Photo: Anna Kooris (Netflix)

There are two different ways to look at this episode. One, obviously, is as an episode of Daredevil’s ongoing third season. The other is as an episode that has to tie together all of the ominous hints about Karen Page’s troubled backstory that have been dropped across multiple seasons by multiple writers working under multiple showrunners. Through that second lens, I’d say “Karen” is mostly a success. What we learn about Karen in this extended flashback to her youth complicates what we know about her, yet also feels apiece with both the character as we know her today and with the various plot threads that have been left dangling over the years. That’s no small feat, especially because I’m not entirely sure any of those earlier writers actually knew what they were hinting at with Karen’s past darkness. As an episode in its own right, however, “Karen” has some pretty big flaws. That leaves me in the position of admiring its effort rather than totally loving it.

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The biggest problem with “Karen” is that it has to cram so much story into just one episode that it escalates things way too quickly. The flashback to Karen’s post-high-school Vermont life takes up 30 minutes of this 46-minute episode, but it has a lot of ground to cover. It at least starts with a strong setup: When she’s not sexy dancing at frat parties to help her boyfriend sell coke, Karen’s singlehandedly managing the logistics of her family’s diner, which has been slowly falling into disrepair since her mother died of cancer. I really like the decision to make teenage (twenty-something?) Karen a mix of youthful indiscretion and grownup maturity. That feels far more honest and complex than having her fall on just one side or the other.Writer Tamara Becher-Wilkinson brings a similar nuance to Karen’s relationship with her father. Like his daughter, Paxton Page (Lee Tergesen) is a complex character who’s hard to pin down as anyone thing. He’s harsh towards Karen when she shows up late to work, naïve in his decision to buy an expensive grill when his business is failing, but then also really kind and supportive of the idea of Karen going to college. Even Todd, Karen’s drug-dealing boyfriend, gets some welcome complexity. He may be encouraging her to join him in his illegal career path, but for the most part he comes across as a pretty emotionally supportive guy (at least at first).

Unfortunately, the episode can’t find the same nuance for the character that needs it the most—Karen’s brother Kevin (Jack DiFalco). He’s introduced as a kind of idealized younger brother who just wants what’s best for his sister. And then all of the sudden he’s burning down Todd’s house, Todd is beating him up, Karen is waving a gun around, and we’re in the middle of a fatal car accident. The idea of cramming all those chaotic events into one tragic night isn’t bad—indeed, the fact that she was trying to save her brother’s life both makes it Karen’s fault and not her fault that she was driving drunk and high when Kevin was killed. But you can also feel the episode working backwards to try to incorporate all the things that have been mention in previous seasons—like the fact that killing Wesley wasn’t the first time Karen ever shot someone. To have Karen believably and semi-sympathetically shoot someone, the episode decides to have her do it in self-defense of her brother, which means Todd has to be on the verge of killing Kevin, which means Kevin has to do something that would really, really piss off Todd. So suddenly Kevin and Todd are both acting supremely out of character to justify the whole scenario.

The initial half of the flashback, Deborah Ann Woll’s strong performance throughout, and the final, cold conversation between Karen and her dad are strong enough that the episode isn’t a total disaster, but the actual depiction of the night of Kevin’s death is pretty disappointing. Given that “Karen” ends with a big present day fight scene that also feels like a massive escalation, I wonder if it would’ve been better to devote this whole episode to the flashback and save the Faux Daredevil attack for the next episode. That would’ve given the flashback more time to breathe and would’ve stopped “Karen” from feeling like an episode with two climaxes.

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Because even though it only takes up about 15 minutes of screentime, there’s a lot to unpack in Dex’s attack on the church, not least of all because it features the death of Father Lantom. The show gives Peter McRobbie a last moment to shine in Lantom’s lovely basement scene with Karen as well as in his final sermon, but his death is a palpable loss for the series, especially because he and Matt were on such bad terms when it happened. From an in-world perspective, I have no idea why Dex doesn’t use a gun during this attack, but given real-world events maybe that’s for the best. Even without a gun, however, the attack is still a horrific, terrifying sequence that in no way feels like a “fun” action setpiece. I’m hoping Daredevil has a purposeful story it wants to tell with that rather than just delving into darkness for darkness’ sake.


Stray observations

  • We else initially thought Todd was Karen’s brother and panicked when they started making out?
  • I’ve very confused by the conversation Karen had with the Heiresses Of Manhattan star in which she claimed that small-town gossip unfairly placed the blame on her for Kevin’s death. I guess she was just lying?
  • Fisk tells Dex that he thought of Wesley “like a son,” which is not at all how I would’ve characterized their relationship. If anything, I feel like Wesley was more paternal towards Fisk than Fisk ever was to him. Maybe Fisk was just saying that to further manipulate Dex.
  • Karen whispering her plan knowing that Matt could hear it from far away was a great use of his abilities and her strategic planning.
  • I laughed for about five minutes at the shot of Dex casually sitting in the passenger seat in his full-on Daredevil costume. I’m not sure if that’s what the episode wanted.
  • Ahh, yes, in times of fear and unrest there’s nothing more comforting than a church bathed in ominous red lighting!

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