How far is too far? This question bubbles along in the background of the second season of Daredevil, as Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) butts heads with shady characters walking the line between right and wrong in their pursuit of justice. Unfortunately, while Daredevil may be asking himself the “how far is too far” question, the writers and producers clearly did not, tipping the show so far over the line into torture porn that its last three or four episodes are nearly unwatchable.
As the season opens, the imprisonment of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) has left a power vacuum in the organized crime landscape of Hell’s Kitchen: one that various angling factions have flooded in to fill. So it is, at least, until a murderous vigilante known as the Punisher (Jon Bernthal) arrives on the scene, ruthlessly killing off criminals and bringing a new level of terror to vigilantism in the city. This, of course, is of considerable concern to Daredevil, but the Punisher’s rampage is just the start of his troubles. Soon, his morally dubious old flame Elektra (Elodie Yung) shows up, and draws him into a mysterious secret war that’s threatening to tear the whole city apart—not to mention Nelson & Murdock.
The first season of Daredevil did so much so well that I was able to overlook its sketchier, uglier characteristics. The winning team chemistry of Murdock, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), especially rallying together, left me anxious to see more of their cases, struggles, and camaraderie. Unfortunately, the plot-lines of season two divide them, and lean into the first season’s least interesting aspect: ultraviolence. But not just regular ultraviolence; we’re talking shocking, stabby, gratuitously bloody, vicious violence of the sort you might expect from a horror film. A certain amount of this sort of butchery doesn’t bother me, sparingly deployed in service of story, but this season boasts a bludgeoning wall of it. And sadly, it’s rarely informed by any kind of emotional content; Daredevil’s tortured, Catholic guilt act is over-relied on to drive viewer investment, but that act wears thin in a hurry, and the fight scenes play out like so much squelching carnage. Also wearing thin is the nominal romantic chemistry between Daredevil and Elektra, and the fuzzy, largely unresolved nature of the secret war they’re both conflicted about fighting. It all leaves an icky taste in the mouth.
No, for me the true heroes of Daredevil are not the vigilantes who drive the action, but the remarkable, yet ultimately ordinary, people condemned to orbit them. This includes, of course, Foggy Nelson, whose personal courage in an ultimately short-shrifted “Trial of the Century” storyline is truly inspiring. Foggy is so often in the right this season that the writers, as if recognizing this, sideline him down the stretch to keep him from so effectively pointing out Matt’s flaws. Also heroic: Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who fights Hell’s Kitchen’s battles from the front lines of a hospital emergency room, and gets nothing but life-shattering grief for her troubles. Finally there’s Karen, the bravest of them all, particularly in the season’s most compelling throughline: a complicated, PTSD-worthy rapport with the Punisher (perfectly enacted by Bernthal). Woll is stellar as Karen, and so much more compelling as a protagonist that I often felt disappointed whenever the spotlight shifted back to Matt.
There’s so much ammunition in Daredevil‘s arsenal. The cast is terrific, the atmosphere is immersive, the fight choreography is consistently mindblowing, and it succeeds handsomely at building the mystique of its principal figures. But somewhere along the way, Daredevil lost sight of why we loved this little slice of the MCU, steering the series over the line into sickening territory. Believe me, I say this as a fan of darkness in TV narrative: sometimes there is a too far, and sadly Daredevil goes there in season two. I wonder—much as its line-crossing characters do—if it’s too late to turn back.