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Daredevil – .380 (Review)

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

One of the strongest things that the second season of Daredevil has going for it is the three-act structure.

Pacing and structure can be concerns for Netflix television shows. After all, the distributor works on a completely different model than most television broadcasters. Instead of releasing a series on a week-to-week basis across a period of several months, Netflix releases all of a season at the exact same moment. As such, the focus and goals of a Netflix series are different from that a series developed through more traditional means. Netflix shows are consciously designed to be “binged” rather than to be digested in hour-long chunks.

He's the devil, that one.

He’s the devil, that one.

In some ways, this has seen the erosion of the episode as a functional unit of storytelling. If an episode of a regular television drama simply does not work, then the audience is left with a bad taste in their mouth for a week. If an episode of a Netflix drama does not work, the next episode is right there. In fact, Netflix makes it even easier by automatically moving the viewer to the next episode, meaning it takes more effort not to watch the next episode than it does to just keep going. With that in mind, an individual episode not working is not a deal-breaker.

In some respects, it is disappointing that Netflix has yet to truly embrace the potential of the streaming model. Storytelling that would be unthinkable in a weekly model are easier to work around when it comes to binging. In terms of playing with narrative formating, Aziz Anasari’s Master of None is probably the most ambitious of the “Netflix original” shows; the series bounces between its arc-based storytelling and more standalone pieces. In most cases, Netflix shows only really exploit the potential of the model when it comes to serialising their story.

Frank interrogates The Usual Suspects.

Frank interrogates The Usual Suspects.

That said, there is still some division between how streaming affects the plotting of comedies as compared to dramas. Comedies like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Bojack Horseman seem to adopt a more conservative episodic approach to their episode-to-episode plotting; given that The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was moved to Netflix rather late in its production cycle, this makes in a certain amount of sense. Nevertheless, it would appear that the streaming model tends to lean towards a “single story told over [number] hours” approach to drama.

This is not inherently a good thing. One of the bigger issues with streaming dramas remains the attachment to classic television formal conventions, whether it is a set runtime or a predetermined number of episode. Not every story needs to be thirteen episodes, especially not on a streaming service. There is a question as to whether shows like Mad Dogs and Jessica Jones might have been better served with a shorter order. There is also a sense that the demand of telling a single story over a set number of hours leads to stalling and repeating.

Just a regular guy, talkin' about love and punishing.

Just a regular guy, talkin’ about love and punishing.

While a fantastically ambitious show in terms of storytelling and themes, Jessica Jones had an unfortunate habit of running around in circles in order to reach that thirteen-episode count. Early episodes like AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey wasted a lot of time on how to knock Kilgrave out. Kilgrave himself was introduced twice in both AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Kilgrave was captured and escaped no less than three times over the season, in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts.

In many ways, Daredevil is a conventional piece of television drama. Part of that is down to structuring. Daredevil has a stronger sense of episodic storytelling than many contemporary streaming dramas. Within the second seasons, episodes like Guilty as Sin and Seven Minutes in Heaven are held together by internal themes like the idea of perpetual war as it links the season’s two plots and whether various characters are trapped within prisons of their own makings. Care is taken to ensure that something is accomplished between the start and end of a given episode.

Guy talk.

Guy talk.

More than that, the second season takes the idea further and very clearly structures itself into conventional three-act design. The first act introduces Frank Castle and pit him against Matt Murdock, running from Bang to Penny and Dime. The second act introduces Elektra and focuses on Frank Castle’s trial and incarceration, running from Kinbaku to Seven Minutes in Heaven. The third act completes Frank’s origin story while pitting Matt and Elektra against the hand, from The Man in the Box to A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. The structure is very clear.

Unfortunately, .380 marks the point at which that structure begins to fall apart.

There's going to be hell to pay...

