‘He’s trying to put you in the ground. I’m not. Choose a side.’Geeks love a base under siege story. There’s something hardwired into our DNA that says if you take a situation and make it sweaty, with no apparent escape, you can really get at the issues at the heart of a story.
Condemned, episode 6 of the Netflix show Daredevil, is its take on the base under siege story, and as takes go, they don’t come more tense, sweaty and back to basics than this.
First though, we get an answer to the question posed at the end of the previous episode. With Murdock and the Russian gang boss, Vladimir, trapped in the sights of police weapons, what’s more important to our would-be hero? The law, or justice? His moral compass, or winning?
To some extent, this episode both has its cake and eats it – Murdock allows himself to be cuffed while there’s some possibility that the cops are honest, just doing their job. When that turns out not to be the case though, and more particularly, when they’re about to shoot Vladimir in the head and lose him access to the Russian’s information on Fisk, Murdock’s moral compass swings about neatly, and he leaves the cops unconscious in the wake of a spectacularly acrobatic fight scene. His next move shows the character consistency at play in the series – earlier in the run, he hurt a Russian gangster deliberately, almost clinically, to extract information. Now, with Vladimir too injured to swiftly transport to a safer location, Murdock carries him, unconscious, inside a nearby warehouse, unwilling to leave him to the assassin-cops when they wake up.
To be fair, the episode is not a strict, tight base under siege story – we see events from many perspectives: Ben Urich the journalist, trying to piece the connections together as the city burns; Foggy and Karen in hospital; Nurse Claire drafting herself into action at the same hospital during its night of crisis. But the core of the episode, the heart of its storytelling, is confined to that warehouse, with Murdock, Vladimir, an apparently innocent cop, and, hypnotically, Vincent D’onofrio’s Fisk, speaking direct to Murdock for the first time.
Act one of the drama is dedicated to Murdock and Vladimir, ironing out some misunderstandings, such as Murdock’s responsibility for Anatoly’s beheading. It shows Murdock’s moral compass in full swing when Vladimir, dying of his injuries, blacks out without having told him what he needs to know, and Murdock fights to save his life, even going to far as to call Claire at work to get a walk-through guide to triaging the Russian’s wounds. Act two, or at least layer two, adds complication when a clean cop blunders into the situation, and Murdock is forced to incapacitate him, though not before he can send for back-up, adding to the tension of the ‘under siege’ scenario. And act three brings Fisk and Murdock finally together through the medium of a walkie talkie, to confront their similarities, and their differences, with another in a growing series of beautifully judged performances from D’onofrio as Fisk, schooling the man in the mask on what power really looks like. He may be in a warehouse with the power of life and death over Vladimir, but Murdock, in the wider scheme of things, controls nothing, and even that power which he has he’s constrained from using by his Catholic morality, which prevents him taking even a necessary life. Fisk, on the outside, is in control of everything, but the way he chooses to play his hand shows the modernity of his approach – rather than simply shooting Murdock, he gives orders for one of the cops on the scene to be executed, as if by Murdock, pinning the death on the vigilante, and skewing the whole narrative of Hell’s Kitchen’s night of explosions the same way – be afraid, there’s a masked vigilante running round your streets taking the law in his own hands, with no regard for life, no respect for the police, and now he’s begun a mad bombing campaign. It’s a mark of the show’s self-confidence that it rarely if ever plays Fisk for any kind of fool, or a man with any kind of signature weakness – if unspeakable violence is called for, he can deliver it. If subtle manipulation is a faster pathway to his goals, he’ll do that too, and he has the clout to make either path work for him, making Murdock seem hopelessly outmatched in terms of both raw power and applicable power, the Daredevil hampered by his own heroic morality. Even in this episode, we get a reminder of how naïve that morality is – when Vladimir asks him what his plan for the endgame is, Murdock tells him ‘Fisk – on trial for everything he’s done,’ maintaining a faith in the legal system as, if nothing else, his own arena.
As season 1 has progressed, that’s an element that’s coming more and more to the fore – the sheer misjudgement of scale and scope that Murdock initially makes. Yes, he can kick the bejesus out of some gangsters, yes he can make a difference in very specific cases, but when it comes to taking on the Big Boss, he is, at least so far, hopelessly outclassed. But that’s the difference between a TV show and a movie – in the movie version, the hero has to be able to topple the Big Bad within an arc of typically ninety minutes, meaning the hero has to come quickly up to speed or the villain has to have a particular vulnerability that can be exploited. In series TV, as in the original comic-books on which Daredevil is based, there’s time to show the massive disparity between Murdock and Fisk, as well as the almost alter ego duality they embody – like Batman and the Joker, like Superman and Lex Luthor, like Holmes and Moriarty, like the Doctor and the Master, it’s only over an extended period of time that their antagonism can be delivered with sufficient realism, sufficient learning and development of the character dynamics, to make it as interesting as it needs to be. That’s one of the key elements that makes Daredevil as a series so much more compelling and successful than the movie version ever was. It speaks not only to the geek mindset that loves complex storylines, detailed characterisations, and epic battles of good and evil, but also to the mindset that appreciates quality contemporary drama in any genre, bringing a veracity to its world that’s missing from, for example, shows where super-powered aliens fly around being awesome and saving the day, or where people….erm…run. Like, really fast. Due to Science! Daredevil prides itself on the realism of the world in which it sets itself, and in that world, Murdock is the equivalent of a Minuteman trying to take down Donald Trump, without ever having to fire a gun. That’s the scale of the disparity between Murdock and Fisk, and it’s not a disparity that’s never been clearer than it is here. That sense of honest disparity allows viewers who aren’t even really into superhero stories to watch Daredevil with a hungry eye – it’s much more of a thriller show, like 24 or CSI, than it is a superhero show.
Episode 6 gives us what may prove to be a historic first encounter between Murdock and Fisk, and emphasises how far out of his depth Murdock is in terms of bringing Fisk to any kind of justice. It rings with a sense of initial misjudgement of the man that Murdock seems to think Fisk is simply a hoodlum who made it big and got lucky. In this episode, Murdock is taken significantly to school, and by its end, the city is calling for the blood of the man in the mask, while Fisk himself hides in the shadows – his men kill the clean cop to add to the body count, and finally take care of Vladimir into the bargain, meaning the early notions of the mask as a Robin Hood, a hero of the people, are dealt a huge blow. Now the city fears the vigilante who will not show his face, the cop killer, the mad bomber, the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. The fight will go on after episode 6, but with even Nelson and Murdock split on the motives of the masked man – Foggy from his hospital bed wanting to rip him a new one, Karen, who’s had more contact with him, unsure of the narrative being pedalled by the mainstream media – Murdock may well have an even harder battle than before, now that he knows the scale of what Wilson Fisk can do.
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