[Review] – Daredevil, Season 2

In which a sophomore effort is made to tell two stories unequally, with predictable results.

I liked the first season of Daredevil. I quite liked it, I think the record shows. I believe I called it something to the effect of “the Batman series we’ve always wanted.” Because that’s what it was: it was Batman. Not quite as obvious as wanting to be Batman as Arrow, but unfortunately the tone and style of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films was too much to overcome. What separated it out was the fact that Matt Murdock was a genuinely conflicted and fully rounded character, and that Wilson Fisk was the sort of sympathetic, nuanced villain that the Marvel films have been utterly unable to create without putting ridiculous horns on his head.

Then came Jessica Jones and put Daredevil very much to shame. Its villain wasn’t sympathetic or nuanced, but vile and perfect. Jessica wasn’t conflicted but her single-minded determinism and general likeability despite being a major league asshole made her appealing. Jessica Jones also benefited from a substantially more engaging and diverse supporting cast (and I don’t just mean racially, though yes). It felt like Netflix and Marvel were making great strides forward in terms of balance of storytelling, depth of character and generally putting their cinematic big brothers to shame. Unfortunately, Daredevil Season 2 is not a continuation of this trend, but rather a slippage. On one hand, it is a powerfully watchable 13 episodes, with more than enough hooks to keep you going from one episode to another. On the other hand, is holds together less well than either of its predecessors. Significantly less well, a very clear side effect of sequelitus, wherein too much of an attempt to outdo the previous season results in a lost focus, and a wasted opportunity. Spoilers antecedently.

Let us begin with what works, and thankfully the greatest success of this series remains its characters. Weirdly, it is none of its primary and regular characters. The two new additions bring the show its laurels this year, with Jon Bernthal and Elodie Yung making off with the series right out from under the noses of the stars. This might seems an odd statement to make considering that in a couple paragraphs, I’m going to accuse both the Punisher and Elektra storylines of being the great weakness of the series, and yet the characters of Frank Castle and Elektra are its greatest strength. But it is true. The show is elevated by their performances, entirely because their performances aren’t writ large from the same playbook as everyone else on this show. Or, perhaps more accurately, they aren’t burdened by repetitious material from last season. I can see quite easily how these characters might fall into that same trap in the future, but within the confines of this seasons, they come off looking rich.

Which they are. From her first line of dialogue, Elektra shows more energy than anyone else on the show. She is also the only character, Foggy exempt, that seems to have a sense of humour. The difference being, Foggy’s humour is almost always deflective, either self-deprecating or fatalistic. Elektra shows signs of knowing actual joy in her life. A gleeful confidence that makes her a more engaging character, at least until she starts hanging around Matt and consequently becomes more morose. Castle, on the other hand, is the opposite of cheerful. He takes up the reins of the tragic figure on the show deftly, and like with Fisk last year, the writers did manage to craft a wonderful misery for him. A misery that Bernthal makes exceedingly clear. Unlike previous Punishers, this Castle isn’t just a nineties violence wet-dream; you do fully understand his motivation.

Perhaps what makes both characters work, and work in contrast to the rest of the cast, is their complete and steadfast belief in what they are doing. Despite their best efforts, the writers don’t manage to convince us that what Frank Castle is doing is right, or justified. It’s too gratuitous and broadly scoped for that. But both Frank and Elektra are 100% committed to their perspectives. They are true believers in their causes, and more importantly, in their identities. They are the rocks in the Murdock ocean of turmoil. Elektra knows that she is a sociopath, and derives her confidence from knowing that of herself entirely. Frank, likewise, is an unrepentant killer who seeks no absolution or sympathy or societal acceptance of what he does. He views it as necessary, and does not hesitate. That level of self-acceptance and self-awareness is utterly lacking in the rest of the cast, as the writers apparently think that constant transition is an equal to meaningful transition.