There’s going to be hell to pay…

Is the second season of Daredevil one story or two stories? The third act makes it clear that the season is very definitely two stories; one is driven by Frank Castle and the other is driven by Elektra Natchios. There might be some minor plot overlap in episodes like Semper Fidelis, when Elektra threatens a witness in the Castle trial. There might also be some thematic overlap, such as when Guilty as Sin suggests that Stick might have invented his own perpetual war in the same way that Frank Castle has. However, by and larger, those two threads are separate.

That worked reasonably well during the first and second acts of the season. For the first act, there was a clear ideological conflict between Matt Murdock and Frank Castle. For the second act, the Castle trial seemed to exist primarily as something from which Elektra might divert Matt’s attention. The first act was primarily driven by Castle, without any hint of Elektra or the Hand. The second act was driven by Elektra and the Hand, with Frank put on the backburner.

When Ninjas Attack!, this summer on Fox!

When Ninjas Attack!, this summer on Fox!

The third act hits a problem. The show has to effectively resolve both threads in a satisfying manner. More than that, the production team clearly want to dovetail them into one another. The dovetailing takes place primarily within A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, and does not represent one of the show’s finest hours. However, the problems with the third act manifest themselves earlier. It is .380 where it becomes apparent that the show is going to struggle meeting the demands of two competing primary plots.

In theory, the third act find Matt’s attention divided between two competing catastrophes. On the one hand, Frank Castle has escaped from prison and is embarking on a brutal killing spree. On the other hand, a bunch of mystical undead ninjas are plotting something big within Hell’s Kitchen. How does a superhero cope with something like that? It is the sort of issue that doesn’t really lend itself to a big budget blockbuster, given the difficulty of setting up a single threat in a two-hour movie, but something that television might be able to handle better.

You have to urn it.

You have to urn it.

Unfortunately, .380 suggests that both Matt and Daredevil will cope with the two concurrent crises in the blandest manner possible. Matt appears to be very good at compartmentalising. .380 does not feel like a single episode of television. It feels like two separate hours that have been edited together to fill an hour of airtime. The first episode focuses on the threat posed by ninjas, opening with the impressive assault on the hospital. The second episode fixates upon Castle, closing with the epic showdown on the boat at the docks.

From a technical perspective, .380 is a superbly crafted piece of television. It is amazing to think that a television series could pull off an action setpiece like Matt catching Claire in mid-air; that looks like a sequence that belongs in a Spider-Man blockbuster. It is a credit to all involved that the sequence looks like it belongs on the big screen. It really demonstrates the sheer level of technical skill at work on Daredevil, demonstrating that the series is just as capable of superhero spectacle as any mid-level superhero film.

Clear sailing from here...

Clear sailing from here…

Similarly, the final showdown on the boat is impressively staged. The sequence is a blatant homage to The Usual Suspects, with a boat housing a shipment of drugs and a character who knows the identity of a mysterious crime lord becoming the scene of a brutal massacre. That is precisely the sort of noir reference that lends itself to a good “Daredevil versus Punisher” story, and the shots of the aftermath of Frank’s rampage are very effective and atmospheric.

In fact, the biggest technical issue with the ninja action sequence that opens .380 and the docklands showdown that closes .380 is the fact that they raise the bar phenomenally high. It seems difficult for Daredevil to meet or surpass the standards set by those sequences across the two remaining episodes of the season. In contrast, the battle on the rooftop in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen feels like an anticlimactic resolution to the arcs of all the major players. It might have been better to hold these sequences back.

You Brettcha...

You Brettcha…

However, there is also a disconnect at the heart of .380. It does not feel like the entire episode is a single unit of the same show. It feels like there are two very distinct plot threads running at the same time, and the show switches between them rather than running concurrently. It never feels like Hell’s Kitchen is under siege from both the Hand and Frank Castle at the same time; it always feels like it is one or the other, depending on the focus of a given scene. There is a Chinese wall between the two plots, even when the characters overlap.

