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Daredevil – Seven Minutes in Heaven (Review)

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

The relationship between the first and second seasons of Daredevil is quite complicated.

There is an obvious reason for this. The show’s production team changed between the first and second season, with the role of executive producer shifting from Steven DeKnight to Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie. As a result, there is a clear change in emphasis and storytelling style; much like there was a shift from the two episodes overseen by Drew Goddard at the start of the first season to the later episodes overseen by DeKnight. Different producers bring a different perspective to their material. It is only natural.

"None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you... you're locked in here with me!"

“None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you… you’re locked in here with me!”

So there are major differences in the content and themes of the first and second season. Recurring elements that had been important to DeKnight are shuffled in the background to afford attention to aspects that intrigue Petrie and Ramirez. Matt’s Catholicism is less important than it was; Matt’s career as a lawyer is more central than it had been. Even the structural emphasis of the season shifts. DeKnight put Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk on a collision course. Petrie and Ramirez prefer to have their characters running in parallel.

That said, there are moments when the first season bubbles through. There are strange thematic links that pop up from time to time, but are truncated or brushed aside. More striking, however, is how closely Ramirez and Petrie hew to the structural elements of the first season. In many ways, this is not surprising. One of the most consistently intriguing aspects of the second season is the energy that it expends on structure rather than plot or character. That is particularly true with Seven Minutes in Heaven.

A Punishing schedule...

Orange is the new dead.

The second season of Daredevil often feels like it was produced by people who were more interested in how the first season was put together than what the first season was actually about. This is particularly apparent in how the second season shows no real interest in continuing two of the more compelling aspects of that first year. Matt’s Catholicism is occasionally referenced over the second season, but it never holds focus as it did during the show’s first year. Father Lantom only makes a single brief appearance in Penny and Dime.

To be fair, there are several overt references to Matt’s faith over the course of the year. He discusses religion with Frank Castle in New York’s Finest, while insisting that only God gets to decide who lives and who dies during an argument with Karen in Semper Fidelis. Nevertheless, it does seem like Matt Murdock’s spirituality has taken something of a back seat during the show’s second year. (More conspiracy-minded viewers might observe that current Dardevil writer Charles Soule has explicitly rendered the character’s Catholicism as “lapsed.”)

What's cooking in the kitchen?

What’s cooking in the kitchen?

It is a shame that Matt’s Catholicism has been allowed to slide out of focus, particularly given its relevance to the plot mechanics of the second season. The first season of Daredevil repeatedly explored traditional masculine responses to trauma, through ideas of guilty and retribution. There was a recurring suggestion that Matt had sublimated his violent impulses into the creation of a literal “devil” persona, much like Fisk kept his rage locked away behind expensive suits and very carefully phrased conversation.

In some respects, this theme provided a nice contrast with Jessica Jones. After all, Jessica Jones was widely praised for its exploration of female characters responding to trauma, a narrative that is not explored nearly often enough. Much like Daredevil offered a more traditional take on superheroics than Jessica Jones, it also offered a more familiar exploration of anger and victimhood. Matt and Fisk were going through traditional masculine narratives about responding to trauma through violence and retribution. Jessica Jones offers a feminist perspective.

Rabbit in a snowstorm.

Rabbit in a snowstorm.

Matt’s anger and violence was inexorably tied to his Catholicism. Catholicism is a religion with extreme perspectives on man’s moral culpability. On the one hand, Catholicism teaches than man is infinitely fallible and that mankind is tainted by an ancient error in judgement. (The gender politics underpinning this are incredibly unfortunate.) As long as man is willing to atone for his sins, he can be redeemed. At the same time, Catholicism also teaches that man has a spark of divinity to him, a higher reason that should separate him from his baser instincts.

This is something of a logical paradox that confronts many Catholics; even lapsed Catholics. Mankind is supposed to be cast in the image of the divine, with an immortal soul that elevates him above all of God’s other creations. On the other hand, man is completely incapable of maintaining the virtue that is implied in such a statement. Man is caught in a trap; sin and vice are part of the human condition, rendered all the more horrific by that fact that mankind should at once be above such things and can never escape them.

