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Daredevil – The Ones We Leave Behind (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.

The Ones We Leave Behind builds off The Path of the Righteous, continuing to declutter the board a Daredevil moves closer and closer to the finalé.

The Ones We Leave Behind features the final appearances from a number of supporting players, clearing the way for Daredevil to focus on the final conflict between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. In particular, The Ones We Leave Behind sees Madame Gao excusing herself from the narrative, leaving Leland Owlsley as the last standing member of Fisk’s little cabal following the deaths of Vladimir and Nobu. Gao talks to Owlsley about the necessity of removing distractions from the life of Wilson Fisk; it seems like The Ones We Leave Behind is removing its own distractions.

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Of course, Madame Gao is not the only major departure to feature in The Ones We Leave Behind. The closing scene of The Ones We Leave Behind features Wilson Fisk murdering Ben Urich with his own hands. It is a rather shocking twist, particularly given how steady a fixture Ben Urich has been in the comic books since his first appearance in June 1978. Urich has played major roles in the iconic runs of writers like Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker. He is a pretty core part of Daredevil‘s ensemble cast.

It is a very effective and very shocking death sequence, and one that really helps to raise the stakes for the season finalé.

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The final sequence between Urich and Fisk is quite striking. It is a very shrewdly-written scene, one dripping with self-awareness. To viewers unfamiliar with the source material, it is quite obvious where the scene is actually heading. It makes sense that Fisk will murder Urich as the final cliffhanger of the season, and the entire sequence is shot and written so that it builds to the climactic struggle between the two inside Urich’s study. Watching that final scene, there is a sense of inevitability to it.

At the same time, viewers familiar with the source material are well aware of how vital Ben Urich is to the world of Daredevil. The show has been fairly faithful to the world of Daredevil, featuring all manner of characters and plots and in-jokes. It is a show that is constantly referencing and acknowledging its source material. So there is a clear sense that the writers know precisely how important Urich is in the grand scheme of things. Ben Urich is such a fixture that – according to Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack’s End of Days – he even outlives Matt Murdock.

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To be fair to the show, this has been building for quite some time. The series has been hinting and foreshadowing for a couple of episodes at this point. When Karen Page tricked Urich into visiting the nursing home in Nelson v. Murdock, the wisened reporter offered a rather ironic reflection on mortality. “Only thing we have, everything said and done,” Urich observed. “No buildings named after us, fancy inheritances to leave behind, just… the stories those who were close to us tell to keep us alive. Even if it’s just in memory.”

It is a rather bittersweet observation, in light of what actually happens to the character. Daredevil has no shortage of dramatic irony when it comes to the presentation of Urich’s character. When he tries to warn Karen away in In the Blood, he explains that some of his contacts ended up dead. He expressed a reluctance to take responsibility for her. In Nelson v. Murdock, Urich chided Karen for leaving the office door unlocked. With all of that, it seems ironic that her lead winds up getting Urich murdered.

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This creates a very interesting contradiction and tension within the episode. The scene seems to dictate Urich must die while the source material would suggest he should live. It is an excellent example of the writing staff playing with the viewer’s expectations. Interestingly, executive producer Steven DeKnight revealed that the decision to kill off Ben Urich came direct from Marvel themselves:

I wish I could claim responsibility for that, because I thought it was a very powerful decision. It was a Marvel idea. From what I understand, when I came in took over the show from Drew, they pitched me the broad strokes of the season. Towards the end of the season – It was always written in code on the board and now I’m breaking the code – it said, “Wilson Fisk sends Ben Urich on vacation.” I had the same reaction, “Wow! Killing Ben Urich? He’s such a mainstay of the Marvel Universe!” And they told me yeah. It was a Marvel ask to kill Ben Urich because they really wanted to set up the feel that – despite everything you know about the comics – in this world it’s very much everything goes.

It is a bold move and effective move. It does convey that no member of the cast is truly safe. It seems perfectly logical to assume that Matt Murdock will scrape through the season, but the death of Ben Urich opens up the possibility that Wilson Fisk could actually die at the end of the year. In particular, the fact that Fisk is the one to kill Urich opens up the possibility of a nice karmic death.

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It is a nice illustration of the fun that writers can have adapting media like this. After all, translating a comic book to the screen is not the same as adapting a book. The book comes with a clear structure; a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is typically composed as a single object. The book is the book, and so helping to translate that book is something that can be done holistically and effectively. With the rather obvious exception of Game of Thrones, you know where the story ends so you know what is important and what is not.

