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Daredevil – Semper Fidelis (Review)

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

There is probably no greater single missed opportunity during the second season of Daredevil than the trial of Frank Castle.

The show does not necessarily do a great job with Elektra, but that character was always going to be deeply problematic owing to her comic book origin. Ironically, the changes that the show makes to her arc do little to alleviate the issues with the character, just shunting them around a little. The Hand are also ill-served by the second season as a whole, but it is hard to imagine how the Hand might have made a credible and organic season-long threat in the first place. Even Frank Miller made a point to tie them into his larger character/thematic arcs.

This visual is more compelling than anything actually tied to the trial of Frank Castle.

This visual is more compelling than anything actually tied to the trial of Frank Castle.

In contrast, the trial of Frank Castle is a legitimately good idea. In fact, it is a brilliant idea. On paper, the idea of “the trial of Frank Castle” is one of the smartest concepts applied to the character in recent memory. The season has struggled with the challenges posed by Frank Castle, opting to smooth the rough edges off the character by having him walk through a familiar “avenging father” arc three times over the course of the year. Building a trial arc around Frank Castle goes a long way towards mitigating that; it is a story about Frank that doesn’t need to soften him.

More than that, it is an arc that seems designed to shore up some of the season’s weaknesses. The second season of Daredevil suffers from a lack of generality, a feeling that Matt and his cast exist in the tapestry of a larger New York; not the version of New York seen in The Avengers, but a real place inhabited by real people somewhat disconnected from undead ninjas and blind devil vigilantes. By providing a public spectacle, the trial of Frank Castle provides the opportunity for Daredevil to anchor itself back in a living and breathing New York.

The hole in things...

The hole in things…

It also ties neatly into Matt Murdock’s secret identity as a defence attorney, in a manner that is more interesting and engaging than simply offering a half-assed impression of Law & Order. By its nature, “the trial of Frank Castle” is a plot that is only really possible in the shared fictional space of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, it is a concept that is a more intriguing application of the shared universe than “… gee, I hope Iron Man shows up.” It plays with some of the genre’s core ideas in a way that is fairly novel and ripe for commentary and metaphor.

It is a shame that the show messes up this plot point so spectacularly.

Trial be there.

“Absolutely, one hundred percent, not guilty.”

The Punisher is a fascinating character. Not necessarily because he is particularly complex, although the best writers can find some interesting approach to the vigilante. In fact, it could be argued that the Punisher is so fascinating precisely because he is so straightforward. He dresses up in something that resembles a superhero costume in the loosest sense, picks up some guns, and brutally murders scores of people. Of course, those people happen to be criminals, but they are not afforded due process nor tarred with any prior association with Castle.

In many respects, the Punisher is a spiritual successors to the anti-hero vigilante characters of the seventies. There is a strong spiritual connection between the Punisher and Travis Bickle, inspiring work by comic artist Eduardo Risso and even entered conversation between Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez while shaping their vision of the character. There are other obvious parallels to the heroes of films like Death Wish and Dirty Harry, angry men tired of ineffective bureaucracy who take the law into their own hands.

Shattered illusions...

Shattered illusions…

However, the Punisher arguably carries that idea to its logical extreme. As Marc DiPaolo suggests in War, Politics and Superheroes, most vigilante or anti-hero narratives work hard to justify the violence committed by their protagonists by focusing on an immediate loss or threat to allow the audience to feel sympathetic to the hero:

Characters such as the Punisher or the hero of Taken become more problematic, however, after the family member in question is rescued or avenged, and the angry white male protagonist continues to wage an indiscriminate war on crime with the same savage intensity he had employed while out to avenge a wronged family member. It is also important to point out that exploitation films, and action films in general, tend to win over enthusiastic audience support for a murderous rampage by making it in retaliation for the death or kidnapping of a child or the brutal rape of beautiful young woman. For example, David Mamet made the Untouchables’ war on crime in the name of a little girl who was accidentally killed by a bomb planted by a gangster at the start of The Untouchables film. He did this, presumably, because he anticipated that audience members who regularly partake of alcohol in a post-Prohibition era would not sympathise with Eliot Ness if he travelled Chicago machine-gunning Italians to death in retaliation for the illegal distribution of alcohol. Consequently, even when revenge is not originally a motivation for a character as he is originally envisioned, it is often later written into his background to act as a justification for any killings he perpetrates in the name of justice. While Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is a wandering adventurer who is not generally motivated by revenge, writer-director John Milius seemed to feel that a modern-day audience would respond better to Conan if he murdered dozens of cultists in retaliation for the burning of his village and the murdering of his parents in Conan the Barbarian. Killings perpetrated on the battlefield, or in the name of revenge, or perpetrated by 24’s Jack Bauer in the name of national security on the eve of nuclear war are graspable to many Americans. Otherwise, mass murder is not something most people feel comfortable cheering on; hence the use of the dead child, parent, or wife as, effectively, a plot device and a sop to the troubled conscience of the audience member.

