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Daredevil – The Path of the Righteous (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.

With The Path of the Righteous, the first season of Daredevil properly enters its end game.

After a lot of soul-searching and contemplating, Matt Murdock is spurred back to action – albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. Matt spends most of the hour searching out Melvin Potter to help design a new costume. This is perhaps the most obvious indication that the end of the season is fast approaching; Matt is beginning to transition away from the costume inspired by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.’s The Man Without Fear and more towards something approaching his iconic comic book outfit.

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At the same time, Wilson Fisk finds himself desperately losing ground. Vanessa Marianna is in a coma, poisoned during an event hosted and organised by Fisk. Karen Page and Ben Urich have found Marlene Vistain, and begun piecing together a past that Fisk worked very hard to bury. On top of that, The Path of the Righteous ends with Fisk suffering a fairly dramatic personal loss, when Karen Page repeatedly shoots James Wesley. It seems fair to suggest that the ground is shrinking from under him.

However, it is interesting that The Path of the Righteous sidelines Matt and Fisk so thoroughly. Fisk spends the entire episode in a hospital, while Matt is running errands that feel disconnected from the immediate threat. As such, The Path of the Righteous allows for some focus on the supporting cast and the wider ensemble. The biggest dramatic beat of the episode is carried by two supporting players, as Karen Page and James Wesley square off against one another.

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One of the bigger problems with the first season of Daredevil is a structural one. The show seems unwilling to leave supporting characters like Karen or Foggy aside for an episode or two at the time. It feels like the show is obligated to give those two characters something to do in the context of the narrative, even when their subplot is inevitably a lot less interesting than what is happening to the other characters caught up in the plot of the week. Karen and Foggy are vitally important to the arc of the show, but their subplots can occasionally feel like they are going in circles.

After all, scenes of Karen and Foggy spending time with Elena Cardenas in World on Fire feel like a distraction; a coy piece of audience manipulation designed to reinforce the sense that Hell’s Kitchen is more or less fine the way that it is. Karen’s subplot in Stick feels largely redundant, taking away from the central dynamic between Matt Murdock and Stick. There are episodes in the run that would be greatly improved if the show were willing to let Foggy and Karen fade into the background until they are actually useful to the larger plot.

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The show is willing to do that with other players. Characters tend to get brushed aside for entire episodes at a time. The Path of the Righteous features the first appearance of Claire Temple since Condemned, and it uses the character quite skilfully. Ben Urich and the staff of the Daily Bulletin do not appear in every episode, which means that their appearances carry a little more weight. It isn’t as though Claire or Urich are reduced to simply plot functions; episodes like Nelson v. Murdock gave Vondie Curtis-Hall some wonderful material with which to work.

It isn’t as though the characters of Foggy and Karen are useless. Quite the contrary. The final arc of the first season makes it clear just how essential both characters are to the overall structure of the season. Nelson v. Murdock suggested that Foggy was infinitely more effective as the voice of the show’s moral certainty than as plucky comic relief. The climax of The Path of the Righteous give Karen something to do, and also brings her arc for the season into very sharp focus. However, these effective uses of Foggy and Karen only draw attention to the earlier issues.

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Daredevil has done a pretty great job at fleshing out its ensemble. The show might not match the same epic urban sprawl of something like The Wire, but Steven DeKnight and his team have done a wonderful job at creating a bunch of characters who seem grounded and nuanced. A lot of this is down to the casting, but the show has worked hard to give credible viewpoints to characters beyond Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. It is perfectly possible to understand why characters like Leland Owlsley or Vanessa Marianna act in the way that they do.

This focus on character development allows The Path of the Righteous to pivot on two supporting characters. Matt Murdock spends most of the hour talking to his priest and dealing with his tailor, isolated from the rest of the cast in the opening credits. Wilson Fisk spends the entirety of the episode in a hospital. Neither character is really driving the plot, which is a rather risky creative decision at this (relatively) late stage of the game. With the big finalé just around the corner, the temptation would be to push those characters to the fore.

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Instead, the plot seems to move around and through the absences created by Matt and Fisk. Because the two characters are indisposed (and inaccessible), two more minor characters manoeuvre themselves into a proxy confrontation. Karen Page faces off against James Wesley. The secretary at Nelson and Murdock goes toe-to-toe with Wilson Fisk’s right-hand man. The Path of the Righteous does frame this as something of a proxy debate. Karen speaks for all the victims that Matt has tried to protect; Wesley advocates for Fisk’s vision of Hell’s Kitchen.

However, it is to the credit of the show that the confrontation feels more nuanced and complex than that. As much as Karen and Wesley approach their confrontation as substitutes for more prominent characters, they each come with their own perspective and outlook. Karen is somebody who has been victimised and brutalised by Fisk, a victim in one of the villain’s complex schemes. Wesley is a man who does not entirely believe in the mission, but who seems to genuinely trust his employer’s vision. There is considerable nuance there.