Weight and see...

Weight and see…

As such, the first season’s questions about Matt’s anger and Fisk’s attempts to fashion himself into something greater played very well through the Catholic themes of the series. These themes would seem a logical fit with the second season’s larger arcs. If Matt is a failed son trying to channel his anger into something meaningful, then it would make sense to contrast him with Frank Castle as a failed father allowing his anger to completely consume him. Matt and Fisk aspire to channel their worst selves into something meaningful; Castle embraces damnation.

These themes still bubble through the second season. After all, the opening credits still depict a city fashioned entirely from candle wax, even though Matt’s religion has been somewhat downplayed. In fact, Seven Minutes in Heaven offers a strong thematic and character link back to the arcs of the first season. The return of Wilson Fisk helps to set the tone for the hour. Once again, Daredevil focuses on its characters who find themselves struggling with their true nature, trying to figure out what to do with the darkness within.

"Tell me, do you bleed? You will."

“Tell me, do you bleed? You will.”

The thematic cohesion of Guilty as Sin has lingered somewhat. There, the idea of perpetual abstract war tied together the season’s two primary plot threads; Elektra and the war with Hand, Castle and his war on those who took his family. In Seven Minutes in Heaven, characters are repeatedly confronted by the idea that they are effectively trapped by their own self-image, unhappy because they lack the ability to accept themselves as they truly are. It is a theme that plays across the hour, demonstrating Daredevil is still largely plotted as an hourly drama.

Much is made of how the binge model has changed the way that television is produced and released. However, it is surprising how traditional Daredevil can be in its basic structure. There is nothing particularly flashy or showy about how Daredevil crafts what is essentially a very traditional superhero narrative, but it is very meticulous in its structuring. Each episode feels like it serves a particular purpose and accomplishes a particular goal. Jessica Jones certainly had stronger themes and ideas, but it often felt muddled navigating from episode to episode.

"You're dead." "There is no such thing... unless you're a middle-aged African American character."

“You’re dead.”
“There is no such thing… unless you’re a middle-aged African American character.”

Certain aspects of Daredevil are clearly plotted for the binge model; the revelations in Guilty of Sin that are positioned immediately after the episodes that were screened for critics, for example. Nevertheless, the series works reasonably well when served out in bite-sized chunks. Unlike other Netflix shows like House of Cards, the season is not structured so as to compel a viewer to devour thirteen episodes in as few sittings as possible. The same story might advance between Guilty as Sin and Seven Minutes in Heaven, but they cohere along distinct themes.

Elektra struggles with her own darker impulses, the part of her that enjoys killing. (Although it should be noted that her first kill as presented in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel is quite different from how she describes it in Seven Minutes in Heaven.) The theme even plays out in the smaller subplots featuring Foggy and Karen. Karen is still haunted by the mysterious secrets buried deep in her past, but both Foggy and Karen make their own separate efforts to escape the unhappy trap that Nelson and Murdock has become for them.

Supervillain team-up!

Supervillain team-up!

However, this theme of characters trapped by their own nature plays best through the momentary intersection of Wilson Fisk and Frank Castle. As with a lot of the second season, there is absolutely no plot basis for their awkward collaboration. Fisk is the last person in the world that Castle should trust, even if he claims to have information about the murder of Frank’s family. On a purely conceptual level, the idea of a team-up between characters identified as “the Punisher” and “the Kingpin of Crime” just does not work.

The script to Seven Minutes in Heaven awkwardly acknowledges as much. “After this, you and me, we’re done,” Frank warns Fisk when he takes the deal, a sentiment that emphasises how ridiculous it is that he is helping Fisk in the first place. “Fisk, you know, next time I see you, only one of us walks away,” Frank warns at the end of their final conversation. However, that seems highly unlikely, given how toothless this encounter was and how profitable both characters are to the shared cinematic universe.