While the murder of the Castle family provides a simple justification for the roaring rampage of revenge, that excuse has worn increasingly thin over the years. Frank Castle pushes well past the boundaries of that cliché, with writers like Garth Ennis and Jason Aaron wondering if the death of his family was an excuse rather than a motivation.

All fired up...

All fired up…

After all, all of the criminals involved in the murder of the Castle family must be long dead by now and the Punisher has been killing criminals for over forty years. In fact, Garth Ennis made a point to open his massive sixty-issue run on Punisher MAX with Frank Castle shooting the last surviving connection to that crime through the head. However, Frank Castle has not stopped. Unlike Liam Neeson in Taken or Denzel Washington in Man on Fire, his rampage does not end when his loss is redeemed.

It is hard to argue that this subtext is by design. The reason that the rampages in Taken and Man on Fire come to an end is because they are movies. They have a finite run-time. They are stories that end after two hours. Frank Castle was not allowed to continue brutally murdering criminals as some biting piece of social commentary; his rampage continuity in perpetuity because the character has sold well enough to remain in print. Nevertheless, later writers have embraced and incorporated the subtext of that aspect of the character and used it to develop Frank Castle.

Ashes to ashes...

Ashes to ashes…

Understandably, live action adaptations of the character are wary of the implications of this approach. After all, following the character through to his logical comic book conclusion runs the risk of making audiences uncomfortable and unsettled. Both of the films titled The Punisher tend to focus on the death of the Castle family, linking Frank’s violence to their loss in a manner not unlike the kidnapping of Kim in Taken or the supposed murder of Lupita in Man on Fire.

However, it is disappointing to see the second season of Daredevil fixate on the loss of the Castle family in such a way, to the exclusion of all the more interesting questions about Frank Castle. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the structural desire to see the entire season as a thirteen-episode origin for Frank Castle, but at least some of it is down to concerns about making the audience feel uncomfortable. Pushing Frank past the pop psychology origin of “vengeful husband and father” leads to more interesting places, but not easy answers.

Scarred tissue that I wish you saw...

Scarred tissue that I wish you saw…

This, in a nutshell, is the problem with the trial of Frank Castle. The Punisher is certainly an interesting enough character that the show could spend at least half a season trying to unravel and explore his psychology, if it were willing to push back the comfort blanket that is the loss of his family. Frank Castle raises all sorts of difficult questions about violence in contemporary society, particularly in a social context where even state-sanctioned lethal force finds itself under increased scrutiny and interrogation.

The second season of Daredevil exists in the wake of real-life gun-totting vigilantes like Bernie Goetz or George Zimmerman. While the teaser to Semper Fidelis explicitly acknowledges the former, the show seems wary of that implication. It suggests a reluctance to embrace Frank Castle for what the character is. Frank Castle is in many ways the ultimate expression of morally righteous violence in contemporary culture. Even played straight and serious, Frank Castle is a wry commentary on a world gone made; the ultimate straight man in a black comedy.

A close shave with justice...

A close shave with justice…

In keeping with that theme of morally righteous violence, it has been suggested that Frank Castle was driven as much by his experiences in the army as by the loss of his family. This interpretation dates back to the eighties, with Frank Castle’s secondary books even titled “War Zone” or “War Journal.” However, it owes a considerable debt to Garth Ennis, who filtered his own love of war comics into the character and wrote Born as a Punisher origin story that ended with the character’s return to Vietnam as opposed to the murder of the Castle family.

