Yes — there are spoilers. SCR
The second season of Daredevil dropped right when I was laid up with the flu and conjunctivitis, so lucky me — I was able to binge the series with a good reason. In some ways, the second season really improves on the first, and in others is a bit of a let down. Overall, I’d say the sophomore season doesn’t quite live up to the first for several reason that we’ll get into in a moment.
The season revolves around two main plotlines — the Punisher arc, in which an unstoppable killing-machine vigilante, Frank Castle, takes out scads of competing villains, is captured, and put on trial. The other is the surprise reemergence of Elektra Natchios, Matt Murdoch’s college-period girlfriend — who turns out to be a protege of Stick, part of the “war” he teased with a group called the Hand, and…well, she makes the Punisher look restrained and considerate.
First the best parts of the season — the focus and pacing is very tight. The characters are well developed and strongly written with the possible exception of Murdoch. Berenthal is fantastic in the role of Castle, with the nuance there, but dialed way down. He’s obnoxious, reactionary, and almost mad-dog violent, but he is also highly intelligent and there is still moments of humanity in him. Contrasting this, Yung is solidly convincing as the unhinged Elektra, and the weaknesses of the character are not hers, but the writing — she is simply unlikable. Beyond the snarky, violent exterior, there’s very little to be redeemed in her. Castle keeps giving you peeks of the decent man he was; there’s none of that in Elektra.
But the real standout, as with last season, is Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson. Where Murdoch becomes increasingly distracted by Elektra and the Hand, increasingly combative with Nelson over the latter genuine concern for Murdoch’s well-being, and less responsible by the episode, Nelson keeps their law firm afloat, shows up for work, battles a corrupt district attorney, and damned near wins a victory over their open-and-shut case until the Punisher purposefully torpedoes his own defense. He’s there for his friends, his clients, and he shows a faith in the system that — for all his protestations — Murdoch never does. More to the point, he’s smart, brave, and much more heroic than the rest of the characters for his firm convictions, his willingness to take the hits to his reputation and ego, and even some physical bravery.
He’s the real hero of Season 2. All the best bits of the season revolve around his legal machinations and pissing contests with the odious DA Reyes (you remember her from Jessica Jones.)
The main point of exploration is justice and the law, and the shades of vigilanteism. The Punisher is put up as an opposing view to Daredevil. Punisher isn’t looking for justice, so much as retribution for the death of his family by three gangs in a drug bust gone bad; Daredevil uses murder as his line — the point he won’t cross — and his vigilante nights are a response to the seeming weakness of the law. He’s filling in the holes where the system can’t tread. Murdoch slowly moves from viewing Castle as a villain toward seeing him as an extreme form of his own works, partly because Murdoch realizes that Daredevil’s tactics are less effective than ever, and partly because of the corrupting influence of Elektra. While occasionally battering the viewer with this dilemma, it doesn’t drag the show down.
Which leads to the weak points of the season. The Elektra plot line was set up in season one, with references to her in conversation, but mostly through Stick and his War, and the Black Sky (which becomes a very important point near the end of the season.) We find out that Elektra is one of his warriors, raised to the fight, and that Stick had pointed her at Matt in college to torpedo his career plans and lure him back. In some ways, this was probably the point where the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen really gets his start…I suspect, while it’s not explicitly rendered, that Elektra’s influence is what set him on his path. Yet, for all that set up, the pay-off is pretty weak.
Season 1 was a standout for the attempts to maintain verisimilitude in a superhero world. Daredevil’s foes were occasionally larger than life — Wilson Fisk, Nobu, Madam Gao…but they were believably portrayed. Season 2 suffers from a late 1980s problem in Marvel comics: f#$%ing ninjas. There is an army of these Hand ninjas running around — not dozens, but it seems hundreds of the bastards, and they are capable of “masking their heartbeats” but not their breathing…which super-hearing Daredevil doesn’t realize? Crying bullshit. Lazy writing to create more dangerous foes than they were. There’s a subplot about the Hand trying to find immortality, and about the Black Sky — apparently people of such sublime talent for violence as to be practically unstoppable. The secret ninja society trying to create the perfect weapon plot is slow burn until the last few episodes, then goes into high gear, and in doing so steps very quickly away from the sense of realism that the first season tried to create, and maintained well with the Punisher arc.
For all the Punisher is a caricature of the ’80s action hero — the superbly trained killing machine who can’t be stopped — he is vulnerable, emotionally and physically. He is a walking poster board for Fight Club through most of the season — battered and bruised to being almost unrecognizable. The explanation of how his gunshot wound to the head during the drug bust gone bad has caused him to live in a “heightened state of fight or flight; reliving the moment of his family’s death over and over” sounds plausible and makes him sympathetic. But he still can be put down. He still gets caught and jailed. He’s suprahuman, but not superhuman.
Another point where the season both succeeds well, but also makes the mistake of holding itself up for scrutiny to the first run, is the reintroduction of Wilson Fisk (who becomes Kingpin in the course of his appearance.) He is still pulling strings, still dangerous, even behind bars, and seeing him in action (including a fight scene where he easily batters the Punisher) serves to remind us of how grounded that story is in comparison to the half-assed ninja sorcery on the other side of the season.
Don’t get me wrong — Season 2 is highly enjoyable, and punches along at a great clip for the first two-thirds of the show, before the Elektra story moves to the forefront. It’s certainly worth a look, but in the end, it just didn’t quite tie it all together as well as they did the first try, mostly because they started to move too far from the tenor they set. I suspect, had the Elektra arc been saved for season three, with a bit more lead in to establish the “woo-woo” factor of the Hand, the arc would have been more effective.