He'll be dining out on this for years.

He’ll be dining out on this for years.

At the same time, it is hard to complain too much. As with the use of the Hand in Guilty as Sin, the concept is cool enough to sustain at least an episode of television before the audience’s suspension of disbelief begins to strain under the weight. One of the joys of a “shared universe” is the fun of throwing together characters in strange combinations. While the realities of film and television production mean that Frank Castle is unlikely to find himself teamed up with a contrast as interesting as Steve Rogers, Wilson Fisk is a nice contrast.

Jon Bernthal and Vincent D’Onofrio play very well off one another, and the banter between the characters is fun in a goofy comic book sort of way. In particular, there’s something wonderful in Frank’s willingness to score low blows against his opponent. “I don’t help sh!t bage has-been mob bosses,” Frank observes. “Has been?” Fisk asks. “You heard me,” Frank simply states. It is the sort of pithy line that Garth Ennis might have written for the character during his Marvel Knights: Punisher run; when the character wasn’t hitting Wolverine where it hurts.

Water off a devil's back...

Water off a devil’s back…

As with Elektra’s random murdering of a subdued teenage ninja in Guilty as Sin, the collaboration between Fisk and Castle is a contrivance that makes no sense within the universe, but which serves the necessity of the story. It brings Frank Castle and Wilson Fisk into contact with one another in such a way that both characters can live to fight another day. It also allows the show to play up the thematic contrast between two men struggling with the darker sides of their nature.

Just like Castle, it seems that Wilson Fisk approaches the world in Hobbesian terms. Fisk sees life as a perpetual struggle, a war to be waged. In the episode’s teaser, it takes Fisk all of a single scene to go from expressing his lack of interest in challenging Dutton as the “kingpin” of the prison to organising his own counter-revolution. “You ain’t never seen a throne you didn’t wanna sit in,” Dutton reflects, suggesting that Fisk is a slave to his own nature and unable to resist that primal urge for raw dominance.

Dutton's got this whole prison thing locked down...

Dutton’s got this whole prison thing locked down…

Fisk could never just sit on the sidelines. Despite the advice from his lawyer, Fisk could never avoid becoming “involved” in a power struggle; even a power struggle as tangential as who runs drugs into and out of the prison currently holding him. Fisk urge for power is rooted in something fundamental to his character. No matter how straight he might carry himself and how carefully he might choose his words, Fisk is a wild animal. Much like Matt, Fisk is arguably trapped by his desire to appear to be more than that.

The climax of Seven Minutes in Heaven reveals that Wilson Fisk could walk out of prison through the back door at any time. It is a ridiculous contrivance, one that is even more absurd in the way that Fisk uses to release Castle back on to the street so that his character arc might continue with minimal complications. As absurd as it is on plot-related grounds, it proves a key thematic point. Fisk is not trapped by the walls or bars of the prison. Fisk is trapped by his own self-image. He could leave to a better life at any time, but cannot bring himself to do so.

Brett while the Brettin's good...

Brett while the Brettin’s good…

Vincent D’Onofrio has talked about how the “Wilson Fisk in prison” plot is essentially about showing Fisk trapped like an animal:

I think he feels as if he’s misunderstood, and he needs to do some really hard-core explaining. That’s his journey now. He needs to straighten people’s point of view of him out however he can, however he needs to… In this portion, in the second season, he’s just been walking back and forth in a box, in a cage, like a lion or a tiger would. I think he just needs to get out. He doesn’t feel, nor do I feel like he belongs there.

The trap is not necessarily literal, but it does not have to be. In their own ways, all of the major characters in Daredevil find themselves trapped between their expectations and their baser natures.

Turning over a new page.

Turning over a new page.

Playing Wilson Fisk against Frank Castle may not make a lot of sense in basic plot terms, but it works on a raw thematic level. Frank Castle is beginning to embrace who he is, even neither the character nor the show around him seems entirely sure of what that entails. Daredevil is still far too fixated upon the murder of Frank’s family as a motivating factor, afraid to present the Punisher in a way that would emphasise his more unsettling aspects, but it is clear that Frank Castle is learning to accept the violence inside himself in a way that Matt and Fisk cannot.

