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Daredevil – Rabbit in a Snowstorm (Review)

To celebrate the launch of Marvel’s Daredevil and the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we are reviewing all thirteen episodes of the first season of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the more interesting aspects of Daredevil is the way that it wears its influences so confidently on its sleeve. As if aware that the stock comparison for the show will be Batman Begins, the series goes out of its way to hit a number of key points from that particular film – introducing its masked vigilante during an atmospheric attack at a dockland smuggling operation, stopping the import of superweapon into the city by a secret society of ninjas. The show returns to the work of Frank Miller time and time again, knowing that he is the defining Daredevil writer.

In terms of televisual influences, it feels like producer Steven DeKnight was heavily influenced by a lot of prestigious contemporary drama. In particular, Rabbit in a Snowstorm features sequences that feel like they might have been lifted from Breaking Bad and The Wire. This makes a certain amount of sense; those are two very well-respected shows that lend themselves to “binge” watching of (relatively) short seasons. Netflix has even found great success as a distributor of Breaking Bad in Europe. There are worse influences for Daredevil.


To be fair to Daredevil, the show never loses sight of itself. This is a superhero story about a masked vigilante who cleans up Hell’s Kitchen and comes face-to-face with honest-to-goodness ninjas and other possibly supernatural events. Nuance and subtlety have their place, but Daredevil arguably works best when it revels in its theatricality – grand sweeping statements, bold imagery, heightened drama. For all that Rabbit in a Snowstorm tries to expand and ground the world of Daredevil, it is marked by two acts of over-the-top violence at the open and close of the hour.

At the same time, this underscores the biggest problem with Rabbit in a Snowstorm. Daredevil is not a show that lends itself to the same sort of aesthetic as The Wire, and some of the attempts to ground the show feel clumsy and awkward; the show works best when it is big and bold and operatic, stumbling a bit when it tries to present a grounded real-world setting.


Producer Steven DeKnight frequently cited The Wire in interviews around the launch of Daredevil. To be fair, the comparison was more in terms of style and structure than content:

We wanted to give the feeling that you could sit down over a day or two watch the whole thing. We really approached this foremost as a crime drama. We kept saying, ‘let’s edge towards The Wire instead of anything else.’

Given that the stock comparison for The Wire (and other prestige dramas) is to describe it as “the Great American novel… for television”, it feels like DeKnight missed a trick or two by declining to pitch Daredevil as “the Great American graphic novel… for television.”


DeKnight has argued that there was a conscious decision to pull Daredevil away from the trappings of the superhero genre towards more gritty styles and forms:

“We really wanted to take our cue from [films like] The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and make it very, very grounded, very gritty, very real,” DeKnight said. ”We always say we would rather lean toward The Wire than what’s considered a classic superhero television show.”

There is a certain logic to this decision. After all, the fight scene at the end of Cut Man owes more to Oldboy than Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The show feels likes its own discrete corner of the shared Marvel universe, away from the tentpole Avengers films.


Rabbit in a Snowstorm marks the point at which the show draws attention to these ambitions, with the introduction of the character of Ben Urich. Urich is a major part of the Daredevil mythos, although he is traditionally associated with the Daily Bugle rather than “the Daily Bulletin.” In the comics, Urich is the stereotypical veteran journalist, right down to the brown trenchcoat that he wears as the system beats him down. He was a character of particular importance during Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis’ work on Daredevil.

Daredevil manages another casting coup, placing veteran actor Vondie Curtis-Hall in the role. Although he avoids the stereotypical trenchcoat or the exaggerated glasses associated with the comic book character, Curtis-Hall embodies the same tireless decency of Ben Urich; Curtis-Hall plays Urich as a character who knows that he is just chipping away at an impossibly large chunk of rock, but keeps chipping anyway. Curtis-Hall plays a version of Urich who feels like he might have been a refugee from the version of The Baltimore Sun presented in the final season of The Wire.


