Sunday, March 20, 2016

Daredevil, Season 2 review (Part Two)


Congratulations if you were able to follow my semi-coherent ramblings about Eps 1-7. We're now on the final leg. Bear with me -- I'll try to add more context this time.

Episode Eight: 'Guilty as Sin'
What a way to start an episode: Daredevil's mentor Stick makes a welcome return, as do the Hand -- this time in force. This leads to a great action sequence, with our heroes in a car trying to outrace the Hand's ninjas. Don't know who the guy is driving, but it's a cool scene with a nasty ticking clock (Elektra's chest wound) to add another layer of suspense to proceedings. It's the tensest set piece since the stairway brawl in Ep 3, although here the peril seems greater.

This episode is great for high-powered cameos delivering juicy monologues. First we have Scott Glenn -- he's a great minimalist, and adds a nice edge of irony to his delivery. He offers a terrific reading of the Hand's origin (once again, no flashbacks, which is great).

And then we have Clancy Brown, as Castle's old CO -- basically the Trautman to Castle's Rambo, he offers a great, hardboiled monologue about Frank Castle's wartime service.

This episode sees the addition of a more supernatural element. Thankfully,  it is underplayed. Keeping Daredevil street level makes it more enjoyable. I hope it stays that way.

We do get a nice revelation from Stick: turns out Elektra's relationship with Matt was all part of Stick's plan from the beginning. Matt is justifiably pissed, even more so when Karen barges in and mis-reads the whole 'hot woman in Matt's bed' thing and storms out.

Now Matt has to get his ass back to court, to the two most important people in his life (who he has also pissed off the most).

Back in court, Foggy has been blowing expectations away. Karen manages to convince Castle to take the stand -- however, Matt notes that something is wrong. Something is agitating Frank. Cue a great 'F U' monologue from the Punisher as he announces that he would gladly kill his victims again, if he could. This outburst blows a hole in Foggy's till-now excellent defence and Castle is on his way to jail. It's hilarious and sad, all at the same time.

Meanwhile, Elektra has partially recovered from her injuries and has seemingly had a major change of heart -- she wants to leave Stick and join Matt. She feels that his idealism will rub off on her and help her atone for her sins. You can feel the unease building -- these good vibes can't last. 

It ends with a corker of an ending: Elektra shows her true colours, Matt gets poisoned (and shot through the chest) and Wilson Fisk finally makes a welcome return.

This is pretty interesting episode, tone wise. The cuts between the Elektra and Frank storylines feel a little jarring, although it does make for entertaining viewing. The Punisher section allows for some great moments with Foggy, but overall they pale in comparison with the uneasy truce between Matt and his ex.

Episode Nine: 'Seven Minutes in Heaven'
Wilson Fisk! Plus William Forsythe! All in the first five minutes -- this episode is set up for greatness.

To start with, we get a nice flashback showing Wilson's arrival at prison and his encounter with Dutton (Forsythe), the thuggish 'kingpin' of the inmates. His desire to use the Punisher to get rid of his opponent is a nice plot twist. The fact that he is able to convince Frank to basically be his tool is intriguing -- what happens when shit goes south?

Back on the outside, other alliances are falling apart. Matt's rejection of Elektra is understandable (she's basically a sociopath) but probably a bad idea strategically, when he has an army of semi-indestructible ninjas after his blood (probably the only situation where having a sociopath around has its uses).

Meanwhile, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are still reeling from the court loss, and think Matt is totally shirking his responsibilities to the firm and their collective friendship (which he kind of is). For the first time in the show, Matt is really alone. 

With Elektra on the curb, Frank and his demons come back to the fore as he confronts one of the men involved in the death of his family.

Karen and Ben Urich's old editor Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor), meanwhile, are investigating the John Doe whose death was covered up along with that of Frank's family. Both Frank and the investigators discover that the John Doe was an undercover cop and the botched drug transfer was a sting operation gone bad.

This revelation is followed by Frank's one-man assault on the cell block, which is bloody, gore-y and grue-y (that's a word right?). Surprised they didn't try for a single take, but I guess they ran out of money. Still, it's pretty intense.

