O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
A man or woman haunted by their past and their secrets is a man or woman not in control of their present, and potentially a builder of dangerous tomorrows for themselves and everyone around them.
That’s a lesson sewn strongly through the lining of episode 8 of Season 1 of Daredevil, which opens with Wilson Fisk sleeping alone, waking in a start from a dream that troubles him. We see his methods of self-soothing in his solitude – staring at the Rabbit in a Snowstorm painting, making himself a simple but exquisitely precise omelette, perusing his array of similar dark suits, choosing his cufflinks with care, the sound of classic music in his ears. Wilson Fisk wakes from a dream of – who knows what? – and enforces himself on the world, on time and space and his own understanding, as a man of precision, sophistication, elegance and grace. But when he happens to see himself in a mirror, the shadow in the glass is not that of Wilson Fisk, adult sophisticate and dreamer of big dreams for Hell’s Kitchen, but of a frightened child, covered in blood. The chubby child-self from whom Fisk is always running.
It's a masterful pre-credits sequence, and it informs much of the rest of the episode. We go back in time to see what leads the young Wilson to his bloody fate – a father overbrimming with machismo and a greasy ambition to get a council seat, not to do some good for those around him, but to earn the kickbacks and freebies that people volunteer to those in even insignificant seats of power. Wilson, the boy who strives to please his dad but never quite manages it, lives with him and his mother, forever cowed by the bullying voice, or fist, or belt of her husband. As is the hallmark of the show, there are complex relationships at play here, conflicted ideas of respect and loathing, and Wilson’s path to becoming the blood-spattered shadow in the glass is neither straight nor linear. But we do learn about the adult Fisk on the way – why the Rabbit in a Snowstorm painting calms him so much, why he feels a veneration towards the women in his life, where he gets his determination to change Hell’s Kitchen and his sudden bursts of furious violent power from, and why above all he would strive towards the life of a sophisticate, an aesthete, a quiet and contemplative persona to balance the things he ‘has to do’ in the course of his mission.
The memories and dreams of his childhood though are threatening to rob him of his judgment, his control. Madame Gao – one of his several partners in crime, and the only one for whom he seems to have a genuine and abiding respect, tells him to get his house in order, and Fisk loses his temper, overturning the very table on which he had his calming omelette. But Fisk is a man who has shown himself in previous episodes to be no cartoon villain, no limited, two-dimensional man. We know that he will take Madame Gao’s warning to heart, and he will do whatever is necessary to put himself in the right headspace to succeed.
Meanwhile, the Fisk Resistance is growing – Karen, and unwittingly Foggy, tells Matt about Ben Urich, and their efforts to join the dots and make something meaningful of the connections they find. Murdock, as The Man In The Mask, finds Urich, and the two have a frank conversation, the Mask putting Urich more completely in the picture, and running up against the problems of hearsay – again, Daredevil makes its mark by treating the ‘supernature’ of the hero as a sidebar, and confronting the problems of the real world, realistically. They decide to drag Fisk out of the shadows and into the light, assuming that the city will turn on him once it knows what he’s done, once they control the narrative of good versus evil.
But again, the writers on Daredevil have clearly agreed a mission to make Fisk no cardboard cut-out villain, and Steven S. DeKnight, writer of episode 8, keeps up the standard here. Fisk is a man haunted by his past, but he finds the strength to do what he needs to do – he confides his earliest secrets in Vanessa, and she pities him for them, understands him, forgives him, even when he insists the dark deeds of his youth were done for his own sake. That’s the night Vanessa chooses to commit to him, to sleep with him, to bring him calm and peace. And as Urich writes the story that will bring Fisk’s darkness into the light, we see the difference the freedom of confession can make – a particularly sweet satirical statement, given Murdock’s Catholicism and his hiding of his own secrets. With his early deeds confessed, and accepted by the woman he wants, Fisk is like a Macbeth strengthened by his Lady – his disquiet vanquished, his doubts dispelled, and like the Scottish king of legend and infamy, he moves swiftly and decisively. Waking now in a bed warmed by his lover, making omelettes for two, and bowing to the choices that Vanessa makes for him in terms of his suit, his shirt, his cufflinks, he feels like he has achieved a normalising goal, a life worthy of this woman’s love. And Wilson Fisk comes voluntarily out of the darkness, stealing the narrative of his enemies, and again demonstrating that he is control of the means that make the message. With those means, when Fisk steps into the light, he is a victim-turned-saviour, a voice for the traumatised residents of Hell’s Kitchen, a local boy made good who pledges to make the Kitchen safe – from masked terrorists who kill without compunction, who have no respect for the law or the citizens living in fear. In one single press announcement, Wilson Fisk goes from invisible force of evil to people’s champion, and the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen goes from fighter for the little people to hunted madman. Urich’s story evaporates as he writes it, and Murdock – who of course hasn’t told his secrets even to the friends he loves - finds his history coming back to haunt him. The fighter for the people of Hell’s Kitchen standing up, and crushed by the powerful forces of darkness who own the world. Fisk in that moment represents the mobsters who killed his father when he dared to stand up against them, and Murdock smashes his laptop to the ground so as not to see it.
A man or woman haunted by their past and their secrets is a man or woman not in control of their present, and potentially a builder of dangerous tomorrows for themselves and everyone around them. This is a masterly episode of a compelling story, that shows how finding the strength to tell your secrets to someone you trust, and having that trust be justified, can make you fearless and bring you success, while keeping your secrets buried can grind you down and keep you from ever finding the extent of your power.
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