In the years since, Marvel’s sliding time-scale has seen the character become divorced from Vietnam in particular. After all, for the Punisher to have served in Vietnam at the height of the conflict, he would have to be approaching seventy years of age. As fun as it is to imagine modern-day Clint Eastwood as the Punisher, practical considerations have taken priority. Greg Rucka shifted the character forward in time, making him a veteran of the Gulf War. The series is more contemporary, tying him to “Iraq, Afghanistan.”

A cracking time...

A cracking time…

The implication is that the Punisher’s defining attribute is that he is a solider; the conflict is usually Vietnam, but the specific context is malleable. The Punisher is the ultimate soldier for the era following the Second World War. Indeed, the character has become a patron saint of contemporary soldiers, particularly in the Middle East. Despite the fact that the Punisher is a character owned by Disney, a massive American conglomerate, the skull emblem has become ubiquitous in Iraq; it even appears on the body armour of anti-American Shiite militias.

In fact, the Punisher serves as a major thematic element in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. As in real life, the skull emblem is appropriated by Chris Kyle and his unit. At one point during the film, one of Kyle’s comrades can be seen reading the very first issue of Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX run. The character haunts the film, itself an adaptation of Kyle’s autobiography. The Punisher seems to take on an almost mythic importance, more than just a comic book character.

Getting the full picture...

Getting the full picture…

Kyle offers a very simplistic and straightforward interpretation of the character, albeit one that is terrifying in its candour:

We all thought what the Punisher did was cool: He righted wrongs. He killed bad guys. He made wrongdoers fear him.

That’s what we were all about. So we adapted his symbol— a skull— and made it our own, with some modifications. We spray-painted it on our Hummers and body armor, and our helmets and all our guns. And we spray-painted it on every building or wall we could. We wanted people to know, We’re here and we want to f$%k with you.

It was our version of psyops.

You see us? We’re the people kicking your ass. Fear us. Because we will kill you, motherf$%ker.

You are bad. We are badder. We are bad-ass.

The Punisher is an icon to a man who proudly boasted about shooting looters during Hurricane Katrina among other acts of vigilante justice. This is the cultural fabric to which the Punisher belongs.

Digging up the dirt...

Digging up the dirt…

It is worth debating whether or not the Punisher actually belongs in the larger Marvel universe, whether the character works best on his own terms or as part of a world he shares with characters like Daredevil or Spider-Man. Regardless of the side on which a reader falls of that particular argument, it is interesting to compare and contrast Frank Castle with the other iconic comic book war hero. Captain America provides a sharp contrast to Frank Castle, the idealistic hero of a virtuous war.

Captain America was born of the Second World War. In American tradition, the Second World War is presented as “the good war.” It is the conflict in which the democratic powers (and Russia) banded together to oppose totalitarian oppression and genocide. Although critics have long questioned whether that view is informed and distorted by nostalgia, that depiction of the Second World War lingers in the popular memory. The fact that the Allies actually unambiguously won that war probably helps. Captain America embodies the last good war.

Blinded by love. And blindness.

Blinded by love.
And blindness.

If that is the case, Frank Castle represents the quagmire that followed. He is the chaos that unfolded in Vietnam, the brutality in Iraq and Afghanistan. Captain America represents the nostalgic ideal of war filtered through mythmaking and propaganda. Frank Castle is the horror of combat filtering through to the general population through horrific photographs and footage on the evening news. Frank Castle is the dark reality of a war, a man trained to kill with such efficiency that he simply could not stop.

In his own way, Frank Castle is just as much a super soldier as Steve Rogers. As Spider-Man remarks in Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War, “Same guy. Different war.” Frank Castle represents a war where the boundaries are no longer as clean and distinct as they were in the memory of the Second World War. This is a world where war is not won, but simmers perpetually. The enemy does not wear uniforms or engage on the field of battle. The concept of war as become so loose that it can be waged on concepts like Drugs or Crime or Terror; and it can be waged forever.

Hall good, baby.

Hall good, baby.

