The best part of Daredevil‘s third season is the complete and utter absence of ninjas; if anything came out of the middling The Defenders miniseries, it was literally burying The Hand, Elektra, Stick, and all the repetitive, vague bullshit with it. Unfortunately, with all those cards off the table, Daredevil season three doesn’t really have anywhere new to go, eventually settling for a mediocre remix of its first season, barely keeping its head above water long enough to deliver a couple memorable episodes.
(warning: major spoilers for Daredevil season three follow)
All of it begins in a rather promising fashion, doubling down on the religious themes from the earliest episodes of the series, an early focus that gives Hell’s Kitchen some much-needed breathing room. Simplifying the stories around Karen and Foggy helps, too: they hang on the outskirts for the early episodes, which is unsurprisingly a good thing for the show as a whole. It serves two important purposes early on: vastly reducing Karen’s ability to make wildly idiotic decisions, and giving Foggy just enough screen time to brighten up the affairs a bit with his awkward charm. A little bit of fresh blood goes a long way too: FBI agents Ray Nadeem and “Dex” Poindexter offer some intriguing studies of the larger existential conflicts at play in Matt’s adventures in the church basement, two morally compromised figures that immediately bring some fresh energy to the secondary cast of the show.
Daredevil‘s third season doesn’t really have anywhere new to go, eventually settling for a mediocre remix of its first season.
However, that early momentum is quickly swallowed by the most disappointing aspect of the show: the return of Wilson Fisk. It’s clear from the get-go Daredevil doesn’t really have a great story to bring Kingpin back into the fold, and unfortunately, Vincent D’Onofrio’s operatic performance of Wilson can’t carry what ends up being a wildly disappointing and predictable story of how The Kingpin Re-Rises. The entire conceit is almost laughable, as he manipulates his way into controlling an entire office of federal law enforcement officers, expressing an abundance of power that is not only unbelievable, but entirely pointless: Kingpin’s only conflict of season three comes at the last moments, with his moment of “defeat”, the product of inept plot construction stretched across thirteen hours, a majority of which only feature the two main players of the series interacting with each other in their dreams (more on that in a minute).
There’s really no way to understate what an absolute bummer the return of Kingpin is: isolated for 90% of the season in a single, dourly designed location, Kingpin’s machinations back into power feel like… well, like dully constructed machinations, a story that refuses to move at anything but a snail’s pace, even when the show desperately needs it to get to the fucking point already. It all amounts to some very Shakespearean posturing in an empty room; there’s no real challenge for the Kingpin to face at any point, and no matter how hard Daredevil convinces us he’s struggling without Vanessa or the freedoms of his white suits, none of it ever reaches the compelling levels of his power struggles against The Hand and the Devil from Hell’s Kitchen in season one.
Matt Murdock doesn’t fare much better, either: the entire arc of Matt Murdock’s journey to be something “more” (so many echoes of Arrow season four here, which is never a good thing) than a costumed hero, doesn’t pay off any interesting dividends. Like Kingpin, Matt intentionally isolates himself for the majority of the season, his obsession with taking down Fisk once and for all never connecting to the inner conflicts he supposedly faces. Oddly, Daredevil tries to hinge the entire development of Matt’s character this season on an absolute dud of a twist: the reveal of Sister Maggie as Matt’s birth mother is played like a massive moment for the character and the series, one of those viral “surprises” everyone would tweet about – but it lands like a smelly gym shoe in a puddle, a groan-worthy punctuation to a plot that ultimately, holds no consequence on the season as a whole. Again, the show is too willing to repeat the beats of season one to offer something unique and fresh on Matt’s internal contradictions: once again, the failures of his religion only drive him to continue behaving the same way he always has, which is the same repetitive, circular storylines we’ve seen at least a dozen times on the aforementioned DC television shows.
Wilson and Matt’s repetitive stories are offered one new ephemeral wrinkle, though – and whoo boy, it is not a good one. Strangely, season three of Daredevil is full of scenes where Matt and Wilson talk to various apparitions: Matt’s father, Wilson to his younger self – and most ridiculously, entire fake conversations between Matt and Wilson that are used as actual moments of plot development. Not only does it feel like many of these scenes simply exist to fill screen time, but they fail on every level to provide engaging new material for either character. They’re not even visually interesting, leaning on the same blurry, semi-dissolved sheen to convey the non-reality these interactions exist in. It’s telling how these scenes utterly disappear from the narrative once the heat turns up on the main plot, once distractions are no longer needed and the show finally gets to the Bullseye/Kingpin/Devil of Hell’s Kitchen violent semi-fuck fest that represents the core of season three’s climax.
