Monday, March 21, 2016

Justice is Blind: Reacting to Daredevil Season 2 [Contributor: Jaime Poland]


It’s a little hard being a fan of Netflix’s Daredevil.  When you’re not watching your favorite characters get shot at, or stabbed, or punched repeatedly, or waking up in a dumpster, you’re waiting a year for new episodes.  And when Netflix releases all thirteen episodes at once, just begging the viewer to knock the entire thing out in one go... Yeah, it’s been a very long year without new Daredevil episodes.  But thankfully season two has finally been released, and true to form, I spent a solid day in bed tearing through the whole thing.

 What makes this show great is how many balls it juggles in the air all at once; the show hinges on its characterization, but the characterization hinges on the plot, but the plot hinges on the themes it mythologizes.  All of these elements are essential for making Daredevil what it is, and provides incredible depths to what could be just another superhero story.  To do the character of Matt Murdock justice, the show has to explore what makes him different from Captain America or Iron Man; Matt isn’t like them, and he can’t be like them, for a myriad of different reasons.  And right out the gate, the form of Daredevil, the way it chose to tell and present its stories, supports that.  It’s always been an incredibly complicated show and season two managed to make it even more complex.

So in the spirit of talking about the season as a whole, let’s start by looking at the themes of season two.  Really, it’s all a question of ideologies.  What guides these characters?  What tools do they use to place limits on themselves?  For Matt, ultimately, it’s about his religion and the law.  Season one spent a lot of time reminding us that Matt is Catholic, and allowing his faith to cast doubt on whether or not what he’s doing is the right thing.  And while he found a comfortable spot between his faith and what he feels he needs to do as a vigilante, ultimately he never really found resolution.  Because, really, he can’t — vigilantes are supposed to work out of sight, in the cover of darkness.  But with Matt’s faith, he’s never really in darkness.  He constantly feels the weight of his actions, and while some of the guilt he felt throughout season one has been absolved, he doesn’t feel as if he’s the only one who knows what he does.  He doesn’t really have the luxury of doing whatever he wants and following whatever instincts he may have.  He’s capable of doing a lot of harm to other people, but there’s a line he’s not willing to cross because ultimately, it’s not his call.  But the people around him have no problem crossing that line — they’ve got their own sense of justice that drives them.  It’s what made the Punisher so effective this season: like he tells Matt, there’s really no difference between what they do.  It’s just that when Frank Castle makes a move on someone, that person stays down.

As a viewer, it’s pretty clear that Karen is right when she says Frank has a code he upholds.  He’s not going on a mass killing spree; he’s going after the people who killed his family, and other criminals who get in the way.  They’re people who, in his mind, deserve to die.  And there’s no part of Matt, the lawyer or the vigilante, who can understand that.  But it’s exactly what he does: season one was all about taking down organized crime.  The people Frank kills are people Matt probably would have encountered at some point.  But if Matt can only encounter these people as a vigilante, not as a lawyer, how can he be so sure the legal system would be able to do its job and get these people off the street?  Their ideologies are incredibly similar, but because Matt’s are so deep-seeded, he’s unable to see past them.  In fact, Matt’s surprised to learn that Frank grew up Catholic.  But Matt made the choice to put so much stock in his faith, and to let that affect his morals as a vigilante.  But that’s a luxury Frank never had.  He didn’t get to decide whether or not he’d let his military training and the things he saw during the war, not to mention the death of his family, affect his life.  These things happened to him, and they keep happening to him.

He doesn’t get to make the choice as to whether or not he’s going to let his sense of morality change.  It changed, just like every other part of him did, as soon as his family was killed.  But ultimately, he’s still kind of a hero, in his own way.  Like everything on this show, it’s nowhere near black and white.  Yes, Frank committed these crimes; he never denies it, and even while he’s on trial, that’s a point Matt and Foggy concede.  But the people he killed were bad people, who did bad things, who weren’t going to stop doing bad things.  The streets were safer.  Does that mean they deserved to die?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it’s absolutely clear why Frank would feel that they did, and why he felt like it was his responsibility to do something about it.  Unlike Matt, who feels compelled to keep the city that lives in his veins safe, Frank is making a choice every single time he goes out and pulls the trigger.

