Saturday, July 13, 2024

Season 2 of Daredevil Hits a Rough Patch

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Another week, another batch of Daredevil reviews! Last week we saw Frank Castle arrested and brought to trial, Foggy and Matt enlisted to defend him, and the introduction of Elektra. This week sees the Frank’s trial come to an end, the return of two fan favorites, and a whole lot of fighting.

So how is it? Unfortunately, it is a bit uneven.

daredevil courtroom

“Semper Fidelis”

“Semper Fidelis” (Latin for “always faithful” and the official motto of the U.S. Marine Corps) is a bit of a mixed bag. Like the previous episode and the one that follows, it splits its time between the Frank Castle trial and the Matt/Elektra investigations into the notYakuza, and this creates a separation in quality that may make some watch the clock impatiently until Frank is back on screen. Not to suggest the Matt/Elektra scenes are bad; as I said last week, the two actors have a fun chemistry that makes even mundane scenes enjoyable.

Unfortunately, that chemistry can’t carry them to the same peak that the Castle stuff does.

Jury selection for the People vs. Frank Castle opens our episode, and it continues the vigilante debate which has raged throughout this season to date. Some love Castle. Some hate him. Some think he’s a monster and some a hero. This debate even carries into the conversations of our main characters. It sounds like an ideal scenario for Nelson & Murdock’s attempts to defend Castle against his charges, but there is no denying he is guilty. Ultimately they can only hope to lessen his eventual sentence.

This proves a very difficult task to prepare for. Castle feels no remorse for his actions. When the option of PTSD is proposed to him, he outright refuses it because he feels it is an insult to those who suffer from the disorder. He is clear-headed, and if not completely sane (how could he be?) is also fully in control of his actions. Frank cares little for the outcome of his trial. He is more concerned with Karen’s search for the truth about the cover-up of his family’s murder, and it seems as if that search is the only reason he wants Matt and Foggy to represent him at all.

Solid defense or no, the trial must go on. Foggy gives an inspired opening statement, they find an avenue of attack through a medical examiner’s falsified autopsy reports, Matt and Karen have a fascinating discussion about the Punisher’s methods…it’s all so morally grey and asks the kind of questions I love in superhero media. It makes you think about vigilantism, the justice system, decisions about life and death. Matt tells Karen he believes the decision to take a life belongs to God, or sometimes a jury. How much right does a jury truly have to make that kind of decision?

(I love the Matt/Karen talk about the Punisher’s methods. Besides creating much appreciated drama between the two, it is completely natural and fits their characters. Karen has spent all season trying to understand and empathize with Frank Castle; of course she would defend him. And Matt’s whole thing is his belief in the law and his attempts not to become someone like Castle. His girlfriend of all people defending the Punisher’s methods strikes right at his insecurities and his guilt. And let’s be honest, Matt Murdock suffers the kind of self-deprecation and internalized guilt to make a Martell jealous.)

And in between is something much more black and white, as Matt and Elektra spend most of their time beating the hell out of notYakuza henchmen.

Again, I do not mean to imply this isn’t entertaining. I said back in my first review that the fight scenes are one of the great strengths of this show. It’s just unfortunate that the enemy they are fighting is so bland. The notYakuza have little characterization to this point. They’re just faceless bad guys doing bad things for Matt and Elektra to beat up. The best scene these two share is a quiet scene on Matt’s couch in the aftermath of these fights, bonding over the new scars each has accumulated in the previous ten years. I’m so much more interested seeing Elektra’s emotional vulnerability when she admits her loneliness than I am seeing her physical vulnerability during a fight.

At least those fight scenes make the Castle trial that much better to watch, and not just because of the higher quality. Foggy only delivers the defense’s opening statement because Matt oversleeps after the previously mentioned scars scene with Elektra. Elektra’s intimidation of the medical examiner, Gregory Tepper, ruins Matt’s chance to use his testimony about doctoring his autopsy reports. Matt’s confession of the activities causes a split with Foggy. Once again, the difference between Matt Murdock and Daredevil plays a front and center role in all of season 2’s plots and subplots.

(Side note I’ll expand upon later: this confrontation also begins one of the more frustrating aspects of this season regarding Karen and Matt’s identity. The two are literally shouting about his identity while Karen waits outside the bathroom. She admits to hearing them shout. Even if she can’t hear the words, the anger between the two and refusal to tell her anything should inspire her to put more effort into finding out the problem. This women’s defining feature is her desire to uncover the truth.)

While not the strongest episode, “Semper Fidelis” is still solid. I just find myself wishing the Daredevil/Elektra parts were as consistently strong as the Frank Castle portions.

Stick is still a grumpy, charismatic sociopath
Oh Stick, you grumpy old sociopath

“Guilty as Sin”

Which, of course is going to make my opinions about the next episode, “Guilty as Sin,” seem like I’m a raving lunatic. After picking up where we left off at the end of the previous episode, with Matt and Elektra staring at a hole 40 stories deep, we jump right into another fight scene. Thankfully, this fight scene offers us something new. Before it even starts Matt tells us that he can’t hear the heartbeats of the ninjas hopping around. This effectively leaves him “blind” unless they carry swords he can track.