Rabbit in a Snowstorm broadens the scope of Daredevil dramatically. Ben Urich becomes a vital player in the drama unfolding across the first season; he is a major player in the climax of The Ones We Leave Behind, and spurs the plot of Daredevil. Urich offers a grander view of what is going on, suggesting that Hell’s Kitchen comprises of more than criminals, victims and the staff of Nelson and Murdock. Similarly, Rabbit in a Snowstorm also introduces the audience properly to the character of Wilson Fisk, after his vocal cameo in Into the Ring.

One of the benefits of a model like Netflix is the freedom that it offers the production team in terms of cast and structure. Daredevil is able to keep characters like Ben Urich and Wilson Fisk largely absent from the first two episodes of a thirteen episode season, an approach that would not necessarily by viable with a standard television show broadcast on a weekly basis. After all, Ben Urich and Wilson Fisk a major part of what the show would be; with a slow-drip release method, there would be a stronger desire to foreground them earlier so as to better indicate to the audience the shape of the season ahead.


Part of the fun in analysing a show like this is in watching how its storytelling differs from that of show released in a more conventional method. Knowing the exact length and arc of a season before filming (and being assured no meddling or course correction or truncation) means that the show can be structured more clearly and more carefully. As DeKnight has explained:

Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel Television, refers to it as a 13-hour movie, and that’s definitely how we approached it. My last serialized show was Spartacus, and I approached that in the very same way: It was one episode a week, but while each had its own arc, it was also part of one larger story. And now, the way the entire first season goes, there’s definitely an act one, an act two, and an act three.

This has a bit of a dragging effect in the episodes stretching from Rabbit in a Snowstorm to Condemned; the larger arc here feels like a (very) extended first arc. After two introductory episodes with a lot of momentum, the season seems to slow down so as to set up everything that will pay off later. Daredevil is always interesting, but the momentum in the second half of the season comes as a result of a lot of meticulous foundation work in the first half.


Urich is introduced in a scene that is reminiscent of The Wire, meeting a source on the water front looking out at a city that is victim of the forces of urban decay and the slow erosion of gentrification. It is a beautifully shot conversation, one that contrasts the grandeur of the city as it appears at a distance with the immediate squalor surrounding Urich and his source. It is a nice intersection of the aesthetic of Daredevil with the aesthetic of The Wire; the presentation of the urban environment as an almost natural force to be navigated carefully by its inhabitants.

At the same time, it doesn’t feel like an entirely comfortable fit. The dialogue is much more theatrical and over-stated than the naturalistic approach favoured by The Wire. “Used to be when you killed a man, you sent his wife flowers,” the source remarks. “Now they just send his wife with him.” Daredevil allows itself a weird nostalgia for old-fashioned crime, with Urich and his source almost disappointed to see the fading of Don Rigoletto’s empire and the rise of the Russian mob. There’s a romanticism that fits the pulpy vibe of Daredevil, but which doesn’t lend itself to grounded realism.


The disconnect becomes more pronounced when the show follows Urich back to his desk at the Daily Bulletin. Far from a nuanced and realistic environment, Rabbit in a Snowstorm presents a collection of broadly-drawn archetypes. There’s a lament of the death of real journalism that is framed in terms of the rise of on-line media. “There used to be a time when the people in this building used to write the news,” Ben complains. His editor, Ellison, complains, “It doesn’t sell papers, Ben. Not anymore.”

In one of the most hilarious miscomprehensions about how blogging actually works since Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, Ellison warns Urich, “Everybody we know is making twice what we are, writing for blogs, working from home in their underwear.” There is an awkward earnestness to these sequences, but any real impact that the thread might have is drowned out by the trite clichés powering the scenes. There is no nuance or humanity to these moments, despite Curtis-Hall’s great work.


The world of Daredevil is not necessarily a world that lends itself to nuance or complex realism. After all, Rabbit in a Snowstorm is centred around the character of John Healy – a criminal assassin who Foggy accurately describes as “a shark in a skin suit.” Over the course of the first season, it seems as though the vast majority of the Hell’s Kitchen police department has been turned into a roving death squad for Wilson Fisk – there is a single recurring police character who is not corrupt.