There is a sequence early in .380 when Karen Page is interviewed by Detective Brett Mahoney. Both characters have had a long night. In Seven Minutes in Heaven, Brett helped Daredevil recover a bunch of children from the Hand. Although Daredevil warned Brett that there was something funky going on, Brett seemed particularly concerned about the ties back to the Yakuza. In contrast, Karen has found herself in the sights of a killer who police believe to be the Punisher, including an attack on her home in The Man in the Box.

Hospitality, eh?

Hospitality, eh?

So the conversation between Karen Page and Detective Brett Mahoney feels like an obvious point of overlap between two supporting characters who have found themselves swept up in the madness consuming Hell’s Kitchen. “It’s been a long night,” Brett reflects. However, when he elaborates on that, there is no mention of the Yakuza or the children. As far as .380 is concerned, Brett’s “long night” only involves the Punisher. It does not involve the children kept in cages hooked up to goodness knows what.

(To be fair, it may not have been professional for Brett to discuss that case with Karen. However, the fact that Brett asks his fellow officer to leave before talking suggests that the two were speaking off the record. More than that, Brett has a very casual relationship with Nelson and Murdock, as demonstrated by providing all the information on the Punisher in Dogs to a Gunfight. Given that Brett knows that Karen has a personal history with “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” dating back to Into the Ring, it seems strange that the Hand stuff never comes up.)

Emergency rooms are very dangerous places to operate.

Emergency rooms are very dangerous places to operate.

Similarly, .380 finds Matt incapable of multi-tasking between the two competing plot threads. At the start of the hour, he deals with ninjas. Once he confronts Karen outside the police station, he commits to the pursuit of Frank Castle. When Matt confronts Madame Gao midway through .380, he presses her on the issue of the Blacksmith. This helps his investigation of Frank Castle. However, he never asks her about Nobu. Given that Madame Gao was an essential part of Fisk’s cabal, it would seem that she might have information about Nobu’s interests.

The script to .380 seems to acknowledge this disconnect. When Matt intrudes into the storyline focusing on Frank Castle, multiple characters actually point out that he is not especially welcome. Greeting Karen outside the police station, Matt is warned, “That is my problem. Not yours.” When Matt tries to stop Frank from murdering the man he believes to be the Blacksmith, Frank protests, “When are you going to learn to mind your own goddamn business?” It seems as though .380 finds Matt straying into a plot thread that does not concern him.

Frank keeping the forces of darkness at bay.

Frank keeping the forces of darkness at bay.

There is a disjointedness to the season’s third act. This is reflected in the editing and the scene transitions of .380. To be fair, the actual chronology of the second season of Daredevil can be hard to follow at times. The entire season seems to take place over half a year, spanning from a summer heatwave to a snowy winter. However, there are no logical breaks in the story where that much time could elapse. The “trial of Frank Castle” would normally explain that time transition, but much is made of how rushed the trial is and how exhausted Matt is.

Even individual episodes appear to unfold in a rather strange manner. Regrets Only seems to suggest that Frank Castle only hires Nelson and Murdock as his lawyers on the same day that he is due to plead at a hearing. More than that, Frank’s initial hearing appears to take place at the dead of night (with a judge and notary present) overlapping with Matt and Elektra’s infiltration of the Roxxon fundraiser. The plot requires these events to overlap in order to generate tension, but the internal chronology of Daredevil is hazy at best.

Daredevil struggles to stay on top of things.

Daredevil struggles to stay on top of things.

Within .380, there are several points at which characters seem to stop moving while they are off-screen in order to allow the rest of the plot to advance. At the climax, Frank is able to dispatch Matt by throwing him over the side of a boat. Once Matt has safely disappeared from the scene, Frank has all the time necessarily to exchange fire with his opponents and brutally massacre them. Despite the fact that he is a world-class athlete and superhero, Matt is somehow unable to pull himself out of the water before Frank can murder everybody at the scene.

Something similar occurs at the climax of the episode. Seeking revenge for his attempt on her life, Elektra murders Stick’s two goons in the car outside his headquarters. Once that is done, she quickly moves inside to kill her mentor. However, in the time it takes Elektra to get from the outside to the inside of that warehouse, the goons are able to start the car and drive to the apartment of Matt Murdock. Matt is then able to get to the warehouse remarkably quickly. It is a very conscious contrivance designed to smooth the plot.

