Daredevil: The Choices of Matt Murdock

Posted on March 29, 2016

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Daredevil, season 2, episodes 4 – 6: “Penny and Dime,” “Kinbaku” and “Regrets Only”

One of the more interesting choices made for the second season of Daredevil was to break the season up into distinct arcs that only tangentially refer to each other. Streaming TV series tend to follow the binge-watch model of storytelling, which pretty much calls for one season-long arc for all the main characters, but the creative team behind Daredevil opted for several. The two main arcs, which eventually overlap at times but remain refreshingly distinct throughout the season, are the Punisher arc and the Elektra arc. With these three episodes, the former arc begins to shift slightly into the background while the latter takes center stage. And while we think there may have been some pacing issues this season (which we’ll get into more as it unfolds), we think the basic ideas behind each of these stories were well-realized. Part of the reason they worked as distinct arcs is that the show didn’t strain itself by trying to make them too similar or trying to find connections between them that weren’t needed. In the end, both arcs come down to the same thing, when you pull far enough back from them to get a big picture. Both are about the choices of Matt Murdock, past, present and future.

When we say Frank Castle’s story receded into the background slightly during this part of the season we don’t mean it stopped progressing or stopped being important. In fact, in episode four, it’s still very much taking center stage. The repercussions of his actions are rippling outward, as the Irish mob regroups after his attack with the arrival of some guy named Finn, who’s all ginger hair and whiskey and vows of revenge over upturned coffins while wearing fashions straight out of 1979. In a way, it’s kind of comforting to know the Irish characters in this show are as stereotypical as the Asian ones, who are usually inscrutable figures of allure and mystery or just straight-up ninjas. Anyway, Finn and his gang of gun-toting leprechauns hit the streets to find Frank while at the same time, the Nelson & Murdock team are attending the funeral of one of his victims.

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This part of the story fell a little flat for us. While Foggy, Matt and Karen are clearly people defined by their empathy and righteousness, we found the sadness over the death of Grotto to be more than a bit overstated. Father Lantom, who seems to have no role at all this season after serving as Matt’s confessor through all of season one, does his best to try and give the scene some gravitas and make some sense out of it, but watching three characters act sad over a character they not only didn’t know well but who represented everything they’ve been fighting against struck as an attempt to wring pathos out of a scene that didn’t require it. The only thing of interest in the scene was Lantom telling Matt to continue his vigilante work because he feels guilty, which doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense coming from a Catholic priest, but like most of the peripheral characters in this series, he is almost as interesting as the main character and there are hints of far deeper stories to tell.

Father Lantom strikes us as another one of those people in Matt’s orbit who seem to get a little charge out of what Matt’s doing, in a manner that doesn’t necessarily speak well of him. After all, there’s something disconcerting about a priest urging a conflicted man to continue his violent ways. Similarly, Karen is someone who gets a charge out of putting herself in very dangerous situations over and over again. Both of these characters are presented as moral voices; as the people who urge Matt to be better and greater than he is. But under the surface, both characters are, in fact, daredevils themselves; people who get an adrenaline rush of sorts out of the pursuit of justice and/or danger.

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We wish the show did a better job of pointing this out. It goes a long way to explain the sometimes inexplicable actions of both characters (especially Karen) and it sets Foggy further apart from them as the one moral voice in Matt’s life who doesn’t think he should be pursuing his more violent goals. In other words, Daredevil is himself surrounded by daredevils (including Frank and Elektra) but his main emotional conflict this season is with the one person in his life who isn’t much of a thrill-seeker: Foggy. It’s part of the reason why Claire couldn’t be with him too: like Karen or Father Lantom, she understood the need for a figure like Daredevil in Hell’s Kitchen, but like Foggy, she couldn’t stand to watch someone she cared about pay the price for that lifestyle. All of this goes unstated for the most part, but it’s interesting to see how Matt constantly surrounds himself with people who more or less are fighting the same demons he is.

