Daredevil: Season 2 Review (Part 2)
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Warning: This review contains detailed spoilers for episodes 8-13 of Daredevil season two (“Guilty as Sin” through to “A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen”).
The first seven episodes of Daredevil season two saw the separate introductions of two famous Marvel characters, Elektra and the Punisher in two very different story arcs. It was an exciting, if slightly unfocused start, but did season two stick the landing as these story arcs came to fruition in the final six episodes?
The problem with Daredevil’s first season (and Jessica Jones too, for that matter) was that it never felt like there was enough story to sustain thirteen episodes, which meant that the pace flagged in the final episodes as the show prolonged itself beyond the natural limits of its story. That’s not a problem with Daredevil season two, which remains packed to the gills with a sheer mass of plot right up until the finish. So, in a lot of ways, season two’s final half is a lot more purely entertaining than the first season’s endgame because it has two meaty and substantial story arcs to plough through rather than just one, necessitating a faster pace at all times. However, as season two nears the finish line, a critical flaw emerges that was present but not obstructive in the first seven episodes – this season lacks a truly engaging central villain, a fact that becomes clear for all to see when the Hand have to take centre stage. While this was an exciting and satisfying conclusion to the season, it’s hard not to see that season two simply can’t top its predecessor in the villain department.
The weak link, as mentioned above, is the Hand, the group of shadowy and mystical ninjas who operated as something of a greater scope in villain in season one, plotting away at a level even Fisk couldn’t understand. The Hand are rooted in the supernatural end of the Daredevil mythology, but that’s not the problem here – rather, the problem is that season two seems afraid to really engage with and explore this mysticism on anything other than a surface level. We get lots of striking shots of creepy, mind-controlled children, people being bled out into a tank and whatnot, and intriguing talk of the Black Sky and ‘the Rising’, but there’s nothing substantial to these mystical ideas – they’re never explored or unexplained, with the Hand’s actual plan remaining frustratingly vague. It seems intentional from the writers that the mysticism is kept at arm’s length and relegated to vagueness, probably in an attempt to preserve the realism of this world, but it’s hard to really become engaged with the Hand as a foe when they’re so obnoxiously nebulous to a point where it’s hard to understand what they’re doing. This becomes a pertinent problem when Elektra is revealed to be the Black Sky, a weapon for the Hand – it’s meant to be game-changing, but Daredevil never really explains why. We’re supposed to be shocked just because the characters are, rather than being shocked by a well-explained revelation that changes everything we knew about the Hand – there’s no substance to this revelation because Daredevil doesn’t provide any, and as a consequence the reveal falls flat. The Hand are an intriguing foe on paper, but it seems as if they need a more committed take that’s unafraid to delve deep into the nitty-gritty of their mythology, turning them from a collection of vague threats to a tangible antagonist.
However, for all my complaining about the Hand’s flaws as a villain, season two’s second half does have one brief ace in the hole – the return of Wilson Fisk for two episodes in a brief storyline that dovetails into the Punisher’s quest. It’s transparently laying the groundwork for a return to major villain status in a potential third season, but Fisk’s return leads to some of the most compelling and exciting storylines of either season. His character is satisfyingly evolved within prison, while staying tethered to the deluded visionary of season one – there’s a real sense that the writers have followed through on Fisk’s existential realisation that he was the ‘ill intent’ at the end of the last season, with Fisk now nakedly embracing his violent and treacherous lust for power by moving to the top of the food chain. Vincent D’Onofrio is as magnetic as ever, progressing his engrossingly odd performance from season one by layering a clear sense of unregulated brutality and acceptance of his status as a criminal – this Fisk is brutally pragmatic and realistic, and D’Onofrio expertly conveys that. The writers have also left Fisk in a very intriguing place for the season, with a livewire confrontation with Matt Murdock promising that Fisk will gunning directly for Matt the lawyer as soon as he gets out… and he may just have cracked Daredevil’s secret identity, if his request for more information on Murdock is any indication. Though Fisk’s arc is brief and merely a small cog in the machine for the season, it works as tantalising set-up while organically tying into the Punisher arc – and it doesn’t hurt that Fisk’s compelling villainy helps to make up for shortcomings elsewhere.