This leaves the bulk of the fighting to Elektra, who does a good job picking up her partner’s slack. When she tries to kill, however, Matt stops her before she can, giving one of the ninjas an opening to slice her across the stomach with a sword. Enter Matt’s former mentor, Stick (the awesome Scott Glenn), who saves the day by pretty ruthlessly slaughtering the remainder of their foes and healing Elektra’s wound afterward. Besides introducing new enemies, this was a very effective fight in establishing how dangerous they were. These ninjas were skilled, brutal, and without heartbeats something Matt may not be able to deal with. His hesitance threatens Elektra’s life. It was a fight with a purpose rather than the previous episode’s impression of filling time.

And we get Stick’s introduction into this season, which is a great thing. Just the introduction of this one character adds the sense of interest that I previously criticized the Matt/Elektra story of lacking. It’s not his story about the Hand (the big baddies behind the Roxxon corporation), or the Chaste he leads in opposition that creates this new interest. It’s his contributions to Matt and Elektra’s story. Much the same as last season, Stick provides a new angle to view the character of Matt Murdock. His commitment to his war and his methods give you a glimpse of what Matt would be if he ever lost touch with the side that lives the life of Matt Murdock, attorney.

(Stick also reveals here that he trained Elektra as a child, much like Matt, and that she approached 10 years earlier to try and bring Matt back to their side.)

Not that Matt is putting forth any real effort into being an attorney lately. The combination of Elektra’s injury and the confrontation with Foggy lead him to not bother showing up in court, leaving Foggy alone to defend Frank. Things go well, too. Frank’s former commanding officer, Colonel Ray Schoonover, tells a flattering tale of Frank saving his squad. Reyes proceeds to look terrible when she questions the story. A neurologist describes how the headshot Frank suffered when his family was murdered would cause his murdering spree. It’s a good day, the first promising one, darkened by an outburst by the son of one Castle’s victims.

Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as strong as before, despite a damn frightening dive job speech by Bernthal that tanks the trial, because of questionable moments that drag the episode down. Foggy insists Matt question Frank, and rather than tell him himself he sits passively by as Karen decides to tell him. When she goes to his apartment, she finds Stick, and “worse,” Elektra in Matt’s bed.

(And while Matt’s little speech preceding Castle’s outburst is nice, it’s one of the few weird moments even I can recognize from a legal standpoint. He basically stops questioning Castle and gives a closing argument. What the hell?)

Unlike the Matt/Karen argument from “Semper Fidelis,” this all struck me as artificial drama where everyone acted out of character. Foggy knows about Daredevil and would understand the likelihood of Matt not showing up for the trial because something had gone wrong. We see him search for Matt after long nights without hearing from him earlier in the season. For Foggy to not at least try and insist upon telling Matt himself in case Matt was lying bleeding in his apartment or something feels out of character, even with their ongoing tensions.

At least that tension provides some excuse, though. There is no such excuse for Karen’s response to what she sees in Matt’s apartment. Matt and Elektra are not sleeping together. There is absolutely no reason for this person, of all people on this show, to walk away without asking questions, especially when Matt tries multiple times to explain. This is Karen freaking Page. Her whole identity is based around asking questions and finding the truth. Her actions her stink of bad reasoning to avoid her finding out about Matt’s superhero identity, and also a way to break them up so Matt and Elektra can be together.

This seems to be aimed at keeping Matt from looking like the bad guy, which kind of sucks. It’s not like Matt needs a reason to gravitate back towards Elektra. “Guilty as Sin” gives us many quality character reasons. There is a chemistry and feeling there that is evident every time they are on screen. Elektra’s injury provides the scenario where Matt can no longer deny his love for her and wants her by his side. Elektra sides with Matt over Stick because where Stick treats her like an evil killer that can’t change, Matt is sure she can. More importantly he makes Elektra think she can.

(Though Elektra’s brutal throat cut of the assassin in Matt’s apartment makes you wonder what makes Stick so sure that she cannot change. She seems barely aware of what she did until it was over.)

That’s enough, right? There’s no need to justify or make Matt’s decision “okay” by creating this unnatural scenario that breaks him and Karen up. People do shitty things sometimes. Matt can and should look like a bit of a prick here. It adds weight to the struggles between Matt Murdock and the Devil. Instead that struggle is cheapened because Karen has taken the decision away from him.
So for one episode here, Matt and Elektra manage to outshine Frank Castle. Amazing what the introduction of one character to that plot can do, huh? The situation won’t last, though, and this is clear when the episode ends with one hell of a cliffhanger; an imprisoned Frank Castle being brought before one Wilson Fisk.

Yeah, this fight was brutal
Yeah, this fight was brutal

“Seven Minutes in Heaven”

“Seven Minutes in Heaven” is a very good return to the consistent higher quality lacking in the previous two episodes. The return of Vincent D’Onofrio and his fantastic portrayal as Wilson Fisk plays an obvious key role in this. The episode begins with him and returns often, and D’Onofrio is just as terrific to watch as in season 1. Fisk is a brilliant villain. His dialogue, his changes in tone, his expressions, his awkwardness and violence, it’s all here in spades.

