After taking a break from Daredevil Season 2 several months ago, I finally finished it the other night by binging the last seven episodes in a row. I think that generally this was a good decision, though the realization that I just stopped watching the series halfway through after it first released back in March was kind of weird. I think this is because I’m more prone to binge-watching when I’m on break, and summertime’s the best period for catching up on all the shows that I want to see, rather than trying to fit them into my evenings during the school year when there’s usually other stuff that needs to be done related to general adulting and hobbies that are less passive than television. Also, Daredevil‘s just not an especially compelling television series on the balance.
That’s not to say that it isn’t a quality show. If I had to rank it objectively against other superhero shows that I watch, I’d rate it higher than the DC shows on CW simply for purposes of production value and acting; you can’t deny that CW’s superhero schtick involves a heavy dose of cheese (and I love cheese, don’t get me wrong) even in their “gritty” series Arrow. In comparison, Daredevil does grit exceedingly well (the torture scenes in Daredevil consistently make me really uncomfortable, and not just because I think heroes who use torture are highly problematic). No, in comparison to the CW lineup, Daredevil‘s a good show; it just pales when compared to its sister show, Jessica Jones. That show’s such an outstanding departure from so many of the tropes you get in street level superhero fiction (first and foremost being the fact that Jessica Jones adamantly refuses to be a superhero in a world where people with superpowers inevitably become superheroes) that Daredevil really can’t compete with it. No, if the CW has the market on cheesy, breezy superhero shows and Jessica Jones is the genre’s current avant-garde, Daredevil has the unfortunate distinction of being a thoroughly workmanlike middle man. It sticks to the conventions of the genre, does them pretty well, but doesn’t do anything spectacularly different.
If you want to get into specifics of what doesn’t work about the season, I think you need to dive into the ways it recycles story beats that we see all the time in mainstream fiction. Matt Murdoch sucks at balancing his superhero life with his lawyer life; he has persistent manfeels over the way he repeatedly fails his friends; he sacrifices personal happiness for the sake of his mission. Frank Castle is a war vet who begins murdering criminals because his family was killed in front of him as collateral damage in a drug deal gone bad; he’s gruff and unafraid to kill, but still kind to people who are innocent. Elektra is an exotic woman from Matt’s past who embroils him in a complicated conspiracy; she grapples with her killer nature while being judged harshly by all the men in her life, whether or not they’re also killers. These are all standard story beats in generic action fiction, and while they’re done without any specific flaws, they’re just so overplayed that they don’t come across as compelling.
What is compelling is the stories of Foggy Nelson and Karen Page. I said this of the first season, and I think it continues to be true here, but Matt’s “mundane” friends are the most interesting characters on the show, and I would be happy to see more of them doing their jobs instead of constantly getting sucked back into the stuff with The Hand that dominates the season’s second half. Whenever Matt does something that lets down Foggy and Karen, I found myself having pretty much no sympathy for him, mostly because I thought his A-plot was just tiresome. This is one persistent flaw with the show, that the stuff Matt does as Daredevil just never resonates the way the stuff he does as a struggling lawyer does.
The subject of Elektra is pretty much unavoidable in this season. She’s a major character in the Daredevil mythos, and arguably the biggest part of her fame has to do with the fact that she dies. In both live action adaptations of Daredevil that have been made, Elektra’s been included as a major character, and in both her death has been recapitulated, even though in the Netflix series the circumstances are somewhat different. The fact that the second season of Daredevil doesn’t introduce Bullseye, whose major claim to fame as a Daredevil villain is that he killed Elektra, left me hoping that maybe the writers would at least go a season without pursuing that plot line. Elektra still dies (sorry), but it’s pretty apparent that there was some effort put in to try to ameliorate the plot point (Frank Miller is notorious for abusing his female characters, and Elektra’s death during his original run on the Daredevil comic is emblematic of that habit).
In the series, Elektra dies while fighting alongside Matt against Nobu, the semi-immortal leader of The Hand. She throws herself in the way of a strike that’s meant to kill Matt, saving him and foiling The Hand’s plan to use her as their mythical figurehead, the Black Sky (it’s never made clear within the series if there’s anything mystical about being the Black Sky, but candidates do seem to be recognizable from childhood, and The Hand do have the ability to resurrect their dead operatives). On the one hand, this is technically a heroic sacrifice. Elektra dying does both save a life and prevent the evil plan from coming to fruition; on the scale of superhero deaths, that’s not bad. On the other hand, there’s some serious wallowing in Matt’s grief, and Elektra’s role as the Black Sky gets revealed so late in the series that it feels like she kind of gets demoted to MacGuffin for the season finale (there is much talk about her ability to choose her own path after a two episode arc where her mentor Stick has been trying to kill her because he thinks she’s incapable of doing precisely that). Yeah, she’s right there with Matt doing all the fighting, but it’s obvious part of their objectives for success is “keep Elektra away from The Hand.” It’s a very “meh” death in my mind, even though it’s obvious from the stinger at the end of the last episode that they plan on bringing her back later.
Another flaw of the show comes from the way it treats its characters of color. A lot can be said about the way Daredevil casually vilifies non-Americans, but with the second season there’s also a clear trend towards making Asian characters especially evil. The Hand is an millennia old cult that is trying to take over the world, but all of its agents are distinctly Asian. Any characters of Asian descent who aren’t connected to The Hand are invariably connected to Chinese organized crime instead. Only Elektra, whose actress is half Cambodian, gets to have an identity separate from the show’s villains, and even she exists in a moral gray area, especially before the reveal that she’s been working as an agent for Stick (up to that point Elektra is characterized as a potentially sociopathic woman who kills without remorse, but then it’s revealed that she’s been maintaining a cover). Even setting aside the treatment of Asian characters, Daredevil‘s second season follows in the well established tradition of previous Marvel series of killing off a complex, well-written character of color partway through the series as a way of raising the stakes. Agents of SHIELD is guilty, Jessica Jones is guilty, and now Daredevil is guilty twice over (Ben Urich, a long-established supporting character from the comics, was played by a Black actor in the first season and killed off) with Samantha Reyes, the Latina District Attorney who was involved in covering up the deaths of Frank Castle’s family. Reyes is a great secondary villain in the early part of the season, and then she’s unceremoniously murdered right when her character is given some dimension.
I think the second season of Daredevil is a perfectly good follow up to its first season (they even bring back Vincent D’Onofrio to cameo as Wilson Fisk in a couple episodes, and he’s still as fascinating to watch as before), but it’s still an incredibly conventional superhero show that falls back on some irritating narrative beats.