Seven Minutes in Heaven continues to push the weird conspiracy theory element of Frank Castle’s origin, but the script uses it in a reasonably interesting manner. “There were almost a hundred bangers that day,” Dutton advises Frank. “And every finger found a trigger. You know, this crusade of yours, it’s never gonna end. Right? Right?” Dutton seems to suggest that there is no way Frank can ever accomplish his retribution in a certain or meaningful way. Nevertheless, Frank seems to settle for the reassurance that such violence offers him. “Yeah, you’re right.”

He's murder on the prison system.

He’s murder on the prison system.

Wilson Fisk is a caged animal who plays at being a man, eating steak and drinking red wine from a plastic cup while listening to a rival drown in his own blood, Frank Castle comes to embrace his animalistic impulses. That is the reason that Frank Castle can walk out of prison at the end of Seven Minutes in Heaven. Frank does not attempt to transcend his baser instincts in the same way that Matt and Fisk might. Instead, Frank plays into them. As such, he is no longer trapped by his own expectations in the same way that Matt and Fisk are.

Matt Murdock’s arc arguably gets lost over the course of the season. Elektra Natchios and Frank Castle are much the driving forces of the second season, to the point that Seven Minutes in Heaven and Penny and Dime feel like excerpts from a Punisher television series guest starring Daredevil, more than the other way around. Nevertheless, the first season’s parallels between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk carry over to the contrast between Fisk and Castle in Seven Minutes in Heaven. If Matt is as trapped as Fisk is, Fisk serves as a proxy to contrast Matt with Castle.

Matt has a stranglehold on crime.

Matt has a stranglehold on crime.

In his own way, Matt is just as trapped by expectations. He wants to be the lawyer that his father raised, the good boy who studies hard and practices a socially important profession. However, Matt also has a darkness inside of him that beats criminals to a pulp and prowls the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen. Matt’s arc in the second season finds himself caught between those extremes, with Elektra pulling him towards his baser instincts and Karen representing the purity of the life that his father wanted for him. Matt is trapped between the two of them.

It is an arc that doesn’t necessarily work because it doesn’t have the necessary weight. This conflict between Karen and Elektra only really runs through the second act of the show, properly beginning in Kinbaku and resolving in Guilty as Sin. In the first act, Matt is really just the guy who chases the Punisher. In the third act, Matt is the emotional bedrock who might redeem Elektra. As a result, Matt’s character arc is never as strong as it really should be, lacking the sheer consistency of presence of Castle and Elektra’s appearances, or the focus of Wilson Fisk’s arc.

Shiv some to get some.

Shiv some to get some.

In some respects, Seven Minutes in Heaven comes closer than any of the surrounding episodes to capturing the tone and mood of the first season. That theme of characters trapped by their natures plays into the core ideas of the first season. Vincent D’Onofrio demonstrates just what Daredevil was missing in his absence. However, there is one truly spectacular example of Seven Minutes in Heaven taking what worked in the first year and making it work for this sophomoric season; the hallway fight sequence.

The hallway fight sequence in Cut Man remains a defining moment for the show. It is the point at which Daredevil really established itself; it was a largely physical set piece that was crafted with the utmost professional care. Evoking Asian martial arts cinema, the hallway fight sequence was a relentless and visceral piece of work that helped to distinguish Daredevil from the more traditional corners of the shared Marvel universe. As the show’s “breakout” moment, it is no surprise that the second season should try to emulate on two separate occasions.

Firing blind...

Firing blind…

New York’s Finest offered an amped-up remake of the original fight sequence. Most notably, the sequence centred on Daredevil and was edited so as to preserve the impression of a single unbroken take. The biggest difference between the hallway fight in Cut Man and the brawl at the end of New York’s Finest was scale; the fight sequence at the end of New York’s Finest was bigger and bolder, aggressive and ostentatious. It felt very much like a sequel, an attempt to amplify everything everybody loved about the first sequence.

