It’s a couple of minutes before three a.m., March 18, and I’m sitting in front of my TV. Netflix adds new material to its servers at midnight Pacific Time, or three a.m. Eastern, and I’m waiting to spend the next 13 hours watching the second season of Daredevil. A natural binge-viewer, I like getting the story all at once. I’ll be writing a review by way of tracking my reaction to the graphic-novel-for-TV as it unfolds; tracking also my probable slow mental dissolution over the course of 13 hours of urban vigilantism.
It’s worth noting that I know relatively little about this season going in. I know there’s been a behind-the-scenes creative change, with showrunner Steven S. DeKnight gone and two writers from last season, Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, having taken over. I’ve seen the trailers, and I know that this time out Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, will be joined by Élodie Yung’s Elektra and Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle, the Punisher. They’re logical characters to bring in: the first season of Daredevil questioned the morality of Daredevil’s violence, giving characters like Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson and Peter McRobbie’s Father Lantom arguments Murdock never really answers. In different ways Elektra and the Punisher are contrasts to Daredevil in the comics—the Punisher has a similar vendetta against crime but no compunction against killing, while Elektra is Matt Murdock’s former lover turned assassin-for-hire mixed up with a sinister ninja clan called the Hand.
3:01—Episode 1, Bang
The first things I notice are similarities to season one. The show’s visual sense is the same, in terms of lighting and color. The acting’s still fine, with a bond between performers. The dialogue’s still bland. There’s a better costume for Daredevil, lit well, and that’s a definite step forward. Then we get a scene that’s full of clichés—automatic gunfire blasts through a window, and the baddies conveniently stand up to fire back with pistols rather than seek cover. Then two leads have a moment of physical connection when one teaches another to play pool, and again it’s about as clichéd as it sounds. Still, the episode sets up a mystery nicely and solves it—even if the audience knew what was happening from the beginning. It ends with a poorly-staged chase scene and a much better fight. Overall, an episode strong enough to keep you watching.
3:51—Episode 2, Dogs to a Gunfight
There’s some exploration here of the ramifications of the Punisher: whether a murderous vigilante is the logical result of the appearance of superheroes, and how his existence leads to superheroes being viewed with suspicion. Also mention of “devil worshippers,” would-be heroes copying Daredevil. There’s a build-up of the Punisher, which continues through the episode. And I note that Daredevil’s getting a lot more use out of his billy club this season.
The first episode presented the Punisher from the outside. In this one we’re given moments to sympathize with him, watching him kill a thoroughly evil criminal—again, a clichéd character. Then the next scene talks about the psychological trauma the Punisher’s action causes to innocents, and the danger of having bullets flying around an urban area. A little later, a scene asks whether the existence of DD opens the door for the Punisher. It’s a fine line, a good balance; I’ll be interested to see where these practical questions about the Punisher’s actions go.
4:41—Episode 3, New York’s Finest
This episode opens with an unexpected character from the comics and Murdock’s past. Claire Temple’s reintroduced in a later scene, and makes a reference to Luke Cage. There’s an odd scene between Punisher and Daredevil, in which the Punisher goes on about his experience as a former soldier and Daredevil acknowledges that war changes people. But DD went through a lot in season one. What’s the difference? Why wasn’t he changed by facing gunfire and repeatedly being brought to the edge of death? Despite these questions, there’s effective dramatic tension as the episode unfolds in something close to real time.
On a practical level, though, I’m not sure I buy the Punisher as an equal or superior hand-to-hand fighter to Daredevil. A gun guy and general weapons master, yes, but not a martial artist. The Punisher has no super powers or elaborate origin story—he’s a guy with a gun. It’s a tricky balance: you want Daredevil to be vulnerable, but you also want his super-senses and weird martial-arts background to have some meaning. I’m not convinced by the way the show plays it here. I also don’t think Bernthal sells the right kind of menace for the Punisher. He’s a good actor, but his Frank Castle is a heavy, not a specter of vengeance. He’s too grounded to make a good villain for a super-hero.
