Daredevil Season 2 Review: Guilt, Duty, Hope and The Monster Within
By Adam X. Smith
Author’s note: Okay, just so I don’t end up regretting it later, take this as a pretty clear indication that anything after this point goes into some varying level of detail on the plot, characters and events of Daredevil seasons 1 & 2 and if you’re one of the people who still hasn't watched the show at all (in which case, why aren’t you doing that right now instead?) or still needs to catch up on the new episodes (seriously, why aren’t you doing that?) and you don’t want me to spoil anything for you, turn back now and we can both go about our business with no harm done. Anything past this point, though, is completely on you, the reader — you’re getting one last chance to walk away none the wiser.
So… that was pretty boring and uneventful, right? I mean, Foggy Nelson going into witness protection, Elektra being a Skrull and Stick secretly being the Man-Elephant in disguise? What were Marvel thinking?
For those still not sure, that was a joke — none of that has happened — yet.
But joking aside, yes, Daredevil’s second season is as great as I hoped it would be and definitely-probably even greater than the first one, which barring a little bit of slowdown mid-season and the fact that even with its vast improvements it’s still basically a procedural crime show like Law and Order or The Wire but with ninjas in it, it stays honest and consistent within its established rules whilst still giving us the possibility of fresh ground to explore down the line. The recurring cast are all really strong, the new and guest cast members all get plenty to do, the writing (particularly by Mark Verheiden) is sharp as a tack, the fight choreography builds on the strengths of last season whilst cranking the intensity (and the amount of blood splatter) up to eleven, and the overall look and direction of every episode feels like parts of a well-oiled machine running in harmony with each other. Before I get too much into the meat of the story and characters, I’d like to highlight a couple of things this season seems to have learnt from last year that overall made it a firm improvement.
Firstly, the structure is a lot tighter, with the central plot mysteries tying together pretty well, even if you can hear the gears turning just a little bit loudly towards the end. Whilst the rise and fall of Wilson Fisk worked as a slow burn meditation on what it means to be a villain in the modern age of television, the Punisher arcs of season two lays out the case for how the MCU’s New York can produce both Matt Murdock and Frank Castle. However, unlike the first season that kept Fisk in the shadows until quite a way in, the majority of the scenes of Punisher doing what he does best come in the first four episodes or so before he is arrested, tried and briefly imprisoned, so that we have a similar problem to the one in Deadpool, i.e. most of what you see of Deadpool being Deadpool in Deadpool is from a couple of major sequences early on and late in the game. And whilst the middle does again struggle under the onus of making endless scenes in courtrooms compelling, the fact that it works, and that the surrounding side-dramas don’t pull focus on it too much, is still pretty admirable.
Secondly, whilst a lot of people really didn't care for the first season’s reveal of the Daredevil costume, I always felt it worked, albeit that in the brief time we get to see it, it doesn't really get much chance to shine (literally or figuratively). After Murdock takes a gunshot to the face, cracking his helmet, Melvin Potter (side-note: Welcome back, Mr Potter) eventually puts together a new one for him, and honestly it works fine, but the more interesting part is that he patches up the old helmet so that in the meantime Daredevil can fight bad guys with a long welding bede down the front of it, a reminder of how close to death he is every single time he goes out into the night.
And lastly, let’s talk broader MCU connections. Whilst I'm on the record as saying that whilst interconnected continuity is cool, good characters is key to making these shows and Marvel’s overall glorious five-year-plan method of TV production and film-making work, it’s nonetheless nice to see it being done so consistently well across the board. Connections to other shows in the pantheon, such as the Dogs of Hell biker gang from Agents of SHIELD featuring prominently in the early episodes, the presence of perennial shady megacorporation Roxxon, and a couple of sly references to Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and even the fallout of Daredevil’s debut season only serve to make the show and its vision of Hell’s Kitchen a richer and denser world and a microcosm within which to explore the human condition.
The performances, naturally, are great across the board as usual, with returning core cast members Charlie Cox, Eldon Henson and Deborah Ann Woll providing the very human backbone that gives Daredevil its emotional stakes and making the drama surrounding the big explosive moments of the show mean something. Whilst a lot of viewers may have been turned off by Foggy and Karen in season 1, the changes in dynamics between the Nelson and Murdock crew that season 1 set up and season 2 follows through with more than make up for any drawbacks they had before, with Daredevil’s increased activities, as well as his being drawn inexorably into a lengthy side-plot involving Elektra, Stick and the Hand (we’ll come back to that), proving too much of a strain on his already strained to breaking-point personal relationships and his work as a lawyer, resulting in Murdock isolating himself and Nelson and Murdock being shuttered.