Daredevil has a sense of heightened reality, which is appropriate for a show about a blind vigilante who is also a lawyer on the side. There is nothing wrong with this approach at all; indeed, Daredevil works best when it embraces this sense of operatic grandeur. It is just that this grandeur seems consciously at odds with some of the gritty grounding elements that underpin the first stretch of the season; whether it is the Russian mobsters who never seem developed into anything more than a level-grinding exercise for Matt Murdock or the contemplation of the slow death of print media.


(It should be noted that the show gets better on both counts as it goes along. Wilson Fisk proves a character who occupies the perfect middle ground between “gritty urban crime boss” and “out and out supervillain.” Over the rest of the series, the characters engage with new media in a less melodramatic fashion. In later episodes, characters are revealed to follow the news on laptops and live feeds. Even Urich finds himself contemplating the possibility of starting a blog in The Ones We Leave Behind.)

In contrast, Rabbit in a Snowstorm works a lot better when it plays to the show’s strengths. The introductory scene is striking, a brutal juxtaposition of the mundane with the hyper-violent in a way that recalls the pulpy teasers to Breaking Bad. After all, it could be argued that Walter White (or “Heisenberg”) was living his own brilliantly-written and beautifully-produced super villain origin story. Although Daredevil has never been shy about its brutality, it is still shocking to see so much violence in the safe and wholesome surroundings of a bowling alley. The juxtaposition works really well.


In fact, even the playful cut back to Turk selling Healy the weapon is a fun little insert – stopping the hyper-violence for the sake of a good punchline, and then jumping right back into the hyper-violence. It is a cheeky, sly and self-aware little cut; Daredevil doesn’t do that sort of transition with any regularity, making the gag in Rabbit in a Snowstorm all the more effective for its incongruity. It is a cheeky stylistic quirk that seems consciously at odds with the attempt to build a more grounded world around characters like Ben Urich.

Urich’s subplot of Rabbit in a Snowstorm is not the only example of the episode seeming to misunderstand the relative strengths and weaknesses of the show. The episode deals with the obligatory “vigilante by night, defense attorney by day” conflict at the heart of Matt Murdock’s character as Matt finds himself strong armed into defending a client that he knows to be guilty. It is the classic legal moral dilemma, with the added kink that Matt Murdock is also a vigilante who beats criminals into bloody pulps with his bare hands.


However, Rabbit in a Snowstorm is not particularly compelling at capturing the conflict inherent in Matt’s position as a defense attorney. A lot of this comes down to how the show has framed Matt’s sense of morality; there is a sense that Daredevil is more interested in the conflict between Matt’s Catholicism and his violent impulses than it is about the conflict between his belief in the system and institutions of the community and his desire to take the law into his own hands. This is a perfectly valid interpretation of Matt’s character, but it does take a lot of the air out of the conflict in Rabbit in a Snowstorm.

Since his difference of opinion with Foggy about the definition of “innocent” in Into the Ring, the show has never pretended that Matt really cares about due process. Over the course of the season, it seems like Matt only really became a lawyer because it was the kind of professional career that his father wanted for him – not because of any internal fascination with the legal system. Even when he weighs the possibility of murdering Wilson Fisk, the show (and Foggy) frames it in terms of his Catholic morality rather than his respect for the law.


To be fair, Rabbit in a Snowstorm makes a point to emphasise this aspect of Matt’s character. At one point, Father Lantom assures Matt that anything said in the sanctity of the confession booth is a secret that cannot be disclosed. Matt does not seem particularly comfortable with that. “Does that seem fair to you?” Matt wonders, bitterly. Indeed, Rabbit in a Snowstorm seems to put quite an emphasise on the idea of “rules.” Discussing the changing gangland scene, Ben’s contact observes, “There are no rules any more, Benny.”