Slice o' life.

Slice o’ life.

This hazy timing logic also applies to The Dark at the End of the Tunnel. When Karen visits Colonel Schoonover, sharp members of the audience will recognise the leader of the assault team from .380 hanging in photos on the wall. Coupled with the fact that the leader explicitly greeted Frank (“been a long time, Frank!”), it seems fair to infer that Frank Castle deduced the identity of the Blacksmith almost immediately. However, Karen still has time to commit to interviewing Schoonover, driving to meet him, and conducting the interview before Frank can act. Time is elastic.

This accounts for the disjointed nature of how Matt approaches the dual threat of the Punisher and the Hand; according to the logic of Daredevil, nothing can really happen with a character or plot thread once they are safely off-camera. As long as Matt is focused up Frank Castle, he can count on the Hand subplot to advance at a slow enough pace that it will not reach critical mass before drawing his attention back to it. Again, Daredevil is a show driven by the demands of its plotting more than any internal logic.

"You can take this job and restaff it!"

“You can take this job and restaff it!”

The extent to which the plotting of the second season is driven by external demands is demonstrated in .380‘s subplot featuring Claire Temple. Following the brutal ninja assault at the start of the episode, Claire finds herself embroiled in a ninja cover-up. Being a person of high moral standards, Claire refuses to go along with attempts to paper over what actually happened. As a result, Claire is fired. However, this feels like rather transparent manoeuvring that is simply designed to put Claire at a point where Luke Cage might be able to use her better.

This somewhat choppy approach to plotting the two threads running through the third act of the season ultimately does a disservice to the characterisation of Matt Murdock. Matt feels like he gets lost in the shuffle of the second season, which is a shame when the series has a lead actor as great as Charlie Cox. Matt’s characterisation seems to flick like a light-switch depending upon which of the two plots he is facing, with the character responding to Elektra Natchios and Frank Castle in very different ways.

You Gao, girl!

You Gao, girl!

Showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez have talked about the difficulty of keeping Matt in focus across the season, particularly with two (relatively) a-list guest stars who threaten to hog the lime-light:

“Everything goes through Matt,” Petrie added. “If we have an amazing Elektra story in the writers’ room and we got excited, we’d look at each other and go, ‘That’s an amazing Elektra story, and we’re going to put it on the shelf because it has to be a Matt Murdock story.’ So we’ve got bags on the shelf, I can tell you that.”

However, watching the second season as a whole, it is very difficult to determine exactly what “Matt Murdock story” the show ended up using.

Daredevil is on the hook for this...

Daredevil is on the hook for this…

Matt is very much secondary to the demands of each plot. The Elektra plot thread requires Matt to be a paragon of virtue, representing the very best that Elektra can be. However, the Frank Castle plot thread requires Matt to question himself and his methods. As such, there is a conflict in how the second season approaches the characterisation of Matt Murdock. Instead of exploring that conflict, the series compartmentalises its approach to the character. It is decidedly unsatisfying.

This is quite obvious during the conversation between Matt and Frank at the climax of .380. Despite the fact that episodes like New York’s Finest and Penny and Dime emphasised the conflict that existed between the moral philosophies of the two characters, .380 has Matt effectively embrace Frank’s morality. Frank gets to win the big philosophical argument that the two characters had back in New York’s Finest, with Matt effectively arguing that the two of them should team up to kill the Blacksmith in cold blood.

Sword of vengeance.

Sword of vengeance.

“I understand,” Matt confesses. “You’re right. My way isn’t working. So maybe – just this once – maybe your way is what it’s gonna take.” This seems to come out of nowhere. Matt had expressed frustration to Claire about the ineffectiveness of his methods in The Man in the Box, but he makes the concession to Frank very quickly. More than that, Matt had not even heard mention of “the Blacksmith” before this particular episode. It does not seem particularly credible that Matt would consider breaking his oath “just this once.” Why not break it for Fisk instead?