Of the newcomers, easily the most showy and impressive is Jon Bernthal’s master-class performance as Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher, but the reason that it works within the show is because, like their handling of Fisk’s troubled back-story and his (for the moment) doomed shot at power, it approaches Frank as a complex character full of contradictions. It would be so easy to just make Castle nothing more than a stone cold badass (and he still is), but the reason it never falls into the same traps as the other iterations of the character is that the show couches his appearance in a clear, fundamental story logic consistent within itself: in a just world, Frank Castle would be the villain. Not an anti-hero, a straight up villain. Make no mistake here, folks — Bernthal’s Punisher is a Blood Knight, a scarred, buzz-cut shorn, dead-eyed killing machine that was once a man, now hollowed out by the loss of everything he ever cared about and betrayed by the system he swore to uphold, and set on seeking vengeance any way that he can.
Bernthal plays Castle as a straight up revenger’s tragedy, Travis Bickle by way of The Terminator, with brief homages to everything from Death Wish to John Wick, Rambo, Dead Man Walking and Law Abiding Citizen. Again, most of his best scenes come either very early on or late in the game, such as a scene that is an almost direct lift from Garth Ennis’ run on the character in which Punisher has Daredevil chained up with a gun taped to his hand, with Castle saying that the only way to prevent him from continuing to kill in the name of his mission is for Daredevil to put him down himself, and that if he doesn’t kill him anyone Frank kills will be Matt’s own fault. “What kind of choice is that?” Murdock asks, to which Castle responds, “The kind I make every time I pull the trigger. The kind I’m gonna make right now.”
The show, to its credit, never shies away from the problematic ethics of the Punisher — every time the show or its characters tries to make it easy to sympathise or even side with the Punisher, we’re reminded that it is never as simple as he claims it to be. After a former commanding officer of Castle’s (played by an always welcome Clancy Brown) gives riveting testimony in court extolling Frank’s military record and valour under enemy fire, it is followed immediately by someone in the court making an outburst that Frank had killed his father, a moment that does give Frank a brief moment of self-doubt. The question of whether or not he is a monster or simply a damaged husk of a man raging against misfortune is not easily answered.
If anything, the closest we get to a handle on Frank’s worth as a human being comes from the most unlikely of places. Karen Page, though disgusted by Frank’s brutality, is nonetheless drawn to his desire for justice and his tragic background allows her more than anyone to get under his skin. Caring about Frank’s fate, even in spite of her better judgement and her own self-preservation, is the primary lens through which we gauge Karen’s growth as a character, because if Frank can be redeemed, perhaps she can be too.
In his quieter moments, Bernthal shows an emotional complexity to Frank that belies his thuggish, jarheaded appearance, as well as a bullish desire not to play the game any way but his way, frustrating the efforts of the DA’s office that wants to give him the death penalty and sweep any hint of his being a pawn in a larger game under the rug, but also making it almost impossible for the idealistic Nelson and Murdock to have any hope of an insanity plea or of saving him from prison.
Which brings us neatly to a fun little diversion in the second half of the season, one that I rank as the most surprising but also somewhat inevitable. When Frank goes to jail, having made an outburst in court that ultimately seals his fate, it is revealed that this was done to bring him into contact with someone you’d be forgiven for thinking the series had just plain forgotten about.
And who is that person?
Really? You’re not sure? Well, this is your last chance, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Wilson Fisk, the now-imprisoned Kingpin who, even from the confines of a prison cell, is still working the long con, building up a power base and trying to stay one step ahead of the closest prison shiv, and who sees an opportunity to further his own goals by having Frank kill a rival prisoner, in exchange for information said prisoner has about Frank’s family’s deaths. He even gets a replacement for Wesley in the form of Stuart, a young black inmate who, unlike his fellow prisoners, was a white collar criminal on the outside as well.
Not only do I love this side-plot because it acts as a nice little probably-not-coincidental homage to the first Daredevil arc I started reading — Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s “The Devil in Cell Block D”, with Frank filling Matt Murdock’s role — but also because this plot so brilliantly managed to come out of nowhere without raising too much of a fuss online; whilst the saturation of interest in Punisher’s role as antagonist in season 2 was significant, it seemed odd to me that season 1’s primary antagonist should be so overlooked so quickly, and I assumed that perhaps scheduling prevented Vincent D’onofrio from being more involved.
The thing is, here, it works. The initial cliffhanger reveal of him is played so well that a steady build-up of him earlier would have played the show’s hand too early, and for what is basically a two-and-a-bit episode guest spot, you get just enough of Fisk to remember why he was such a classy/badass motherfucker the first time round without the inevitable danger of him thoroughly breaking the show. As he tells Castle himself, his plan is to play the long game and keep his head down, with his newly accepted status as Kingpin of Crime (or at least that particular prison) and a hint that he may be on to Matt’s secret identity promising big things from him further down the line.
If it’s taken me a long time to move past the Punisher arc, it’s only by virtue of it taking up a surprising amount of the show’s length and real estate, but the other primary plotline this season, of course, involves the return of Stick, the reveal of Elektra, and the re-emergence of The Hand.
