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Daredevil – Penny and Dime (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Penny and Dime closes out the first act of the second season of Daredevil.

It effectively brings an end to the “Daredevil vs. Punisher” section of the season, excluding a brief reprise in .380 towards the end of the year. It does so by offering perhaps the most straightforward “Punisher” story of the season, with Frank Castle effectively finishing the task of dismantling the Kitchen Irish so that his family might rest in peace and he might be remanded in custody. Bringing the arc to a close so early is a fairly bold move from producers Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie. The temptation would have been to run the arc across the full season.

That's not creepy.

That’s not creepy.

In theory, the idea of structuring a thirteen-episode season of Daredevil as a collection of mini-arcs that coalesce makes a great deal of sense. In some respects it is a very “comic-book-y” way of structuring the season. It recalls Scott Snyder’s structuring of mega-arcs like Black Mirror or Zero Year into easily-digestible three- or four-issue chunks. The idea of spending four issues introducing the Punisher before moving on to another run developing his arc and introducing Elektra is a clever storytelling idea. It helps establish “binge-able chunks.”

Unfortunately, this is a rather mixed bag in practice. The second season of Daredevil is full of very clever ideas and is very meticulously crafted, but it lacks a sense of purpose and a commitment to realising these ideas. While Penny and Dime is a very neat episode in theory, it is fairly clunky in practice. It becomes even clunkier in hindsight.

Yeah, that's not creepy at all...

Yeah, that’s not creepy at all…

There were early rumours that Marvel Studios was considering giving Jon Bernthal his own spin-off miniseries, perhaps even replacing the long-planned but seldom-advancing Iron Fist. After all, Iron Fist came with its own set of problems that would be easily remedied by putting the character on the back-burner and just greenlighting thirteen episodes of Jon Bernthal waging a one-man war on crime across the greater New York area. Of course, these reports were later explicitly denied by the studio, but it is easy to see why they gained such traction.

Jon Bernthal is really good in the role. Bernthal is one of the great character actors to emerge in recent times, with a whole slew of high-profile film and television credits to his name. Bernthal is incredibly flexible, bouncing between memorable supporting turns in The Wolf of Wall Street, Sicario and The Walking Dead. Bernthal brings a humanity and dignity to Frank Castle; as played by Bernthal, Castle is clearly wounded and broken, but also committed to his cause of action.

"Okay, okay... Dolph Lundgren is not my favourite Punisher!"

“Okay, okay… Thomas Jane is not my favourite Punisher!”

Whatever issues exist with the creative decisions made with the character of Frank Castle over the course of the second season – and there are many – it is fun to imagine what a thirteen-episode series starring John Bernthal as the Punisher might look like. In some respects, Penny and Dime teases one possibility. Penny and Dime plays almost like a pilot for a weekly procedural television show in which a gritty and determined Frank Castle violently rips apart a criminal organisation.

It sounds ridiculous, and it probably is. It would be great fun to watch Frank Castle spend an episode taking on white-collar crime, for example, going undercover as an investment banker to punish those responsible for the subprime mortgage scandal. However, it is also a surprisingly flexible format that plays to the strengths of Frank Castle as a character. Frank Castle is remorseless, determined and devoted. He will not stop until he accomplishes his goal. He is either the immovable object or the unstoppable force, depending on how you look at it.

A grave discussion...

A grave discussion…

This is, after all, the format that Garth Ennis employed during his extended run on Punisher MAX. His stories were reasonably episodic in nature, with each six-issue arc setting an objective for Frank Castle and watching the character accomplish his goal in the most brutal manner possible. Along the way, Castle would interact with quirky characters, and Ennis would use the “rampage of the arc” format to dip the reader into all sorts of strange worlds and situations from Irish gangs in Hell’s Kitchen to international espionage in Russia to human trafficking.

Given how much the portrayal of the Punisher in Daredevil owes to Ennis, with New York’s Finest even lifting a scene from Welcome Back Frank, it makes sense that its Punisher-centric stories would adopt the look-and-feel of Ennis’ material. In fact, Penny and Dime plays like a slight homage to Ennis’ second six-issue arc on Punisher MAX, pitting Frank Castle against the “Kitchen Irish.” The name is even cited in news reports that Karen recovers in Kinbaku.

"Be careful out there. It's digitally colourised."

“Be careful out there. It’s digitally colourised.”

