Daredevil: Speak of the Devil

“Do you believe in the devil?”
“You mean, as a concept?”

This episode opens with Matt Murdock getting punched in the face. Matt is in black. His assailant is in red. Matt’s blood is also red. The dingy gray floor and the “grappling hook” (see below) that his assailant uses contrast with the yellow light from the equally-dingy warehouse windows. Evocative of comic books and noir films, this limited color palette exemplifies the basic challenge Matt faces: to come out on the winning side of a life and death situation. The struggle is simple because it is brutal.

Except it’s not simple, as this episode’s excellent structure and content remind us. The in medias res opening gives us an answer: violence. And then we get the question: Should Matt use violence? Should anyone? When is it an appropriate response? And when is violence not a sin against another, but a sin against both the doer and his people?

That last question winds up being the surprise question of this episode. The problem of violence is answered after the death of Elena Cardenas, after the fight with Nobu, after Fisk pulls out that gun. But the effect of violence on the lone vigilante—and his existence as a lonely vigilante—comes down to a new question, the last line of the episode. A question that reminds us vigilantes aren’t really alone: Foggy plaintively asking “Matt?”

After the credits, we see Matt sitting outside the church at some undefined time before the fight. He is looking for advice, or perhaps a sounding board, because he finds himself in a moral gray area. He is struggling with what to do. The viewer, too, might be struggling, as the previous episode showed us Fisk’s origin story and how he became the man he wants to be.

Rites and rituals aside, religion is a narrative into which the believer inserts himself. Matt is struggling with both the narrative—does the devil exist as a concept or an actual being?—and his place in it. In their first conversation, the priest responds to Matt’s question with a narrative of his own: the story of brutality that is the story of the priest’s conversion from studious and skeptical to a believer in the literal threat of evil.

But the priest doesn’t offer easy answers. In their second conversation, his explication of Proverbs “25-something” emphasizes that there are at least two interpretations of the moral significance of a righteous man who responds to evil. And he articulates one of the core questions of this iteration of Daredevil: “Are you struggling with the fact that you don't want to kill this man, but have to? Or, that you don't have to kill him, but want to?”

Some of the shots echo that ambiguity. Below, Matt and the priest are in focus in the foreground, with the crucifix out of focus in the background, illuminated but fuzzy. It is both the focal point of the shot and the window dressing. A narrative into which the believer inserts himself is only as good as the believer:

Back in the pilot, Matt claimed that both he and his father had the “devil” in them. Did he just mean his impulse to do violence? Or does he mean the sort of devilry for which Fisk is responsible: violence for equally nefarious purposes? How does the “devil” inside of Matt compare with the “devil” that he sees in Fisk?

That Matt asks those questions is the core difference between him and Fisk. Fisk is quick to solve a problem with violence; Matt is tortured by such a decision. Fisk interprets Matt’s recent reticence as “caution” rather than uncertainty. Fisk can’t seem to imagine an adversary who is uncertain of his task.

But Foggy also asks himself those questions. At Josie’s Bar, Foggy explains his motivation: “Me and Matt—we learned the law. How to play by the rules. We were going to help the people that we grew up with. Give them the same shot as the big boys, people like Fisk. It's all bullshit. It's all just lies that we tell ourselves to make it through on more day.” Foggy, like Matt, is struggling with assimilating action and potential action into their worldview. (Karen, like the priest, seems to have already had this conversation with herself, and already figured out her answer: “I don't believe that,” she says to Foggy. “You make [the bad guys] pay.”)

That the show asks those questions—and that it allows each character to arrive at his or her own answer—is why I love it. Especially with the focus on Matt’s struggle, this episode is the most excellent and nuanced portrayal of a religious person thinking about things in light of their values that I have ever seen. So often, pop culture reduces any religion to name-dropping and odd tics. Daredevil actually portrays a person thinking through their life in light of a philosophical system.

And that brings us—after a montage of violence and interrogations—to that brutal, simple warehouse of violence. Matt vs. Nobu. Not the person Matt was expecting, which perhaps makes the fight even simpler: Matt fights for ideals, Nobu fights for personal gain and his cabal. Nobu takes a while to come to terms with the fact that Matt doesn’t fight on Stick’s side in the “war” that they currently have going on; like Fisk, Nobu really has no idea what motivates his adversary. All he knows is that he recognizes a warrior like himself.

The fight between Nobu and Matt is incredible. The first time I saw it, I kept grabbing my own side in sympathy-pain for Matt’s wounds. It was graceful and violent at the same time. But Fisk’s takedown is the most horrifying: not two warriors jockeying for victory and respect, but a man with a gun who wants to destroy out of disrespect for someone who “betray[s] a weakness” for the downtrodden and marginalized.

Matt jumps out a window and into the water in a scene that I wish weren’t so evocative of The Bourne Identity, because I love the way the baptism symbolism intersects with the stigmata-esque wounds and the blood in the water:

That would have been a perfect, balanced shot with which to end this episode. It would have answered the question perfectly: violence is self-sacrifice for Matt, the ultimate nobility of becoming a martyr.

But this patch of Season One is not about balance: it is about everything being off-balance. Matt, preoccupied with the Big Questions of violence and damnation, forgot that there is more to it than defeating adversaries or determining whether or not he is a good man.