By contrast, Matt's infiltration of the Farm is a little underwhelming  -- it was a little hard to follow who was who with so little light around. 

In the end, this episode benefits from a lot of Fisk. While Elektra is a nice addition, she is not meant as a villain, and the series needs another mastermind running the show.

Episode Ten: 'The Man in the Box'
With DA Reyes dead and unseen forces on the move, the TV series has completed a slow transition from crime drama to conspiracy thriller. Nice.

I'm still waiting for an underlying plot to turn up. It's hard to figure out what is pushing the series forward. The Frank and Elektra stories felt like tangents, and too distinct to work together. Ten episodes in and these storylines still need to pull together.

The Blacksmith sounds like an interesting antagonist -- at first I thought it was just a moniker Fisk was using,  but now I'm not so sure.

Matt's meeting with Fisk is okay -- basically a reprise of the tension from Season 1, with plenty of 'Vanessa!' and heads being slammed against tables.

Rosario Dawson turns up again to provide a dose of reality and wry humour. She's given one of those Nolan-style monologues about the 'price of being a hero' and nails it. Again. Goddammit, Hollywood. She should be in all the movies and TV shows. She's great.

The Farm is still too abstract to be creepy -- the blood draining is kind of weird, but it still does not get under the skin the way it is supposed to. It seems like there's too many storylines going on here -- what am I supposed to be invested in?

The conspiracy stuff is interesting but still needs room to breathe. The reunion of Karen and Frank is pretty cool, but it still feels like this plot line is treading water. 

At this point I feel like we need a scoreboard showing all the villains in play. Now we have the Hand, Wilson Fisk, the Punisher, Elektra, Stick and the Chaste, and whoever the hell is trying to kill Frank. Too many? Let's see how the season pans out, but I have my suspicions.

Side tangent: How long have Elektra and Jacques been fighting? We cut from them conversing to whole bunch of other scenes, and cut to...

The only reason for this fight seems to just be 'how Elektra got her sais'. 

The episode does pick up at the conclusion, with a nice creepy atmosphere -- the Farm kids turn into zombies while the Hand prepare to assault the building outside, trapping half the main cast inside the building. At least it means Rosario Dawson has to stick around.

It's good set-up for the next episode, but this one still feels half-baked.

Episode Eleven: '.380'
So this episode is basically Matt pissing off every woman on the show. The showdown set up at the end of last episode leads to a pretty solid fight scene, although it's starting to feel formulaic. A bunch of guys appear, Daredevil tackles each one and punches them until they stop moving. Rinse and repeat.

There is a little more peril by having this brawl take place amid a bunch of innocent hospital staff (including MVP Rosario Dawson), but there needs to be more originality here.

I like this Karen-Frank pairing. Like Matt-Elektra, they are yin and yang (although an Elektra-Punisher pairing would be... disturbing). Their conversation in the dinner is a nice reprieve,  and establishes their rapport. The button on the scene -- Karen's realisation that the dinner is just a set-up to ambush the people on their trial -- is hilarious. 

Maybe that's what I've been missing from this version of Castle -- the MAX series offsets its extreme violence with a rich vein of black humour that makes the gore go down smooth. There needs to be more of this irony to Frank. Aside from Elektra and Foggy, this show is full of sourpusses.

The fight in the dinner is extremely brutal -- it's a wonder Frank can still see. He's had so many blows to the face I'm surprised his face isn't mush.

The set piece on the boat is same old, same old. Punisher shoots everybody, Daredevil tells him to stop, Punisher sucker punches DD and finishes the job. This episode is feeling old hat.

Meanwhile, Claire and Foggy meet up again -- he's checking out, and she's just quit her job. I hope these two get together. They're sane and normal.

Elektra is doing a Frank and trying to wipe out Stick and his boys. This drags Matt back into the fray -- can't have anyone dying on his watch, can we?

Episode Twelve: 'The Dark at the End of the Tunnel'
Well, at least this episode starts with something new: a 12 year old kid beating and getting beaten up by 3 tough guys. It ends with young Elektra killing one of her opponents. Young Elektra is pretty wooden, which is kind of a bummer.