The issue is not so much that Frank Castle represents American involvement in the conflict in South East Asia. Rather, Frank Castle is tied up in all the issues connected with that conflict; all the issues that overlapped and connected with that. As David L. Anderson argues in No More Vietnams, the war created an existential crisis:

At the end of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, about the realities of combat for American soldiers in Vietnam, the young GI who is the main character reflects, “I think now looking back that we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves and the enemy was within us.” In the context of the film, the line is a well-known literary allusion to works such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that explore the presence of evil within the human psyche. The line could also be applied to what has become the historical exploration of the essence of American foreign policy as revealed by the Vietnam War. In much of the writing on the war, Vietnam and the Vietnamese are backdrops to what is more an examination of America and the Americans. Conflicting ideas of what Americans are as a people and of their values and beliefs become the points of analysis and argument.

Vietnam was a moment that demonstrating the vulnerability of the United States. It was a humbling experience, arriving at a particularly turbulent time in the country’s social history. Vietnam marked the transition from the idealism of the sixties to the cynicism of the seventies.

You know, couples' therapy might be a good idea.

You know, couples’ therapy might be a good idea.

As such, Vietnam is tied up in many other threads of American anxiety. It represents the death of the idealistic utopianism of the counter-culture movement, a point at which an entire generation was scarred by the conflict; the class divisions that allowed so many privileged individuals to get deferments, the dodgers forced into exile in another country, the soldiers shipped overseas to witness incredible brutality in a conflict where the United States had no real stake. It was no surprise that the hope gave way to cynicism.

Vietnam marked a point at which nothing was certain. The tale end of the war was overseen by Richard Nixon, whose involvement in the Watergate Scandal would shake trust in the institutions of power to their very core. Urban crime was on the rise, particularly in cities like New York, suggesting a decay had taken root at home. The decade’s energy crises suggested that the world’s most powerful nation was ironically powerless. In some ways, Vietnam could feel like an infection, the horror slowly creeping into all facets of American life.

A knock-down brawl...

A knock-down brawl…

Vietnam was just the most visceral trauma of the era. The Punisher is tied to that, even if the demands of comic book continuity suggest that the connection is not as literal as it once was. In his final arc on Punisher MAX, Garth Ennis interspaces the Punisher’s killing spree with excerpts from Valley Forge, a (fictional) history of the Vietnam War exploring Castle’s role in it. One of Ennis’ imaginary subjects is particularly insightful:

As for the Punisher, no, I’m not surprised at all. He’s like all the other terrible things that came out of that war – the broken homes and the suicides, the cancer, the babies born deformed from the chemicals that were sprayed on the jungle. All the horror that our men brought back from Vietnam – the ones who came back, anyway – the Punisher is all of it, gathered together into one disgusting monster.

There’ll be things like him coming back from Iraq, too. And Afghanistan. If they haven’t already.

The Punisher is a reflection of late twentieth-century warfare, a soldier for whom the war has become perpetual. Ennis acknowledges as much in his closing arc. Valley Forge focuses on the Punisher as a patriot; much is made of his refusal to fire upon fellow United States marines. Although the title of the arc nominally refers to the base in Vietnam where the Punisher began, it forges a more meaningful connection between the Punisher and America.

Right hear right now.

Right hear right now.

This is one of the more interesting ideas about the character, but Daredevil only touches it in the most superficial of manners. The shot that closes the teaser of Semper Fidelis is one of the most powerful images of the second season. The title is rooted in Castle’s military experience, as the show reminded viewers during Castle’s good-natured exchange with a former veteran in New York’s Finest. However, the series is completely unwilling to explore what this actually means. What does putting the Punisher on trial actually represent?

There are a few hints and nods in a more complicated direction over the course of Semper Fidelis. At one point, Karen offers the provocative assessment, “I’m not sure Frank Castle is actually insane.” After all, Castle is really doing what he has been trained and commissioned to do. Labelling him insane has the effect of neutering any larger discussion about his actions; it is a rhetorical technique that is typically employed in discussions of gun violence, so as to avoid the substantive issue of regulation and legality.

The devil inside.

The devil inside.

Semper Fidelis explicitly asks the question, “You think the war is what made Castle what he is?” It is a pretty heavy question, one that touches on a host of fascinating issues about how our culture treats violence, but which also runs the risk of generating controversy or backlash. Frank makes it clear that he will not use a post-traumatic stress disorder defence, treating it as an “insult” to those who suffer from the condition. That seems to be that. The matter can be safely put to bed.