I said above that the priest’s question—does Matt want to kill Fisk—is just one of the core questions of this episode. The other question is that of Matt in the world, which means Matt with his friends. The priest quotes Proverbs: "Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain, is the righteous man who gives way before the wicked." Matt interprets this as the "righteous man has a duty to stand up against evil." But the priest argues for a second reading: "Another is that when the righteous succumb to sin, it is as harmful as if the public well were poisoned. Because the darkness... will spread to friends, neighbors, the entire community."

That’s Foggy (and Karen and Ben…). Matt, preoccupied with his own battle against Fisk and against the better devils of his nature, has forgotten that he does not operate within a vigilante vacuum. We, too, might not have noticed how little time Matt and Foggy spend together, or that Matt ignored Foggy's phone call when he was talking to the priest.

Matt’s sin may or may not be violence, but his biggest mistake is definitely his impulse to act (self?)righteously alone. Matt has forgotten what Foggy remembers: that “We were going to help the people that we grew up with” (emphasis mine). What started as a shared battle has becomes, for Matt, his own struggle. And, in doing so, he has poisoned the well of friendship. There’s nothing simple about that.

Devils and Dares:

• I am aware that Nobu’s instrument is not a grappling hook. It is also not a fishhook for marlins. But I have no idea what it is called. Anyone?

• Here’s an interesting article (with complicated GIFs) on some of the CGI used in the Nobu/Matt fight scene.

• And here’s a great article on Daredevil’s nuanced portrayal of Catholicism.

• How true is the whole “adversary” thing? Did medieval theologians really reinterpret one Hebrew word into the concept of Satan? I have no idea. That sounds like a research rabbit hole.

• I love that the priest seems to know what Matt is up to.

• And I love the look on Matt’s face when Karen praises the man in the mask: “You should have seen the way he was flipping around in the rain.”

• Also in the “love” column: the gallery scene, when Matt understood that Fisk loves Vanessa and that Vanessa loves him. The shot composition tells us that this puts Fisk at risk, as he is focused on Vanessa and unaware that Matt is focused on him:

Programming Note: Mark has graciously let me take on episodes 9, 10, and 11. He will return to review the last two episodes of the season. Thank you, Mark!

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


Jess Lynde said...

“That the show asks those questions --- and that it allows each character to arrive at his or her own answer --- is why I love it.” I agree completely, Josie. I’ve been really loving the series going in depth on Matt's struggle with whether or not to kill Fisk, particularly in light of our earlier conversations about his religious background. His priest made some compelling points --- it’s hard to argue with leaving the vengeance to a higher power, when the earthly cycle of vengeance never seems to lead anywhere good --- and it put me in mind of an exchange from the Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf responds to Frodo’s assertion that Gollum deserves death: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."

I liked how the priest framed Matt's internal debate over whether he has to kill but doesn't want to, vs. whether he doesn't have to but wants to. He may not actually have to kill Fisk to take him down (thinking back to Al Capone). But given the overall situation, I think he does/did have to abandon his refusal to kill at all. (He killed Nobu, right? In self defense?) He entered into this conflict, put others at risk, and is now a soldier on the battlefield. There’s a difference between payback and doing what’s necessary to protect yourself and others.

Patrick said...

The portrayal of Matt's Catholic faith and the moral struggles it causes him is definitely a strength of this series, due in no small part to the actor who plays the priest Matt talks with. I love the material they wrote for him, and he does an outstanding job bringing the character to life, which he could have easily devolved into a cliche. The conversation between he & Matt about the nature of evil and the existence of the Devil is for me one of the standout moments of the show. Listening to the priest talk about his experience in Rwanda was riveting. I got a feeling very much like I do when I watch the scene in Jaws where Robert Shaw's character Quint gives his famous monologue about the USS Indianapolis(an event that actually happened, if you weren't aware, and if you haven't seen Jaws it's worth watching for that scene alone).

Mark Greig said...

Great review, Josie, and thanks again for helping out with Daredevil.

Diogo said...

This is my favorite episode in the series. I always tell my friends they should watch this series, one reason being the brilliant acting and writing, but mostly because there's one episode where a ninja shows up and kicks the main character s ass. I think I speak for all of us when I say there isn't a tv show that wouldn't be improved if a ninja showed up and kicked the main character’s ass. Think about it.

Anonymous said...

Nobu's weapon is called a kusari-gama. Speaking from experience, it's one of the more ridiculously difficult martial arts weapons to learn to use without puncturing yourself multiple times.

Oh, and yeah, the old Hebrew word "Shaitan" is the basis for the modern Satan. It literally translates as "Adversary." From my admittedly limited understanding, the show is pretty accurate on that point.


Billie Doux said...

A truly complex and fascinating episode, and an equally complex and fascinating review from our Josie. I'm glad I hung in until this point, because I'm definitely on board now.

Josie Kafka said...

Hooray, Billie! I've been rooting for you. And if you could make it through the grappling-hook/kusari-gama fight scene, you can make it through anything.

Billie Doux said...

I blame Doux Reviews. Seriously, I hang in with stuff a lot longer than I normally would because of you guys. :)

Josie Kafka said...

So it's an issue of deflected self-blame?

Mark Greig said...

Happy to see we're having such a positive effect on you, Billie