Daredevil: Eps 5-8

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The first quartet of Daredevil episodes had trouble finding their footing.  The dedication to violence and darkness, both visual and narrative, were in place, but the unspooling of the story seemed uneven, supporting characters Foggy and Karen were more annoying than interesting, and the show seemed to lack a real soul, as Matt Murdock beat the crap out of bad guys simply because bad guys need the crap beaten out of them.

The middle third of this first season kicks the story into high gear, gets us more involved with the supporting cast, and puts Matt’s emotional struggle front-and-center, giving Charlie Cox more to work with as an actor.  In other words, the show is finding its rhythm and its soul, and it’s doing so in some surprising ways.

Daredevil (2015)

Created by Drew Goddard
Starring: Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Rosario Dawson, Ayelet Zurer, Scott Glenn
Review (Eps 5-8, collectively): 3.5 stars (of five)

In the first four episodes, I expected a burgeoning love affair with Claire (the nurse played by Rosario Dawson) to give us the needed entre into Matt’s inner life.  Instead, their falling out leaves her absent for a long stretch, with no sign of return–and it’s Matt’s spiritual struggle, played out with a rather stock-character priest, that gives us emotional stakes to supplement the crime plot.

What’s really set the show on fire, though, has been the continued development of, and increased screen time for, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk.  At first, as the shadowy crimelord pulling all the strings, he seems to be already the master mobster we know from Spider-Man and Daredevil comics, but it’s clear in this quartet of episodes that Fisk is still evolving into that character–that this season is as much the Secret Origin of the Kingpin as it is of Daredevil.

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Episode 5: World on Fire
We pick up where we left off in ep 4, with a beaten Rosario Dawson, tired and sad, and she looks at her injuries.  It feels like a reflection on the consequences of violence, which is something the show has lacked.  Yes, Matt takes his lumps, but he shakes them off quickly enough, and he’s the “superhero.”  Dawson’s Claire is a civilian, an innocent, and the consequences of violence done to her have greater emotional impact.
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Claire also continues her function as exposition sounding board, with Matt explaining his hypersenses, and how they add up to his radar sense.  It seems a little late, five episodes in, and it doesn’t feel quite right when he describes it, saying, “I see a world on fire.”

Matt kisses her.  Rosario Dawson is hot as all hell, and has a smile like no one else, but it’d be interesting to address why Matt finds her attractive.  Throaty voice?  Sense of her figure?  Kind heart?  Relative fearlessness?  Matt’s desperation for any human contact?

It’s 17 minutes before Foggy and Karen appear, stiffly bringing lightness, if not comic relief.  But the comedy and charisma are flat.  At least Matt’s reserve, his slight detachment as he banters, is in good keeping with his character.

This was the best episode to date, notable for a unified theme:  Each character is dealing with romance.  Claire questions Matt’s sanity, and indicates she’s falling in love.  Foggy and Karen find themselves on a date–a surprising twist that’s undercut by a creepy face-touching sequence that suggests Karen has the hots for Matt, not Foggy.  Fisk takes Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) on another creepy date, and when his true dealings are laid on the table, Vanessa has to decide whether she’s all in.  Contrast this to Dawson, who is deciding she’s out.

The love theme is subtly echoed in the episode’s title, too.  “World on Fire” directly refers to how Matt sees the world, and the violent ending of the ep, but it also refers to a 1941 hit love song, whose main lyric is, “I don’t want to set the world on fire / I just want to start a flame in your heart.”

Episode 6:  Condemned
This one picks up seconds after the previous episode ended, with Matt cornered by cops eager who, of course, turn out to be wholly owned by Wilson Fisk.  There are virtually no uncorrupted cops in this New York.  In the first ten minutes, after escaping, Matt exchanges tough talk with surviving Russian capo (tsar?) Vladimir, in a tediously familiar back-and-forth, all gritted teeth and posturing. The story picks up again in the hospital where Foggy, Karen and an injured client are met by Rosario Dawson’s Claire–a convergence of Matt’s separate lives.