The episode ends with a well-known scene from out of the comics; it’s much better staged here, with a better conclusion. Because of the scene’s placement and the different connections we have to the characters, it works better. On the other hand, a hallway fight homaging the already-famous scene in season 1 is less involving. It brings out the problem with the series so far—it nods to the familiar without quite grasping why the original works. The hallway fight in season one was the dramatic payoff of an episode; this one isn’t. The first fight showed us something about Murdock as he was increasingly worn down by the slugfest and fell back on boxing stances he learned from his father. Above all, we got to see a bit of realism that’s rare in action movies: baddies who didn’t get knocked out with one punch, but got a bit dazed and then re-entered the fight as it went on. There’s nothing like that here. And the staging of the fight sets up a realism problem—we’ve seen how strongly Daredevil feels about taking life, but as he improvises weapons and throws people off stairs, how sure can he be that he’s not going to accidentally kill someone?
This all feels more direct, more streamlined than the first season so far. Still, it’s involving. Three episodes in, and I’m interested in what happens next—though not gripped.
5:29—Episode 4, Penny and Dime
Lantom returns this episode. And the plot takes a twist soon thereafter, suggesting something underlying the Punisher. There’s talk about the consequences of the Punisher’s actions, how people going after him are hurting innocent people. The tension is balanced by generic dialogue. The plot advances neatly to a climactic monologue, a denouement, and a final twist that introduces Elektra. Like I said: an enjoyable show so far, but not as involving as the first season.
6:38—Episode 5, Kinbaku
Light’s appeared in the sky out my window. Still feeling fine: not tired, not bored, but also not too wrapped up in the show.
The first four episodes set up and largely resolved one plot, and another kicks in here. In the comics Elektra was writer-artist Frank Miller’s nightmarish fusion of sex and death, a fantasy-image from a straight man’s id. This isn’t necessarily bad, as Miller’s stories tended to gain in fascination from the obsessive undertones he brought to the character, but it’s perhaps a good decision to have the episode that really introduces Elektra be written by a woman, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. Certainly Elektra comes off as a much more rounded and credible character here. Which is an interesting point about this season in general. The superhero genre gets a certain tension from balancing larger-than-life symbols with a sense of verisimilitude. Craziness on the one hand, and credibility on the other. The balance this season so far is a bit different from the first, not what you’d call realistic but a little less operatic. So the introduction of Elektra fits into that.
Unfortunately, the dialogue’s as generic as ever. Which means that the realism comes off as blandness. And this episode suffers, as much of it deals with romantic subplots in a generic way. Flashbacks drain dramatic tension.
7:39—Episode 6, Regrets Only
Full daylight now. I’m definitely less invested in this season so far than I was in the first. The secondary characters (Foggy and Karen, in particular) aren’t fully developed. Action feels more perfunctory, and the movement of the plot overall more clunky: it’s clear that episode 4 marked the end of one arc, and the transition to the next was jarring.
A nice twist here implicitly extends the discussion over vigilante justice and murder to the death penalty, which is good, but then underexplored. There’s a scene between the Punisher and Karen that ought to work well enough, being character-centered and well-acted—but it points up the problem with the season so far. Everything’s too grounded. Too much focus on realism; on the Punisher as a well-trained veteran. It has the backwards effect of making the superhero-and-ninja stuff feel unrealistic, and so undercuts the basic idea of the show.
8:48—Episode 7, Semper Fidelis
The plot thickens this episode, but very slowly. I’m not seeing the slow build of stress on Matt Murdock that developed so nicely in the first season, and there’s not much replacing it other than a surprisingly uninteresting love triangle. The lack of Wilson Fisk as a main antagonist has also brought a real slackening of tension so far. Probably a bad sign, too, when the episode ends on (what appears to be) a note from the comic and my reaction is, “Oh God, not that tedious storyline.”
9:50—Episode 8, Guilty as Sin
What looks like the main plot is finally kicking in. I appreciate the idea of a slow burn, but the burn up to this point has been far too slow and cool. The subplot with the Punisher isn’t compelling since the character doesn’t feel connected to anything. In this episode a load of exposition comes along, tying together dangling subplots from the first season and introducing concepts strong enough to carry the rest of the season. It’s like a completely different show; flat, in some ways, the opposite of grounded, and one I wish I’d been watching all along. Again, though, it’s a jarring tonal and plot shift.