However, there is something a little simplistic about this; something a little too neat. As much as Daredevil sketches a complicated picture of Matt’s psychology, the show also works very hard to justify what he is doing. Urich and his contact seem to romanticise the Italian mob, so as to suggest that the Russian mob has broken all the “rules” that govern crime and punishment. This makes Matt’s disrespect for those rules – and his decision to break them – seem all the more rational and logical. Matt’s response to the situation seems less extreme if the situation is presented as incredibly extreme.


As a result, it never seems like Matt is particularly invested in the role of a defense attorney to advocate for their client, respecting that guilt and innocence are matters to be determined by the court. Matt sees it as his duty to defend the innocent, rather than to defend those not yet found guilty. It makes sense with the version of the character presented in the first season of the show, but it does mean that Matt’s conflict of interest is never going to be compelling enough to support a story like this.

Interestingly, this subject comes up at the start of Ed Brubaker’s underrated Daredevil run. When Matt is put on trial for vigilantism, he has no qualms about testifying that he is not Daredevil – effectively perjuring himself and insulting his entire profession. As Matt sees it, the case has no chance of succeeding if he simply denies the allegations; even if nobody actually believes the denial. It is Foggy who is offended by the suggestion and refuses to make himself a party to that rather pragmatic solution to the dilemma facing them. Just as Foggy becomes the voice of conscience here.


Rabbit in a Snowstorm does suggest an interesting dynamic between Matt and Fogey. For all that Foggy jokes about liking money (and the comforts and necessities that money provides) and for all that Matt seems to embody conscience and virtue (to the expense of things like money), Rabbit in a Snowstorm reverses their positions. Foggy is deeply uncomfortable that Matt is willing to take the money to defend Healy, while Matt can pragmatically justify his defense of Healy as a means to an end that allows him to investigate further into the criminal empire in Hell’s Kitchen.

There is an interesting – if unspoken – implication here. For all that Foggy plays the role of plucky comedy sidekick, and for all that Matt gives great closing arguments, it seems that Foggy is the better lawyer of the two. Foggy might mask his idealism behind cynical jokes and witty deflections, but he seems quite disappointed in both Matt and himself when Matt doesn’t offer an ethical counterweight to his arguments about money and financing. “For the record: this is the first time you ever said I was right,” Foggy observes. “I hate it.”


It makes sense that Foggy’s name comes first in the company title, just as it makes sense that Foggy should react so bitterly to the revelation of Matt’s secret identity in Nelson v. Murdock. Matt betrayed Foggy personally, but he also betrayed institutions that Foggy respects a great deal more than he would openly admit. This makes sense with what we know about Matt and Fogey as characters. In Cut Man, Matt’s nightmarish struggle against street thugs was juxtaposed against Foggy’s enthusiastic and optimistic love of the city.

However, Matt’s solution to the big ethical dilemma at the heart of Rabbit in a Snowstorm is ultimately rather inelegant. Matt Murdock defends John Healy to the best of his ability, hanging the jury and getting the case thrown out. However, he then puts on his mask and beats Healy to a bloody pulp, meting out his own brand of justice. Matt is so cocky and sure of his course of action that he even alludes to it in his summation. “Beyond these walls, he may well face a judgement of his own making,” Matt advises the jurors, with the certainty of a good Catholic.


The result is that the meat of Rabbit in a Snowstorm feels rather unnecessary. Matt’s inner conflict is never really brought out or developed here as well as it is in the surrounding episodes, simply because the show is not particularly interested in the conflicts created by Matt’s profession. It feels like Rabbit in a Snowstorm is simply stalling for time until it can get to the final act. It is a way of drawing out the reveal of Wilson Fisk, of making sure that Matt only hears the name at the end of the episode and that the tease of the name leads into a final scene that properly introduces Fisk.

Daredevil offers an interesting version of Wilson Fisk. Fisk is a comic book character associated with Daredevil through the work of Frank Miller, having originated during Stan Lee and John Romita Sr.’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man with the colourful moniker “the Kingpin of Crime.” Although the show teases the idea of Fisk as a “king” several times over the course of the season, it never actually drops the title of “Kingpin” into dialogue. (Although, it should be noted that Urich’s board – introduced in Condemned – identifies Fisk as a “king” card with a pin through it.)