Monthly comic books are nowhere near as straightforward and linear. There is a beginning, but there is also a perpetual middle. There might occasionally be an end – Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? or The Dark Knight Returns. However, even when there is an end, that end feels divorced from the unfolding story. Within mainstream superhero comic books, it is very rare to have a definitive linear story with a clear structure that can be adapted. After all, there are fifty years of Daredevil comics; they cannot be condensed to a single story.

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Despite what some fans of comic book continuity might like to thing, comic books cannot be the autobiographies of fictional people. Stan Lee and Bill Everett created a character who is quite distinct from the version written and illustrated by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson. Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr. produced a Daredevil comic that was worlds apart from Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada. Even Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev wrote a different version of the comic than Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark, no matter how directly the runs feed into one another.

It is impossible to do a straight adaptation of a monthly comic book that has been running for decades. In a way, Mark Steven Johnson discovered that when he produced a movie version of Daredevil based largely on Frank Miller’s run. Johnson stuffed the 2003 film with the imagery and iconography of the classic Daredevil run. He even had Bullseye utter the line “you’re good, baby, I’ll give you that — but me? I’m magic” right before impaling Electra on her own sai. It was a very literal and very direct adaptation of the source material.

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It didn’t work. There are lots of reasons why the 2003 adaptation of Daredevil did not work, but a lot of that is in the fact that it tried to minimise the amount of actual adaptation taking place. Johnson did not really translate scenes and ideas from the comic; he transposed them. As a result, the film was a bit of jumble. Film is different medium than comic books. Comic readers had a year to get to know Elektra before Frank Miller killed her off; Johnson wanted that same attachment in less than an hour. Lines that work in comics sound corny coming from Colin Farrell.

Adapting a comic book means being willing to make changes for the new medium. Daredevil has clearly been inspired by the work of Christopher Nolan, who did an excellent job translating Batman to the big screen – Nolan accepted that there are differences between producing a film trilogy and publishing a monthly comic book. After The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne goes on an eight-year sabbatical, something that could not happen in the comics. The Dark Knight Rises offers Bruce Wayne a happy ending that would be impossible in the source material.

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As much as comic book fans (or any fans) might not be happy with changes made to the source material in translating it to screen, there have to be changes. Not all those changes work well, not all of those changes fit comfortably. After all, The Amazing Spider-Man makes some big changes to the Spider-Man mythos, but a lot of those changes run counter to the core appeal of the character. On the other hand, some changes are logical and practical. Having Tony Stark create Ultron in The Avengers: Age of Ultron satisfies all sorts of internal and external requirements.

With comic book adaptations, it is often more important to be true to spirit of the source material than to the particulars. One of benefits of having so much material to choose from is that it is easier to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Is there anything lost if Ant-Man chooses to ignore the comic book plots that turned Hank Pym into a domestic abuser? The comics themselves have spent decades trying to push Hank Pym away from that characterisation, with the weight of continuity always pulling him back.

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Trying to get bogged down in the particulars of decades of publishing will lead to madness. As long as an adaptation stays true to the broad principles of the character and is satisfying on its own terms, it is hard to complain. Daredevil captures that tone and spirit almost perfectly. It makes all sorts of nods and references to various stories and possibilities, but it never feels like the production team choose to follow a questionable story beat because the source material demands it. The objective seems to be to tell the best story possible using these toys, which is ideal.

It is sad to see Ben Urich disappear from the story. Vondie Curtis-Hall does great work in the character, bringing a world-weary sensibility and fundamental decency to the character. At the same time, the death of Ben Urich serves the story. Ben Urich’s arc has always been a very cynical and cruel one. Urich is a reporter trying to make the best of what he has; he is working in a profession that he feels has sold its soul, writing for a population that is no longer interested. It feels fair that the show refuses to compromise on this cynicism.

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There is a certain romance to the story of the decent hard-working reporter who just wants to publish the news. People want to believe in the sheer power of the written world to change the world – there is something incredibly idealistic in the hope that the right combination of words in the right order at the right time can accomplish anything. Much of Ben Urich’s arc in the first season seemed to acknowledge and nod towards that fantasy. Rabbit in a Snowstorm introduced Urich as a character who took the responsibilities of his work very seriously.

However, the show has undercut those expectations time and time again. At the end of Shadows in the Glass, it seemed like Urich was about to publish a brutal exposé that would reveal Wilson Fisk to the people of New York City. Instead, Fisk used television to beat him to the punch. Fisk didn’t just block Urich’s article, Fisk used many of the same rhetorical tools to secure his position. Shadows in the Glass beautifully subverted the stereotype of the crusading reporter, with Urich’s honest voice-over interrupted by Fisk’s stirring monologue.