(Of course, the “Kitchen Irish” are a clear nod to the Westies of the seventies and eighties. Penny and Dime is absolutely saturated by the same seventies aesthetic established in Bang, the creative decisions that seem to establish Daredevil as a gritty thematic period piece. The washed out seventies exploitation colour scheme with dingy greens and deep reds has never been more obvious than it is during the scene between Officer Brett Mahoney and Matthew Murdock behind the bar. Penny and Dime looks like a piece of classic gritty exploitation cinema.)

As such, Penny and Dime serves as a showcase of the sort of brutality that one might expect from a Punisher-centric story. The teaser features a new crime boss establishing his dominance by plunging an icepick into his predecessor’s eye, the sound of bone snapping on the soundtrack. Only a few moments later, another character has an elbow removed by a shotgun blast. Later, the Punisher finds himself tortured; the Irish mob boss takes a drill to his foot. The violence on Daredevil has always been visceral, but Penny and Dime is bloodthirsty to the point of sadism.

Devil in the dark... red...

Devil in the dark… red…

Then again, this feels true to the character in question. Frank Castle is nothing if not relentless. The character is defined by his focus and drive. While Penny and Dime hinges on the old “… but he wanted us to capture him!” cliché, it feels earned through the sheer hell that the Punisher endures at the hands of Finn. There is a sense that the Punisher engineered the situation knowing how much he would suffer. As with Matt Murdock, there is a catharsis in his violence. As with Matt, Frank seems to hold himself to blame as much as anyone else for his loss.

(Again, the recurring motifs of the season come into play. The Punisher’s plan to be captured is part of a popular contemporary trend that can be traced back to The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan’s superhero epic did not invent the plot beat, but it did popularise it to the point that films like Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness have employed it. Penny and Dime also plays up the show’s interest and engagement with The Dark Knight during Matt’s final scene with Brett, scored to a more epic version of the theme with deeper base as the cop lets the hero go.)

He's not the hero we deserve. But he's the hero we need right now.

He’s not the hero we deserve.
But he’s the hero we need right now.

However, as much as Penny and Dime demonstrates the potential format of a Punisher spin-off, it also showcases the weaknesses of the character as reimagined for the second season of Daredevil. Frank Castle is notoriously tough character to write, no matter what the format. There have been no less than three separate films focusing on the character – two with the same name – and not one of those films could be considered an unqualified success. For a fairly straightforward character – it is literally all in the name – he seems quite tough to adapt.

It is not as if Daredevil is a loose adaptation. The show is astonishingly faithful to various iterations of the source material. Alex Maleev’s art style was a major influence on the first season, while the production team have mined an awful lot from writer Frank Miller. Even within Penny and Dime, there are no shortage of in-jokes and references. The Punisher even has a make-shift version of the his infamous (and toyetic) “Battle Van” from the comics. The end of the episode adapts an infamous scene from the misbegotten Mark Steven Johnson Daredevil film.

"You are so beautiful."

“You are so beautiful.”

However, the second season of Daredevil is dealing with characters who are by their nature problematic. It is absolutely impossible to adapt Elektra directly from Frank Miller’s pen (and pencils) to live action in this day and age. Miller’s portrayal of the ninja assassin was questionable in the context of the early eighties, and would be unforgivable today. So changes need to be made. Similarly, the Punisher is a challenging character for audience, one who runs the risk of pushing them to deeply uncomfortable places.

The problem with the version of the Punisher who appears in Daredevil is quite simple. This version of Frank Castle is not scary. There are several reasons for this, but that is the biggest problem with the character. The Punisher is a character who pushes all sorts of buttons, both inside and outside of comics. He is a vigilante with a gun, driven by nothing more than his own moral certainty to murder criminals. The Punisher is essentially the protagonist of Death Wish on the largest possible scale. He unsettles an audience, who can find themselves cheering a sociopath.

His home was his Castle...

His home was his Castle…

The early episodes of the second season of Daredevil take their time revealing information about the origin of the Punisher. This is perfectly logical, on a number of different levels. The Punisher has been adapted several times. Although not as popular as Batman or Spider-Man, his origin story has permeated popular culture. More than that “the character’s family was gunned down by criminals” is hardly revolutionary by comic book standards. The Punisher’s origin is fairly banal as superhero origins go. What is more interesting is how he responds to it.

More than that, the second season of Daredevil has arrived in a world saturated with superhero stories. Even the least pop savvy audience understands the basic beats of a superhero origin by now, understanding that loss and trauma are the default motivators for contemporary superheroes. Jessica Jones trusted its audience to bury the character’s superhero origins in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me and AKA I’ve Got the Blues as an acknowledgement that superhero origins are fairly passé in this day and age.

Are ex-girlfriends Elektric?