The result was soulless. It was impressive and epic, but it lost the raw energy of that first hallway fight sequence in trying to escalate the carnage. The grotty brutality of that original fight was replaced with a more professional sheen. The characters in the second sequence did not seem as exhausted or as fatigued as they did during the original brawl. The one take had gone from a very clever visual conceit to some very obvious trickery. Although New York’s Finest preserved the impression of a single shot, the illusion was more fragile. The edits were obvious.

Papering over the faults...

Papering over the faults…

In contrast, the hallway fight sequence in Seven Minutes in Heaven is a lot more comfortable with itself. Rather than attempting to emulate the fight sequence in Cut Man on a larger scale, the hallway brawl in Seven Minutes in Heaven takes that original sequence and repurposes it. This is not an attempt to outdo or revision the original; this is simply some straight-up appropriation and reinvention. Most obviously, Seven Minutes in Heaven is smart enough to realise that “brutal fight in a hallway” is enough of a cue to successfully evoke the fight from Cut Man.

As a result, Seven Minutes in Heaven has the freedom to change things up. Most obviously, Frank Castle is brawling rather than Matt Murdock. More to the point, the sequence completely eschews the “single take” element that made the original so striking. It is a tough sacrifice to make, given how important that single take was to establishing the Cut Man brawl as a break out moment, but it immediately sends the right message. The fight sequence in Seven Minutes in Heaven might be an homage to Cut Man, but it is not slavishly beholden to it.

Whackin' time!

Whackin’ time!

The fight scene in Seven Minutes in Heaven is a fundamentally different beast than the fight sequence in Cut Man. There are any number of visual differences. The most obvious is the artificiality of it. Whereas the long take in Cut Man granted its fight a brutal authenticity, the rapid cutting in Seven Minutes in Heaven makes it clear that this is a different beast. This artificiality is emphasised in a number of ways. The action slows down, drawing attention to the scene as a television sequence. A lot of the blood is transparently CGI. The saturation is turned way up.

(In some respects, the conspicuously slow motion during the brawl could be a none-too-subtle nod towards superhero auteur Zack Snyder. Snyder is a director who is often ridiculed for his tendency to slow down and speed up his action scenes, making it something of a visual trademark. One of the most notable examples of his preference for slow-motion superhero action came during the jailbreak sequence of Watchmen. Given that the second season was released a week before Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman, it seems like a sly affectionate reference.)

"Oh, yeah. I'm in this episode too."

“Oh, yeah. I’m in this episode too.”

In many ways, both of the hallway fight sequences in the second season reveal a lot about the tone and mood of the show’s sophomoric year. New York’s Finest offers many of the weaker elements; a sense that the season is bloated and overstuffed, that it lacks a unique identity and that the production team might honestly believe that bigger is better. Seven Minutes in Heaven suggests the stronger aspects of the year; a willingness to do things a bit differently than before and a readiness to embrace the sillier superhero genre conventions.

Seven Minutes in Heaven feels closely connected to the first season. These strong connections only serve to enhance the episode, demonstrating what made the first season so effective. However, they also draw attention to the absence of these elements across the rest of the year. Daredevil feels very much like a different show from the first season to the second, to the point that Sophie Gilbert has argued that the lack of a single consistent auteur vision has held the show back from the status of prestige drama. (It seems unlikely the show ever aspired to that; after all: ninjas!)

A big Fisk in a small pond.

A big Fisk in a small pond.

However, it is worth unpacking just what the second season has learned from the first season, given that Petrie and Ramirez have made a significant transition in theme and tone from what came before. The second season of Daredevil is a very different beast from the first in just about every way that matters, except for one. The second season of Daredevil has hewed surprisingly close to the structure established in the first. Although Daredevil may not have the same content and arcs that it had last year, the new material is layered unto a familiar structure.

