‘Lawyer by day, vigilante by night. How does that work?’One of the biggest bugbears with the Ben Affleck Daredevil movie was the representation of what, for want of a better phrase, can be thought of as ‘Murdock-Vision,’ the combination of sensory impressions that enhance Daredevil’s ability to navigate his world, despite being ‘blind’ in the technical sense. It’s the thing, beyond his own staggering focus and determination to do what he needs to do, that makes Matt Murdock a ‘superhero,’ so how you handle it helps define how your audience relates to the character, his abilities and the way he operates as a superhero. The movie version seemed to treat it as mainly a form of advanced echolocation, which was disappointingly linear and one-note, but in the first season of the TV show, we’ve seen elements of it revealed as and when necessary – the ability to focus and pick out particular sounds at a long distance, even down to the ticking of a particular watch mechanism; the interpretation of heartbeats; the scent of a particular cologne from several floors away and so on. The pre-credits sequence of this episode takes the time to really explain Murdock-Vision, as Claire, the nurse who fixes Murdock up when he needs it, is staying at his place after her torture in the previous episode. She asks him exactly what he ‘sees’ and writer Luke Kalteux gives us possibly the best definition we’ve ever had of the process – it’s not seeing, but it is everything else; pressure, balance, temperature, feeling, smell, very particular sounds, all making up a moment-by-moment ‘impressionistic painting’ of the world. When she perseveres, and asks him what it ‘looks’ like, he gives us the meaning behind our title – it looks ‘like a world on fire,’ and with an effect in the best House and CSI traditions, we get a visual translation of Murdock-Vision that makes sense of the words – a shot of Claire in these impressions – heat, breath, pressure, sound, all synthesised into a fiery image (as is perhaps only appropriate for a man who will come to be known as ‘The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’).
‘Yeah. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.’
But this episode is about far more than a dissertation on Murdock-vision, excellent though its description of that phenomenon is. It aims to literally set the world on fire, or at least the world of Hell’s Kitchen.
With one Russian brother out of the picture, Fisk sets about pressurising the other, while putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the man in the mask. It’s a ploy as old as Shakespeare, planting a black mask on the headless corpse of Anatoly, to make Vladimir believe it’s a message from the masked man (stolen from Othello, and a bit of fatal business with a handkerchief). Vladimir determines to take the masked man’s head in retaliation, the hothead thrown off his game by grief and rage.
Meanwhile, an elderly Spanish lady, Elena Cardenas, comes to Nelson and Murdock to report intimidation and destruction at her rent-controlled apartment building, and to seek justice against her landlord, a Mr Tully, who is represented both by the flashy law firm at which Nelson and Murdock both interned, and specifically by the ‘meat-grinder in the pencil skirt’ that used to be Foggy’s girlfriend.
We already know from his frank discussions with Vanessa that Wilson Fisk is a man with plans to rebuild Hell’s Kitchen as a place where ‘beauty can thrive.’ He sees no beauty in it as it is, none of the ‘character’ Vanessa ascribes to the area. It’s not changing fast enough for Fisk, and he is determined to help it on its way to a full regeneration. It’s a highly realistic character trait of course that ‘villains’ never see themselves as villains. Frequently, they see themselves as misunderstood geniuses or philanthropists, and Fisk is in that class. To rebuild, to regenerate, he understands that you must tear down, destroy, and level the ground first.
If the ending of the previous episode answered our growing questions about how Wilson Fisk ever built a reputation for fearsomeness, given that what we’d seen of him till then was a super-sophisticate, a philosopher-businessman and a big man, unsure of himself in matters of emotional expression, this episode sets about filling in the other side of his rise to power – the schemer, the game-player, the thinker who makes the big plays to push his own agenda without ever letting his hand be seen or guessed at.
Tully’s crew are arm’s-length Fisk men, aiming to expel the rent-controlled residents, but more than that, by setting Vladimir against the man in the mask and unbalancing his side of the business, Fisk is able to level several properties in one explosive night, all of which belong to the Russians. To steal from Othello again, ‘every way makes his gain,’ the Russians and the man in the mask are focused on each other, a number of tiresome buildings are burnt down, ready to be rebuilt, the Russian operation is significantly weakened as a result, and Fisk himself gets to sit back from the carnage and simply wait out the result, while enjoying a second – and much more honest – date with Vanessa. More than ever before, Wilson Fisk throws the dice of honesty with a woman, telling her the truth of what he does, and, as the city erupts into flames before them, the pair watch the world on fire. Fisk is able to make the elegant but complicated art curator understand not only why he does what he does, but also the upside of the chaos he creates, when he explains that the people who kidnapped a child right in front of its father’s eyes are hurting now, because of what he’s done. ‘Good,’ is her response – and it’s a response that, perhaps frighteningly, feels rational to us as viewers. Fisk the Avenger is a warped idea, but the episode is written and played well enough to make this Devil’s Gambit of complete honesty pay off.
‘I’ve hurt people, Vanessa. And I’m going to hurt more. It’s impossible to avoid for what I’m trying to do.’Fisk and Vanessa are not the only ones on a date though – after seeing the state of Mrs Cardenas’ apartment, Foggy and Karen decide to help out, Foggy in particular proving himself something of a handyman, and in gratitude, Mrs Cardenas cooks them a meal, setting the scene for their first official date. But, you know how it is: you get the plumbing working again, you have a lovely meal in captivating company, some schmuck of a crime boss blows up a nearby building and kablooey goes all your hard work. The two do what they can to get people to safety, only to discover that Foggy’s been wounded, and he’s eventually admitted to hospital. Perversely, as first dates go, Karen admits she’s ‘had worse.’ Welcome to dating in the 21st century.
Meanwhile Matt and Claire, after a long-smouldering kiss in the pre-credits sequence, fall out of their potential relationship when Claire warns him she can’t fall in love with someone who’s so close to becoming what he hates. This is a motif that’s been in Daredevil since the start – the way he remains on the ‘right’ side of his Catholic moral compass is that he never actually kills anyone. That’s the way he stays a ‘hero,’ rather than being just a vigilante. But in a war against a man prepared to kill, can a hero stay a hero, or must he, in order to win the endgame, cross the line and become the very thing he despises?
It’s a question that might well be put, because the episode ends with Matt and Vladimir kicking lumps out of each other when the cops arrive, training their weapons on the man in the mask, forcing us to ask: in a world on fire, what’s more important? Survival or the moral code? Winning or the moral code? When everyone’s against you, can you still be the hero of your own story? The duality of Murdock and Fisk of course, of ‘hero’ and ‘villain,’ is one of the glorious elements of the show, and it shows itself again in the fact that Fisk convinces himself he’s the saviour of Hell’s Kitchen, and Murdock does exactly the same, although perhaps tellingly, Fisk, with his certainties and broad philosophy, also convinces the woman he cares for of his case, while Murdock, operating in a soup of Catholic guilt and angst, can’t. How – and indeed if - the man in the mask gets out of the final predicament of the episode, and how he squares his next move with his heroic moral compass, will determine much about the destiny of the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.
Whatever happens though, it’s going to be fantastic television.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk