Photo: Iron Fist (Netflix)

Halfway through this episode I started planning a jokey intro to this review in which I was going to talk about the shocking return of a compelling character only to reveal I was talking about Kyle, not Harold. But after finishing “The Mistress Of All Agonies,” that silly intro just doesn’t feel appropriate anymore. Kyle’s death is one of the most genuinely unsettling things in any of these Defenders shows. It’s not the bloodiest murder we’ve seen, but the way sweet little Kyle has time to beg for his life while having his skull bashed in with an ice cream scoop is deeply, deeply upsetting—arguably too much so for the tone of this series. But it does raise the stakes of Harold’s villainy. Killing Hatchet Men and Hand lackeys is one thing. Brutally murdering sweet, sweet Kyle takes Harold to a whole new level.

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“The Mistress Of All Agonies” is an episode that centers first and foremost on Iron Fist’s villains. Harold returns from the dead and slowly begins reacclimatizing to human life. Madame Gao plays mind games with Danny, Claire, and Colleen. And Ward—in as much as he can be considered a full-on villain—continues the slow process of unraveling, which he’s been going through since Danny’s return upset the equilibrium of his life.

But “The Mistress Of All Agonies” also highlights one of Iron Fist’s biggest problems with its villains. Though Harold, Madame Gao, and Ward are three of the show’s most interesting characters (and David Wenham, Wai Ching Ho, and Tom Pelphrey three of its best performers), Iron Fist lacks a central antagonist around which to anchor the series. A big part of what made Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage so great was their hugely compelling villains. And one of the reasons the second half of Luke Cage and Daredevil’s second season fell apart is because they lost track of a central antagonizing force. Iron Fist never had one to begin with, and that’s why the show still feels like it hasn’t really gotten its plot rolling nine episodes into a 13-episode season.

Though it has some interesting ideas at its core, the problem with “The Mistress Of All Agonies” is that it’s just kind of boring. Writer Jet Wilkinson does probably the best job yet of crafting realistic-sounding Iron Fist dialogue, but the show’s characters just aren’t deep enough to sustain a quieter, more psychological episode like this one. We’ve seen so many of Iron Fist’s building blocks done better in other superhero properties that the shows starts to fall apart when it doesn’t have any pizazz to distract from its shallowness. For instance, it feels like Danny has daddy issues not because that’s something organic to his story, but because daddy issues are a thing every single contemporary superhero has to grapple with in one way or another. The show even has Claire, Colleen, and Madame Gao openly call him out on the pointlessness of his obsession with his father’s connection to The Hand, which, unfortunately, doesn’t make that obsession feel any less pointless.

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There’s also Gao’s “I’m going to pinpoint my enemies’ psychological weaknesses and use those against them” shtick, which has also been done to death in superhero properties, not to mention beautifully subverted by Marvel back in The Avengers. So though Wai Ching Ho, Rosario Dawson, and Jessica Henwick bring what they can to the material, it just feels like reheated leftovers. When practical Claire is the one who casually brings up truth serum as a strategy, you know the show has gone off the rails. And once it’s revealed Madame Gao is immune to the truth serum anyway, it’s painfully clear that the episode is just spinning its wheels.

Instead of action or excitement, intrigue and setup are the name of the game, particularly when it comes to Colleen. Whatever side she’s on, she’s clearly not just the simple martial arts instructor she claims to be. The most intriguing scene of the episode is the one where Colleen’s friend/sensei Bakuto talks Danny through using his Iron Fist powers to burn off the poison in her blood. Of all the questions swirling around this series, the uncertainty over whose side Colleen and Bakuto are on in this mystical war is probably the one that intrigues me the most.

It’s also a scene that makes me long for the series Iron Fist might’ve been—a series about Danny learning to use his Iron Fist powers to their true extent. Starting the show by presenting Danny as one of the best martial arts masters in the world only to slowly, frustratingly walk back that claim has led to a disjointed season and an unlikable protagonist. The Bakuto scene proves how much more engaging it is to watch Danny learn and grow, not just make stubborn, petulant declarations.

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“But where did my fist go?”

The other standout scene is the one where Ward discovers his father is alive, mostly thanks to Tom Pelphrey’s brilliant choice to underplay all of Ward’s reactions. Harold’s Frankenstein’s monster-like return from the dead straddles the line between silly and eerie, but in a way that mostly works for me. Harold’s always existed on a more heightened plane than the rest of Iron Fist, which makes the slight campiness of his story work in a way it didn’t when Danny was battling a sexy spider lady.

Throughout the episode, Harold has to slowly rebuild his understanding of the world, from his name to the very concept of food. And it seems he’s left a good chunk of his humanity back in the world of the dead, which is what allows him to murder Kyle during an almost out-of-body experience. But in addition to his newfound brutality, Harold’s also immediately up to his old tricks again too. For one thing, he stops Ward from running off to start a new life by having his son committed to the psych ward for drug addiction. With Ward trapped in a catch-22 (in order to explain that his father framed him, he has to explain that his father rose from the dead, which just makes him sound crazy), Harold turns his sights on Joy. Perhaps the Harold/Joy combo will finally give Iron Fist the antagonizing force it needs to kick into high gear. Until then, let’s pour out some melted vanilla ice cream for our sweet, sweet fallen prince.

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Stray observations

  • Dear readers, I wish you could’ve heard the frustrated yelp I let out upon realizing that Danny, Claire, Colleen, and Gao were back at Colleen’s dojo, thereby making last episode’s trip to low-budget China entirely superfluous. Also did they all just sit in awkward silence during the entire 12-hour plane ride back?
  • We’re introduced (though not by name) to a mysterious new character who seems to be stalking Danny. Here’s hoping that whoever he is, he has some kind of Magneto-like ability to control metal because there’s no way even the most powerful ninja can simply fold a piece of aluminum foil into a deadly throwing star.
  • I wanted to chastise Joy and Colleen for not realizing Colleen was almost certainly poisoned during her fight with Chinese guard. On the other hand, it didn’t occur to me either, so I guess I can’t be too mad at them.
  • Do you think that hot dog vendor kept selling those hot dogs even after Harold stuck his swamp hand in them?
  • What Gao actually said, “I spent most of the 17th century being interrogated.” How my brain finished that sentence when she started speaking, “I spent most of the ’70s getting high on truth serum.”
  • I feel like we’ve pretty much followed him since his return to New York so when did Danny do this photo shoot?

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