There are some differences, of course. The first season of Daredevil unfolded in two clean acts, neatly separated by (the mostly standalone episodic adventure of) Stick. The first six episodes charted the rise of Daredevil and the Kingpin. The final six episodes pit them against one another. The first season of Daredevil seemed a bit loose and relaxed in places, but it was always clear where the story needed to go at a given moment. In fact, the biggest problem with the season finalé was not what it tried to accomplish but how it attempted to achieve those ends.

Staring at wall-to-wall action.

Staring at wall-to-wall action.

In contrast, the second season of Daredevil adopts a more traditional three act structure; the first (Bang to Penny and Dime) introduces the Punisher, the second (Kinbaku to Seven Minutes in Heaven) introduces Elektra and sends the Punisher to jail, the third (The Man in the Box to A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen) pits Matt and Elektra against the Hand as Frank Castle finally embraces his role as the Punisher. However, along the way, the show retains a lot of the structure that defined the first season.

Several episodes directly parallel each other. Cut Man and New York’s Finest are both the first episodes of their respective seasons to feature Claire Temple, both put Matt out of action for an extended period of time, and both climax in an extended hall brawl. Both Shadows in the Glass and Seven Minutes in Heaven pause the action to explain how Wilson Fisk came to be where the plot joined him. Elektra’s childhood flashbacks in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel contrast with Matt’s in Stick and Fisk’s in Shadows in the Glass.

"Don't worry. I'm going after Clancy Brown next."

“Don’t worry. I’m going after Clancy Brown next.”

More than that, the season arcs for the major characters are designed to run in parallel. The first season functioned as an origin story for Matt Murdock, who graduated from a make-shift vigilante uniform to his more traditional costume in the season finalé Daredevil, so titled as to suggest that he finally earned his name. The second season functions as an origin for both Elektra and Frank Castle, with their costuming arc mirroring Matt’s in the first season. They do not arrive at variants of their own costumes until A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen.

Even Seven Minutes in Heaven plays into this broader structural recurrence. The first season found Matt Murdock squaring off against Wilson Fisk, with a brief interlude to face off against the Hand and set up the second season. The second season reverses that dynamic. The larger arc of the season pits Matt against the Hand, allowing a little space in the middle for a smaller arc with Wilson Fisk that exists to set up the show’s third season. It is a very nifty piece of structural mirroring.

Spot the difference.

Spot the difference.

At the same time, there is something quite frustrating about this attention to structure. It seems strange to look at the first season of Daredevil and decide that the one aspect that should most definitely carry across from the first to the second season is the structure. Seven Minutes in Heaven suggests that the second season is stronger when it embraces themes and ideas that were seeded during the first year, instead of just ignoring them.

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

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6 Responses

  1. “It seems unlikely the show ever aspired to that; after all: ninjas!”

    Exactly. I don’t know if this was intended on Darren’s part or not, but reviewing this series back-to-back with Season Two Voyager is too perfect. Often a show will just stubbornly refuse to be great. To paraphrase Michael Eisner, it is “not the objective” of television “to make history.” Maybe it’s all just slices of narrative filler to separate the commercials from each other. Maybe a solid episode of TV carries as much artistic merit as a memorable ad campaign.

    I think we all unconsciously yearn for a transcendent experience, and if it isn’t there our minds will just invent it. Eventually the audience is put the position of having to defend mediocrity.

    • Yep. I will freely cop to the fact that I probably read far too much into things that don’t really merit that in-depth treatment.

  2. Wow, these reviews always illuminate things I never thought about. I’m a redemptive reader, at heart; if I want to like something enough, I’ll find a way to. Being honest, though, this season really is a bit of a mess. Sidenote: When will your Batman v Superman review come up? I’m dying to hear if you are one of the few people (like me) who thought it was genuinely well-done.

    • I haven’t seen Batman v. Superman yet, alas. I was travelling this week, and so missed the press screening and the release. I hope to get to it next week, depending on my schedule.

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