Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Iron Fist
Between its films and its television shows, Marvel has become adept at bringing comic book characters to life. In addition to the superheroes who are front-and-center, the MCU has adapted plenty of villains and allies from the comics - from the famous to the relatively obscure.
Of course, sometimes it's not always clear whether a character is adapted from the comics or an original creation for the show or movie it appears in. This is the case with Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), a crime lord who first appeared in season 1 of Daredevil and was a major player in season 1 of Iron Fist. While she might seem frail, she is obviously much more than she appears at first glance.
The Master Manipulator
When we first meet Madame Gao she is one of the crime bosses working with the Kingpin in Hell's Kitchen. She was pushing "Steel Serpent" heroin, which Marvel fans recognized right away as a reference to Iron Fist villain Davos, the Steel Serpent. This suggested that Gao had some connection to the Iron Fist mythology, and would likely return to the MCU in Danny Rand's solo series. She was shown to be manipulative and cryptic, always seeming to know a bit more about what was going on than everyone else. Though her appearance is deceptively frail, she was likely one of the more dangerous opponents that Daredevil had to face.
When she returned in season 2, Gao showed just how clever she could be in order to protect her interests. She managed to manipulate both Daredevil and the Punisher in order to eliminate the Blacksmith, a rival who was horning in on her heroin operation. She established herself firmly as someone who was able to get her way even when the heroes seem to have the upper hand, and the extent of her influence only seemed to grow by the time we reached Iron Fist. From her first blacked-out appearance in that show to her plotting at the end of the season, it was clear that she was pulling all of the strings.
When Daredevil faced off against Madame Gao, he took her at face value: An old woman who was working with the Kingpin and running her heroin through Hell's Kitchen. Much to his surprise, however, she managed to knock him several feet back with a single strike. This wasn't just a lucky hit, either; in Iron Fist, she was shown to be more than a match for Danny Rand during their brief physical confrontation. Danny wasn't even able to directly combat her, as she threw him across the room using telekinesis or some similar ability.
In addition to having surprising reflexes and abilities, she also appears to be immortal (or at least possesses an extremely long life). She made mention of events in the 17th century, making her at least 400 years old. While we've seen other characters in the MCU with long lives, they've mostly been Asgardians; being able to live for hundreds of years puts Madame Gao into a very limited category that's so far only been populated by gods and a life-stealing Inhuman.
Far from Home
One of the biggest mysteries about Madame Gao concerns where she comes from. In season 1 of Daredevil, it was assumed that she was Chinese; however, when Leland Owlsley asked if she was returning to China when she suggested that she would return "home" she told him that her home was much further away than that. This only added to the mystery of the character, and also suggested that she might be tied even more deeply with the lore of Iron Fist.
Sure enough, Danny Rand discovers that Gao at one point lived in K'un-Lun (the mystical land that's one of the seven Capital Cities of Heaven, and the realm where Danny gained the power of the Iron Fist). It's unclear whether she left K'un-Lun of her own free will or if she was expelled from the city, though her comments to Owlsley about going home suggest that she at least had a way back - even if the people there wouldn't be too happy to see her.
Gao and The Hand
We were introduced to The Hand in season 2 of Daredevil, and they're back in the shadows in season 1 of Iron Fist. Though Madame Gao appeared to be little more than a drug lord when we saw her in Daredevil, Iron Fist revealed her to be a major part of The Hand. She was in charge of the group of Hand initiates who were keeping Harold Meachum prisoner, and was coordinating the Hand efforts to smuggle a scientist into the city to work on the Steel Serpent heroin.
While she was obviously serving as leader of The Hand in Iron Fist, it's unclear what her rank is compared to other members of The Hand that we've seen in Daredevil. It's possible that we'll find out more in The Defenders, as both Daredevil season 2 and Iron Fist point heavily toward The Hand being involved in the miniseries in a major way.
So Who Is Madame Gao?
Despite a lot of hints to Madame Gao's true identity, as of the end of Iron Fist season 1 it still hasn't been explicitly revealed. The most common (and most likely) theory is that she is actually the Crane Mother, who in the comics was the leader of one of the other Capital Cities of Heaven and an enemy of Danny Rand's. This is most evident in the connections she has to the Steel Serpent, as Crane Mother actually brought Davos back and returned his powers to him in the comics. She had a vendetta against a former Iron Fist that Danny got caught up in, and soon enough he became an enemy of hers in his own right. She was also namedropped in season 1, with Danny mentioning the "Order of the Crane Mother" while being interviewed in the mental hospital.
Of course, there is one other possibility. Given the role that she plays in Iron Fist and a few of the villains who make an appearance, it's also possible that Marvel is using Madame Gao as a female version of Master Khan. There are a few details about Khan that fit Madame Gao better than Crane Mother, including the fact that he was actually from K'un-Lun. He was also the one plotting with (and manipulating) Ward Meachum behind the scenes in the comics. He even had something of a history with Davos, though not as strong of a connection as Crane Mother had.
Given Marvel's history of making big changes to its characters when they fit the story, it wouldn't be surprising to see Madame Gao turn out to be either of these characters. She could even wind up being an amalgamation of the two, taking some aspects of Master Khan and applying them to Crane Mother (and possibly shifting some of her traits to Khan if they introduce him down the road).
Iron Fist is available now on Netflix.