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The Ones We Leave Behind does something quite similar. Ben Urich spent a significant portion of Rabbit in a Snowstorm grumbling about the new age of media. His editor insisted that blogs were eating the newspaper industry alive and the news industry had to change to reflect contemporary consumption. Urich reacted with knee-jerk horror to the idea of new media, proving quite uncomfortable about the direction that the media had taken. Rabbit in a Snowstorm made it seem like newspapers were supposed to be the last bastion of public interest journalism.

The Ones We Leave Behind softens that perspective considerably. Urich discovers that he cannot single-handedly revive print journalism. His editor refuses to go to print with Urich’s story exposing Wilson Fisk as a monstrous criminal. Urich’s big moment is a loss. He has worked all season to put this story together, to use the media as a vehicle for real and meaningful change… and it is all for nothing. It all blows up in his face. Urich loses absolutely everything, accomplishing nothing.

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During the confrontation, Urich accuses his editor of taking money from Fisk. “How much is he paying you?” Urich demands. “Ever since Union Allied, I can’t get a story that’s about what’s really happening in this city to print. So, how much is Fisk paying you to keep it that way?” It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, one pointing Urich as the last honest man in New York. His editor replies, “The reason that you can’t get any of your crime pieces into the paper lately is because they’re sh!t, Ben. Just like that one. And I think, deep down, you know that, too.”

One of the nicer touches at the end of Daredevil is the reveal that Ellison was not working for Fisk. Fisk had not bought the Bulletin in order to protect himself. Urich was not defeated by the incredible corruption of a single person. Instead, Ellison might have had a point. Urich lost because he didn’t change with times. Urich was simply out of touch; there was no great conspiracy of silence to suppress this vital information. People simply did not care. It is a very bleak conclusion, but one that feels like a clever subversion of stock clichés concerning crusading journalists.

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When Urich finds that the New York Bulletin is unwilling (or unable) to publish his exposé, his wife offers some well-meaning advice. Doris suggests, “You know there’s this thing called the Internet, right? Reach a whole lot of folks, huh? More than you ever could at the Bulletin.” The show seems to suggest that perhaps new media is not as terrible as Ellison and Urich suggested back in Rabbit in a Snowstorm. Certainly, the final scene is written and shot as if Urich’s decision to post the information on-line would actually be a game-changer, had it gone ahead.

Of course, it doesn’t go ahead. As in the closing scene of Shadows in the Glass, Urich finds himself beaten to the punch by Fisk. At the end of Shadows in the Glass, Fisk successfully stole Urich’s thunder by beating him to press; at the end of The Ones We Leave Behind, Fisk stole Urich’s life just before he could publish all of that potentially damning evidence. It is a very bleak and cold ending to the episode, but one that feels quite appropriate. It feels quite in character for the show. Ben Urich could never catch a break, right up to the end.

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That isn’t Urich’s only near miss. Urich might have been on the cusp of figuring out the secret identity of “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.” Confronting the vigilante, Urich offers a number of ironic observations that might have pointed him towards the mysterious figure’s alter ego. At one point, he notices Matt’s use of the phrase ‘went the distance’ and observes, “Sound like a boxer.” While discussing Gao’s blind minions, Urich reflects, “Would make sense. Nobody’d look at a blind man twice.” He might have put it all together, if he got a chance.

Although Urich has perhaps the most striking departure of the episode, he is not the only character to shuffle gracefully off the edge of the screen. The Ones We Leave Behind brings Matt into conflict with the mysterious Madame Gao – the heroin kingpin who can speak every language. Like Nobu, Gao seems to exist as a piece of large world-building. She is a character with a very mysterious past and agenda, whose presence seems to point to something beyond this individual season of Daredevil.

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Gao repeatedly suggests that she is part of something much less mundane than ordinary street crime or drug trafficking. After Matt destroys her heroin lab, she confesses to Leland Owlsley, “My interest here has never been about heroin, Leland. That was borne of convenience, and it is no longer so.” Matt is shocked to discover that her disciples readily blinded themselves. “Because they have faith,” she explains. “In something beyond the distractions of your world.”

Gao is not tied to the Daredevil mythos. Instead the show seems to suggest that Gao might be foreshadowing The Immortal Iron Fist series. Urich identifies her brand of heroin as “steel serpent” – it happens to come stamped with the logo of Davros, the arch enemy of the Immortal Iron Fist. She claims to come from somewhere farther than China – “a considerable distance farther.” Is Gao related to the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven? Will she be reappearing in The Immortal Iron Fist when Netflix produces that series?