We first see him on the day he first goes to prison after his defeat in season 1. We see his first days as he begins building power. A drug dealer named Dutton stands in the way of that power, and a newspaper article combined with intelligence Fisk has gathered leads him to a plan; send Frank Castle after him. If the previous episode didn’t make it clear, Fisk does. The guard who threatened Frank before his testimony is on Fisk’s payroll.

The interactions between Fisk and Castle are absolutely fantastic. Fisk is at his condescending best as he tries to manipulate the vigilante into going after Dutton, mainly through the dealer’s knowledge about the gang shootout that killed Castle’s family. Frank gives it back just as good, seeing through every carefully chosen word directed his way. Fisk is everything Frank wants to kill. Still, he agrees because of the chance for answers. Consistent characterization! It seems so simple, but you see enough shows without it and you start to appreciate the skill again.

Frank gets his answers from Dutton and finds out a powerful dealer called “the Blacksmith” set up the drug deal, with Dutton playing a role in gathering the gangs together. After murdering him, Frank is betrayed by Fisk and left at the mercy of the rest of the inmates on the cell block. This leads to what I think is the best fight scene in a series known for them, as Castle proceeds to absolutely slaughter these prisoners. Remember my comments about Daredevil’s brutality and gore? This fight is one where it plays to the show’s great advantage. The fight is quick, brutal, and everything it should be in this scenario. I’d bet the majority think the hallway fight from episode 3 is still the better fighter, but I’m taking this every time.

(Also notice the blood skull on Frank’s suit in the aftermath, highly resembling his eventual Punisher symbol.)

With Fisk now in complete control of the prison, he arranged for Frank to be set free, but not after another confrontation this time showing the crime boss’s physical capabilities. We saw often in season 1 how capable of horrible brutality Fisk was, but anyone who forgot is quickly reminded as he proceeds to beat the hell out of Frank with little trouble before setting him free. Coming in the aftermath of the prison fight, it’s really scary.

But enough fawning over Wilson Fisk (though I could really keep going), the show is called Daredevil! Aside from a few lingering frustrations, Matt, Foggy, and Karen also have some pretty nice moments throughout the episode as well.

After spending basically every episode since Castle’s arrest fracturing, Nelson & Murdock all but closes shop for good. Foggy confronts Matt about shutting the doors for a while, and Matt readily agrees, much to Foggy’s shock. His near death at the hands of the assassin last episode and Elektra’s threats during their breakup make it clear that the Hand is an enemy that is not only a serious threat, but one he clearly expects to die facing. What was I saying before about Matt showing Martell tendencies? He certainly shows them in his desire to push those closest to him away and throw himself into his duty.

(I have a lot more to say on Matt and Elektra splitting hours after committing to each other, but I’ll save those thoughts for later. The rest of this episode was too good to dwell on the one really stupid part.)

Karen also spends the episode throwing herself into work to avoid Matt. She returns to the Bulletin intending to pass the Castle investigation onto them, but as expected ends up continuing her work there after being given Ben Urich’s old office. This is just who she is. Karen wants the truth. As she tells Foggy, “All I want is the truth about something.” She cannot let the Castle story go, and together with Ellison figures out that the previously mentioned John Doe killed at the gang shootout was an undercover cop. This further sets up the conspiracy involved, and what Reyes might know that made her so desperate to get rid of Frank Castle.

Meanwhile Matt spends the episode (and ends it) investigating the Hand. Interrogating Stan Gibson leads him to a drug warehouse called “the farm.” In the basement he finds something much worse; kidnapped kids (including Gibson’s son) who are having their blood drained into some contraption. Matt is attacked as he tries to free them, and the assailant turns out to be Nobu, the “Yakuza” boss who nearly killed Matt in season 1 and was presumably burned to death.

It’s much more comic-y than everything else in the episode, but it finally establishes the true threat of the season’s main villains. It’s all portrayed in a wonderfully sinister way, making full use of this show’s skill with visuals, and Nobu’s return from death lends credence to Stick’s stories about immortality. We still are not sure what exactly they are doing, but the danger they pose is made very clear.

It’s really good TV and the cap to one of the better episodes of the season.

“Semper Fidelis”: B-

“Guilty as Sin”: C+

“Seven Minutes in Heaven”: A-

  • Bernthal is really great during the trial scenes. While his outburst gets the most attention, it’s the silent moments where he reacts to things around him that impress me most.
  • The whole Matt and Elektra finds does not come back into play this season, but from what I understand it is a comic plot line. Expect it in future seasons.
  • I hope Vanessa comes back in future seasons as well. I was glad to hear her referenced during Fisk’s scenes.
  • Hard to choose my favorite quote about Frank Castle this week between “We’re not talking about something that happened to Frank Castle, we’re talking about something that is happening to him,” and “Frank Castle never came home, he traded in one war zone for another.”

Images courtesy of Marvel and Netflix

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