Fisk is the logical fit for Daredevil. The character is essentially a mobster, slotting quite comfortably into the pulpy aesthetic of the show. However, Fisk is also something of a cartoon character himself – he is larger than life, having assembled the avengers of urban crime, operating a syndicate where child kidnappers share a table with white collar criminals and drug smugglers and ninjas. Despite the fact he is just an ordinary guy, Fisk comes with all sorts of ties and connections that extend deeper into wider Marvel universe.

In fact, it seems quite likely that Fisk’s little syndicate will play into this wider shared universe between the various Netflix properties. Although never explicitly identified as such, Nabu’s secretive cult of ninjas evokes the Hand; his plans for a block of Hell’s Kitchen seems like it might be a nod towards the climax of Andy Diggle’s run on Daredevil, Shadowland. Madame Gao teases the idea that she comes from somewhere other than China, stamping her heroin with the emblem of the Steel Serpent, an enemy of the Immortal Iron Fist. It seems likely that these threads might come into play in other shows.


However, Fisk is also a compelling character in his own right. He provides a fascinating mirror to Matt Murdock, a character shaped and defined by a traumatic childhood in an unforgiving city. Over the course of the first season, Daredevil works very hard to consciously parallel Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, even beyond the stock “we’re not so different” clichés that villains inevitably utter in superhero films. It is an approach that works very well, to the point where Fisk feels almost as developed and defined as Murdock.

It is interesting that the show should completely avoid important Daredevil characters like Bullseye or Elektra – particularly when Steven DeKnight himself cites Elektra and Bullseye as characters that were hugely important to his own affection for (and understanding of) the mythos. DeKnight has suggested that both might be likely candidates for inclusion in the second season of the show. Their exclusion from the first season could arguably be seen as an attempt to distance the show from the 2003 Ben Affleck film. As such, the inclusion of Wilson Fisk is interesting.


Vincent D’Onofrio manages to play a version of Wilson Fisk that stands completely apart from that presented by Michael Clarke Duncan in the 2003 film. The script to the film played into the old superhero movie shorthand of writing the villain into the hero’s origin, making Wilson Fisk the thug who killed Jack Murdock. As such, Duncan played Fisk as a street thug who had managed to cultivate an air of sophistication and culture around himself – a violent criminal in a fine suit, playing at being a gentleman. D’Onofrio offers a very different interpretation of the character.

The awkward flirtation between Wilson Fisk and Vanessa Marianna calls to mind a young boy working up the confidence to approach a girl that he likes. D’Onofrio plays Fisk as a man with a very stunted emotional development; a character who never quite grew up. In the Blood reinforces this sense by having Fisk order a child’s desert at dinner with Vanessa, while Shadows in the Glass reveals that Fisk still sees himself as a victimised little child. It is a bold and daring performance, and D’Onofrio really invests himself in it.


In interviews after he was cast, D’Onofrio seemed really enthused and energised by the opportunity and challenge of playing the role – described the character as “something that has become iconic.” D’Onofrio made it clear that he wanted to put his own stamp on Fisk:

I think it’s gonna be the … I hope — I should say – I hope it’s gonna be the new way to look at Wilson Fisk. I think that there will be no other Wilson Fisk but this one after we’re all done with it. That’s what we’re hoping for.

D’Onofrio’s performance is perfectly mannered and meticulous, with the actor adopting a decidedly theatrical approach to realising the character. It is a style that adds to the heightened reality of the world of Daredevil.


There are lots of interesting tics and quirks that D’Onofrio brings to the role. To pick one great example, consciously and awkwardly modulates his voice, as if Fisk is trying to sound like a commanding adult in conversation. His voice goes up and down like a yo-yo as Fisk tries to pitch himself to the audience. He tries to be respectful to Madame Gou without seeming weak in front of the other members of his syndicate; he tries to be firm with Nobu without seeming like a pushover. It is a fascinating and multifaceted performance, and D’Onofrio is beautifully cast in the role.