By the end of “Revelations”, Daredevil has completely run out of juice.
The only moments where Daredevil feels like it has any momentum is the time between episodes six and nine – once the Bullseye as Fake Daredevil arc kicks into high gear, “The Devil You Know” through “Revelations” is the kind of focused, high-energy storytelling Daredevil‘s shown a propensity for over the years. As a truly disturbed antagonist, Bullseye fills the void left by Elektra and The Punisher’s violent energy with a unique brand of brutality, absent of the moral conflicts that keep the aforementioned characters from feeling like true, absolute depictions of evil. It comes with caveats – once again, television utterly fails at depicting mental illness with any kind of empathy – but the jolt of energy it brings to the second act of the season raises the stakes in extraordinary fashion (the Daredevil/Not Daredevil fight in The Bulletin office is a particular highlight).
Unfortunately, by the end of “Revelations”, Daredevil has completely run out of juice – and it really doesn’t help that it follows up the assault on the Bulletin and Matt’s church with “Karen”, the tenth episode of the season, and one of the most lifeless episodes of the series. An hour of television that falls at the mercy of three different showrunners dropping a bunch of ridiculous hints into Karen’s back story, “Karen” winds all those winking nods to her past into one of the more ridiculous hours of television this side of Westworld. Karen, the Coke Dealer/Family Business Maintainer/Grieving Daughter is a rousing misfire, an episode-long flashback that provides no definition for her character except “yeah, she’s always done stupid shit – look, we just don’t know how to write her character, leave us alone!”.
By the time “Karen” finishes and “Reunion” begins, any momentum the previous episodes had built is long gone, with nothing left but to to spiral inwards to its inevitable finale, an underwhelming, inconsequential final showdown between Daredevil and Kingpin (with Bullseye thrown in the middle, because why the fuck not). Throw in an inexplicable subplot with Foggy’s family in debt to the Kingpin, Nadeem’s predictable fall, and a few dashes of the ridiculous aftermath of Daredevil’s maternal “reveal”, and it’s pretty much a shit show until the final few minutes of “A New Napkin”, the season finale that completes its journey by ending right where it began: with all three protagonists working at a law firm together, with Matt spending his nights in a bad, non-definitive costume and Karen on the fringes, pushing her fingers in the wrong people’s faces and ready to act irrationally if the plot demands it.
The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen – and his many disciples and villains – deserve better than this.
For all the talk of its characters trying to shed their own identities, the events of Daredevil‘s third season ends up just embracing the identities of who they were, with only marginal changes. Karen’s better with a gun, Foggy’s got a shitload of money and a fiance (who shows up every now and then to remind us that yes, Foggy has a hot girlfriend who loves him), and Matt still doesn’t know who the fuck he is or what he really believes in. Ultimately, using Fisk and Bullseye as funhouse mirror versions of the “good” characters doesn’t play out the way the show wants it to: the compromised natures of people like Nadeem and Karen are completely lost in the shuffle, rendering mere plot devices to engage when the show needs to drum up some drama as a smokescreen for a lack of story development.
It’s a shame: the fight scenes are terrific – and more importantly, more sparsely delivered than in season two – and the performances are top notch. Deborah Ann Woll does her absolute damnedest to pull something out of Karen’s sad arc, and it’s almost enough to save the less embarrassing moments of “Karen” (a scene with her father is particularly telling of how wasted her talents are on this show). Her dedication to a thankless role is matched by Jay Ali as Ray Nadeem, who elevates every trite scene he’s in with a compelling, layered performance of a man up against ropes he can’t ever get a firm grab on. Unsurprisingly, Charlie Cox continues to deliver the best performance of a Marvel character, TV or film, in what ends up being an utterly thankless role (you know, with Daredevil‘s unceremonious cancellation, and the complete absence of Murdock’s presence in the cinematic universe).
Did I mention that Vanessa comes back? Or that Dex has a really weird stalker subplot? Or the disappointing post-credits scene, teasing a character that could’ve been introduced five episodes earlier? The utter silliness of the stories on the fringes of Daredevil reinforces how pointless the whole exercise is, a textbook case of squandered potential across the board. Beautifully shot and exquisitely performed, Daredevil wastes so much time getting to the good parts, willing to sacrifice its most intriguing elements in favor of middling secondary stories, and a frustratingly empty resolution. It’s really a recipe for disaster: meaningless plot twists and fight scenes eventually devolving into a rushed, nothing-burger of a climax, unwinding everything that came in the season before it (and in some cases, erasing entire plots and characters from even being thought about again). Unfortunately, the unceremonious cancellation of Daredevil may be for the best: the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen – and his many disciples and villains – deserve better than this.