After I finished Season 1 of “Daredevil,” my buddy Shaune told me Season 2 (2016, Netflix) is even better. I scoffed at the notion. Now, after finishing Season 2, I have to admit he is right. The cinematography and Hell’s Kitchen locations are still amazing, but now we see even more striking rooftops, water towers and tunnels. Plus, the whole thing plays like an epic morality play about the struggles of noble vigilantes.
I used to think Matt/Daredevil’s (Charlie Cox) obsession with avoiding killing bad guys bordered on silly, but that theme has become a strong backbone for the saga. With Daredevil still clinging to that viewpoint, his foils are Frank Castle/Punisher (“Walking Dead” veteran Jon Bernthal) and Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung) – both of whom are OK with killing. Frank doesn’t like killing, but – with a justice system that spits criminals back onto the streets – he believes it is necessary. Elektra, Daredevil’s first love, openly enjoys it.
And Stick (Scott Glenn), Matt’s curmudgeonly mentor, is still around – providing a POV somewhere between that of his two students. Stick thinks Elektra enjoys killing so much that he can’t rein her in – and therefore tries to have her killed.
Season 2 has brief stints as a courtroom drama and a prison drama – genres I don’t enjoy as much as street-level investigating and crimefighting. But the overall structure works, as Matt balances (or fails to balance) his legal defense of Frank Castle with the fight against ninjas that Elektra keeps dragging him into.
Back in the “Buffy” days, it was fun to encounter a new Big Bad each season, but what’s smart about “Daredevil” Season 2 is that Matt, Foggy (Eldon Henson) and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) face threats from various corners. The Blacksmith-led drug ring and the ninjas of The Hand are the baddies here, but Season 1’s Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) is still very much in play, and the mysterious Black Sky weapon remains in the background of the saga.
And these threats don’t line up single file for them, one episode at a time, like Daredevil’s or Punisher’s opponents in a hallway. (Note to bad guys: Open spaces and large numbers are your best bets against these guys.) In fact, the Blacksmith and The Hand don’t even cross paths (nor do Matt’s two gray-hat allies, Punisher and Elektra). In a movie or a miniseries, we expect things to tie together in a bow. In “Daredevil” Season 2, they don’t, but that makes it stronger: We don’t get the escape of being reminded this isn’t real life.
Here are my rankings of the 13 episodes:
1. “Penny and Dime” (episode 4, written by John C. Kelley) – Frank’s graveyard rambling to Matt (whom he calls “Red”) about his daughter, fast food and war calls to mind Rambo’s gut-wrenching breakdown in the anti-war opus “First Blood.” It’s the standout performance by Bernthal, who is great all season. The scene also delivers fresh information: The Punisher’s vengeance is personal, springing from the fact that someone connected to the Hell’s Kitchen crime circle killed his family. From this point forward, Frank is less killing machine and more tortured human being.
2. “.380” (11, Mark Verheiden) – Earlier in the show’s run, I would’ve chuckled at the Catholic Matt crossing himself as he admits to Frank that they might have to kill the Blacksmith. Immersed in the kill-or-capture argument by this point, I found it to be a great moment – although since he needs Matt’s help, maybe Frank shouldn’t have followed with a lecture about crossing the line. This episode is the one to submit for awards in location scouting and stunt work. We get showdowns in a hospital, a dry cleaner, Madam Gao’s basement office, a diner, a shipyard and Stick’s dojo – which for some reason (that I’m not complaining about) is at the back of a shuttered library.
3. “New York’s Finest” (3, Verheiden) – Three words: The rooftop conversation. Frank and Matt make their cases about why they should or should not kill criminals. Under the pen of veteran comic-book scribe Verheiden, a welcome addition to the staff, I can see both points of view. On the action side, Daredevil’s stairwell fight against the Dogs of Hell is this season’s answer to the hallway showdown from “Cut Man” (1.2), complete with chains and flashing red lights that symbolize our hero being dragged into the hell of criminal underworld violence.
