With the introduction of Wilson Fisk at the end of Daredevil’s fourth episode, the series completes putting its pieces in place. Fisk’s been behind the scenes up to his reveal at the very end of the third episode, appearing only in voice over or on the fringes of the frame ever so briefly, utilizing his second, Wesley, to handle his dealings with the various gangs and thugs that make up the criminal underworld centralized in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a logical decision and it works well to amplify Fisk’s mystique and threat, culminating late in the third episode when one of Fisk’s hired killers gives up his name to Matt and then gruesomely offs himself in an attempt to avoid the pain that Fisk is sure to rain down on him.
Hiding Fisk away for a quarter of the season might have been a problem, it’s not a small portion of screen time and it could have become tiresome, feeling like the show was simply spinning its wheels while it got to the good stuff that was the inevitable confrontation between Murdock and Fisk. Instead it worked beautifully, primarily because Daredevil has proven especially adept at recognizing ways to create compelling stories to focus on in each episode while it slowly builds larger plots around the margins. Things like Karen Page and Ben Urich digging in to Fisk’s corrupt empire or the relationship that is slowly growing between Matt and Rosario Dawson’s Claire spill from one episode to the next while bound to a more concrete plot that requires resolution by the end of each hour.
It’s a structure that’s immensely effective in holding the viewer’s attention and to lending a real sense of progress to each installment even as the larger plot only inches ahead. Fisk’s reveal fits in with this storytelling method as it lets his presence be felt through Wesley while also allowing the show to focus on smaller, discrete portions of his criminal enterprise. In the second episode that means we follow Matt as he tracks down a child the Russian mob abducted in an effort to lure him out, the third follows Matt and Foggy in the courtroom as they’re swept up in the trial of one of Fisk’s hitmen, and in the fourth the Russian mob resurfaces as they abduct Claire and try to use her to track down the vigilante that’s been causing them so many problems.
It’s a fantastic structure that allows each episode to take on a slightly different tone and approach to the larger story being told. It keeps things feeling fresh and makes it all too easy to keep moving forward through the series. When each episode is slightly different from the one it follows and features a satisfying resolution while simultaneously pushing the larger plot forward it allows for unique high points each and every hour that feed the ultimate resolution that is being built towards and drawing the viewer forward. It’s a powerful construction and it runs contrary to many other Netflix series that have moved towards longer storytelling structures without discrete episodic stories.
One example of why it winds up being so powerful emerges in the fourth episode where Fisk is finally revealed to the viewer. Smartly, the episode bucks expectations with Fisk’s first proper appearance on the show. Rather than feature him in a plot line that forefronts his brutality and criminal expertise it instead places him into a romantic subplot as he attempts to woo an art dealer. It’s a surprising move, both in that it’s treated more as a character piece than an integral bit of plot for the majority of the episode and because Fisk is incredibly awkward in his pursuit of Vanessa. After building up Fisk’s shadowy menace for three episodes, when he’s finally laid bare the episode showcases his weaker, less practiced side as he clumsily gets to know Vanessa in a series of scenes that highlight his childhood.
The entire plot line even manages to forefront Fisk’s childlike nature, bringing out a side of his personality that the viewer wouldn’t have guessed at, as all they’ve seen has been the cold efficiency of his operation as represented by Wesley. It’s an incredibly effective tactic that pays off when the episode winds up merging Fisk’s subplot with the larger plot involving the Russian mob. Anatoly interrupts Wilson and Vanessa’s date, and Fisk beats Anatoly to death for his actions. What’s striking about the scene though is how childish Fisk appears in his violence, seeming like nothing more than a petulant child in his anger. Fisk is certainly a powerful, effective criminal, but “In the Blood” manages to make him so much more complicated and interesting than that by choosing a unique method of introduction that might not have been possible without the specific construction of the first four episodes. By representing Fisk only through the actions of others the show guides viewers to a specific understanding of the man, only to introduce him in an entirely different light. If the series had threaded Fisk’s introduction into the first few episodes it wouldn’t have been capable of so cleverly undermining a viewer’s expectations.
Daredevil’s best trait is its willingness to surprise the viewer. It’s not overly concerned with holding the hand of the viewer, instead trusting them to understand what it’s getting at. (The representation of Matt’s powers has been nicely subtle, never doing much more than amping up the sound track and playing tricks with the camera’s focus to get across what Matt’s experiencing.) Its storytelling similarly cuts to the chase quickly rather than laying out every single beat. The second episode opens with Matt brutally beaten after the Russian mob tricks him into a confrontation but the episode never shows flashes back to this fight. It’s an unnecessary scene and instead of presenting it the episode opts for a light bit of exposition which catches the viewer up and keeps the episode flowing smoothly. The show excels at getting to the root of things and teasing out what’s most essential to the material and then portraying only that.
Daredevil’s proving remarkably adept at plotting, and while that may be one of its greatest strengths it’s proving similarly adept at almost everything else it tries. The fight sequence at the end of episode two is one of the most impressive ever pulled off on a TV budget and filming schedule, the character worked is pared down and evocative, and the design of the show is brooding and gorgeous all at once, playing with darks and colors simultaneously. Four episodes in and Daredevil is already shaping up to be one of the best things Marvel has managed to create in its live-action universe. There’s still a lot of road left to cover, but Daredevil has started confidently and built itself a strong enough base that it feels unlikely it will stumble in the episodes yet to come.