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After all, The Path of the Righteous casually teases us with the idea that Karen has a more complex history than the audience would expect. Pulling the gun on Wesley, she taunts, “Do you really think this is the first time I’ve shot someone?” It seems like we might not know Karen as well as we think that we do. Both Stick and The Path of the Righteous draw attention to the idea that Karen is not a native of New York, that she arrived relatively recently. In In the Blood, Urich suggests Karen’s “past activities” prevent him from treating her as a “credible source.”

It is a nice way to add nuance and depth to the character of Karen Page, somebody who doesn’t get quite the same development as characters like Foggy Nelson or Ben Urich. Foggy is Matt’s best friend, and so receives a lot of development based on that long association. Urich is relatively isolated from the primary cast, and so gets his own supporting cast and a family. In contrast, Karen doesn’t seem to have much of a life outside of the characters she has met since the show began. There are no long-standing association to shade her character.

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As such, hinting at a mysterious (and possibly traumatic) back story is a very efficient attempt to add complexity to a major character. According to Steven DeKnight, the writing staff have some idea of where they plan to take Karen:

We got a pretty broad idea of what happened in the past. And we really wanted to nod to the classic Miller run. I’m not saying we’ll go as far as she falls into drugs and pornography and sells Matt out for a fix of dope, but there’s obviously something going on with Karen and really wanted to explore that dark side. In the comics, she’s quite a tragic figure in that respect. And Deborah Ann Woll is really… she hits all the right notes for giving that kind of sympathy and some hint of a back story, but still some real back bone.

This approach makes Karen a much more intriguing character than she might otherwise be; it suggests that Karen had her own story before she had the misfortune to get caught up in the events of Into the Ring.

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The series has also done a wonderful job with the character of James Wesley. Although Wesley shares a name and loose function with a character from the comic books, he is essentially an original creation of the series. In the comic books, Wesley was just one of the stock assistant characters to the Kingpin. He is perhaps the most famous of these minions because of his appearance in Frank Miller’s Born Again, but there are a long line of characters who have filled that particular role. Indeed, Spider-Man: The Animated Series slotted Alistair Smythe into the role.

Indeed, “Wesley” even made an appearance in the 2003 adaptation of Daredevil – a detail that is not at all surprising considering the movie’s fixation on Frank Miller. In that film, Leland Orser portrayed the Kingpin’s right-hand man. “Wesley” was changed to be the first name of the character; Orser was credited as “Wesley Owen Welch.” As such, James Wesley does have a connection back to the source material, but the production team have done a wonderful job crafting a fully-formed character from the somewhat limited source material.

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The character of Wesley is fascinating in his own right. In Into the Ring, Wesley is presented as something of a pencil-pushing goon. He wears an expensive suit, but he is quite clearly a character who exists as a henchman; he reports (and answers) to Fisk. The archetype is very familiar. In fact, Into the Ring gives Wesley the sort of business-speak dialogue that one expects from a middle-management zombie; he offers pithy one-liners about “college girls and Monet t-shirts” while finding brutality “distasteful” and referencing his “employer.”

However, Wesley grows into his own distinctive character over the course of the season. He is more than just a hired goon. In World on Fire, Fisk identifies Wesley as a friend rather than simply an employee. Wesley seems particularly sympathetic and understanding to Fisk. In Shadows in the Glass, he understands Fisk enough to know that Fisk needs to be near Vanessa. While characters like Gao and Owlsley are worried that Vanessa is distracting Fisk from his responsibilities, Wesley seems happy that his employer has found some sense of peace and fulfilment.

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That plays out in The Path of the Righteous. Upon discovering that Karen Page has spoken to Marlene Vistain, Wesley tries to spare his employer the hassle of dealing with the problem. Leaving all of Fisk’s body guards at the hospital, Wesley takes it upon himself to resolve the problem. This is not the move of a simply employee or stooge. It seems like Wesley considers Fisk to be his friend. It is an interesting dynamic; one that feels almost like a dramatic riff of the relationship between Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers in The Simpsons.

In his conversation with Karen at the climax of the episode, Wesley reveals that he doesn’t actually care that much about Hell’s Kitchen. “I’ll be perfectly honest,” he admits to Karen. “The situation calls for it. I do not love this city. The crush of the unwashed garbage stacked on the sidewalk, the air that seems to adhere to your skin, the layer of filth you can never completely wash away.” It is a very condescending and patronising attitude, one which underscores the idea of economic and class conflict at the heart of Fisk’s schemes for urban renewal.