This is supposed to be an episode that really cranks up the intensity and the stakes in the conflict between Matt and Fisk, but it’s too much, or too little–it feels strained. There are multiple instances of dialogue meant to make Matt, and us, consider whether he’s really any different, given his violent crusade, than the Russians, Fisk, or the rest.

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Highlight: a fun fight in a tunnel, with Matt tossing around a length of pipe like the billy club that is Daredevil’s primary weapon, and the ricochet effect, like they do with Captain America’s shield.  A great callout to a million issues of the comic.

Episode 7:  Stick
As a fan of the Elektra era, I awaited this episode like no other.  The cold open, with an unnamed Stick killing … someone … probably in Japan … over something that will take him to New York, was suitably ominous and bad-ass.  The next scene, office dialogue at Nelson & Murdock, dragged a little.

DD07When we get to the flashback, Stick meeting and training young Matt, that’s great.  Just setting their first conversation in a park while people around them practice tai chi is a perfect bit of framing and contextualizing. Scott Glenn is great as Stick, exactly what the part demands.

The Black Sky caper is interesting–but the weapon is a frightened child, and Stick says he killed him off-screen?  Gotta be more than that–otherwise, what a letdown.  The addition, after Stick and Matt fall out again, of a mystery partner/master who asks Stick whether Matt will be ready “when the doors open” seems gratuitous.  The Stick character comes with a story about global wars between good ninjas and bad (The Hand), and if they’re planning to introduce that into this first season, the creators are overreaching. The story so far is Matt vs. Fisk’s crime organization–and that’s all we need.

Episode 8:  Shadows in the Glass
This episode takes the show to another level.  Focusing on the quirky D’Onofrio, who is alternately childlike and bombastic, we get the origin of Wilson Fisk, a childhood of abuse and bad lessons that is well-handled.  When young Wilson takes his first step into darkness and violence, it’s believable, and our sympathy for his character is totally engaged.  The use of a blank concrete wall to connect past and present is very good.

DD08aThe first indication that we’ll be dealing with Fisk’s childhood is when, while dressing, he sees his reflection in the mirror as a bloody fat kid.  On the one hand, I hate the reliance on visual hallucination in cinema, but on the other, having Fisk’s reflection reveal so much about his self-image so simply is wonderful.

Throughout the ep, the black-and-steel color scheme of Fisk’s life is really noticeable, and I was thinking about it before Vanessa, clad in white, arrives.  Wilson confesses his origins to her, and she accepts him, and encourages him both to go public as a crusader for the city, and to shift from his eternal black to a medium gray suit.  Only then did I remember that in the comics, the Kingpin always wears a white suit.  DD08bSeeing Vanessa, in white, start to shift Wilson’s color palette identifies her as the force that will make him the man he’ll become.  It makes sense of Wilson’s quirky vulnerability and the way his schemes have been unraveling in recent episodes–he’s not the Kingpin yet.

It’s only this episode that we understand Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance.  As he faces a gently firm dressing-down from Chinese crimelord Mrs. Gao, his stuttering and facial tics, with the new context of his childhood, become the weakness and fear of the bullied fat kid.  While this is the best written and most engaging episode of the series yet, D’Onofrio does sometimes overact Fisk to a degree that makes me squirm.  See his confessional scene with Vanessa.

Other upsides:  Matt learns of, and enters, Karen’s and Foggy’s investigation into (ultimately) Fisk’s schemes.  Feels like story progress.  We also get a great easter egg as Fisk’s tailor is clearly Melvin Potter, a comics villain called The Gladiator.  The scene visually queues us with a little buzz saw that is part of the costume Potter wears in the comics. Finally, the revelation that the Black Sky really did die off screen is a surprise.  But the reference to finding another one is promising.  We see that Fisk fears the yakuza.  As Stick said, there’s someone Fisk is afraid of–and I’m pretty sure it’ll be The Hand.

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A promising second suite of episodes.  It still feels like the show is relying too much on darkness and violence as the hook. Not to say there’s too much of either, but that there’s not enough of everything else. With these four episodes, though, we’re getting a little more as characters gel and are given more exposure.  There’s potential for the final five episodes to really kick ass, in more than the literal sense.