‘Do you believe in the Devil, Father?’Imagine the Devil was real. Walking, talking, controlling people’s lives. Making them turn to war, to pettiness, to violence for money. And smiling all the while, appearing as an angel of light, finding success, friends, influence, contentment, peace – and laying the blame for all the evils of Hell at your door.
The first season of Daredevil has danced around the issue of Matt Murdock’s inability or refusal to kill, and while his Catholic faith has always been a fundamental element of the Daredevil mythos, it’s never been explicitly stated as the reason behind his refusal to cross that final line within the show. Until now.
Matt finds his local priest, and over lattes (never let it be said that the Catholic Church isn’t progressive on some things), the two discuss the reality or otherwise of the Devil. The priest, to his credit, shows himself to be something of a Devil’s Advocate, having argued in his youth that the Devil was merely a bogeyman, inflated to fill pews and coffers. But an experience in Rwanda, a Holocaust more often than not forgotten in the West, convinced the priest that he had seen the Devil in the form of man, and that the Devil, the actual Devil walks the Earth, taking many forms.
That leads inevitably to the question: ‘What if you could have stopped him from ever hurting anyone again?’
Murdock is actively looking for a loophole. He claims to know his soul is damned if he kills any man, even a man he views as his own personal Devil, but he’s wrestling with the need to protect all the people Fisk’s plans will hurt, or maim, or even kill as part of the drive towards his ‘bigger picture’ of a Hell’s Kitchen of prosperity and beauty.
It’s a moral dilemma that’s been played out in books, in plays, and on TV screens since each of those media has existed – how far can you rightfully go to save the lives of others? How far is too far? And if you go too far, what consequences await you? It’s probably best known by geeks as The Genesis Question, from Tom Baker’s Genesis of the Daleks speech – ‘If someone pointed out a child to you, and told you they would grow up to be a ruthless dictator, who would kill without conscience, without pity – could you then kill that child?’
In Murdock’s case, as in many others throughout history, there’s an eternal dimension to the question, and the lawyer must weigh the scales of his own personal justice: the lives of everyone Fisk will hurt and kill, versus the soul of Matt Murdock.
The likelihood of stopping Fisk by legal means begins to look smaller and smaller as Ben tells the Nelson-Murdock resistance that most of the links between Fisk and the nefarious side of his business are ‘in the wind’ – unreachable or dead, pressing the question further into Matt’s mind. How do you stop the Devil in an imperfect world where he’s hailed as ‘the Second Coming,’ a self-made philanthropist and friend of the city? The question gets even more complicated when Murdock goes to see Vanessa, and unexpectedly runs into Fisk himself in a scene which bristles with underplayed tension between Charlie Cox and Vincent D’onofrio. Seeing them, talking to them, the awful truth sinks in – the Devil has people who know him, who love him, who would mourn his death. The Devil doesn’t exist any more in glorious isolation. He’s not a fallen angel, brooding in his own hell of darkness and misery. He eats breakfast with a lover, he has the friendship of politicians, he throws glittering benefit balls for the people of the city. The Devil is most dangerous when he genuinely doesn’t know he’s the Devil, when he believes he’s the good guy – the liberator of the slaves of Eden, the voice that hears our human suffering, rather than setting impossible standards for Job. When the Devil thinks he’s the good guy, and everyone else believes him, how dark is the crime of killing him then? How damned the soul who dares to do it?
Into this rich, unbridled theological stew of motivations and restraints, Fisk throws two simple moves worthy of the Devil’s horns. Firstly, he orders the death of a beloved character, a friend of Nelson, Murdock and Karen Page, not with any inkling that Murdock is the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, but knowing that the Man in the Mask is driven as much by emotion as any other man. The Mask has grown intelligent though, and circumspect. He’s stopped simply hitting anyone he can, and begun considering his options with a greater understanding of the bigger picture. Fisk orders the killing to provoke outrage, to spark fury – and to throw the Mask’s circumspection off-balance.
And secondly, his business dealings with Nobu, his link to the Yakuza, are getting more and more fraught, as a result of the resistance to his plans mounted by Elena Cardenas and her fellow residents (supported by Nelson and Page, if less wholeheartedly by Murdock himself). Fisk sees a way of taking the Mask and Nobu out of the picture simultaneously.
It's a continuation of a consistent theme that Fisk’s plans go like clockwork. Nobu is killed, the Mask incredibly badly wounded (and make no mistake about it, the bloodletting in these scenes is more gruesome than anything you’re probably used to from a superhero TV show). And, softened up by Nobu, even the Mask can’t seriously harm Fisk, even when, in a case of glorious, blood-racing, diabolical grandstanding, Fisk invites him to ‘take his shot.’
Barely escaping with his life, Murdock won’t be able to easily shake off the consequences of episode 9. Not only will his injuries scream that he’s done more than fall over the couch again, but the ending of the episode will bring unavoidably massive changes in his world. For those who subscribe, as Murdock does, to the ideas of sin and damnation, there’s a horrifying logic to it all – shaken by the death of a friend, Murdock went out as the Man in the Mask for the first time with actual murder on his mind, convinced at last that the soul of one man was a price worth paying to stop the Devil-as-Fisk. For the first time, he crossed the line in his mind, became a murderer in his heart – and Murdock knows his scripture, knows that if you’ve done a thing ‘in your heart’ it’s as big a sin as having done it in the world. And as a result, working in his well-publicised ‘mysterious ways,’ God has smitten him – brought him face to face first with an adversary (the Hebrew word for Satan simply means adversary, and can be applied to any foe) more than equal to his skills, to lay him low, then brought him into the presence of his Great Adversary, his personal Devil, and given the evildoer a victory over him. Murdock’s presumption to take on the right of God alone – to judge, to punish, to kill – is played out in this double fall, this double humiliation. And it will be followed by a third – the end of the episode reveals his secrets, and where Fisk found the strength in episode 8 to confront his own tightly-held and damning secrets, and was rewarded with love and acceptance, Murdock, found out by a friend who has trusted him, faces an uncertain future in the place where, for all his hidden work as the Man in the Mask, he has deposited most trust.
You can see episode 9 of this season as a great spiritual and metaphysical drama, a Paradise Lost of popular TV, and as such, writers Christos and Ruth Fletcher Gage have excelled the standards even of the season itself, which appears intent on escalating with each episode the complex realities in which it deals. The point being, if you leave Murdock’s faith out of the equation, or at least don’t see it as the battleground on which the events of the episode are played out, it’s still an entirely kickass drama about the moral consequences of killing an evil man. If you leave God and the Devil completely out of the picture, you can read it as a story of lost control, a clever man and an emotional man, and how the former will always defeat the latter. And you won’t move from your seat while this episode plays.
Netflix, with Season 1 of Daredevil, has made the House of Cards of superhero shows – the show you don’t need to like the genre to be utterly mesmerised by, the show that drags you in with characters and realism, and happily plays with and expounds on deeper themes along the way. On that basis, episode 9 is an unmissable masterwork.
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