But sometimes it’s not quite as simple as making a choice.  The more we get to see of Elektra, the more we see that she’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between Matt and Frank.  She makes the choice to fight for her cause, like Matt, but she also makes the informed decision to kill, like Frank.  But for her, it’s because of instincts she doesn’t feel the need to control.  Her ideology is all about destiny; even before she realizes she’s the Black Sky and her destiny might be to lead the Hand, she spends her life feeling compelled to kill when she’s fighting, and actually enjoys it.  She might have the moral backing behind her kills that Frank does, but it comes with the wisdom of a lifelong fighter.  If she doesn’t kill the people who are trying to kill her, they’re just going to try again.  Does that justify her actions?  Again, maybe, maybe not.  What makes the show so strong, and its characters so intriguing, is that it never really asks the audience to decide.  It’s not about whether an audience agrees with a characters’ decisions; the most we can do is understand the character and what drives them.

The season is at its best when all of these conflicting ideologies come to a head.  Matt’s sense of legal justice cannot coincide with Frank’s sense of vengeful justice, nor with Elektra’s more chaotic justice.  Really, the word “justice” means something different to all three of them, and while season one kept us on Matt’s side by suggesting that “law” and “justice” are synonymous, season two shows that just isn’t the case.  How can it be?  Matt might be the devil of Hell’s Kitchen but the thing is, he leaves things up to God.  But God’s not the one stopping attempted murderers and crime bosses from roaming the streets; Matt’s the one doing that.  Do those people deserve to live?  All three of our heroes are going to answer differently.  How can they all be right?  More importantly, how can they all be wrong?  They can’t — they’re contradictory but they’re not wrong in how they view the world and in how they choose to act.

And really, Matt is not necessarily right.  He might be our protagonist but it is na├»ve to think that he has the best understanding of this world.  Actually, there are a few flaws in his morality system, the largest being that if he believes certain decisions are up to God and/or the legal system, then that means he’s removing himself from the equation entirely.  There are certain questions, particularly about whether or not what he’s doing is enough, that he refuses to ask, let alone answer.  So then how can he be effective?  How can he actually make any real progress when the biggest threat he harbors over criminals is that he’ll knock them unconscious and break a few bones?  Maybe he deters people momentarily, but if all Matt’s doing as Daredevil is knocking people down, well, eventually they’re going to jump right back up.  Seeing that Wilson Fisk ran things in prison just served as a reminder of that.  Fisk might be out of command in the city, but so what?  He’s going to get out of prison and step right back into his former role.  Matt didn’t really eliminate the problem, he just momentarily took the pressure off.  That can’t be enough, and if all he’s doing is cutting back the same problems, how is the city actually making any progress?

Because of how firm he’s been about not killing people, an issue that brought him in constant conflict with Frank Castle, Elektra, and Stick, it was a huge moment in the finale to see him push Nobu off the roof.  I’m not the only one who gasped when he pulled back his stick, right?  I was sure he was just going to let Nobu dangle, maybe even leave him hanging, but nope, he let him go.  Sure, it’s complicated by the fact that Nobu may or may not be immortal, but in that moment, it’s not clear that Matt’s even thinking about that.  He doesn’t even really go after Nobu right away; he takes a moment to hold Elektra before he finishes his fight with Nobu, making it feel a lot more vengeful than anything else.  And he’d already told Elektra that the Hand’s belief system probably wasn’t supernatural, so it’s unlikely that he genuinely believes Nobu is immortal.  But whether or not he thought Nobu would get back up after hitting the ground, the thing is, it doesn’t seem like Matt cares.  Of course, Stick winds up being the one to actually kill Nobu, but Matt doesn’t know that.  In that moment, he’s very willing to let Nobu die.  That’s a huge thing, though I wonder if the lack of attention to that decision means it won’t be explored in season three.  I certainly hope so, because it proves what Frank said to Matt early on.  Matt’s just one bad day away from becoming Frank.  There’s nothing stopping Matt from killing except himself.