Matt Murdock remains the embodiment of conflict. Last season he grappled with the idea of having to kill, and ended the season realizing that his way is possible, and completely necessary in the face of evil willing to go beyond extremes to fulfill their needs. And he has seen the results. This season should have placed Murdock as the opponent to the same firm resolve he finds in Castle and later Elektra. Instead, the writers have him once again seduced by their arguments. Not only does he spend yet another season wafting back and forth between wondering if he should kill as a means to an end, he heaves from one extreme to another. He’ll be cautioning Elektra that they won’t be killing anyone to fighting alongside her as she casually spears ninjas through the eye. By the end of the season, he willingly commits murder twice (it is inconsequential that the character is functionally immortal, it does not negate the fact that Daredevil murders him wilfully and knowingly, and in the process undermines any moral credibility Matt might have had in the future).

The problem with this approach is that it makes it seems as though the character is incapable of growing. And the argument will be that conflict is dramatic, but having Matt be resolute in his position and struggle with other characters that are resolute in their opposing positions is the conflict that this season needed. But because Matt slips back at the slightest inclination either makes him seem weak-willed or effete. What doesn’t help is that he is absolutely resolute in his position that being Daredevil is something he must do. He allows his personal life to fall completely apart on him in order to keep up his vigilante ways, which would seem like a power position to take except that when he is Daredevil, he has no mission statement. And he won’t, until he decides the absolutes in his life. The discussion of crossing the line is an empty one if you have not drawn a line, or if the line moves at your convenience. What makes Frank and Elektra and even Foggy effective is that they know where their lines are, and feel nothing pulling them back to the other side. The same was true of Jessica Jones: she did what she absolutely needed to, and owned that decision. Matt Murdock constantly relies on others to define his lines, and then ignores them as the occasion permits.

This same weakness affects Karen, though I suspect that is as much to do with the writers having little idea where to take her. Her storyline is better this seasons, but the character is woefully underserved by being the character that the writers do stuff to, and has so little identity beyond constantly victimization that they move her from one position to another with little side effect. They do dress her in a sheen of empathy, which appears to be characterization, but when you actually examine the character, she’s mostly just reacts to the last horrible thing that happened to her, breathlessly. They give her a romantic plot, which is only there to give Matt something to sacrifice later on (and be conflicted about once Elektra returns). They give her lots of scenes with Frank, but this is mostly just an avenue to providing exposition about Frank’s past, as well as giving us one character who is on Frank’s side throughout. And by the season’s end, she’s become Ben Ulrich, in a move that feels like the writers really regretted killing off him off last season and decided to just say “screw it” and make Karen a reporter. Mostly though, she’s just the damsel, which is a horrible thing to write, because I wish we were beyond such nonsense. But what other way is there to describe a character who gets kidnapped for reasons not exceeding “immediate emotional impact.” Which Matt doesn’t need in most instances, because he’s already involved and motivated. Her gasp-inducing backstory is interesting in no way, mostly because it is obviously an attempt to give her something approaching a dimension. But even the writers care so little about it that they haven’t bothered to explain it. Any other character would have gotten drunk and confessed their sins to someone by now.

But the real weakness of this season is the lack of focus. Last year was all about Wilson Fisk. Everything fed off of that. This season lacks any similar focus. The writers split the action between Punisher and The hand, but it isn’t an even split, and the writers clearly are playing favourites with Frank Castle. The problem is, this isn’t the Frank Castle show, this is Daredevil. But after episode 4, Daredevil and the Punisher have almost no reason to interact. They have their rooftop showdown, Frank gets arrested and while this would have been the best opportunity to shift from a physical confrontation to a philosophical one, Matt gets distracted and so do the writers. Foggy throws Matt off the case, and that removes any interaction that Matt and Frank might have had. They throw in a couple more brawls late in the season, but that adds nothing to their relationship that the earlier episodes didn’t already convey. And because Frank and Matt barely have one conversation together, there is no chance of Matt having any effect on Frank. Instead, it all falls to Karen, who enables Frank throughout the season.