Are ex-girlfriends Elektric?

It initially appears that the second season of Daredevil is acknowledging as much. After all, even Matt is able to make a pretty good guess at the Punisher’s motivation New York’s Finest. However, starting with Penny and Dime, it becomes clear that the show is not as sharp as it appears to be. It is not holding back this information because it is a given. It is holding back this information because it is trying to set up a twist. As Marco Ramirez explains:

I think because Doug and I are both fans of the comics in so many ways, one of the conversations we had early on was it felt like it’s a given. Everybody knows Frank Castle’s backstory. And then, the more we talked to the writers and the more we realized that Daredevil season one and Jessica as well, they were bringing new fans to the table, to the binge world. It felt like maybe this isn’t a given. Maybe not everybody knows this. So storytelling-wise, is there some fun in watching Matt Murdock and Foggy and Karen Page unpack this stuff? For an audience who came to watch Daredevil, they’re watching Daredevil learn information. For the audience who came to watch Punisher, they’re watching Daredevil react to information they already know. So it was a lot of that actually. At first, it was like well, of course, it’s the Punisher. It’s Frank Castle. We all know his story. But we realized we actually don’t all know his story, so we should tell it. And also, because we were taking a kind of bold retelling of the story, we thought it was important for us to unpack it at our own pace, in our own way.

This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the second season’s approach to Frank Castle. The murder of Frank Castle’s family is not something that needs to be unpacked. It is not a mystery. It is not a riddle. It is not a conspiracy. It is not something that Castle (or the audience) need to solve. It is a random act of violence in a chaotic world. It could happen to anybody, which is what makes Frank’s response to it so scary.

Kissin' in the rain...

Kissin’ in the rain…

Penny and Dime begins to suggest that the death of Frank’s family is part of some larger tapestry. As Karen chips away at the back story, she meets a hospital worker who remembers the buzz that Castle generated when he was admitted to hospital. He recalls the strange official visitors who stopped in to check on Castle. “You could tell ’em because they all wore the same earpieces,” he reflects. “That and the black suits.” It sounds more like something from The X-Files than a simple piece of gang violence.

As the season progresses, the death of the Castle family comes to look less and less like a tragic accident and more like some strange cosmic alignment. Those deaths are not the result of a random act of violence; instead they are part of a causal chain that seems to stop just short of drawing in the reverse-vampires and the lizard people. Karen jokes about going “all tinfoil hat”, but the show goes with her. The trauma that Frank endured is transformed from the kind of horror depicted in tiny newspaper articles to the kind quoted on internet message boards.

Ain't no wake like an Irish wake...

Ain’t no wake like an Irish wake…

Over the course of the season, it is revealed that the Castles died in a five-way shoot-out that involved the Kitchen Irish, the Dogs of Hell, the Cartel, the New York District Attorney’s Office, and a pseudo-Kingpin figure who just happened to have been Castle’s commanding officer. This seems like a really terrible way to organise a drug deal, with so many competing parties meeting in a public location, presumably taking delivery of massive quantities of cash and drugs while carrying countless firearms.

Daredevil is not a show particularly grounded in reality. A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen features a bunch of ninjas holding a building under siege against the New York Police Department. Seven Minutes in Heaven reveals that a character who burnt to death in the first season has returned with a few scars while one of the most famous mass murderers in the history of New York City just wanders out the back door of a prison. Watching Daredevil requires a suspension bridge of disbelief.

You have to urn it.

You have to urn it.

It could be argued that it is trite to complain about this sort of coincidence in the origin story of Frank Castle. However, that misses the point. Frank Castle is not scary because he was the victim of a cruel conspiracy. Frank Castle is terrifying because he went through a sadly mundane tragedy and turned into an unstoppable killing machine. Tying all of that to an epic (and convoluted) conspiracy and mythology robs the story of its most unsettling elements.

It is hard to imagine Frank becoming the Punisher after a random tragedy. After all, people mourn and grieve. The do not devote themselves to ideological wars on crime after the loss of their family; at least, not unless they are Burce Wayne. Even then, Bruce Wayne was a child who responded to his parents’ death by playing dress-up and fighting colourful clowns. He did not go on a nihilistic killing spree. However, making the death of the Castles into a conspiracy makes Frank’s violence easier to understand and explain. He’s nuts, but he’s right to be nuts.

"You know, this portrayal could be considered somewhat insensitive. But, hey, it worked for the Chechnyans."

“You know, this portrayal could be considered somewhat insensitive. But, hey, it worked for the Chechens.”