The show has to walk a tightrope with Fisk. Despite the impression of Fisk as an untouchable crime lord given in Into the Ring, the first season suggests that Fisk is still cementing his power in Hell’s Kitchen. Fisk has to be convincing both as an emotionally vulnerable character in his own right, but also as the kind of figure who could plausibly find himself in this position. The character has to be able to project a layer of professionalism, even with his violent emotional outbursts. It is not an easy balance to strike, but the first season generally does a good job with it.


Rabbit in a Snowstorm also continues Karen’s subplot, which runs the length the season. As in Cut Man, there is a sense that Karen is trying to make sense of a trauma that everybody around her is trying to push her through. She is offered a significant cash settlement in return for signing a non-disclosure agreement. It is presented as an example of the “non-binding moral obligation” that Union Allied feels that it owes to her as a victim of circumstance. Of course, the same company “acknowledge no involvement with that individual or claim legal responsibility” for what happened.

The deal is presented as a “clean slate” and “a chance to put it all behind you.” The legal executive even presumes to speak for Karen in this matter, observing, “Isn’t that what you want?” Even Ben Urich urges her, “Let it go.” Of course, nobody seems to accept that Karen might not want (or even be able) to let it go; that Karen might not be able to pleasantly skip over her horrific trauma. There is a sense that everybody just wants Karen’s pain and suffering to go away and disappear. As if wounds inflicted in the past cannot ache into the present.


Trauma is one of the key recurring themes in the first season of Daredevil, the idea that the past is something that haunts and shapes people – that some people are trapped by pain inflicted upon them. It is true of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. It is true of Karen Page. In the Blood even makes it true of the Russians. Matt’s blindness is a permanent scar left by a freak accident involving a large corporation; it is suggested repeatedly that his rage and violence are a result of his unresolved daddy issues.

That said, it is interesting that the plotting of the first season generally separates Matt and Karen from one another. The two characters were generally presented as lovers in the comics – as soul mates whose lives brought them together through tragedy after tragedy. Kevin Smith launched his volume of Daredevil reuniting the pair, and Brian Michael Bendis suggested that part of Matt Murdock’s eventual nervous breakdown was rooted in the fact that he simply never got over Karen. The decision to keep the two apart for long stretches of the season is thus an interesting one.


Rabbit in a Snowstorm also marks a point of transition for the show. Drew Goddard had originally been hired to run the show, but had to leave to assume stewardship of The Sinister Six for Sony. Although he did have a plan for the season, Steven DeKnight arrived in the midst of chaos:

I flew in about 10 to 11 weeks before we started shooting. Drew Goddard had written the first two scripts and there was a broad-stroke layout for the rest of the season. We hadn’t cast anyone yet, [and] we didn’t have a crew yet. So it was a lot of very fast work to do in about 10 weeks.

Steven DeKnight had taken over from Drew Goddard mere weeks before the show went into production, but this is the first episode of the series not to be written by Goddard. As such, it is the point at which DeKnight really takes the reins.

Although everything works itself out, and the show never falls apart, there are some bumps in the road. The stretch of episodes from Rabbit in a Snowstorm to Condemned feels like the show is finding a slightly different set of legs, after a strong start in Into the Ring and Cut Man. The moment that Fisk is properly introduced, the Russians become even less interesting as a set of introductory opponents for Matt. It feels like they exist simply to stall the show’s plot so that pieces can be repositioned on the board.

It is too much of a stretch to describe Rabbit in a Snowstorm as weak or bad, but it does feel slightly like filler. It represents a slight realignment of priorities, and the beginning of work that will effectively set up the rest of the season. It is necessary, if not entirely satisfying on its own terms.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Daredevil:

2 Responses

  1. I appreciate the in depth analysis and background information on the character and show. Your series is pretty much the best overview of Daredevil out there.

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