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Wesley does not believe in the mission. He believes in the man behind the mission. “He loves this city,” Wesley assures Karen. “In a way you and I never could. I don’t expect you to understand that. There are moments when even I struggle to, but he does… very deeply.” It is an interesting twist. Wesley has complete and utter faith in Fisk. He does not necessarily see the intrinsic value in the work that Fisk is doing, but he trusts Fisk blindly. He believes in the righteousness of what Fisk is doing to the point where he pledges unwavering devotion.

In a way, this ties into the core themes of faith and blindness that run through the first season of Daredevil. The first season is populated with things that characters have to discern without literally seeing. Matt’s literal blindness is just one example. Karen and Urich struggle to find connections that they know already exist. In Stick, Owlsley can deduce Nobu’s plan simply by looking at balance sheets. “The numbers are like tea leaves.” Here, Wesley suggests that he trusts Fisk’s vision for the city, even if he cannot see it for himself.

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Wesley suggests that the characters involved in this narrative are drawn together by forces that are invisible to them. “Perhaps we’re destined to follow a path none of us can see, only vaguely sense, as it takes our hand, guiding us towards the inevitable.” Wesley seems to give voice to Matt Murdock’s perception of the world, in a literal and a figurative sense. Matt has to trust that there is some divine purpose for what he is doing, some greater reason. Wesley does something similar.

Indeed, Speak of the Devil and The Path of the Righteous firmly foreground the religious themes of the show. In both episodes, Matt wrestles with his faith. He asks the sort of questions that plague every faithful person at some point in their lives. “He made each and every one of us with a purpose, didn’t he?” Matt asks Father Lantom. “A reason for being.” When Father Lantom agrees, he continues, “Then why did he put the Devil in me? Why do I feel it in my heart and my soul clawing to be let out, if that’s not all part of God’s plan?”

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Once again, the series pulls back to the issue of Matt’s fate. Matt’s Catholicism is an essential part of who he is as a character. It is quite possible that Drew Goddard’s decision to introduce Charlie Cox in a confessional was an homage to Kevin Smith’s work on the character Smith’s Guardian Devil featured a lot of similar sequences and imagery. In The Men Without Fear, Smith explained that Matt Murdock’s Catholicism always appealed to him:

I was raised Catholic and – more or less – here was a Catholic superhero. I mean, he’s not a dude going to church every Sunday and receiving the host, but he had a very Catholic streak running through him. I really appreciated that and I really played with it a lot more in my storyline – actually putting him in the confessional and whatnot. I really steeped it more in Catholicism, because it leant itself to it based on the work that had gone before. I think that the Catholic angst – the angst that comes with being raised a Catholic, with being a Catholic – is quite obvious to that character and is quite inherent to how powerful that character is or can be.

Matt might wrestle with these big existential questions in a more theatrical or operatic manner than most Catholics, but the issues he faces are not unique. Matt externalises his questions of hope and faith, divinity and mortality. He deals with the parts of himself that he has tried to bury and repress by giving them the literal form of a devil. It is a very organic and very logical development.

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After all, one of the most vital parts of any superhero origin story is explaining the costume. It is not too hard to explain why a character might want to make a difference in the world, even if that difference is with their fists and their anger. The first season of Daredevil has done a pretty good job of explaining why Matt spends his nights beating criminals to a bloody pulp. However, the show also has to account for the logistics of his superheroism. Why does Matt choose that particular name and that particular costume?

In many cases, trying to reason that logic out involves a lot of retroactive tweaking and twisting. Most superheroes wear their costumes because the writers and artists thought they were visually striking. The early comic stories never really accounted for why these superheroes looked a particularly way. Daredevil was called Daredevil and wore that red costume because Stan Lee and Bill Everett thought that it would make for a fun comic. It is up to later writers to reverse-engineer some logic into all that.

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Once again, it seems like Daredevil is inspired by the work Christopher Nolan did with Batman Begins. Nolan had Alfred explicitly ask Bruce why he chose to drew up as a giant bat. Bruce explained that it was simply a way of externalising his own fears and anxieties. The conversations between Matt Murdock and Father Lantom suggest that similar logic is at play here. Matt Murdock chooses to dress as a devil as a way of expressing his own uncertainties and insecurities. The devil he referenced in the teaser to Into the Ring is no longer just inside.

The Path of the Righteous does a good job explaining the logic behind this choice. Discussing why God would create Lucifer only to cast him out, Father Lantom speculates, “Maybe that was God’s plan all along. Why he created him, allowed him to fall from grace, to become a symbol to be feared – warning to us all to tread the path of the righteous.” He stops just short of describing criminals as a “superstitious and cowardly lot”, but the sentiment is the same. Matt Murdock fashions Daredevil as an object to put the fear of God into the criminal element.