Writers like Garth Ennis and Jason Aaron have made a conscious effort to downplay the traumatic death of the Castle family as an excuse for Frank’s violence; Ennis suggests he made a deal with something in Vietnam, while Aaron implies that Frank Castle was just looking for an excuse to abandon his family. Penny and Dime even alludes to this idea, when Frank talks about how “tired” he was on coming home to his family, how disconnected he felt when taken out of a warzone.

“See, that part was always easy for me,” Castle confesses to Matt. “Killing. Even watching my buddies die. It didn’t mean nothing. First time I got scared? I was on the plane on the way home?” Frank jokes that he was nervous the plane would crash before he could see his family, but the suggestion seems to be that the very idea of going home unsettled Frank. Taking the character out of the warzone terrified him, made him feel uneasy. “For the first time, I felt how tired I was,” he confesses.

"Urge to kill... fading..."

“Urge to kill… fading…”

However, the second season of Daredevil is afraid to portray Frank as anything other than sympathetic. All of his violence is righteous. His love for his family is presented as pure. In Guilty as Sin, the show treats his war record as heroic and macho, without exploring any connection between the man who could kill thirty-two enemy combatants single-handed and the monster who would wage a one-man war on the very idea of crime in Hell’s Kitchen. Penny and Dime is afraid of tackling Frank Castle as a big idea, and so humanises him too readily.

This is also reflected in the fact that Frank’s opponents in the first season are primarily tied to the murder of his family. The only criminals murdered by Frank who were not connected to the death of his family are the child pornographer in Dogs to a Gunfight and the (possibly already undead) ninjas in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. The show is wary of presenting Frank Castle as a man who kills criminals. Instead, he is portrayed as a man who murders the people who killed his family – along with a child pornographer and some (possibly already undead) ninjas.

Pottering along.

Pottering along.

This makes it a lot easier for the audience to like Frank Castle. It makes the character easier to understand and less threatening. After all, revenge and retribution are frequently portrayed as romantic masculine responses to trauma. It is easier to accept an anti-hero if their violence is portrayed as reactive rather than proactive, if they are responding to aggression rather than acting as the aggressors. Frank Castle is not murdering criminals left, right and centre. Frank Castle is specifically targeting the people who hurt his family.

As with the decision to turn the murder of the Castle family into a conspiracy, this has the effect of making Frank Castle seem smaller and less absolute. “Don’t think you’re showin’ me somethin’ new,” Finn taunts during their torture session. “Because your killing spree has all the markings of a man lookin’ for retribution.” He is not wrong. Having Frank focus on getting justice for his family rather than simply punishing the guilt takes the edges off a troubling character. It makes the character more straightforward, less compelling and complicated.

"Ah, well. Begosh and begorrah. At least these accents are better than Gangs of New York."

“Ah, well. Begosh and begorrah. At least these accents are better than Gangs of New York.”

Ending with the arrest of Frank Castle, Penny and Dime makes something of an act transition for the show. It closes out the first third of the season. Doug Petrie has talked about how the production team made a conscious effort to structure the season into a series of linear acts, citing it as a luxury of the Netflix model of programming:

And you know, Marco is classically theatre trained, I come from a theatre background, and I think we definitely think in terms of a three-act structure. On a network model, where you’re doing it as, “Here’s your first 12 and then you have the back nine,” and that kind of thing, we knew that we had 13, and it was almost mathematical, where we were kind of like, “Okay we have three acts. We have 13 episodes. How are we going to parse this out?” It was pretty fun.

It is a nice example of Petrie and Ramirex writing to the Netflix model. With the show released on Friday, it makes sense that most fans would pace the show over a weekend. Four episodes seems like a reasonable enough “binge” for a Friday night, and so it seems right that the show would design those four episodes to tell a self-contained story.

Take me to Church.

Take me to Church.

There are problems with this, of course. Most obviously, the show is not really sure where it wants to take Frank Castle from here. Given that Frank is motivated to avenge his family, and is now all avenged out, it is hard to imagine where his arc might take him. However, rather than taking the character in a new direction, the show decides to map out his arc again and again. The murder of the Castle family is revealed to be a larger and larger conspiracy. Because Frank is part of the season, he gets to kill a new mastermind at the end of each act.

In Penny and Dime, Frank gets to wipe out the Kitchen Irish and murder Finn. However, because the show needs Frank to keep moving, it turns out that there was somebody else behind the attack. So Frank murders Dutton in Seven Minutes in Heaven, before escaping from prison. However, because the show still has one more act, Frank discovers that the true mastermind of the drug deal that led to the murder was Colonel Schoonover in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel.