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It is interesting that Daredevil seems to be tying in most firmly to The Immortal Iron Fist rather than AKA Jessica Jones or Luke Cage. Executive producer Steven DeKnight acknowledged that there were practical reasons for this:

I really wanted to try to weave in as much as I could a feel of the other shows. There was nothing I could really do at this point at this point with Jessica Jones or Luke Cage , but with some of the Iron Fist mythology, it felt natural to be able to drop some of that in.

It makes sense. AKA Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were in early development with their own showrunners while Daredevil was in production. In contrast, The Immortal Iron Fist was still a blank slate.

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Writer Ed Brubaker reportedly asked Steven DeKnight if she was the Crane Mother from his own run (with Matt Fraction and David Aja) on The Immortal Iron Fist. It certainly seems like a nice piece of foreshadowing, one that teases the audience with just enough mystical information without getting too specific. It feels like it broadens the world of Daredevil by introducing even more overtly mystical material, but in a way that doesn’t necessarily hem in The Immortal Iron Fist whenever that goes into production.

The connection feels appropriate. It is quite clear that AKA Jessica Jones and Luke Cage will overlap significantly. Mike Colter has been confirmed to be playing Luke Cage in both shows, while Charlie Cox has not yet been listed as a member of the recurring cast on either. Perhaps the fact that those two series are interlocked quite tightly plays a part in explaining why DeKnight is playing with the mythos of The Immortal Iron Fist in the penultimate episode of the season; perhaps Daredevil and The Immortal Iron Fist are the awkward dance partners of this grand plan.

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The Ones We Leave Behind reaffirms the idea that the first season of Daredevil is as much about the origin of Wilson Fisk as it is about the origin of Matt Murdock. After all, the big conflict in the second half of the season seems to concern Wilson Fisk. Matt seems to have settled his internal debate about the morality of killing Fisk, but Fisk is still struggling with his own place in the grand scheme of things. The Ones We Leave Behind reminds us that legitimacy is firmly within his grasp. All that Fisk needs to do is to resist his violent and darker impulses for a while longer.

It seems that there is a countdown in effect. Fisk is closer to legitimacy than he has ever been. However, he just needs to have the patience and the strength to stay the course. The Ones We Leave Behind suggests that Fisk has his own internal conflict to mirror that of Matt; both characters have to face the question of whether their violent impulses ultimately control them. It is clear that the only way that Fisk can fail is if he makes a mistake. The onus and the responsibility is entirely on him.

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Leland Owlsley says as much to him after they find the body of James Wesley. “Whatever war you’re thinking about starting, don’t lose sight of the end game,” Leland pleads. “Once Senator Cherry has cleared the last of the zoning issues, you can tear down the rest of Hell’s Kitchen and build your better tomorrow.” In conversation with Urich, Matt suggests hitting the heroin distribution network to slow Fisk down. “Get him mad, maybe enough to make a mistake big enough to matter.”

The supervillain origin story is an interesting dynamic. It is much more tragic than the superhero origin story. It is the story of a character who essentially damns themselves, embracing the worst of their nature. whereas a superhero rallies from loss and failure to accomplish great things, The Ones We Leave Behind suggests that Wilson Fisk is on an inverted version of that arc. He is so very close to having everything that he could ever want, but his own nature will lead it to slip through his fingers. It is a beautifully bitter tragedy, one that feels suitably operatic.

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Of course, The Ones We Leave Behind is defined by all these big events that gesture towards the season finalé (and even beyond), but it is also a fun piece of television in its own right. Daredevil has generally been quite good at structuring itself so there is at least one action sequence per episode – even Nelson v. Murdock gave us Matt brutalising a child molester, while The Path of the Righteous had Matt wrestling with Melvin Potter. The Ones We Leave Behind features the most impressive work since Speak of the Devil.

It is amazing that the first season of Daredevil waited until the penultimate episode to produce a “Matt Murdock runs along the rooftop” sequence. These action set pieces are a staple of the comic books, where it often seems like Murdock spends more time on the roofs of Hell’s Kitchen than on the streets. There is an incredible sense of fun and adventure to Matt charting the geography of the city, racing against a car navigating the streets below. It is beautifully shot and features some impressive stunt work.

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Director Euros Lyn does great work with that scene, providing a nice sense of geography and momentum to Matt’s journey. The showdown at the heroin distribution centre also works very well. The legions of blind workers add an ethereal and otherworldly quality to what might otherwise be a standard action sequence. There is something striking about seeing a single character drowned in a mob, and Lyn frames it almost like something from a zombie movie. It is a decision that underscores the strangeness of Madame Gao and her operation.

The Ones We Leave Behind does an excellent job setting up for the big season finalé. It removes a lot of the clutter from the board, and sets the show up for suitably straightforward conflict between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk.

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