Of course, there is a sense that .380 is not particularly concerned about how this affects Matt’s characterisation. Despite his willingness to compromise and plot the cold blooded murder of a stranger he never heard mentioned before .380, Matt is still able to stand as a moral guidepost to Elektra at the climax of The Dark at the End of the Tunnel. The conversation between Matt and Frank at the end of .380 is not really about developing Matt’s character or mapping his arc. The scene is designed to serve the development of Frank Castle.

Unbearable...

Unbearable…

The third act of the second season is very consciously mapping a hero’s journey for Frank Castle. The conversation between Matt and Frank at the end of the episode is very clearly part of that hero’s journey. Not only does Matt validate Frank’s position by agreeing to the possibility of murder “just this once”, but Frank also gets to be the bigger hero of the scene by talking Matt back down from that position. Whereas Matt has no moral centre, .380 seems to suggest that Frank is made of sterner stuff. Frank is put in the position of saving Matt’s soul.

It is a scene that makes Frank appear positively heroic while completely undercutting Matt. It seems that Matt is willing to compromise even on murder, despite all the soul-searching that he did during the second half of the first season. More than that, the only reason that Matt Murdock doesn’t have to murder some random stranger is because Frank Castle is willing to step up to the plate and commit the murder himself. Frank takes the sins of the world upon himself, much like Matt attempted to do in the first season.

A sharp stabbing pain.

A sharp stabbing pain.

While the first season rejected Matt’s logic, the second embraces Frank’s position. Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense. .380 is the episode that has Frank Castle dispensing important life advice to Karen Page over a cup of hot coffee in a dingy diner. As the two kill time, Frank offers his own romantic insight to the troubled young legal-secretary-turned-journalist. “You love him,” Frank states. “You can’t hide that.” When Karen denies it, frank cracks a joke with the waitress, “Ma’am, can I ask you do you always serve bullsh!t here or is that just her?”

In his interactions with Karen and Matt, .380 offers the most succinct distillation of the show’s vision of Frank Castle. The Punisher might be a murderer, but he is fundamentally decent guy who understands how the world works. Maybe he might even offer these punk kids some insight. “People who can hurt you – who can really hurt you – are the ones who are close enough to do it,” the Punisher advises Karen, without any of the irony that one might expect from a mass-murderer uttering those words.

Bruising critique...

Bruising critique…

Even when Frank get violent, even when he uses Karen, the show stops short of portraying him as overly cynical or inhuman. Karen is horrified that Frank used her to smoke out the Blacksmith’s goons. “You parked me outside like… bait,” she reflects. However, Frank is nowhere near as cynical as that observation would suggest. Even when he tells Karen to leave him alone, he does it in an angst-filled manner. “You need to call the police. Get protect custody. Get away from this thing. Get away from me.” Frank Castle is just a big softy.

Still, the season’s awkward gender politics also bubble through the episode. Karen firmly rejects Matt’s attempts to protect her from harm. “I can look after myself,” Karen advises Matt. “I’m not yours to protect.” However, that only seems to be the case because she operates under the protection of Frank Castle. Frank saves her by throwing himself on top of her in The Man in the Box and by smoking out the goons in .380. He also saves her from Colonel Schoonover in The Dark at the End of the Tunnel. This is to say nothing of A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen.

Maybe they should call it a die-ner...

Maybe they should call it a die-ner…

As such, Karen seems a lot less self-sufficient than she did during the first season. Late in the first season, when Matt and Foggy were distracted by everything else, Karen found herself in over her head with Wilson Fisk’s right-hand man. In The Path of the Righteous, Karen shot and killed Wesley. It was not a scene that was portrayed as particularly glamourous or badass. It was made clear that Karen was not happy or comfortable about what happened. However, she protected herself without needing Matt or Frank to keep her safe.

.380 suggests that the second season faces significant challenges in trying to cohere into a single satisfying season of television.