So with all that in mind, one of the season’s strongest scenes was when Matt asked Frank to team up to take down the Blacksmith.  But instead of asking Frank to promise not to kill anyone, like he did with Elektra, he gives Frank permission.  The Blacksmith killed Frank’s family; who is Matt to tell Frank that his anger is misplaced?  But that’s not even what makes this scene so important.  The importance comes when Matt admits that Frank was right: what Matt’s doing isn’t enough.  He doesn’t know what he should be doing instead (and I don’t think starting to kill people is the answer), but he can’t be the only one fighting.  And if he’s so stalwart in his belief that it’s not his call who lives and who dies (and who tells your story), then I don’t know if he’s then able to determine if another person is similarly unfit to make that call.  He feels unfit because he thinks justice is in the hands of God and the courts, but Elektra and Frank didn’t go to law school.  They don’t want anything to do with Matt’s God.  Matt might have all the justification he needs for himself, but he doesn’t have all the answers.  Especially with the Daredevil-Jessica Jones-Luke Cage-Iron Fist team up The Defenders looming somewhere in the not-so-distant future, it’s important for Matt to learn that he can’t do this alone.  He needs people in his corner.

 Of course, it’s just as important for the people to include non-vigilantes.  You know, normal people who are there for Matt Murdock, not Daredevil.  One of my favorite aspects of the show is how each character is used, and that’s the next element of season two I want to explore.  They’ve all come such a long way from season one, but their journeys have been so smooth.  The more time that passes, the more it feels like Foggy and Karen are becoming the best possible versions of themselves.  And, most importantly, it never feels like Matt is the most important character, despite the fact that he’s a hero.

While season one was more about their friendship and watching these core three characters form a trustworthy place amongst themselves and in Nelson & Murdock, season two was about letting them all figure out where they belong.  It’s not that trying to work together was a mistake, or holding any of them back in any way.  But letting the show explore Foggy and Karen as individuals outside of their connection to Matt, and allowing them to find other jobs, might be the best possible decisions the writers could have made.  For one thing, it means that Foggy and Karen aren’t reliant on Matt.  But it’s important to note that they’ve never needed Matt to be interesting; the two of them, as well as Claire, serve very specific and important roles thematically and narratively that Matt just can’t fill.  And that’s so huge.  The writers don’t try to pretend that Matt is more than he is.  He doesn’t control everything just because he’s the protagonist, or because he’s made himself a hero.  He has limitations, and he certainly doesn’t have all the answers.  But that’s also true of Foggy, Karen, and Claire, but just like Matt, they all have a specific niche.  They all do the best they can to find answers.  For Foggy, that’s the legal system and his belief in people.  For Karen, it’s investigating.  For Claire, it’s medicine and helping people.  Those three elements are precisely what makes up Matt’s drive to become Daredevil.  Individually, they’re all able to speak to a different part of what Matt’s doing, and it makes it impossible for there to be a clean divide between Matt Murdock and Daredevil.  My prediction is that, after all three had career changes this season, next season will see Foggy, Karen, and Claire all settled into their new jobs and thus in much more stable positions to offer help to Matt.  The show has repositioned its supporting characters so that instead of being reliant on its main character, he’s now reliant on all of them.

The end of the season had a few really powerful moments where Matt, Stick, and Elektra worked together to fight the Hand, and at one point I thought to myself, see, Matt doesn’t have to do this alone.  He has people fighting with him.  So now, with Foggy and Karen getting themselves more established footholds (and I’m sure Claire will find an equally fulfilling job), they’re in a position where they can be of more use to Matt, and really become part of his team.