Oh, Elektra, the character so interesting Fox made two movies featuring her without getting a single element of her character, ethnicity or backstory right. Given the push to feature Daredevil’s feud with Punisher heavily this season, it’s no surprise that Elektra’s presence is more of a steady simmer than a raging boil. And whilst I recognise the irony and hypocrisy of bitching about changing Elektra beyond recognition in her previous appearances when they pretty much do the same thing here, the fundamental differences here make her a better, more streamlined and interesting character, whilst simultaneously tying her in closer to the mechanics of the MCU’s continuity and getting rid of/minimising some of the more… unfortunate elements of her history.
Elodie Yung’s performance as Elektra, re-imagined here as that one girl from college who was the worst possible influence on you but with the added danger of being a thrill-seeking, murderous sociopath, has instant chemistry with Charlie Cox both in and out of costume and fits the synergy of the world of the show; the awkward question of a French-Cambodian playing a supposedly Greek character is answered by virtue of making her Greek diplomat parents her adopted family, obscuring her origins (initially) and revealing that for most of her life she has been a pawn in the war between the Hand and Stick’s order, the Chaste, torn between her duty, her desire and the belief that she is a monster for the things she has done.
Some of her early appearances in the show have led some to label her as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, although if we’re going to get into bandying labels around she’s more of a Nightmare Hippy Girl: a variant in which said character in question “(is) depicted at the outset with characteristics typical of the MPDG trope (quirky, precocious, often simplistically motivated, and usually serving no other narrative function besides love interest or else the potential thereof) but through the cycle of the plot they are revealed to have an inner life the protagonist was not initially party to.” Like her revised backstory or not, Elektra certainly knows how to make Matt’s life complicated.
In Elektra, the show manages to talk about the nature of good and evil, personhood, heroic/villainous destiny and female agency over her own body/life, without sacrificing any of the wit, sass and sparking dialogue of a classic femme fatale, an act that Yung pulls off exceptionally well. That it would be so easy to phone her performance in speaks volumes of how well the show manages to find an actress capable of doing her justice whilst writing plots and dialogue that make the best use of her.
If, by this point, you are still reading and really don’t want finale episode spoilers, this is your last chance to get out unscathed. Seriously, after this there’s no holds barred.
I mean it. Final warning.
Yes, Elektra dies at the end — in a slightly different way to the comics and with the aforementioned unfortunate subtext of her death largely absent (in hindsight, Frank Miller was never really that progressive of a guy, but then again who was back then?), but at least this way it fits the role they’ve set her up for as the Black Sky, the Hand’s creepy cult of death messianic figure of doom, and given that Stick himself sets up the fact that the Hand have the secret of immortality, plus the final frames of the finale episode, it’s pretty clear that Elektra will live again, sooner rather than later.
In fact, one of the things that I feel season 2 gets really right is that every move it makes that feels like a potential disappointment delivers an expected curveball of awesome. The Punisher’s rampage is epic but also surprisingly short-lived, but just as that arc starts winding down into the more Law and Order-esque “People of New York vs Frank Castle” storyline, Elektra pops up and keeps dragging Matt away to fight ninjas. Claire Temple continues to be essentially a much hyped supporting role, but gets some of the best lines of dialogue and one killer scene that I hope sets the scene for her officially becoming the Night Nurse. Eldon Henson’s Foggy spends a lot more time arguing with Matt as his partner drifts further away and he takes him repeatedly to task over his vigilante activities interfering with their work, but by showing a level of guts that surprises even him in a few situations, Foggy grows as a person enough this season for Matt to realise that perhaps he’s holding his friend back.
The villains are somewhat disposable, sure, but when the bulk of drama comes from the heroic/antiheroic characters clashing, that’s not too much of a problem if they’re characterised well. The endgame arc is a little sloppy, but by then everything is gravitating towards the finale anyway. Father Lantom is barely around, getting one scene in one episode that the trailers have pretty much spoiled anyway, but we also get much more screen-time spent with Brett Mahoney, Marci (now working for Jessica Jones’ Jeri Hogarth), Turk Barrett and Melvin Potter, and as mentioned before Stick. And whilst they repeat season 1’s issue of getting right down to the wire with the upgraded costume changes — and even then, Elektra’s costumes both essentially make her look like Karai from TMNT in Gucci’s summer stealth line — the slightly improved Mk II cowl and classic billy club/grappling hook Melvin designs are great additions to Murdock’s arsenal, and when we finally do get to see Frank don the iconic skull vest and trenchcoat, it’s suitably badass.
Even Karen Page, a character that I wanted to like last year but turned off a lot of fans, gets to have a better role in events, even if her motivation and goals are complicated by the unresolved conflict from last season involving her killing James Wesley and her guilt over the resultant deaths of Ben Urich and others. Her relationship with Matt gets interesting just as Elektra returns to the scene and pretty soon it ends up on the rocks for similar reasons, and the season closes out on Matt, having lost Elektra and with his partner Foggy moving on to a different firm, finally reveals his identity as Daredevil to her. How she reacts, and what will become of our favourite heroes and villains, is a story for another time, but for now, Daredevil season 2 manages to be a scrappy but vigorous second round for Murdock, and a promise of greater electricity to come. A definite must-watch, whether as a fan of the series so far or as a stop-gap before the rest of the Defenders shows.