The writers are clearly more interested in Frank’s story than the threat of the Hand, which while it contains more characterization because it involves the dynamics between Matt and Elektra and later Stick, the plot is rice paper thin. The Hand are doing… something, somewhere, sometime. Either the writers couldn’t come up with something specific that satisfied them, or they are annoyingly dragging this out for use in either a third season or another of the Netflix shows. So, one plot doesn’t involve the title character, and the other isn’t compelling. And, the two fit together in no way. Frank spends the season hunting the people responsible for killing his family, the revelation being so mundane and so “oh geez, I suppose we need to wrap this up” that it lacks any effect. Meanwhile, the Hand spends the season getting ready to unleash something onto New York City. I spent the season expecting these plots to dovetail, as any organic story would. But no. When Frank does cross paths with The Hand, it is forced and makes no damned sense, and the Hand never play their, uhumm, hand. There is a lead coffin/urn, and kids with gunk in their blood and Elektra is a goddess to them or something, but none of that ever turns into anything. Whereas last season, everything felt like it was funneling towards the finale, this season felt like the writers lost track of how many episodes they had, or stop caring about plotting and pacing. Last season’s finale felt like a release; this season’s felt like sadistic denial.

What really doesn’t help is that there are completely compelling characters already here, in Claire Temple and Wilson Fisk. Fisk’s return was inevitable, but also blew the rest of the season to shit by being more entertaining, more threatening and more interesting in two episodes than the rest of the season as a whole. True to his nature, and his internal revelation that he is the bad guy, Fisk in short order becomes the Kingpin of prison, setting himself up an empire behind bars. Now more than ever I’m convinced that Fisk will be the ultimate threat that ultimately brings the Defenders together, the Netflix equivalent to Thanos or Loki. If Jessica Jones is the model, the rest of the Netflix series will (rightly) feature personal threats to the heroes. But Fisk, a single man, poses a more believable and credible city-wide threat than the Hand. Hell, the scene between Matt and Fisk in the prison, with Fisk’s hands wrapped around Matt’s neck had more menace than everything else, cumulatively, this season. I wouldn’t have wanted Fisk to be the primary adversary on season 2; that wouldn’t have worked. But by bringing him back, reminding us of the effectiveness of his villainy does disservice to less engaging adversary the writers devised to replace him.

On the flip side, you have Claire Temple, whom the series also uses sparingly, but whose personal narrative as a through-line in all these series makes her a more interesting protagonist then anyone here. She’s another character that has her feet firmly planted on a side of the line with no inclination of moving, and while that resolved self-destructs her life as readily as Matt does his, you get the sense that Claire has it within herself to rise again. Matt is so dependent on the others in his life, everyone he has alienated and pushed away, that without them he’ll collapse into a misery blackhole. The season ending confession to Karen is just more emotional blackmail, seeking the validation he sought from Foggy but couldn’t get. When Claire makes her next appearance in Luke Cage, you feel it won’t be to draw from his strength. Claire is the character others come to when they feel weak.

Ultimately, this season felt like it was doing too much, and poorly. If they had focused on just using the Punisher, it might have worked. If they had just used Elektra, it might have worked. If they had found a credible and engaging threat to use, rather than hope we’d being too distracted by arm chair psychology to notice that there was no blade hanging over anyone’s neck this year, it might have worked. But they tried to do too much, to build on what they did last season and take it up a notch. And that sort of escalation has never worked. Last season they received accolades for the hallway scene, so this season they did another, but added in a stairwell and a CGI chain. The result feels desperate and manipulative and hollow. It certainly feels like they went into the season without a firm grasp on what they needed to say to further the story and the characters, and so were left with sensation as their only resort. And the results, for as independently and momentarily entertaining and enjoyable it could be, as a whole was a step back.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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