When Colonel Schoonover shows up in Guilty as Sin to talk about how Frank single-handedly killed thirty-odd enemy soldiers in Kandahar (roughly the same number of crooks he killed on his rampage), the show avoids even suggesting a correlation or causation between the two extremes. There is a fascinating moral debate to be had here about when people consider legal force to be justified. Unfortunately, Semper Fidelis and Guilty as Sin strain to avoid it. As such, the sub plot squanders its potential. It becomes generic and frustrating.

Hard to pin down.

Hard to pin down.

Almost as frustrating as the reluctance to engage with Frank Castle as anything more than a grieving husband and father is the difficulty that the second season has had in fleshing out a world beyond its primary characters. While the second season consciously and clearly aspires to the epic scope of The Dark Knight, there is a sense that it hews closer to Man of Steel. Over the course of the second season, it increasingly seems like Hell’s Kitchen is nothing more than a dozen people who overlap and intercept repeatedly.

The first season of Daredevil did not offer an innovative depiction of the local community. Nevertheless, the show did suggest a world beyond that of Matthew Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Karen Page was introduced as an outsider who randomly wandered into the path of those two forces. Elena Cardenas might have been a stereotype, but her role in episodes like World on Fire suggested something beyond superheroes and ninjas. Even characters like Ben Ulrich were novel enough to suggest a vast urban landscape where actions might ripple to unintended consequences.

They've trained for this.

They’ve trained for this.

In contrast, the second season can seem a little insular. It seems like everybody knows everybody. The focus of the show does not meaningfully expand. In some ways, it seems to contract. Seven Minutes in Heaven suggests that Ellison hasn’t even bothered to replace Ben Ulrich, leaving the ace reporter’s office empty because he has to wait for Karen to fill it in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. In fact, Guilty as Sin also reveals that Elektra did not cross Matt’s path by accident. Everything is happening for a very clear and very mechanical purpose.

Despite the increase in scale, this has the effect of making the season seem much smaller. The Punisher’s rampage in Bang and Dogs to a Gunfight is presented as a big deal, but the series never manages to convey a sense of scale to what he is doing. The trial of the Punisher offers an excuse to broaden the show’s horizons, holding something of a vox pop on a murderous vigilante tearing through Hell’s Kitchen. “Everyone has an opinion about Frank Castle, your honour,” Foggy assures the judge.

Trial be there.

Trial be there.

However, Semper Fidelis and Guilty as Sin never properly realise this potential to expand the season’s horizons. The jury selection at the start of the episode is a nice touch, but it feels like too little too late. The protesters are a two-dimensional cliché, a handful of angry New Yorkers waving banners in the air with familiar sentiments printed upon them. As with his rampage through Hell’s Kitchen, the Punisher’s trial seems to unfold in a hollow world populated by paper cut-outs and straw men.

The trial itself is a farce, and not in a compelling way. Daredevil is a superhero show. It is not required that the writers understand the finer points of legal procedure. After all, many shows about lawyers refuse to understand those same finer points, and that is explicitly within their brief. Nevertheless, the trial simply does not make sense in any context. It relies on various characters making incredibly stupid decisions in order to raise the dramatic stakes, when these decisions have the effect of actually lowering those same stakes.

Fightin' finish...

Fightin’ finish…

Consider the handling of the coroner’s testimony. Elektra leans of the coroner in order to get him to tell the truth about what happened to Frank and his family; not to mention the undercover cop. In doing so, the coroner trips up and reveals that he has been pressured. As a result, the judge officially rules that all of the coroner’s evidence is inadmissible. This is treated as a bad thing. Matt cannot introduce evidence that makes the jury sympathetic to Frank. It is proof that Elektra is a dangerous influence who has a negative effect upon his Matt Murdock identity.

Except that is not true. Foggy yells at Matt for allowing Elektra to screw this up for him, but he should be thanking Matt. If the coroner’s evidence is ruled inadmissible, then there is no cause of death for all those dead criminals in Hell’s Kitchen. This makes “reasonable doubt” all but impossible from a purely procedural point of view, since the prosecution cannot establish cause of death for the victims. Matt’s character evidence for Frank just became inadmissible, but so did the majority of the prosecution’s physical evidence. This is a bigger crisis for Reyes.