And hopefully that day comes sooner than later, since right now their team isn’t in such a good place, as evidenced by Matt and Foggy’s decision to shut down their firm.  It was kind of harsh, since the heart of the show has always been Matt and Foggy’s friendship, and so much of the first season was about watching them build their law firm.  Actually, the worst thing about Nelson & Murdock shutting down might be the fact that both characters wanted it to happen.  It’d be easier to blame Matt for telling Foggy he didn’t want to do it anymore, but like everything on this show, it’s just not that black and white.  I have a feeling we’ll see them working together again at some point, but for as sad as it made me, I’m not upset that it happened.

Like I said earlier, Foggy is becoming the best possible version of himself, and I think shutting down Nelson & Murdock was huge in that.  Matt flaked out on him in court, which forced Foggy to stand on his own, which proved how good he is at his job.  Wanting to work with his best friend had its drawbacks, and when Matt chose Daredevil responsibilities over legal ones, it allowed both of them to naturally come to a conclusion they might not have otherwise ever reached.  And with the financial problems the firm was facing this season (okay, really since the day they opened their doors), it makes sense to put Foggy in a position where he still has power and the ability to work on non-soul-sucking cases, but where money isn’t really an issue.

And then there’s Karen, who’s always been sort of an enigma to the audience, in a really interesting way.  While Matt and Foggy never make her feel like an outsider, it’s undeniable that she doesn’t history with them, and she’s never appeared in any flashbacks.  With her, for now, what we see is what we get, and we got some hints about her family throughout the season that suggests she had some pretty big reasons to come to New York in the first place.  I could go on and on about Karen forever, but in my post-binge haze, the thing I most want to talk about is that season-ending cliffhanger where Matt tells her that he’s Daredevil.  It’s a huge step, and while it potentially has huge ramifications for the show itself, my interest is in what it means for Karen’s character.  Because while Matt’s never made her feel like an outsider, he’s also been lying to her the entire time he’s known her.  Even worse, now Matt and Foggy are lying to her.  That inherently puts a barrier between her and the boys, but by finally telling her the truth (and it’s very big to me that Karen didn’t figure it out or catch Matt like Foggy did.  He made the decision himself to tell her), she’s finally their equal.  Maybe that’s a step that only could have been taken once she was no longer their employee; even though at one point she reminds Matt she’s not their secretary, she’s never been treated like just a secretary.  She’s always been their friend, and they’ve always respected her enough to include her in their cases.  But her name was never on the door.  Even though she dug into things and gave Foggy and Matt valuable information, that information wasn’t always necessarily useful.  Now with her at the Bulletin, she’s not their employee.  She’s a valuable asset in her own right, and Matt finally making the decision to tell her the truth hopefully means he’s done putting up barriers.

And speaking of barriers, we need to talk about Matt and Karen’s short-lived relationship.  It seemed really important that even before they started dating, in a totally unrelated conversation, Karen told Matt she knew something was going on with him but she wasn’t going to pry, and that she’d be there whenever he wanted to tell her the truth.  Ultimately he did continue to lie to her, but he never blindsided her, and I think that’s the key that’s going to salvage their relationship (even if just platonically).  They were never quite on a level playing field, but Matt was never able to even hide the fact that he was hiding something.  No, that doesn’t mean it’s okay that he lied to her for so long, and I’m sure the show won’t drop that conflict, but Karen’s always been good at understanding people’s motivations and how they use those motivations as justification for their actions.  I don’t think their romance is totally done (and I certainly hope it isn’t), but whether or not they’re together at the beginning of season three, I can see their friendship quickly being repaired.