Cut to the present: Stick and Elektra go at it in a library(?). Cue DD's arrival AND an army of ninjas. They take Stick, and suddenly it's back to Matt and Elektra, blood brothers/siblings. Cue a big argument and a blood-soaked kiss. Jason Mantzoukas would eat this shit up.

The end of Nelson & Murdock coincides with Foggy gaining a new sense of self-worth. Bad for his friendship with Matt, but good for him nonetheless. Hopefully this forces Matt to not take people for granted in the future. Doubt it, but this show is all about believing in people's abilities to rehabilitate themselves.

Foggy's last piece of advice leads DD somewhere he has not been: abandoned subway tunnels.

Side note: I really like the way the writers have treated Mitchell Ellison this season. In Season One, he was  Ben Urich's spineless editor -- with Ben dead, a little of his fire has re-awakened  Mitchell's crusading spirit. It's a nice shift, well played by Cantor.

The fight in the tunnel feels a little too CG-assisted. There's a few shots marred by poor green screen work. They need to make more of the Hand's stealth abilities -- they cut in and out.

As soon as Clancy Brown turns up again, you know bad shit is about to happen. He's never quite found another villain like the Kurgan (Highlander), and the Blacksmith would be a decent addition to his rogues gallery -- too bad he's doesn't get more screen time.

Stick gets tortured by the Hand; DD rescues him; Stick bites a dude's throat out. Stick finally tells Matt he's proud of him. Elektra turns up to kill Stick. And then the Hand turn up. It would make for a pretty solid finale.

But then we get another flashback to Elektra's childhood -- her first kill. We also get to see exactly how far Stick would go to protect her. It's a short, brutal scene, but well-handled. It folds in nicely with the first flashback, and the climax in the present...

... where Elektra's true origins are finally revealed: she is the Black Sky, the mythical master the Hand has been waiting for. Suddenly, Elektra has a chance to be something truly incredible -- incredibly evil, but remember who we're dealing with here. Made to feel like an outsider her entire life, and pushed out by Matt and Stick for being a loose cannon, the allure of such power is understandable.

Of course, Elektra winds up helping DD and Stick get out of trouble. Ah, the path not taken.

The episode ends with Frank finding a massive armoury -- including a gatling gun. Oh boy.

Episode Thirteen: 'A Cold Day in Hell's Kitchen'
And so we reach the end. The finale. The last dance.

Matt, Elektra and Stick are back at his apartment, waiting for the Hand to turn up. Why the hell do they go to his apartment? Don't the bad guys know where he lives?

As a season finale, it might be better than Season 1 -- certainly the stakes are high (a group of hostages in a building) and the obstacles (an army of ninjas and an immortal swordsman) formidable.

The pre-game talk between Matt and Elektra is one of the best scenes in the season. While we know DD will be back for another season, his survival in this episode is always n doubt. It's a hard trick to pull off, and this episode pulls it off.

Maybe I'm jaded from watching so many episodes back to back, but I tend to switch off during most of the fights. They seem to follow the same basic pattern. You'd think the show runners would figure that most viewers are watching at least a couple episodes back-to-back and either cut back on the action or show more originality in their set pieces. Once again, the show's colour scheme works against coherence -- I could not tell who was who half the time during the ninja battle.

However, these are minor quibbles. One last episode until next year. Time to savour the goodness. Elektra's sacrifice was kind of predictable, but rather poignant.  Stick killing Nobu was great -- having an immortal villain is so annoying, and he was never an interesting enough character to make him a formidable threat.

All in all, a strong finish to a rather slapdash season.

Final thoughts
This season reminded me of when I was a little kid and I tried to get into Marvel comics. But I always felt like I'd been dropped into the middle of an ongoing story, and I'd need to buy about a dozen other titles and issues to figure out what was going on.

On the plus side, the regulars got more to do -- more lawyering for Foggy, more investigating for Karen, and the addition of Elektra brought out a different side of Matt. The new elements (Frank and Elektra) are cool, although the way they are weaved into the story did not always feel consistent or well thought out. The lack of a strong antagonist, or at least a rogues gallery, certainly worked against it.

For next season, I hope they provide a stronger main storyline. The ingredients are still all there for greatness, but this season doesn't quite hit the bar of the first one.

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