Which brings us to Frank and Elektra. Both characters, in their own way, represent Paths Not Taken for Matt. In Frank’s case, Matt sees an only slightly more damaged and darker version than himself, which is why his arguments with Frank are so vehement and why Matt was so gentle in turning him over to the police. He sat with the gravely wounded man and listened to him give a long soliloquy about his life and his ghosts and then rather politely handed him over to the police; specifically to Mahoney, who he urges to take credit for the collar. Granted, in doing so, he was also convincing Mahoney not to arrest him, but his main reason for doing it this way was more altruistic in nature. He knew that the kind of vigilantism he began and Frank accelerated is a net bad for Hell’s Kitchen if it takes power away from the people who are entrusted with actual law enforcement.

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Having said that, we feel like it’s almost impossible to make Frank’s backstory – soldier whose family is killed by the mob, leading him to take up arms in an act of vengeance – seem even remotely fresh. It was a cliche back when the character was created 40 years ago and it’s only become a bigger one in the ensuing decades – especially since this is something like the 4th or 5th interpretation of the character for the screen. The only parts of the slow uncovering of his story that interested us were the parts that sucked in Karen, who becomes somewhat obsessed with the man, even if it’s not always made clear as to why. Still, their interactions in these episodes – especially in his hospital room when she reveals she broke into his house (an act which caused literal screams of “WHY, KAREN, WHY?” to spring forth from us) are some of the best parts of the season. Jon Bernthal is doing his best work ever with this character  – and thankfully, is making us forget all those other lame-o punishers.

Just as Frank represents the darker side of vigilantism and the choices Matt makes in continuing his quest to keep the people of Hell’s Kitchen safe, Elektra represents the darker side of love and attraction, and how easily susceptible he can be to it. That’s perhaps not quite fair to Elektra to reduce her only to a romantic figure, since she’s as darkly violent and murderous as Frank is and in fact, plays a much more active role in Matt’s life by trying to tempt him into becoming more like her. Frank actually couldn’t care less if Matt becomes more like him. He just wanted Matt out of his way. But Elektra has this need to change Matt, which makes her come across as a far more dangerous character, especially since she’s got the one weapon Frank Castle wouldn’t know how to use: sex.

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You could argue that Elektra and Frank represent the same sorts of murderous impulses to Matt, but the story tends to present Frank as more of a tragic figure and Elektra as more of a seductress and temptress in the Old Testament mode. That’s slightly regressive writing, but it’s of a piece with the superhero genre’s conventions. In fact, like the slight staleness wafting off Frank’s story, the Catwoman-esque take on Elektra (gleefully amoral, sexy, and tempting female figure) threatens at times to collapse into cliche.

But Elodie Yung and Matt Murdock make all their scenes together sing. Like most superheroes faced with the classic Betty vs. Veronica scenario, Matt appears to have far more chemistry with the darkly dangerous one than the so-called “sweet” one. Maybe that’s just us, though. While some of the scenes with Karen had a nicely romantic tone to them (especially the one brightly colored scene that gave us screenshot at the top of this post), their relationship seems terribly one-sided. He lies to her constantly and she isn’t always particularly forthcoming herself. Not that the Elektra relationship is one based on trust and honesty. Quite the opposite, in fact, although it’s got the one thing that Karen just can’t bring to a relationship with Matt: a deep, cellular knowledge of the other person. “You act like you have some sort of window into my soul and you don’t. You never have,” Matt protests, but of course he’s wrong. In the past, when she tried to convince him to kill the man who was responsible for his father’s death, she overshot her mark, but in the present day, she’s got him wrapped around her finger and changing into a tuxedo at the drop of a hat.

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And that’s what makes this relationship more interesting than it may appear at first. It’s not just that she’s a temptress, but that she’s a temptress who doesn’t even have to work all that hard to tempt him because she knows him so well. Whether they’re taking out New Age Ninjas in skinny ties or doing their very best James Bond movie re-enactments by crashing Yakuza parties in formal dress, there’s no denying that their scenes together sizzle in a way that the scenes with Karen simply don’t.

Frank and Elektra represent choices made and Paths Not Taken for Matt, it’s true. But it’s also quite clear that Matt still has choices in front of him and it seems like everyone in the story right now – Karen, Foggy, Father Lantom, Frank, Elektra, Mahoney and the entire Yakuza organization – are trying desperately to get Matt to go a certain way. There’s only so much tension you can put on the man before he snaps and it’ll be interesting to see what form that coming break will take, whether it’ll center around morals or romance or even mental health.



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