Daredevil, season two
Created by Drew Goddard
Season two showrunners: Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez
Released on March 18th, 2016 and available for streaming on Netflix
When the first season of Daredevil dropped last year on April 10th (my dad’s birthday—also a former amateur boxer), I had relatively low expectations. For one, I missed the Ben Affleck-led feature film completely and was told by pretty much everyone that I had lucked out by doing so. More than that, though, I was altogether exhausted from the repetitive narrative structure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. took way too long to become even mildly interesting, and even if Guardians of the Galaxy from the summer before had been a huge breath of fresh and unabashedly entertaining air, the lingering feelings that the MCU had been fully explored and was becoming stale manifested pretty strongly.
Then there was that hallway fight scene at the end of the second episode of Daredevil. Then there was the smart, deliberate introduction of Wilson Fisk. Then there was “Stick” and “Shadows in the Glass,” back-to-back episodes that stood firmly among the year’s best in television. And then I realized that Daredevil was the most interesting and engaging thing to come out of the MCU since Iron Man kicked the whole thing off in 2008. The first season of the series was much more dark (tonally but, yes, also literally) than the rest of its Universe-mates, which fit the story it was telling as often as it was making it feel authentic—as authentic as superhero tales go. Hell’s Kitchen looked and sounded like an awful place to live, and Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) was only one person among a handful who really cared about making life better for the people around them.
That first season got its strength from reining in its scope and focusing on a set of familiar themes that still managed to have an impact on the viewer because of how tight the production was all around. Daredevil is beautiful to look at. Its choreography is superb, and its cast is almost unanimously strong, led by the incredible and surprisingly unnerving performance of Vincent D’Onofrio as Fisk, easily—easily—way, way stronger and more interesting than any other MCU villain, including Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and David Tennant’s Kilgrave. I stress that only to make the point that Fisk and the select people surrounding him (Vanessa and Wesley) showed how important it was for stories of this nature to have nuanced sources of conflict. The black-and-white nature of the problems facing the various Avengers were outed as huge weaknesses by Daredevil. And with Fisk seemingly out of the picture coming into this second season, how could the series maintain that level of intrigue? Enter: Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle, the Punisher.
What’s Cooking in Hell’s Kitchen?
Season two of Daredevil pivots around the grey areas in the series’ philosophies. Matt, like many superheroes in print and media before him, will not kill. That is his bottom-line rule. Castle and, later, Elektra (Élodie Yung) challenge that part of him in different ways. The effects of those tensions also, importantly, trickle down to other characters like Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), who finds herself torn when trying to understand what she thinks about Castle. Ultimately, Matt is not going to budge. These episodes are very aware of that fact and don’t tease that notion for a cheap shot at unexpected character development outside of one scene in which Castle has to tell Matt that “Just this once” doesn’t work; once you cross the line that Castle has crossed, that’s it. Matt’s ideals nearly get Elektra killed early on, and they are what keep away a potentially easy team-up between Daredevil and Punisher against the gangs of Hell’s Kitchen or the Hand, the season’s real antagonist.
This moral tension within a set of central characters is not new, nor does it feel particularly fresh this season. But even so, Castle and Elektra find ways of jumping off the screen. In Castle’s case, it’s because of Bernthal’s performance, which is one of the best of any of the recurring characters in the season. Castle isn’t built up as a sob case (we first learn about his tragic backstory through the pictures that Karen sees at his house, which is important in showing that Daredevil doesn’t just dump information in episodes; it has a very capable hand at visual storytelling), and Bernthal doesn’t make the character overly sympathetic. At various points, he admits what he is: a murderer who, depending on who’s asking, deserves to be behind bars. He is convincing as a stone-faced killer. Yet, the couple times when Castle comes out of his perpetual fight-or-flight state, Bernthal also nails the pain of what’s eating away at the character. The graveyard speech to Daredevil towards the end of the fourth episode and first arc of the season is undoubtedly the acting highlight of the season, and even if it’s predictable and contrived, it’s moving for how believable Bernthal’s pauses and repetitions of “yeah” and “you know?” make the sequence.
The season never sides with Frank and what he’s doing, but he’s the poster boy as much as anyone else for the questions that the citizens of Hell’s Kitchen and the viewers of the series should be asking. And even if there’s no way for Frank to change who he is now (his conclusion is destroying his past life and embracing his role as Punisher), his path is a vivid and undesirable alternative to how Daredevil handles the character who can change: Elektra. This is after so many voices surrounding her, including Stick (Scott Glenn), are telling Elektra that there’s no way for her to escape the darkness within her. Matt, though, sees something else, just as Elektra is able to see the darkness next to the light inside Matt—the darkness he is constantly battling to suppress. That connection is why the pair works so well together on paper, though they command fewer engaging on-screen moments than Frank does. Matt is right to initially push Elektra away, because some part of him acknowledges how intertwined they are as people and concepts, but he’s also right to put those feelings aside and do what Daredevil is supposed to do: help people.
On the one hand, he succeeds. Elektra, in spite of her destiny as Black Sky, trusts in Matt and finds a way to become the good person he sees within her. The cost, though, is her life, which means that both sides of this season’s coin—Castle and Elektra—wind up making Matt feel helpless and more isolated than ever. He can’t save Frank from himself and he can’t save Elektra, who is too untrained in Matt’s worldview and lifestyle to make it out of that final battle with Nobu (Peter Shinkoda). So, in many ways, season two of Daredevil is the case for its characters finding their own paths, even if it’s the harder course of action emotionally. This is also the kind of stuff Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen have to deal with, and both characters end up in very different places at the end of the season than where they started. Foggy breaks off from Nelson and Murdock after being headhunted by Jessica Jones’ Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) following a powerful display of capability in court during The People of New York vs. Frank Castle. And Karen follows in the footsteps of Ben Urich, taking a role at the Bulletin, where her pursuit of the truth is a natural fit under easy-to-aggravate, easy-to-love editor Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor).
