What is Happening?
New-to-the-series showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez wanted to tell a story that made us question what it means to be a hero. This goal is not met particularly well, as some plots succeed more than others. In fact, season two as a whole is one of the strangest seasons of television I’ve ever seen as it pertains to story structure and theme. The first seven(ish) episodes were near perfect when it came to balancing the different elements at play. When the two storylines diverge, things take a turn. While the Punisher story continued to excel, the Elektra story made me want to be dead. And that’s about as much as I can say without going into spoilers, so here’s your official spoiler warning for all of season two.
It’s here where the stories diverge and show become a big, hot mess. Frank Castle, Karen Page, and, to a lesser extent, Foggy all attempt to make sense of things. We learn that Castle threw his own case on the orders of (surprise!) Wilson Fisk. Fisk, who’s presence immediately elevates the story, promises Castle answers. Castle learns that the Blacksmith is responsible for his family’s death, and Fisk makes Castle an offer he can’t refuse: get out and kill the criminals; Fisk will benefit from that when he’s released, and they’ll settle their differences at a later time. Castle begrudgingly agrees, and he escapes prison. Word of his escape is succeeded by the assassination of the district attorney and the attempted murder of Karen Page. Karen sees that the Punisher is not behind these attacks, and agrees to work with him to get the answers he needs. Frank ultimately learns that his old commanding officer in the marines is the Blacksmith and he murders him. He discovers his weapons cache and embraces his role as the Punisher, telling Karen that he is a monster and won’t change path from here on out.
This storyline works very well, partly because of Jon Bernthal’s excellent performance, and partly because this story makes sense. It’s a detective story that is propelled by a genuine desire to seek closure and find answers. Karen goes along with this out of a sense of respect for Castle. She is, at times, afraid of what he can do, but she ultimately feels for the man who’s life has been hell ever since the day his family was caught in the crossfire of gang warfare and the sting operation that went south. He is absolved of his crimes, but they are, in a way, crimes of passion. And since his crimes, generally, are directed towards mob bosses and mass murders, he is seen as a someone the city needs by many people. Karen gets that. Karen knows there is more to the man. She knows that, in some ways, he is a hero.
Elektra’s storyline, however, is utter garbage for the back half of the season. It’s here the show abandons it’s neo-noir crime drama so that Daredevil can go off to fight immortal magic ninjas. Legions upon legions of immortal magic ninjas. Die-hard fans will know that “The Hand,” this secret immortal magic ninja society, does have basis in the comics. The latter portion of Frank Miller’s run saw a substantial amount of attention devote to The Hand. However, this storyline doesn’t work here and now for a multitude of reasons. Let’s go through them.
- Tonal inconsistency. Much of Frank Miller’s work has been inspired by ninjas, samurais, and Eastern martial arts. Whether it’s Batman, Wolverine, or Daredevil, Miller’s comics have often paid homage to these types of stories. When they did so, however, it did so in totality. Weird, mystical comics are fine, and weird, mystical TV shows are fine as well. However, when a grounded, detective conspiracy is undercut by immortal magic ninjas, the tonal elements of the story clash. It just feels wrong.
- Lack of stakes. This entire plotline hinged on the idea that there is a fantastical superweapon called “The Black Sky.” That’s it. We don’t know what that means. We don’t know what it does. We have no reason to care. It’s finally revealed that Elektra is “The Black Sky” and, well, I still don’t care. So what? Does she have superpowers? Does she turn into a dragon? Does she have agency or does she become possessed? There was a lack of details on what this means that led us not caring about it.
- No outsider consequences. When this arc began, Stick said that New York was home to war that nobody knew was being fought. Uh…okay…then go ahead and keep fighting. What do I care? The notion that a war has been going on for centuries and no one knows about it is probably the least interesting thing to include in the show because it doesn’t affect anyone. There is no reason to believe that this is going to destroy the city from the inside out, there’s no reason to believe that Nobo or whoever is in charge of the immortal magic ninjas will use this power maliciously, there’s no reason for us to get involved. When a character, like Stick, needs to say “Trust me, it’s bad,” then my mind turns off because he has no ability to explain why this matters. These people built a giant hole in midtown…great. Good work. Nice determination.
- Thematic shortcomings. How does this fit into the season’s overall theme? If we are working under the assumption that this storyline was written to serve the idea “What does it mean to be a hero?” then…it sucks. Matt has very little inner turmoil throughout these episodes. For a good chunk of the time, he just appears to be along for the ride. Elektra, on the other hand, has to make a choice. She can choose to embrace “The Black Sky” or she can fight against the immortal magic ninjas. That, at a surface level, sounds like it supports the theme but…it really doesn’t. Again, we have no idea what the “Black Sky” is, so that gets thrown out the window right off the bat, so this is more of an issue of predestination than actual heroics. All we know is that Elektra was raised from childhood to be something, so watching her debate become that thing is a really toothless mechanic.
- Ninjas. There were hundreds of immortal magic ninjas running through the most heavily populated city in the United States and nobody saw them?
Now, you may sit there and say that my Daredevil knowledge is insufficient and that I don’t know enough about the character and therefore I have no right to question the lack of answers provided by the show and that I should educate myself on the character’s past, but it’s important to realize that a television needs to stand on her own. Even if these answers, and more, were fleshed out ad nausem in the comics, a viewer may be questioning why any of thing on screen matter. My girlfriend, may God have mercy on her soul, has never read a Daredevil comic and she had no idea what was happening in the show or what part it played in the story at large.
The Elektra storyline was poorly written and out of place. Maybe this was because the needed to isolate the Punisher to serve as a back-door pilot for the character, or maybe the showrunners thought this would just make for “cooler” action, but either way, this stretch of episodes fell flatter than I could have possibly imagined. And, to top it off, we are then forced to endure Karen’s newspaper article, titled “What is it to be a Hero?” It’s almost as if the story was so off base from the desired theme of the season that they needed to just…force us to think about that question.
I’ve said before that Daredevil is my favorite superhero, so it was shocking to see a season of television do so well and then just…pivot into madness. The cliffhanger ending is setting up the return of Elektra, but next season will really need to refocus on what it is that makes Daredevil great. It’s the moral dilemmas, its tension between the law and justice, and the emotion conflict of pleasure vs. guilt. It’s not immortal magic ninjas.
Alex Russo has stood by Daredevil through worse. Remind him to keep fighting the good fight on Twitter.