One way or another, the adventure plot and an ongoing trial plot don’t work well together. The trial plot’s given too much oxygen. I can see the logic of having parallel plots to illustrate the two lives Murdock leads, but Murdock feels oddly disconnected from either; the quasi-triangle doesn’t hold things. By the end of this episode, I’m finding it very difficult to focus on the show. Luckily, there’s a good twist to hold my interest.
10:54—Episode 9, Seven Minutes in Heaven
The opening of this episode may be one of the best 10-minute sequences of the season so far—tense and character-based. The next few scenes are fine as well, setting up a good action plot that ends up being executed too simply then grinds to a halt as Murdock’s personal life kicks back in. The pacing on this show is less effective than it should be.
12:02 — Episode 10, Man in the Box
Just past noon, and I’m not groggy at all. The show’s storytelling is very clear. I’m not sure, in fact, that I’m gaining anything by binging on it. Both season one of Daredevil and Jessica Jones gained by being watched all in a row, as dramatic tension rose steadily throughout: matched against single clear villains, you watched both heroes and villains grow more desperate over the course of the episodes. That’s not happening here.
The sequence of two (arguably three) chunks of plot break the flow of the season. Add to that the lack of connection between ongoing plot strands, and the show feels flat. Murdock’s more invested in one plot than the other, which even the other characters observe, and since he’s the lead I found myself pulled along with him: I cared about one story and not the other. I think I can see how the creators thought the arc was going to build, but it hasn’t worked. It’s not hard to watch, but it’s not gripping. That said, the plot strands are finally coming together this episode, which is accordingly more involving.
1:00—Episode 11, .380
Characters this season spend a lot of time angsting about things. Season one was constructed on the level of the individual scene—characters began scenes with clearly defined desires in opposition to each other, and their interactions led the story to interesting places. That also meant there were a lot of one-on-one acting showcases, as two (or three) actors bounced off each other. There’s much less of that here, as scenes advance the plot or allowing characters to exposit at each other by way of monologue. When we do get a good scene between two characters it doesn’t pay off dramatically.
I find this season’s also oddly incoherent in its grasp of real violence and crime. Torture’s depicted as a mostly effective information-gathering technique, which it isn’t, and New York’s depicted as full of unrepentant criminals—ignoring the drop in crime rates between the 1970s, when the Punisher was created, and now. These things matter because the show’s trying to build itself around themes of justice and morality, and when it ignores how these things are actually playing out in reality, the result’s hollow and pretentious.
Meanwhile, structurally this episode is like a microcosm of the season as a whole. I’m following what’s going on, I can see the logic of the construction, and yet I’m not deeply involved.
2:36—Episode 12, The Dark At the End of the Tunnel
After making dinner, I go on with the last two episodes. Plot twist follows plot twist, fight scene follows fight scene. It feels random, whether because I’m more tired than I realize or because the show’s losing focus. Either way, the melodrama’s out of control. The groundedness of the early season makes the implausibility too apparent. And it turns out that Clancy Brown’s playing effectively the same character he plays on The Flash, which is uninspired.
3:30—Episode 13, A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen
And so we come to an end. Just as well. I’m tired, and not in a good way. I do think this would be a better show when watched over several days: the first four episodes, the next three, the remaining six. In this episode an unexpected guest star cameos, and two other characters evolve their costumes. Something like a climax to the season drifts into view. Conversely, the Punisher drifts away with his subplots unresolved. Worse, his whole branch of the plot feels, in retrospect, pointless. But then we never really find out what the villains were after, either, so there’s a general lack of plot resolution. There’s a final boss fight (against a character whose reintroduction was denuded of dramatic impact because it came so late in the run), an awkward monologue, a few scenes to set up next season, and that’s about it. The thematic concerns about violence and the morality of murder drop out of the picture with no development or resolution.
Is the show worth watching? If you liked season one, it’s decent enough. If not, I didn’t see anything here that’s likely to pull you in. I didn’t care for it as much as I did the first season, or Jessica Jones. It’s a watchable show.
—Follow Matthew Surridge on Twitter: @Fell_Gard