Speaking off the cuff...

Speaking off the cuff…

Another moment comes early in Guilty as Sin, when Foggy calls Colonel Schoonover to the stand as a character witness for Frank Castle. Schoonover relates a story about how Frank heroically saved lives in an impossible combat situation by stepping in when his knuckle-head commanding officer got his arm blown clean off. The District Attorney attacks the story on the most obvious grounds. How could Schoonover know if he wasn’t there? The twist lands; Schoonover was there. It is a moment that makes Reyes look spectacularly incompetent.

When Tower points this out to her, she offers a fairly half-hearted excuse. “All the names were redacted,” she insists. Of course, this glosses over the fact that she is talking to a senior army officer with only one arm who just related a story about a senior army officer who had his arm blown off. It makes sense for Daredevil to paint Reyes as incompetent, given that Frank Castle is effectively the result of her own screw-up. However, this level of incompetence makes it a wonder that the District Attorney’s office could win a case like this.

Teaching the professor a lesson...

Teaching the professor a lesson…

Of course, Guilty as Sin soon grows wary of the trial set-up, and decides to resolve it by having Frank freak out in an absurdly dramatic and over-the-top fashion. It is a very lazy way of wrapping up what had been a storyline with great potential. Then again, it feels entirely appropriate. The trial of Frank Castle is a hugely interesting plot line that essentially devolves into something from which Elektra must distract Matt Murdock, and which amounts to little more than named characters acting spectacularly incredibly or obviously demented.

It is a story with a lot of ambition, squandered. In some respects, it fits perfectly with the rest of the season around it.

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

3 Responses

  1. It’s interesting that you bring up Zimmerman.

    I had a small axe to grind with the excellent short film “Dirty Laundry”. And that was the over-the-top black hoodlum.

    I’m the first to criticize the left for being “too PC” and over-sensitive on the topic of race.

    Problem is, I don’t see too many left wing vigilantes in the news lately. What I’m hearing about are a lot of right-wing extremists. Rightly or wrongly, they think this country is under attack by mongrel criminals. The fact that Zimmerman was of mixed ancestry (and probably is a little slow-witted) is entirely besides the point. He was Caucasian ‘enough’ to become a rallying cry for people who think their identity is under attack. So when I see Frank Castle whacking a black dude upside the head with a bottle of Jack, it makes me more uncomfortable than when he targets his traditional enemies, the Italian mob. (All the baddies in the Punisher films are reassuringly white.) There is a racial competent when discussing vigilante justice in this country. See also “A Time to Kill”.

    Of course, this poses a problem for Frank Castle, because the mob is basically relevant any more. Even the Irish mob is going extinct.

    Punisher doesn’t get enough credit for this, but he has gone after white-collar criminals before (“The Ghost of Wall Street”). He’s not really known for beating up black gangsters, either. We basically think of the Punisher taking on the mob. That’s his default setting.

    • I didn’t want to delve too heavily into racial politics in exploring the connotations of Frank Castle. He is, after all, a white man with a gun who passes judgement on other people. There are certain connotations to that, particularly when it comes to stereotypical portrayals of urban crime in American cities and the typical racial profile of the victims of such lethal force whether by vigilantes or law enforcement. However, I am wary about seeming – as you phrase it – “too PC” or “over-sensitive”, particularly on the importance of race in American culture.

      And, as you point out, the comics have at least been self-aware enough to recognise that potential hurdle and write around it, even if writing around it leads to the same sort of strange internal logic that treats Hell’s Kitchen as a slum instead of a heavily gentrified and expensive area. (I re-read Garth Ennis’ Marvel Knights run over the course of the week, and I adore how pissy Frank Castle gets about the failed rebranding of Hell’s Kitchen as “Clinton.”)

      That said, I’m wary of giving the writers of the comics too much credit. There was a point at which Marvel thought it might be fun to put Frank in blackface.

  2. I wish I stumbled upon these reviews years ago, back when I was far more invested in the Marvel Netflix shows.

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