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Once again, Daredevil does a very good job of setting up and paying off plot points. Melvin Potter has been lurking at the edges of the story for a while. He was first mentioned casually by Fisk at the end of In the Blood. He appeared in the background of a scene between Fisk and Owlsley in Shadows in the Glass. As such, the show does an excellent and effective job of establishing that there is a very special tailor operating within a single degree of separation from a superhero who will soon have need of a very special tailor.

It makes sense to include the character of Melvin Potter in this way. Potter would become the comic book supervillain Gladiator, and the characterisation of Potter in the first season fits rather comfortably with his comic book counterpart. The show sets up the split personality that defines portrayals of the character. “Kid’s half an idiot,” Owlsley complained in Shadows in the Glass. Fisk wryly responded, “It’s the other half that counts.” Potter even gets to make a reference to “Betsy” – his long-time girlfriend Betsy Brandt, who is more of a Spider-Man character.

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Having Potter make the uniform for Matt is good plotting – it involves a relatively major character in the plot in a way that feels organic rather than distracting. (It also alludes to his role in several comic book stories, like Born Again.) The show gets to make all manner of sly winks to Potter’s persona as “the Gladiator” – he throws saw blades, has a suspicious poster, and Daredevil suggests that he is designing his wrist-mounted blade-launchers – but never in a way that distracts from the storytelling at hand. It never feels too sly or knowing.

Daredevil is quite even-handed in its portrayal of Matt Murdock’s religious faith. For all that it suggests his tendency to repress and internalise his darker impulses can be damaging, Matt’s faith is presented as a source of strength. More than that, the show suggests that faith is a large part of what separates Matt Murdock from Wilson Fisk. While Matt engages with his spirituality, Fisk seems unable to escape his own head. Matt can engage with a higher power, while Fisk seems to have trouble accepting the concept.

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In Speak of the Devil, Fisk confesses to Matt that he has trouble meditating. “I find it difficult to meditate. My mind, it won’t quiet.” Fisk seems unable to step outside himself, incapable of giving himself the distance from his wounds and his trauma necessary to engage with spiritual experience. In contrast, The Path of the Righteous suggests that Matt’s meditation actively helps him to heal faster in a physical sense. It would not be too much of a stretch to suggest it helps him to heal faster mentally as well.

In Vanessa’s hospital room, Fisk makes something akin to a confession. “I don’t know how to pray. My father was not a religious man. My mother wanted to be… I think, needed to be, but she never quite found it within herself. I’d seen it in movies, and watched it on television. I read it in books when I was a child, after I was sent away. And I tried to mimic words – the sentiment – but it was false. It was imitation of faith. So… I can’t pray for you.” Fisk ends the monologue by vowing that even divine powers could not stop him, asserting his own authority.

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Of course, the attack on Vanessa demonstrates that even Fisk is not safe from acts of violence and brutality. All the power that he has amassed cannot keep the people around him safe. Fisk has caused an incredible amount of pain and suffering in his attempts to build a safer world, but he is still vulnerable. As Nobu pointed out in Shadows in the Glass, even people with that sort of power still have to answer to others. The attack on Vanessa, the visit to Marlene, the death of Wesley; these all reinforce the idea that Fisk can never be entirely secure, no matter what he does.

Fisk might have tried to insulate himself, but he can still be rendered a victim. He can still feel as powerless and as weak as the very people that he victimises. The first season of Daredevil is very much about coping with and living with trauma. Fisk has allowed his trauma to turn him into a monster. In contrast, Matt has tried to harness all his own anger and violence into something more positive. Matt’s trauma allows him to get through to Potter. “Fisk has hurt people that I care about, too. I know what it’s like to worry about them… wanting to keep them safe.”

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Indeed, a large part of the downfall of Wilson Fisk and the death of James Wesley is rooted in their attempts to define Karen Page as a victim. In Rabbit in a Snowstorm, Fisk opted not to kill Karen off – he considered her to be a concern that was no longer relevant. If Fisk had killed Karen off instead of dismissing her, it seems quite likely that his downfall might have been be prevented. If Fisk had treated Karen as a threat rather than simply a spent resource, he might have been able to stop what was coming.

The same is true of James Wesley, who discounts Karen as a perpetual victim. “You were a nobody, a very small cog in the machine,” he explains. “So, an offer was made through a third party. A legal agreement, one you signed in exchange for a reasonable amount of money. Well, reasonable to you. You were supposed to go away, Miss Page. Fade back into wherever people like you fade.” Karen’s refusal to be defined as a victim led her to this point; Wesley’s refusal to see her as anything but a victim led to her getting the drop on him and killing him.

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The death of Wesley heralds the beginning of the end. It suggests that the season is building to a climax, that events are converging, that the end is near.

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