Faith of our Fathers.

Faith of our Fathers.

This is not a problem with the structure. This is a problem with how Petrie and Ramirez choose to use the structure. It would make perfect sense to have Frank evolve across the various acts. Maybe he spends the first act avenging his family, before launching a larger-scale war on crime in the second. However, the second season of Daredevil has pushed Frank Castle as far as his character development will allow. While the second season wants to do a thirteen-episode origin of the Punisher, Frank is stuck in a holding pattern from here to A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen.

The other issue with trying to tell three stories across the season is the fact that many of the stories feel compressed. There is not enough room for characters to breath as the story moves from plot point to plot point, with the next big reveal coming before the characters have time to unpack everything that has happened. Again, this is largely an issue with execution rather than idea. It should be possible to tell compressed stories without sacrificing character development or consistent characterisation.

"You certainly picked a suitably grotty place to meet."

“You certainly picked a suitably grotty place to meet.”

Matt Murdock is a character who is ultimately affected by the sheer speed of the plotting in the second season, bouncing around like a ping-pong ball between the various plot threads. The second season does not necessarily have a singular plot driven by Daredevil himself. Instead, Matt is a vitally important supporting character in the plots that feature Frank Castle and Elektra. While both plots lean on him heavily, they both demand very different hinges from him. As a result, the character seems at risk of mood whiplash, trying to satisfy all the demands on him.

For example, the existence of the Punisher raises big questions about the validity of what Matt Murdock is trying to do in Hell’s Kitchen. He is dedicated to proving that his style of vigilantism is valid and selfless. That is touched upon in Penny and Dime, with Brett Mahoney changing his opinion about Daredevil over the course of the episode. “I don’t know what you are, but I know you ain’t him,” Brett remarks. This also plays into Matt’s impassioned defence of the Punisher in Guilty as Sin. Matt is putting his own vigilantism on trial.

"I've been waiting back here for hours."

“I’ve been waiting back here for hours.”

However, all of this is drowned out by the fact that Matt is also undergoing something of a crisis of heart with Elektra at the same time. The arrival of Elektra finds Matt trying desperately to balance the demands of his legal work and his vigilante hobby. Matt’s impassioned defence of the Punisher arrives in the middle of an episode that is also about how exhausted Matt is by the demands that Elektra is putting on him. The question of whether Matt can save Elektra’s soul is separate from the question of what the Punisher means for Daredevil.

On top of all that, there’s a separate little running subthread seeded through the season about whether Matt’s choices serve to put his friends in danger. This is a very traditional superhero story beat, but there is a recurring suggestion that Matt might be considering giving up the identity of Matt Murdock to focus on superheroing full-time. The idea is suggested in his conversation with Father Lantom in Penny and Dime, when he asks for forgiveness for “not doing more.” Matt also mentions the idea to Claire on the roof in The Man in the Box, but it is quickly forgotten.

Anybody up for some homoerotic torture?

Anybody up for some homoerotic torture?

These are all solid character ideas. They are certainly not mutually exclusive character motivations. After all, truly complex characters can be motivated by several different factors at the same instant; that is what makes them so compelling. It is easy to imagine a season of Daredevil where all of Matt’s motivations are neatly tied into one another, so there is one thread reverberating through the various plots of the year. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, with Matt frequently bouncing between extremes as each individual plot demands.

Penny and Dime is an episode that works quite well in context, but which also demonstrates many of the issues that lie ahead. In the moment, it works very well as a showcase for the first of the season’s big two additions. However, in hindsight, it demonstrates a lot of the year’s fatal flaws.

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

2 Responses

  1. “The murder of the Castle family is revealed to be a larger and larger conspiracy.”

    Yeah, that happens a lot in live-action. Blade, both Batman trilogies, TASM, Green Arrow (both versions), the first Daredevil, even Thomas Jane were revealed to have lost their families to a criminal conspiracy.

    I think there is a distaste for ‘random’ violence. People like to have loose ends tied up.

    • Part of me also suspects it makes plotting a lot easier in a story like this.

      “Okay, so we’re doing a thirteen-episode origin for the Punisher. But he alreayd killed the last of the gangs at the shoout out in episode four. What if we reveal that there’s actually an even bigger player operating behind the scenes and pulling the strings? And when he kills that guy, we can reveal another bigger player? Okay, who wants Thai?”

      Of course, whoever pitched “a thirteen-episode origin for the Punisher” in the first place should have been made to sit down and read some good Punisher comics before just photocopying the index card that reads “Frank Castle avenges his family” three times.

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