Season 1 of Daredevil was a fairly tight, coherent narrative that had a great big mystery to establish, and a story point it wanted to build to. There was the twin arcs together of Wilson Fisk ascending to his status as the Kingpin, and Matt Murdock becoming the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Good work, rounded well, mesh ’em together and you have a solid structure to fill in with incidents and plans and ideas and stuff.
Season 2 did not have any such singular narrative and instead spent all its energy on world-building and narrative construction that was going to matter later. It wanted you to know about Elektra, about Frank Castle, and about yes, finalising the book-keeping of the ascent of Wilson Fisk. There was also some attempt to make the Hand more prominent, to put Madame Gao in position, and to tie up and resolve the question of Nobu, as a character.
What you get as a result is a TV series that has a lot to get done, but almost nothing to say. Instead, the show tries to give you a whirlwind tour of important things while giving you almost nothing to make them hold together?
As with last time, no plot synopsis; no episode by episode rundown. What I’m going to talk about are things the series tried to do, to give you both a potentially interesting insight into the series, maybe a hit of media analysis, or just a way to continue experiencing something you already like. I guess you could also frame this as is there stuff in this that’s enjoyable, if I bother to think about it?
So, content warning about the violence and child death in the series and also spoilers after this cut.
The Meh, The Bad, And The Okay
To give you the quick summary of Season 2, it’s mostly fine, but nothing as good as the first season. It’s like Daredevil loaf, chunks of previous series and idea space churned into a generally coagulated mass and then served to you in thick sections smeared with something like gravy. Nothing wrong with that, and I quite like some Loaf in my entertainment! The problem is there isn’t anything else here, and we know for a fact that Season 2 of Daredevil is trying to get ready to set up Other Stuff.
The Other Stuff isn’t particularly auspicious, though. The best thing in the series is Fisk accepting the title of Kingpin, and that’s after wading through a bunch of Decent Punisher crap and wrapping it up with the utter turgid embarassment of Elektra.
I need to underscore that there’s an uphill battle here; while I had no strong feelings about the Kingpin and Daredevil to start with watching this series, I’m infinitely leery of Elektra and deeply disinterested in the Punisher. The Punisher is, to put it simply, not a superhero character, and any attempts to make him one will break part of what he is as the Punisher. The Punisher is schlock exploitive violence 70s movies set in a Superhero Universe, and his presence tends to make a lot of hero types worse.
The Frank Castle Doctrine
Basically, if The Punisher existed in Gotham, he would absolutely be a villain and he would absolutely make Batman look bad by existing. The Punisher existing in the same space as a hero that’s above his level makes that hero very negligent. He needs to exist in a sphere where the hero he’s dealing with can’t really deal with him, but can scare him off, one way or another. Also he has to travel a lot so he can survive without being like, some hero’s actual obssession.
Point is, The Punisher is bad and he makes superhero stories bad. When he showed up here, well, I was expecting him to make everything actively worse. The good news, sort of, is that he doesn’t really make things worse, which I guess is a better showing than I was expecting the character could manage.
But boy, does he make things stupid.
The first question we’re presented with is, is Daredevil basically the same as the Punisher; ie, is a serial killer with a gun who lives in a van and kills bad people relentlessly and constantly, fuelling more murder with the money stolen from that murder, the same basic thing as a lawyer who, at night, goes out of his way to try and prevent more hurt to innocents?
You can probably guess where I fall on that particular issue.
We’re not so different, you and I is a line that is at this point so well worn as to be cliche and instantly signals to me a writer who is trying very hard to convey untrue things to the audience because they didn’t get around to it earlier by showing, rather than telling. The thing that stands out to me in Daredevil is that there’s this very real attempt to call what Frank Castle did in Iraq as heroic, a word that this franchise seems really resistant to use.
This is some really boggy coding: Frank Castle, an unrepentant and morally unambiguous serial killer, draws upon his military experience as if that is a signifier of fundamental moral good. This is something a couple of movies do lately, including Man of Steel and it always seems extremely worrying to me. After all, it’s a well known and well established canard in this universe that the police are deeply corrupt, and the corruption isn’t yet weeded out; why are the military somehow perfect and safe? Why are the people who explicitly go to different countries to kill people for the state better people than those who may have signed up to defend their local area from crime?
I’m not saying people should like cops, I’m asking why a soldier somehow endows still greater moral character.
Also, if you know anything about law, at all, the entire court arc is bullshit. Don’t even try. It’s totally ridiculous nonsense. The police literally tried to execute him as a legal action, with witnesses – it’s a really stupid sequence.
The Land Of Incorrectly Pluralised Ninjas
Remember how Stick was one of the most obnoxious story elements in the first series? Well guess what, he’s back, and he’s more obnoxious than ever! He’s bringing in Elektra and now we have that plot to play with! And ‘plot’ is maybe overstating it!