Speaking of the Punisher, his arc remains engrossing right up until the final, slightly underwhelming confrontation with his enemy. Early episodes might have hinted towards a redemption arc of sorts for the Punisher, but, to its credit, season two keeps Frank firmly rooted right in the middle of moral murkiness even as he ceases being an antagonist. His endearing, odd friendship with Karen grounds him to a point where he can really be invested in as a protagonist (it also nicely subverts tired clichés by being entirely platonic) the second half never shies away from portraying the unfettered, animalistic brutality of Castle’s methods. Most memorably, there’s the prison fight sequence of episode nine – a no-holds-barred display of gore that just about surpasses anything we’ve seen before in the MCU in terms of raw violence. It’s uncomfortable viewing, but Daredevil ensures that these sequences don’t perversely glorify Castle’s violence with displays of heroic, ‘bad-ass’ murdering – they’re there to show that Castle is, right or wrong, an astonishingly brutal killer who refuses to ever apologise for his actions. Even his final moment of catharsis in which he tracks down the man responsible for his family’s death is undercut by his brutal execution of the guy mid-speech despite Karen’s protests, showing how Castle doesn’t yield to anybody in his quest, even the ones who have protected and understood him. In that sense, up to the end, whether the Punisher is good, bad, or somewhere in between is entirely up to viewer interpretation – unlike many shows’ attitudes towards their anti-heroes, Daredevil seems ambivalent on Castle up to the end, which makes him a entertainingly unpredictable rogue element for the show. Let’s hope Marvel do the right thing and green-light that spin-off…
One element of the second season’s final half that surprised me was its willingness to completely change the show’s status quo, specifically regarding the Nelson & Murdock side of things, with the law firm closing its doors at the end of the season. It’s reflective of season two’s Empire Strikes Back approach and the way it’s willing to leave a huge number of plot points unresolved, but it’s still shocking to see core elements of the show such as Matt and Foggy’s relationship left in such a tumultuous place – we’ve seen these relationships and ideas become an endearing and familiar part of the show over the last two seasons, so their removal has a genuine impact; even more so, because these relationships are left in a place where it’s hard to see them being recovered with ease in season three. The consequences of Matt’s actions are a vital theme of season two, and within the second half, Daredevil shows the tangible impact of Matt’s actions upon important parts of his life in a way that doesn’t hold back, thereby displaying just how destructive Matt’s actions are in a way that feels tangible.
A general theme of Netflix’s shows is that the finale is rarely the strongest part of the season, and that’s generally the case here. There’s a lot to love about A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen – Punisher finally donning his iconic comic costume, the final rooftop fight and the satisfying, long-awaited revelation of Daredevil’s identity to Karen – but it suffers from a sense of incompleteness. Season one felt very much complete, wrapping up with a definitive and conclusive finale with which the show could have ended (and I’m assuming that was meant to be the case before it became far more popular than expected), so some dangling plot points would have been a refreshing difference from that first finale. The problem here is that the finale seems practically allergic to closure – sure, Nobu dies and Elektra sacrifices herself, but the Hand remain as powerful as ever with Elektra now in their clutches and primed for a resurrection, making for a frustrating ending that skimps on gratification in favour of a ‘tune in next time’. There’s just not enough conclusiveness here to make this a truly satisfying capper to a season of TV rather than an episode that feels like a mid-season finale, and that’s certainly shown by the fact that Matt and Elektra actually achieve very little in the way of victory against the Hand by the end, essentially chipping away without causing substantial damage. Especially considering how The Defenders and the contractual obligation malarkey surrounding that has delayed Jessica Jones season two, it’s likely we’ll have to wait quite some time for season three, so it’s especially frustrating that barely anything is resolved in the finale, even if there’s plenty of cool moments to make it an entertaining episode in its own right.
The second half of Daredevil season two, in many ways, can be seen as an interesting experiment – a test of a way to alleviate those pacing problems that always crop up in the home stretch. It’s crammed full of plot, which means that the episodes themselves are extremely entertaining to watch because there’s always so much going on within any one episode, but the season then struggles to stick the landing with storylines that stretch far beyond this season, coming to a bumpy landing which feels more like pressing the pause button than a natural and satisfying endpoint for the season. With that in mind, I’d say that season two is still extremely hard to compare to its predecessor. The pacing problems of season one were legitimate issues that inhibited the momentum of the season, so it was great to see those more or less disappear (even if, as mentioned above, the reverse effect does come into play when things are happening too quickly). But, especially considering the Hand and all they do in the second half of the season, it’s safe to say that season two couldn’t hold a candle to the first season in terms of antagonists – villains are a huge part of Daredevil, so they become a crucial shortcoming to this season. As before, perhaps comparing these two seasons is the wrong idea. Whether it’s stronger than season one or not, season two was another impressive display for Netflix – an engaging season that broadened out the ensemble while continuously innovating with action. Let’s just hope that the third season doesn’t get held up for too long…
Verdict for Episodes 8-13: 8/10