Geeks love battles of good versus evil. We love the idea of there being good, and being evil, and the two doing battle, and good winning. They’re an evolution of the fairy tales where innocents win out over adversity and chicanery, and we love them because on some level they reinforce our ‘romantic’ view of the universe: good people win, bad people lose, there’s some kind of cosmic principle of ‘fairness’ at work so even when life sucks, we can tell ourselves our ship will one day come in, because that’s just the way life is.
But recently, geeks have grown the hell up quite a bit. As if feeling the responsibility of having gone mainstream, geek storytelling has shifted into shades of grey, of understanding everyone, and has moved away from the moral absolutes of good and evil left over from more put-upon centuries.
Daredevil, Season 1 was a perfect example of this evolution in storytelling terms – as well as seeing the young Matt Murdock and the challenges he overcame, the discipline he deployed to make himself the man he has become, we also got to see the complex and conflicted origins of Wilson Fisk. We saw his needs, his self-belief, his skills and his potential for redemption from the dark deeds he did or caused to be done. It’s no accident that at the end of Season 1, while Fisk still goes to jail for all those deeds, it’s he, not good upright, Catholic boy Matt Murdock, who has found someone to whom he can open his heart, someone who loves him absolutely, unconditionally and honestly, knowing all that he is and all that he’s done.
Now here we are, just three episodes into Season 2, and the kind of philosophical confrontation between the hero and the villain that we waited most of the first season to see is already being laid at our feet, with the Daredevil chained to a chimney on the roof of an apartment block, and the Punisher giving him an ultimatum – ‘The only way you walk free is if I want you to.’
What follows is, beyond a shadow of doubt, my favourite episode of Daredevil in the first sixteen, because it delivers what every geek wants – understanding. Geeks are inherently political animals, because we love nothing more than backstory, leading to inspiring speeches. Again, it appeals to the romantic side of our nature that the world and our understanding of it can shift entirely on its axis by virtue of a good persuasive speech. With primary season in full swing in the States and Assembly elections coming up in three parts of the UK, the time could not be more ripe for this episode, which pits the Daredevil and the Punisher against one another not in terms of physical battle, but mental and verbal conflict, a philosophical outpouring of the differences in their positions as they try to understand each other. In the most basic of terms, it’s the Sanders-Trump face-off you actually want to watch.
The Punisher (whose name we know from being geeks, but who reveals himself as ‘Frank’ here) sees himself as the solution to the city’s problems, and is entirely without doubt that the people he kills deserve to die, that there is no good in them whatsoever, that actually murdering them results in a net societal gain. Murdock meanwhile espouses hope, demands that even evil people have the right of redemption, and declares that neither he nor the Punisher has the right to take a life. Actually, forget Trump and Sanders, it’s like watching Frank Underwood debate Barack Obama. You love the humanity and the compassion, but you can’t entirely escape a sense of the logic of numbers in the Punisher’s words.
‘Know what I think of you, hero? I think you’re a half measure. I think you’re a man who can’t finish the job. I think you’re a coward…You hit ’em, they get back up. I hit ’em, they stay down.’When the battle of words seems to get him nowhere, when the Punisher can’t break Murdock’s determined hold on the concept of redemption, things take a sinister physical turn, and Grotto – Nelson and Murdock’s client who survived the Irish Bar Massacre, is brought before the Daredevil as Exhibit A. We’ve always seen him as a coward, a nobody, a driver of bigger villains, but the Punisher is here to reveal the truth of his conviction that, starkly stated, ‘the people I kill need killing.’
The nature of ‘innocence’ is always going to be a shade of grey in Hell’s Kitchen, but the Punisher appears to prove his point when Grotto admits to the murder of a helpless old lady who happened to witness him killing someone else. He killed her just because she saw his face, and now she has a widower, children, grandchildren who weep for her. The Punisher threatens to punish him with death unless the Daredevil kills him first, but Murdock can’t bring himself to do it. He does, however, work out his anger on the Dogs of Hell, a biker gang whose wrath is stoked when the Punisher blows up some of their bikes.
Murdock stands in a way accused by all the furious, rage-spat dialogue he shares with the Punisher – that he’s just playing at being a hero, rather than making a difference, that his moral scruples are really a convenience to stop him doing the necessary thing, that he is, as the Punisher himself says, ‘just one bad day away from being me.’
We know this to be true from the first season, when after one extremely bad day, Murdock the would-be angel, the believer in redemption, in everyone having a sliver of good in them somewhere, no matter how evil they seem, convinces himself that Fisk is the exception, the walking embodiment of the Devil, and goes out – as the Punisher goes out every day – with murder in his heart. And that’s the point – this episode sizzles because as much as we love Murdock for his positivity, his optimistic vision for humanity and the city, his hope for the ‘souls’ of even the sinners of the Kitchen, the Punisher’s words ring true. They ring true not only because we saw Matt Murdock go out with murder in his heart, but because we saw Matt Murdock put Wilson Fisk in jail, and then we saw Fisk escape. We saw Fisk ‘get up’ simply by having the will to do so, the will to disregard the rules of Murdock’s – and society’s – moral code. Fisk would not have got up had it been the Punisher who dealt with him.
All the to-and-fro between Murdock and the Punisher is absolutely scintillating stuff, Jon Bernthall announcing himself as a strong performer in his scenes with Charlie Cox, but Daredevil has always been an ensemble show and this season has particularly divided the action much more equally between Matt and his Scooby Gang. Did we mention geeks love a good inspiring speech? Check out Elden Henson as Foggy in this episode, having gone to the hospital where Murdock’s nurse friend Claire works, to try and find out what happened to Matt after his last run-in with the Punisher. When a full-blown gang fight breaks out, two things are clear. Firstly, the Punisher’s plan is not just to kill those who in his view need killing, but to destabilise those who are left alive, to get them turning on each other in an orgy of recrimination, and so, essentially, prove his philosophical point that they deserve what they get. And second, Foggy’s a real geeky badass in his own right. Just as in episode 2 he took on self-serving DA Reyes, here he defuses the gang fight using nothing but nerves of steel and a big mouth, winning Claire’s admiration and help by his dedication to stopping the innocent from getting caught in the gang-battle asshat-crossfire.
And while Foggy’s doing what he can to make sure his best friend is safe, rather than dead or twitching his last on another rooftop somewhere, Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page continues to impress with perhaps the most unmuddied crusading spirit of the three, finding out some grim details about Reyes’ willingness to ditch her partners or assistants to avoid catching any fire that could slow her own political rise. Karen, in possession of those details, twists the arm of her deputy, and wins a bunch of files on the Punisher for her trouble.
Episode 3 of season 2 is an excoriating hour, bringing heroism, ethics and even human goodness into blistering question. It’s an episode you’ll watch again and again, simply for the pleasure of its speeches, its characterisation, and the sense of challenge it brings to a complex world, where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not as simple as we once thought – and the Punisher still thinks – they are.
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