utterly tragic (like Aristotelian character flaw is your own downfall kind of tragic) because if he could stop playing at different personas there wouldn’t really be an issue.
In addition, Matt gets so tangled up with Elektra’s shenanigans that he consistently bungles Frank Castle’s case. First he doesn’t show up at all leaving Karen and Foggy to do all the work. Then when he needs to question Castle he takes the opportunity to proselytize about how vigilantes are necessary and New York is sick. Like?? Matt, honbun. Every single plot thread is woven together so well here that the completely different stories are seamless. Elektra’s mystery and romance plot destroys the Frank Castle case which in turn tanks his relationship with Karen and Foggy. It perfectly demonstrates that no matter how much Matt may try, he can’t ever separate his Daredevil life from his everyday life. The best outcome of Matt’s disaster is that Foggy gets to be ragingly awesome at all times. There’s real triumph in Foggy’s opening statement in the case because he discovers he doesn’t have to rely on his more charismatic partner. He’s got plenty of talent all on his own.
Okay, hold the phone for a bit because I’ve got to rave about Frank Castle. I have two character types: hyper-competent research nerd and raging Blood Knight who lives by a deeply ingrained internal moral code. Frank Castle hits every single one of my buttons for the second type. He believes his actions are justified; he takes it upon himself to fix a problem he has the skills to fix; he has such a strong moral center that he can’t see a dog tortured and reassures Karen she wasn’t in any danger when he was shooting at her. This is already too long or I’d go on a huge spiel about Karen herself. Frank refuses to lie about being crazy or having PTSD because it’s disrespectful to people who are actually dealing with those things. Hello relevance to modern news cycle which stigmatizes mental illness every time there’s a mass shooting or a high profile case of domestic violence. Frank knows exactly what he’s doing and makes no apologies for it. I love him. I love him much too much. Give me a character who has no qualms about shooting bad guys in the head and I will be a goner every time. My previous archetypal example for character type two was Supernatural’s Dean Winchester. It is now Punisher.
On a thematic level, Frank is the ideal street-level vigilante response to the global structural upheaval that happens in MCU films. Frank is a violent reaction beyond what you can show in a PG-13 movie, even while you can destroy entire cities. Where extra-terrestrial and/or high-level institutional threats are countered by larger-than-life heroes, the constant anxiety that creates means lots of mayhem and lawlessness for everyday people. Brett Mahoney lampshaded it in the first few episodes of this season, but even Daredevil trying to take justice into his own hands only further destabilizes the system. Frank is the logical conclusion of all that chaos. He proves that even well-meaning actions have serious consequences. Particularly, he forces Matt to question whether what he’s doing is actually right. And, while they don’t ever bring it up in Daredevil, Jessica Jones questioned whether what any of our costumed heroes are doing is right. Seriously, there’s no point in having these micro-stories set in the MCU if they’re not going to ask hard questions that you can’t really delve into in the (mostly) family friendly films. I want to wrap both Netflix series in my arms and never let them go.
Another thing that always bothers me is when stories just presume that all familial relationships are perfect, rosy things. Children are often plopped into a narrative as nothing more than default motivation for a character’s actions. Castle’s family is already dead, and yet through his stories he paints such a vivid picture of each of his children that you feel you know them as characters. Daredevil makes a point of fleshing out his family so that the trauma is real instead of just lip service. I love that. Nothing gets my stinkface quicker than a story doing absolutely no work to make me believe that these people love each other. Do you know how many action thrillers read as narcissistic rages because some “baddy” dared to essentially damage some crazy person’s emotional chattel (i.e. wife and kids)? Yeah, I know I have issues here, but just the simple act of Frank telling stories about his kids not only humanizes him, it makes the love he felt for his family more than just a token reason to go on a rampage. It lends his story emotional resonance and depth.
Finally, just hallelujah hands for finally getting back to all the mystical nonsense with Stick. They floated that last season smack in the middle of an otherwise non-powered, totally local crime conspiracy plot and I wanted to smash things when they dropped it. I don’t actually read the comic books which is a deliberate choice I made a few years ago because I wanted to go into everything in the MCU with no foreknowledge so that I could judge each entry for how well it stands on its own. If it doesn’t gel without outside information it’s just pure pandering. That part was pandering and I have a low tolerance for such things. Especially since if you tease me with some kind of mystery I’ll be all over it like white on rice. I’ve watched ahead at this point and am happy to report that the rest of the season deals heavily with the mysterious organizations and epic war between good and evil that they hinted at last time. But if you want my thoughts on that, you’ll have to wait for the last installment in my Daredevil reviews.
All in all, the first two-thirds of Daredevil’s second season are superb. I have absolutely zero complaints and this show had a lot of convincing to do for me to get on board. The combination of Punisher and Elektra’s darker takes on vigilante justice with Karen and Foggy’s stronger characterization on the normal life side fleshes out the entire series. It forces Matt to examine his presumptions and leaves him with such precarious footing that he slips through the cracks. I love that the main character is so torn between these two competing narratives that the only reason he’s relevant to either is because he keeps crashing and burning. Going into this season I was probably the grumpiest, most obstinate person this show had to convince and they did it with ease. Kudos, Daredevil.