It’s an unusual conclusion to this year’s story overall, because every moment that feels slightly hopeful is shadowed by how disparate and chaotic the things in Hell’s Kitchen still are. The band breaks up. The Hand take Elektra from the grave. Fisk still commands the prison, playing his long game. The drug trade continues in Hell’s Kitchen, with Madame Gao still in the mix. And Matt is nowhere closer to finding peace or sleep (although, he’s finally able to let Karen in). There’s no easy resolution, because there shouldn’t be. One vigilante can’t save the city, which is something Claire (Rosario Dawson) tries to get through Matt’s head. The city doesn’t belong to Daredevil. If the conclusion leaves the pieces all over the place, then the next step must be figuring out a way to bring them back together to face whatever is next. Matt has a chance to learn from his dealings with Castle and Elektra. It’s so hard to fight who you are on the inside. Why not, then, look for the ways in which people are compatible and accept the ways in which they aren’t? That might be the only way Daredevil has a fighting chance.
The Final Verdict
Simply put: season two of Daredevil is not as good as season one. But it’s still a darn good season of television, even by Netflix’s high standards. The structure of this season is more clearly defined, with episodes one through four serving as Act I, episodes five through eight serving as Act II and the remaining episodes being the final act. Yet, despite that framework, the season still feels more scattershot. Without a central figure like Fisk to write around and in parallel to, the events have a bit less weight to them. There are certainly little highlights in the writing, though, like dropping the Matt-Karen love story in favor of giving Karen a chance to develop on her own as a reporter or making Foggy an up-and-coming lawyer instead of just as nagging voice in Matt’s head.
The technical qualities of the series, too, are up to par (though, outside of that incredible stairwell sequence in the third episode, the fighting didn’t pop as much). Some supporting characters were lost from the first season, but that gave Cantor’s Ellison the opportunity to step up and take on the quiet MVP role in the cast. Fisk was a little bit more cartoonish because of being a little bit less brooding, but D’Onofrio still has presence beyond comprehension. And, as mentioned, Berthnal stepped into an iconic role and delivered on all fronts.
There was a lot to live up to in this season of Daredevil for fans (even though critics liked Jessica Jones more based on aggregate scores, IMDb ratings have Daredevil noticeably higher than its still-solid follow-up; I would also argue Daredevil is superior—slightly—across the board). Although those expectations aren’t met entirely, it’s easy to forget to look at Daredevil within wider contexts. Across thirteen episodes, this is still a world infinitely more worthwhile in which to spend time than nearly all of the other areas in the MCU. This is also a superhero series that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty and take risks in a medium that too often limited by cliché and predictability. The writing team displays an obvious appreciation of the material without playing into the fandom. Just as it took Matt the entire first season to get his Daredevil suit, Castle doesn’t don the skull of the Punisher until the very end of these episodes. Daredevil is considerate when unravelling its story and knows how to make individual episodes feel mostly full, which is absolutely the single greatest strength it has above Jessica Jones, which was too thinly spread across thirteen episodes in its first season. The more quality TV that gets released, the harder it is to make time to binge a Netflix season these days. Daredevil’s second season never feels like work; it only keeps you coming back for more.
Rabbits in a Snowstorm
- There are too many episodes here to recount all of my notes, so I’ll stick to the most important/entertaining ones (with episodes in parentheses).
- The immediate sexual tension with Matt and Karen wasn’t encouraging, because that’s way too easy a road to go down (episode one).
- How the heck did no one see Foggy carry an injured Matt back to his place? Like, I know Foggy mentions it, and that he’s surprised, but HOW (episode two)!?
- Everyone really builds up Frank’s capability as a killing machine, and guess what? He’s that good (episode two).
- Good to see Matt has maintained his work relationship with Melvin (episode two)!
- Frank doesn’t like being called crazy (episode three).
- Foggy diffusing that gangster situation at the hospital is a season highlight for him (episode three).
- Finn threatens to torture the dog? Come on. You aren’t making it out of this alive (episode four).
- “I don’t know what you are, but you ain’t him.” Brett to Daredevil, regarding Punisher (episode four).
- The kiss between Matt and Karen in the rain, all things considered, is still pretty magical (episode four).
- Elektra is attracted to the unexpected (episode five).
- Good job on young Matt not killing the guy who killed his father (episode five).
- Karen helping Frank remember what happened to his family and describing what his house looked like is one of the warmest scenes of the season (episode six).
- There’s a difference between saving people and preventing people from needing to be saved (episode seven).
- Stick is very adamant about getting that tea, like it’s part of the healing process for Elektra’s wound, but nope. Just tea for drinking (episode eight).
- “This city really needs heroes, but you’re not one of them.” Ouch (episode eight).
- OH MY GOD, IT’S WILSON FISK (episode eight)!
- It is at this point that it’s becoming way too frustrating that we either don’t see Karen put the pieces together and figure out what’s going on with Matt or demand to know by threatening to walk out (episode nine).
- Frank kills everyone in that prison corridor. Everyone (episode nine).
- Stephen Rider plays Blake Tower, but I really don’t think the season served his character well. Maybe next year (episode ten).
- Frank’s speech to Karen about how the people who hurt you most are the ones who deserve to be that close to you really strikes home for her. He knows immediately that she loves Matt (episode eleven).
- Stick finally gives Matt an edge against the Hand ninjas by telling him to track their breathing (episode twelve).
- Frank sees Matt’s face, right? I mean, I know it’s dark and far away and Frank still calls him Red, but there’s a scope on that gun? It doesn’t really matter, I guess (episode thirteen).