4. “A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen” (13, Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez) – Again, “Daredevil” proves it knows how to do a season finale. Daredevil and Elektra get outfitted by suit-maker and weaponsmith Melvin (Matt Gerald, the series’ unsung weapon) before squaring off against a rooftop’s worth of Hand ninjas in much the same way Leonardo faces pretty much the entire Foot Clan in the 1986 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” “Leonardo” one-shot. In another parallel to that issue, it’s Christmastime now, and I like that touch even though the show hasn’t done a great job of showing the transition from the hot months to the holidays.
5. “The Dark at the End of the Tunnel” (12, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and Petrie) – We finally get Elektra’s backstory – enhanced by lookalike actress Lily Chee – and understand why Stick suspects she can’t be trusted: She has always liked killing too much (a contrast to Punisher). For viewers sifting for shreds of humanity from Stick, we get one here, as he tells young Elektra he’ll never forget her as he hands her off to foster parents. Shots of sewers, abandoned subway tunnels and a patch of remote woods are suitable for framing in this episode.
6. “Bang” (1, Petrie and Ramirez) – The central thematic conflict is established with Daredevil’s and Punisher’s first rooftop fight: To capture or to kill? And to use sticks or guns? The episode opens with a TV newscaster talking about 100-degree heat, perhaps an homage to Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” It’s a tipoff that things are gonna get hot in Hell’s Kitchen – although the season doesn’t play up the high temperatures as much as it could have.
7. “Guilty as Sin” (8, Whit Anderson) – This juicy mythology-builder opens with Daredevil, Elektra and Stick facing down ninjas in an old building with a wide 40-story hole dug beneath it (a mystery to be saved for later seasons). Stick explains the history of The Hand versus The Chaste, and we see how these silent assassins are a particular challenge for the blind Daredevil.
8. “Semper Fidelis” (7, Luke Kalteux) – This courtroom episode is a treatise on the merits of vigilantism, as we see in the opening montage of prospective jurors who think Frank is either an outright hero or the worst of villains. I wondered if this would be a large-scale “Perry Mason” situation where the state is eventually on trial. The writers have a softer touch in mind, but the notion that this case is bigger than Frank himself is palpable.
9. “Seven Minutes in Heaven” (9, Ramirez and Schmidt Hissrich) – If Punisher can be summarized in one fight scene, it’s the one where he wipes out all of Cell Block A after being locked in by Fisk, who essentially runs the prison – and calls himself “the kingpin” for the first time. As with “The Shawshank Redemption,” this episode is hard to watch, but I have to admit it’s a smart portrayal of the inhumanity of prison. When I see stories like this, I feel like prison itself is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
10. “Dogs to a Gunfight” (2, Ramirez and Petrie) – The image of a water tower springing leaks from wayward bullets warms my heart as a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” fan. (City-based water towers are a recurring image in the vintage “TMNT” comics, which draw heavily from “Daredevil” comics.) The script humanizes Frank as he adopts the dog owned by the Kitchen Irish he has massacred, but he also kills a pawn shop owner involved in child pornography (which is not an admirable profession, but it is short of being a murderer). After this point, we get the impression that Punisher kills killers, so this moment is incongruous in retrospect.
11. “The Man in the Box” (10, Kelley, Anderson and Sneha Koorse) – Some of the most intense moments of Season 1 simply feature Matt and Fisk talking to each other, and that dynamic returns here in a prison meeting-room chat that ends with Fisk slamming our hero’s head into a table. Cynics might say Matt needed that to understand that if Fisk is running the prison, perhaps he needs to do more than just hand off his criminal captives to the justice system.
12. “Kinbaku” (5, Schmidt Hissrich) – The Matt-Elektra bond will become more believable as the season goes on, but it gets off to a slow start. Indeed, Matt is dating Karen and sees Elektra as an unwelcome distraction. In flashbacks, we see how Elektra is attracted to the darkness in Matt, which he refuses to let out, despite the incredible lengths she goes to – finding the man responsible for the death of Matt’s dad, tying him up and handing Matt a weapon.
13. “Regrets Only” (6, Koorse) – Frank gets humanized more when Karen talks to him in his heavily guarded hospital bed prior to the trial. It’s interesting to see how Frank’s sense of what matters in the world has changed after the death of his wife and kids. This is a slow episode, but the build-up to Punisher’s trial is still gripping.
What are your rankings of the 13 episodes of “Daredevil” Season 2? Share your lists below.