TRAVIS NEWTON: Daredevil‘s first season broke records on Netflix, quickly becoming the streaming service’s most watched season of original programming. But the critical reaction was divided. Some praised its impressive fight choreography, moody lighting, and solid performances. Others criticized the season’s slow pacing and oppressively grim tone. Having felt like our characters weren’t making the kind of progress we should be seeing in 13 hours of television, I fall just on the negative side. But Marvel and Netflix’s impressive handling of Jessica Jones and the departure of original showrunner Stephen S. DeKnight gave me hope that another season of Daredevil could get it right, or at least make it better. Luckily, that’s what happened — this new season is a vast improvement over the first.
DREW DIETSCH: In practically every arena, season two of the show has embraced its source material in a more wide-reaching way… and the series is all the better for it. Not only do our two big character additions (Frank Castle and Elektra Natchios) help strengthen the feeling that this show is part of the larger MCU, but their plot lines also keep the pacing on its toes. The Netflix Marvel shows have consistently gotten better with each season, so now I’m even more excited for the premiere of Luke Cage in September. So… should we dive right into Jon Bernthal and his performance as The Punisher? Or is that like having dessert before dinner?
NEWTON: Bernthal is really inspired casting for Frank, but he adopted what I like to call the grimdark grumble — a vocal affectation that really took off after Batman Begins. Other than that, I think his take on the character was quite good, even though the show couldn’t seem to decide whether his character was really unhinged or not. He’s the sentimental, sympathetic tragic anti-hero and the trigger happy remorseless vigilante. The conflicting nature of the character kind of leaves me cold. I don’t like the guy, and maybe I’m not supposed to, but I’ll admit to being just a little interested in what the future holds for him.
HUGE SPOILERS FOLLOW
Introducing The Punisher
NEWTON: Let’s talk about his first big story on the show, which spans episodes 1-4. What’d you think of that, with Punisher taking on the Irish mob, Matt taking on Punisher, and the furtive romance with Karen?
DIETSCH: If season two had only been the first four episodes, I would’ve been perfectly content. Frank’s introduction is completely off-screen, manifesting as a hail of bullets that solidifies him as a force of nature. Even though season one provided far more blood than we were used to in the PG-13 MCU, season two upped the ante in these first four episodes. Drills plunged through feet and shotgun blasts to the face are only a few of the TV-MA moments you’ll get to enjoy. I think Frank’s story (and Bernthal’s performance) never gets better than his monologue about his daughter in the graveyard at the end of episode four, “Penny and Dime.” As far as Matt and Karen’s romance, it felt a little forced at the beginning, but their relationship and Karen’s burgeoning independence both pay off by season’s end. How did you feel about this season’s “one take scene” and the action in general?
NEWTON: Oh, gosh. The close-up of the drill in Frank’s foot was just disgusting, and I say that as a genuine fan of gory horror films. The violence in this show is really trying to prove something, and sometimes I wish it wasn’t. I agree about the first four episodes, though. In fact, I think they are the best on-screen Daredevil story we’ve ever seen. Even episode three, “New York’s Finest,” in which Matt is chained to a chimney for nearly the entire length of the episode, produces some of the best philosophy of vigilantism the show has produced to date. And it finishes with that jaw-dropping, light-smashing “one take” action sequence in the hallway, down the stairs, and into another hallway. That’s how you know you’re seeing action on a low budget: hallways, hallways, and more hallways. Despite the budgetary limitations, they shot and choreographed the hell out of that sequence, cleverly hiding cuts along the way. Daredevil’s use of the chain was so cool that I found myself wishing he had a chain all the time. I do think the fight is a bit long winded, though — the novelty of seeing Murdock smashing chumps’ jaws and knocking dudes out with flippy kicks (the technical term, I’m sure) is admittedly wearing off. It’s worth noting, though, that the action in those first four episodes of the season may be the best action in the series so far. The ninja stuff later in the season doesn’t compare.
Punisher on Trial & The Hand
NEWTON: Let’s move on to episodes 5-8. I think there was a ton of solid writing here, particularly in how Frank’s trial pulls our heroic trio apart.
DIETSCH: A big part of that divide comes with the introduction of Elektra. I really dig that she’s the only woman in Matt’s life who understands why he needs to be Daredevil, and Elodie Yung brings an intensity to the character that is entrancing. Her storyline and that of the mysterious Hand becomes the big overarching plot of season two, but I much more enjoyed her and Matt’s nightly missions together rather than where the story ended up.
