[This is a review of Daredevil season 1, episodes 2-6. There will be SPOILERS.]
By now, many of you have undoubtedly worked your way through all 13 episodes of Daredevil season 1 (and some of you may have even started through it again, or, at the very least, begun re-watching episodes that were of particular interest to you). Here, we are going to be talking about episodes 2-6, which took the series beyond what the premiere intimated in some surprising ways, while building on the story of Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson, and Karen Paige in ways that matter beyond all the punching and kicking of Murdock's black-masked vigilante.
These episodes also introduce Vincent D'Onofrio's unexpectedly soulful Wilson Fisk and his paramour Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) as not just a pair of stock villains for Murdock to find himself pitted against, but as actual characters with wants and desires that aren't too far removed from those of the series' titular hero. That narrow distinction between hero and villain makes for some intriguing questions about Matt Murdock's efforts to create change within Hell's Kitchen with bone-crunching force, as opposed to Fisk's use of money and violence as a means to ostensibly do the same.
Then there's the introduction of two supporting characters that not only play important roles in the narrative, but also help to establish an understanding of the physical and emotional toll Murdock's quest takes on him. Those characters are, of course, Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple (a.k.a. Night Nurse) and Ben Urich (played by Vondie Curtis-Hall). In many ways, the characters ground the series, showing in graphic detail the wounds Murdock suffers in his nightly pursuit of justice, while Urich's journalistic endeavors help frame the larger plot of Fisk's surreptitious empire and the larger power/land grab he and his cohort of evil are about to undertake.
Episode 2: 'Cut Man'
(The one with the hallway fight)
As much as the 'Into the Ring' quickly and effectively set up the circumstances through which Matt Murdock acquired his unique abilities and how he sought to put them to use, 'Cut Man' works to establish how those abilities work, and what, if any, price there is to pay for using them as he does. The episode develops a convention that the season utilizes again and again to great effect: the idea that Matt Murdock needs to convalesce from time to time, which gives the character a rare opportunity at self-reflection that normally isn't afforded those in his line of business.
The introduction of Claire Temple is a terrific segue into the larger world of Daredevil; it not only utilizes the pre-existing knowledge that vigilantes and people with extraordinary abilities inhabit this world (i.e., the MCU this series uses only to the benefit of its story), but it also demonstrates what that means to someone who suddenly finds herself thrust into a strange, dark corner of that world. Interestingly enough, the intimation is that "the man in the black mask" has come to symbolize hope for those people who sometimes get glossed over when something like an alien invasion happens at the end of The Avengers.
Dawson is fantastic in the role. She brings genuine warmth and strength to Claire Temple, making the character a valuable asset to a series that already has such strong supporting actors with Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll. Moreover, Matt's interactions with Claire work to establish an idea of where he's at psychologically. That is, it asks the question: does Matt Murdock do this solely out of a sense of justice, or does dropping goons off a rooftop into a dumpster also supply him with a perverse sense of pleasure and satisfaction? The answer, like everything else in the series, isn't so much black and white, but somewhere in between.
But of course, the main attraction to 'Cut Man' is the incredible fight sequence that ends Matt's quest to find the boy who was kidnapped at the end of the pilot. The fight itself is remarkable for where it draws its inspiration, but more than the homage it offers to filmmakers like Chan-wook Park and, more recently, Gareth Evans, it sets the tone for everything that comes afterward. That is, it tells the audience this series is going to be brutal and relentless.
Episode 3: 'Rabbit in a Snowstorm'
(The one where Wilson Fisk appreciates more than just a painting)
Sometimes the best villain you can offer a story that's as dark and violent as Daredevil is one who is utterly convinced he's the hero. That's Wilson Fisk in a nutshell in this scenario. And although he doesn't actually make an appearance until the episode's final moments, its an introduction that plays into the myth of Wilson Fisk as the ultimate Big Bad, the man who cannot be named for fear of what he is capable of, given the incredible scope of his power. And the fact that he was able to accomplish it all and make a name for himself without actually letting his name be known is part of the character's tremendous appeal.
Much of 'Rabbit in a Snowstorm' is like the titular work of art itself, that is, it is based on the idea that a person's perception of a thing can augment the power of the actual object (or individual in question). Case in point, the piece of artwork that Fisk is fixated upon not only plays a part in his soon-to-be-revealed psyche, but the price of the painting seems astronomical, considering it's just a canvas displaying various shades of white.
At this point in the series, that's a lot like Fisk himself. He's a man whose value is almost entirely dependent on the reputation he's built for himself. It's the threat of betraying Fisk that keeps his stock high, which Matt learns firsthand when an assassin (played by Alex Morf) he's been hired to defend in court meets the as yet unnamed Daredevil and takes his own life after daring to speak Fisk's name.
It's a violent episode that establishes the parameters of Wilson Fisk in an exciting way, and also demonstrates how well the series understands the Netflix format of television. There's plenty of incentive to move on to episode 4 when this one ends, but 'Rabbit in a Snowstorm' isn't dependent on what happens next to be considered relevant. It's a complete episode that takes its time in setting up the larger narrative by putting emphasis on the legend Wilson Fisk has built for himself, while also outlining the larger scope of the narrative by introducing Ben Urich's quest to connect the dots between the faceless corporate criminals and the Russians being attacked by a masked man down by the docks.
Episode 4: 'In the Blood'
(The one where Foggy reveals his true calling)
Just as 'Rabbit in a Snowstorm' presented new ideas and opened the door for new characters to emerge and to develop, 'In the Blood' demonstrates Daredevil's ability to circle back and pay off certain story elements like it did with the hallway fight in episode 2.