Of course, we can’t talk about Matt’s relationship with Karen without talking about his relationship with Elektra.  Once Elektra showed up, I was worried her presence would spell a much quicker end for Matt/Karen, but I was pleasantly surprised to see how separate Matt kept them.  And the fact that Matt was so protective of what he had with Karen was huge, too — he mentioned to Elektra that he was seeing someone, and made sure she knew nothing could happen between them while they were working together.  Even his eventual decision to leave New York with Elektra wasn’t about him choosing Elektra over Karen, it was choosing Daredevil over Matt Murdock.  Elektra’s part of that, sure, but when he tells her that she’s the only person who understands him, that’s not totally true.  She understands why he needs to be Daredevil and why he needs to keep fighting, but she doesn’t understand the other parts of his life.  She doesn’t know Foggy or Karen, and she certainly doesn’t care about his career or his cases.  It doesn’t seem possible for Matt Murdock and Daredevil to coincide with Elektra taking a larger role in his life.  And sure, Karen doesn’t understand the Daredevil side of him, but by telling her, it finally allows her to maybe begin to understand it.  Murdock and Daredevil might never be able to totally merge, but if that is possible, it has to be with Karen at his side, not Elektra.

But really, the best thing about these complicated relationships is that neither of them took over the show.  Karen was never defined by her feelings for Matt; even when they broke up, her anger at him was because of how he had been treating her and Foggy.  And Elektra was never just an ex-girlfriend who showed up to cause trouble.  She always had her own agenda and most of the time, she put her own safety and needs over Matt.  Most importantly, the show gave her enough screentime that she was able to genuinely connect with the audience.  Her position on the show, and more importantly her death, isn’t just to further Matt’s story; she’s got her own thing going on and when she dies, she dies in battle.  She’s not an innocent bystander; sure, she died protecting Matt, but because she was able to have a strong arc with room to explore her character, it feels like a strong end to her journey, not a momentary blip in Matt’s.

Lots of things happen in a season of Daredevil.  Actually, a lot happens in a single episode of Daredevil.  But after all the conflict, all the imagery, all the symbolism, all the characterization, the season finale poses one question: what is it to be a hero?  Really, that’s the question being asked throughout the entire season.  Matt thinks he’s being heroic by giving up his normal life, abandoning his friends and career to focus on being Daredevil, but he’s not.  How can he be?  If Karen’s right by postulating that anyone who’s endured but continues to push forward is a hero, then Matt isn’t a hero just because he’s willing to be Daredevil.  Putting on a mask and getting a fancy costume isn’t what makes him a hero.  Fans like to joke that a lot of the Daredevil viewing experience is just watching people hit Matt, but that’s kind of exactly it.  That’s what makes him a hero.  Sure, he’s probably more self-sacrificing than he maybe needs to be, but it’s the lengths he’s willing to go to that make his actions worthwhile.

Similarly, it means that Foggy and Karen aren’t just his worthless sidekicks.  Because they’re not: they do the best they can, the best ways they know how, to help their city.  They’re just as heroic as the people with abilities, or the ones donning masks in the middle of the night to fight bad guys.  And for as much as the season pushes the viewer to consider whether or not Frank Castle and Elektra are good people, ultimately that’s not the question people should be asking themselves.  It’s not about morality; like I said at the beginning of the post, it’s not about making the audience like characters, or agreeing with them.  It’s about making these characters believable and understandable, and that’s not about morality.  That’s about heroism.  Are Frank and Elektra good people?  Maybe, maybe not.  Are they heroic?  Absolutely.  For all the bad things they’ve done, you can’t take that away from them.  And that’s what makes Daredevil so compelling: no matter what, you can’t pigeonhole characters.  The villains are redeemable, the heroes are real, and the ordinary is always extraordinary.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, but I have to disagree with something, Matt Murdock is more Daredevil than one day he will be Matt, the mask he wears every day is the mask as a lawyer, Daredevil is not the typical hero who needs and wants to reconcile his both sides (the man and the hero), more than that, Matt doesn’t mind sacrificing who he is (Matt Murdock) to became who he wants to be (Daredevil), when Matt says that Elektra is the “only one” that understands him, is because she understands the sacrifices that he makes for a cause, for an ideology, and until certain point, Karen never will (like Claire couldn’t), and maybe this is the first step to HQ Daredevil - Born Again, when Karen have a large part in the destruction of Daredevil/Matt and honestly is the best story of the HQs, and is the most that I'm more excited to see on screen.