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

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9 Responses

  1. I agree – this is the ep where the wheels start to come off. The scene with Frank giving out relationship advice is unbelievable and I also agree that the two plots don’t fit together that well. I did think the hospital fight was the best bit of action – even topping ep3 and the Frank prison scene. You’re also spot on about Matt – the writers try to put him in the middle of things but he is always reacting to Frank and Elektra’s agenda, never acting. That said, though I binged this in chunks, I liked the classic episodic structure. Maybe as I’m old!

    • Yep, I think that the setpieces in .380 really are exemplary. And one of the big issues with A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen is that “some people fighting on a flat rooftop” cannot compete with “Matt does straight-up Spider-Man stuff” and “Frank blows up a boat.”

      • That rooftop fight was basically every other week’s finale on Arrow. Just swap ninjas for league of assassins. They really should have thought harder about that one, plus you could barely make out what was going on. There’s a difference between dark and blind – just ask Matt.

  2. Spot on. I think the season should have been split in two, having Matt Murdock dealing with Frank Castle in the first half, and the second half, dealing with the Hand, Elektra and Stick. In my opinion, would allow room to breath for Matt Murdock’s development.

    Also, I don’t remember Stick been such a cruel character. He was not sentimental, but sending assassins against Elektra, or tricking Matt to return to him, seem to me out of place. To tell the truth I only have reference from Frank Miller’s Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.

    • Stick is an odd character, and I get the sense the production team were very lucky when they cast Scott Glenn. Glenn does a lot of the character’s heavy lifting, I think. I have no idea how Stick actually feels about Matt and Elektra, but when I’m watching Glenn it always feels right.

      And I would definitely agree about splitting the season more firmly. Part of me kinda wishes that they killed Elektra around episode ten or eleven and then wrapped up with a Punisher/Daredevil story bookending the season. Matt finding himself after the loss by refusing to become the Punisher. (And it would also have mirrored the Frank Miller run, which I know the production team really liked.)

      • I agree with you about Scott Glenn, his casting is spot on. Probably I’ve made an idea of him more as a strict master from reading Daredevil: the man without fear.

      • From what I recall, the character was originally introduced in Miller’s run (before he wrote The Man Without Fear) as cheeky and playful, very much “tough love.” If I remember correctly, Matt finds him hustling pool at one point.

        (Although Brubaker took that further when he introduced Izo in his own later run, Stick’s mentor and thus Matt’s grandmentor, as it were. Izo has a strong preference for gambling and beer.)

  3. It definitely feels like Frank is being positioned for his own standalone Netflix series. Which means that Season 2 was really just a backdoor pilot for Elektra and Punisher.

    I checked the Daredevil kill count, and apparently the Season 2 total is something like 60 deaths, not counting the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. This season alone basically would make him the most prolific serial killer in United States history, and he’s only just started.

    It hit me then, that Frank is based in part on Chris Kyle, the stoic, salt-of-the-earth solider in American Sniper. He’s no cold blooded killer or even a hero–just a common man who does what needs doing, with a laser focus on his objectives. This would also explain the casting of Bernthal who did his share of war movies.

    P.S. I’m just coming off the Superboy v. Birdman threads over on Reddit. Two days in and they’ve resorted to the ultimate cop-out: this is an Elseworld where the Batman is willing to kill (so unlike literally EVERY BATMAN MOVIE EVER, except for B&R where even the frozen puppy survived), and everyone is just too close-minded to accept this fresh new take on the characters, blah blah.

    • I’m strangely okay with Batman killing. I mean, I like that he doesn’t in general. But I love Batman Returns, and the fact that Batman kills in it doesn’t bother me. Oddly enough, Superman killing bothers me more; despite the fact that there’s canon backing that up or whatever. It’s a personal bias.

      However, I have yet to see Batman vs. Superman, so I’m reserving judgment.

      The Chris Kyle thing is a nice touch, given that Kyle very clearly really wanted to the the Punisher. Symmetry!

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