This time around, we are given insight into the Ranskahov brothers via a gruesome gulag flashback in which they fashion makeshift weapons out of a dead man's ribs. Anatoly (Gideon Emery) and his scar-faced brother Vladimir (Nikolai Nikolaeff) become phase one of the hellish crucibles that turn Matt Murdock's black-masked vigilante into Daredevil. On their own, the brothers are really no match for Matt's flip-kicks and punches, but like any villain worth his or her salt, the brothers Ranskahov know how to apply pressure on a man without laying a hand on him.
While it's disappointing to see the threat of physical harm to Claire used as such a token plot device, there is a nice payoff in which she gets to take a swing at her kidnappers that partially redeems that portion of the episode. Moreover, the defeat of the Ranskahov brothers in their garage leads to a fateful decision on Anatoly's part that sees him literally lose his head after embarrassing Fisk in front of Vanessa on their second date.
What 'In the Blood' lacks in finesse and use of Claire's character, it makes up for in other departments, like the establishment of Vanessa's understanding of her new beau. The episode also works to strengthen the foundation of Matt and Foggy's relationship with a casual conversation between friends that underlines Foggy's frustration with the elusiveness of success (both professionally and romantically) and the lure of the path not taken.
It might be the weakest episode of the first half of the season, but the pieces that are moved around here set the stakes of what's to come, while also making the interpersonal relationships between characters on both sides of the law feel like they're getting some much-deserved screen time.
Episode 5: 'World On Fire'
(The one where Claire understands why Matt wants to hit people)
'World on Fire' demonstrates the level of serialization that Daredevil is attempting to play with. The hour directly addresses the events and the emotional fallout of the previous episode. In many ways, it is a mirror of 'Cut Man,' with Matt tending to the wounds Claire suffered at the hands of the Ranskahov brothers. But the episode also works to demonstrate what's at stake, as Fisk's plan to take out the Russians is enacted in a deadly bombing campaign that nearly kills Foggy and Karen.
There are several terrific moments in episode 5 that build on new relationships forged in difficult or unconventional circumstances. Vanessa is drawn deeper into Wilson's world during a tense dinner in which she hands over the gun she thought would be necessary on a date with a man like Fisk. As edgy as the date is, it ends with the two forming a bond while watching the city burn. Caught up in Wilson and Vanessa's appreciation are Foggy and Karen, who find they have fallen into something like a date in Mrs. Cardenas' (Judith Delgado) apartment, when the bombing occurs.
The juxtaposition of the three relationships works to demonstrate the effort the series puts into making sure its characters feel lived-in. But it also creates a thematic element, connecting each sequence to the notion that while these characters are playing in the world of masked vigilantes and bombings "for the good of the city," what really matters are the connections these people make as the drama plays out around them.
In a purely technical sense, 'World On Fire' delivers another tremendous sequence, wherein one of Gao's blind heroin deliverymen sits in the backseat of a Russian cab as the camera swivels around the interior car. The deliveryman is singing in his native tongue, and the volume of his voice rises and falls depending on the position of the camera. It's a small detail that might only matter to people with multi-channel sound systems, but like everything else in the episode, it shows how often the attention paid to small details makes the biggest impact.
Episode 6: 'Condemned'
(The one where Fisk and Murdock talk for the first time)
When the hero meets the villain for the first time, it is usually a momentous occasion. And in 'Condemned,' Daredevil asks that the meeting play out within the already unbearable tension of the superhero equivalent of Dog Day Afternoon.
After Matt takes a wounded Vladimir to an abandoned warehouse to evade capture from the legion of dirty cops Fisk has on his payroll, he spends a good portion of his time having a conversation with the would-be Kingpin, while Ben Urich confronts the unlawful law enforcement attempting to make sure blame for recent events falls on the shoulders of the Devil of Hell's Kitchen. The episode is a change of pace for the series, as it relies almost entirely on raising the level of tension around Matt's less than ideal circumstances in three ways. First by his interaction with Nikolai that cannot possibly end well, considering the Russian is gut shot and Matt cauterized the wound with a road flare. Second, Matt and Fisk know about one another, and the enmity is immediately raised to life-threatening levels. And third, Matt isn't just battling time, he's also taking on a good portion of the NYPD, in a sequence that's not too far removed from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One.
'Condemned' succeeds in turning the series toward even higher stakes, as the season reaches the halfway point. By closing out the Ranskahov brothers' storyline, it becomes clearer what Fisk's intentions are for his other associates; namely, Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) and Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton) – both of whom are pretty great Easter eggs in and of themselves – but it also puts a target squarely on Matt's back, making it increasingly difficult for him to do what he does.
It's difficult to maintain tension when so many of the characters are so far apart. But even with Foggy and Karen in the hospital, Fisk driving around with Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) in his convoy, and Urich outside the warehouse in question, giving a pair of dirty cops a what for, 'Condemned' not only makes all the threads feel like part of a cohesive whole, they all play an equally important role in the story to come.
Episodes 2-6 succeed in building strong character arcs for Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, while also establishing a stronger sense of the world this series takes place in. Through it all, the episodes show a keen understanding of where characters like Ben, Karen, and Foggy fit in by allowing them the chance to make decisions and impact the story beyond what Matt's doing as a lawyer or as a vigilante. Despite some questionable choices with regard to Claire, the road to the midway point of Daredevil season 1 is one worth traveling again.
Daredevil season 1 is currently available in its entirety on Netflix.
Photos: Barry Wetcher/Netflix