Elektra, as a character, is someone I’m cautious about because it’s extremely hard to pull her off well. She’s an extremely volatile character, where there’s a lot of stuff around her that can be really awful if you do the wrong thing with it. She’s almost always presented as a weird Sexy Ninja kind of girl, and a lot of the work around her in her canon is related to a writer who has, let’s say, an extremely difficult body of work when it comes to women.
Other, better writers than me have spoken about the representation problems in this part, the sheer ridiculousness of how Ninja are presented as both common enough to fill a faction up and universally of one single culture.
There’s this list of basic traits you can see characters having to represent whether or not they are objects, and in Daredevil season 2, you see the entire checklist:
- Instrumentality: Ninja are a tool used by the story and by the Hand to impede Daredevil.
- Agency: Ninja do not make choices for themselves.
- Ownership: The Ninja are the property of the Hand.
- Fungibility: The Ninja are all entirely interchangeable except for Nobu.
- Violability: There is no moral question in fighting or opposing the Ninja.
- Subjectivity: None of the Ninja are presented as having feelings, ideas or opinions that matter.
That’s a pretty safe checklist to see if something is up, and the Ninja in Daredevil hit the entire list. This is ridiculous! It has a knock-on effect that the landscape of this season is mostly composed of empty character space, that there’s only really one or two characters in the ‘Elektra’ space of the story and a bunch of ninja.
What that means is you don’t get to see multiple characters providing insights or opinions on any given event. There’s no real variance of characters or dynamics to interact with, to bounce off one another, because Elektra’s entire story only relates to Matt and sort of Stick. That means her story isn’t this interesting, conspiratorial struggle, a whole world that pulls Matt towards his darker night-life, but is instead two people being whiny at each other in a cupboard.
The Hallway Corral
Now it’s not that there’s a fundamental flaw in the series – it’s just a sign that the show is at its best when it’s going somewhere, when it can treat its story beats as things with a throughline, with a purpose and a direction. The people making the show, however, are still really good at their jobs, and when you give them something to do, they’re going to do it well.
I’m really referring to the Hallway fight, of course.
Now this isn’t to say the Hallway fight in Season 1 is on the same level as the Hallway fight in Season 2. Season 1’s Hallway is a sequence based around a cinematic frame resonating with a character’s own limits. It was a hold, which held to be implacable and heartless, a hold that stood alongside Matt’s resolve to not stop. You start expecting the cut to show you something new, to show you that you can stop, that you can relax. The actual tension of the sequence is one, long does it end now? Now? Now? How about now? as you’re shown that as much as you think he’s done, that he’s run out, that he can rest, no he can’t, and the hold of the camera does that. It’s great.
The Hallway fight of Season 2 isn’t a single-shot type like that. It’s instead much more of a sort of victory lap for Frank Castle, a sign where the show tells you that yes, Frank is that much of a badass. Going into the scene you’re presented with two very rudimentary outcomes: Either Frank dies here, in the aaaarms of an angeeeellll plays and it’s all very tragic and shows what a badass Fisk is by being able to end the Punisher, or Frank is going to kill-to-death everyone who comes at him and shows off what a total badass he is. You might believe the former for a heartbeat but if you’re aware, at all, of the fact that the Punisher is the goddamn Punisher, you know they’re not going to kill him off here because it’d be a waste of some pefectly good Punisher in a franchise that makes a point of barely ever killing anyone off.
It’s a great little scene, it’s vicious and it’s satisfying and it’s edit-light, and if, like me, you saw it after Iron Fist, it shows you that they can do good fight choreography if they’re not having to hire people who aren’t actually very good at kung fu or whatever. It’s particularly nice in that it seems to be trying very hard to present Frank’s rampage as being almost but not quite transforming him. It’s sort of a moment where Castle shows that he is every bit as scary as he presents himself as being.
There’s a tiny touch of the romantic to it; with the Catholic imagery and resonance taking a backseat in Season 2 (possibly because, as I said, this series doesn’t really have any idea what it’s about), there’s still some really rudimentary Christian imagery there of a man being bathed in blood as a form of redemption.
On the other hand, the Hallway fight is just good in its own context – it’s a really nice little action sequence, it bridges two plot points and… really, it left me wondering why the rest of the series wasn’t full of that.
Oh, and Clancy Brown is usually great so it’s pretty dope to see him around.
I think more than anything else I like Daredevil as an execution of a character, a series that’s at its best when it has a place it’s going. Despite that I’m never really going to want to watch it again, and season 2 is really a third of a good show and that’s all there is to it. Watch Season 1, and it’s pretty good; watch Season 2 once and stop watching it about the point Frank gets captured, because you are missing basically nothing if you check out there.