I was raised on Law & Order (no spinoffs, I was a purist) so I was ecstatic with the legal side of things. Nelson and Murdock felt like a real part of the story this time around. Making Frank their client kept them vital and brought out the best of Foggy Nelson we’ve seen yet. Other returning characters show up such as Rosario Dawson’s always welcome Claire Temple, a.k.a. Night Nurse, and she knocks it out of the park. This is a character that is pretty much the superhero of nurses, and she brings out the best qualities of that profession. There’s another recognizable character that I was happily surprised to see…
NEWTON: While I loved her introduction at the end of episode four, it took me a while to warm up to Elodie Yung as Elektra. She was such a contrast to the warmth of Matt and Karen’s new romance. The chemistry between Matt and Karen felt earned, but his chemistry with Elektra felt forced and chilly to me, even when we flashed back to the hot and heavy moments of their prior relationship. And that whole espionage plot with her trying to find some dirt on Roxxon wasn’t nearly as engaging as what was developing with Foggy, Karen, Reyes, and Frank. I eventually warmed to Elektra as we began to learn about her past, and her connection to Stick.
NEWTON: About Claire: I think Rosario Dawson might the be MVP of Marvel’s Netflix shows. She’s never not great. On the legal side, I really liked that we saw Foggy and Karen diving headfirst into Frank’s case, and developing his defense. I wish their defense had focused a bit more on Frank’s traumatic brain injury, but whatever — he had to go to prison, anyway, so he could meet Paul Rudd’s bedraggled stand-in. Oh, and Kingpin… he’s there, too. That little bit of catch-up we get with Fisk is weird, like Orange is the New Black meets MCU, as he tries to find his place in the prison hierarchy. That’s when he meets Rudd’s bedraggled stand-in. After Punisher’s release, episodes 9-13, is when things got really messy, I think.
DIETSCH: I was happy to get an update on Fisk — now officially the Kingpin thanks to a line of dialogue from character actor William Forsythe — but I’m glad he didn’t take over the season’s arc at the end. What we got was just the right amount to keep me sated and looking forward to his eventual release.
Punisher Unleashed & The Black Sky
DIETSCH: The last five episodes are where things get the most over-the-top: The Hand is a ninja factory with a resurrection jar; Frank is going after his former Marine companion (Clancy Brown!) in a storyline that’s propulsive, but feels incredibly disconnected; and a centuries-long war comes to a huge climax. There’s a scattered quality to the last stretch of the show, and while I’ll never bemoan the presence of ninjas on screen, The Hand and Nobu never felt as formidable as they should have. I liked where a lot of the more personal drama ended up — Foggy going to work for Jeri Hogarth, Matt’s cliffhanger confession to Karen — but the grand comic book plot somewhat fizzled out for me. That being said, I’m very excited to see Elektra’s storyline play out, hopefully in the show’s following season. The one bit of pure fan joy I got toward the end was the introduction of Daredevil’s classic billy club. Seeing him swing over rooftops was a joy, and I can’t wait to see it integrated into more fight scenes. Next season’s one-take fight is going to be crazy!
Anything particular you wanted to say about this last stretch of episodes and the show in general? Would you binge watch and recap a Punisher spinoff series with me if it came into existence?
NEWTON: The whole convoluted Blacksmith/Colonel Schoonover plot didn’t do it for me. There’s a huge lack of exposition and explanation with Schoonover, and what he says about Kandahar. I think a ball was dropped very, very hard in episode 12, leaving too much unresolved. After Frank put a bullet in Schoonover, I still wasn’t sure how it allowed Frank to really, finally become The Punisher. Yeah, it allowed him access to more guns and more armor, but those are things he already seemed to have in infinite amounts. Why Frank didn’t just paint a skull on himself earlier in the season is a total mystery to me. So would I watch a season of Punisher with you? Not at this point. But I’d like to see him in another season of Daredevil.
On the brighter side of things, Karen’s progress this season has been remarkable. She was a very valuable player, but her becoming a journalist was just… odd. The show waved its magic billy club, and suddenly she was a writer. A whole universe full of Asgardians... a talking space raccoon... robot armies… but somehow, a legal secretary/paralegal getting a job as a journalist is what I find unrealistic.
Despite the messy ending, we got eight really solid episodes this season, with improvements all around (including Matt’s new helmet and billy club). With the introduction of The Punisher and Elektra, the show’s morals have never been weirder. After accepting help from killers, is Daredevil’s code still intact? That’s like a politician accepting a donation from a corrupt source. Can Daredevil’s no-kill policy make a difference in Hell’s Kitchen? I’m not sure it can anymore. But hopefully that will be tackled in whatever season of TV he’s in next.