Photo: Iron Fist (Netflix)

“We know a nurse.”

Are there four more comforting words in the world of a Netflix Defenders series? Not that I’m aware of. Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple has managed to be the most consistently great thing about Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, and she continues that streak with Iron Fist. Her debut instantly injects some much-needed life into the series and helps contribute to its best episode yet. Indeed, across the board “Under Leaf Pluck Lotus” provides a refreshing sense of purpose and forward-momentum to the series. And that’s a welcome relief after Iron Fist’s slow start.

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As a TV critic, it’s my job to review the TV show that exists on my screen, not the one I wish existed. Yet throughout the first chunk of this season, I couldn’t help but feel that Iron Fist would be an infinitely more enjoyable series if it featured just a little more comedy. And, to be fair, I think there was comedy in those early scripts, it just somehow wound up getting lost in translation during production. Danny’s return to modern New York society has an almost George Of The Jungle-like comedic quality about, but the show’s self-serious tone left little room to play up that humor.

Yet Rosario Dawson instantly and effortlessly nails that comedic quality as Claire happily crashes Danny and Colleen’s impromptu takeout date. Like so much in comedy, it’s really just a matter of degrees; Danny’s chat with Claire isn’t so different from the ones he’s had with Joy, Ward, and Colleen. But the rhythm of the scene and the constant return to Dawson’s amazing reaction shots allow the humor to come to life in a way it hasn’t before. Though the dinner scene acknowledges the tragedy in Danny’s upbringing (and Dawson nails Claire’s more empathetic side as well), it also makes him the butt of the joke in a funny, humanizing way. His earnest explanation of his vow of chastity demonstrates just how out of touch Danny is with the social norms of American culture, which in turn makes him more endearing. And it’s just a funny gag in its own right.

And it’s not just Dawson’s scenes that work. Writer Cristine Chambers (one of the show’s two female writers) threads that more lighthearted, comedic tone throughout the episode, like Ward flipping off his entire office because he doesn’t know where his dad hid secret cameras. And a little humor goes a long way to making all of these characters more enjoyable to watch. (Looking back, the reason I liked Harold Meachum so much in those first two episodes is because he was the only character allowed to be vaguely funny.)

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I’m also happy to report that Finn Jones turns in his strongest performance yet thanks to a script that emphasizes the parts of Danny he’s best at playing. Jones’ version of Danny works better as an earnest, almost Captain America-like do-gooder, rather than a dickish Tony Stark or a brooding Bruce Wayne. And Chambers’ script centers on that earnest puppy dog quality rather than asking Jones to pull off huge emotional shifts. Just having Danny actively articulate how lost he feels in the modern world helps Jones lock into a performance he wasn’t able to when that quality remained solely subtextual. Plus Danny’s nunchaku display is the most impressive-looking thing Jones has done so far action-wise, even though, admittedly, that isn’t the highest bar.

One odd side effect of the more lighthearted script, however, is that Colleen kind of feels like a slightly different character than the surly one we’ve come to know and love. In particular her giddy, breathless reaction to Danny showing up at her dojo felt like it came out of nowhere. But, again, it’s humanizing to see Jessica Henwick portray a slightly softer Colleen (which still isn’t all that soft). And it’s refreshing to see Danny actually get an ally after so much time spent butting heads with people. Colleen’s experience in the cage fights has made her realize her desire for action and violence exceeds the bounds of a normal martial arts instructor. And that action junkie vibe is one of the things she and Danny bond over in a charming and flirtatious sequence where they show off their fighting styles, including Danny’s aforementioned nunchaku abilities and Colleen’s as well.

Director Uta Briesewitz (one of the show’s three female directors) also brings a refreshing sense of heightened style to the episode, which she immediately establishes in a glossy intro that follows three sexy pharmaceutical reps as they peddle the Hand’s heroin to both legal and illegal distributers. Briesewitz’s directorial style carries over into the episode’s action scenes as well, which come in a bunch of different forms, from the flirty Danny/Colleen sparring match to the similarly flirty but more tense pier recon mission to the genuinely harrowing truck fight. As I’ve mentioned before, a little visual panache goes a long way towards helping me forgive an episode’s weak spots, and that’s exactly what Iron Fist was missing at the beginning of the season.

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It also helps that “Under Leaf Pluck Lotus” finally gets Iron Fist’s plot rolling in a major way, starting with the reveal of why the oft-mentioned pier is such a valuable piece of real estate. Though I assumed it would be the connection to a mystical portal or something, it’s actually just the port of entry for a strain of synthetic heroin that’s powerful enough to give even hardened junkies a “first time” high. The Hand presumably plan to use the sale of that heroin to fund whatever mystical mumbo-jumbo they were up to in Daredevil season two. But what they weren’t counting on is Danny, Colleen, and Claire, who first rescue and then save the life of the imprisoned Russian chemist who designed the drug in the first place.

The Hand have always been just a little too abstract of a villain to work in the way these Defenders shows want them too. But Claire’s horrified reaction upon learning of the chemist’s connection to the organization does the best job yet of selling the true terror of The Hand. (Once again, leave it to Rosario Dawson to singlehandedly elevate a Defenders series through sheer force of will.) And proof of The Hand’s involvement gives Danny a concrete goal for the rest of the season: Take down the one enemy he was raised to destroy—the enemy he wasn’t even sure actually existed until now.

“I know I’m not the best businessman, and I don’t think I’ll be the CEO my father was,” Danny admits. “But this? I’ve been training my whole life for this. This is the one thing I know I can do better than anyone else. I am the only one who can defeat them.” It’s the sort of monologue that would’ve made me roll my eyes earlier in the season. But thanks to a solid episode and Jones’ best performance yet, I’m actually kinda sorta willing to go with him.

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“Let’s get down to business / To defeat The Hand!”

Stray observations

  • Elsewhere, Ward and Joy continue to do Ward and Joy things like screw over cancer-ridden children (Joy), almost overdose on drugs (Ward), and have each other’s backs no matter what. Also while I like to joke around in my captions, Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup have done a really great job creating a relationship that feels intimate but not sexual, which can be surprisingly tricky for actors playing brother/sister duos to pull off.
  • Who exactly is the big Madame Gao reveal for? Those who watched Daredevil almost certainly already recognized her from her voice and silhouette. And for those who didn’t watch Daredevil, she’s just a random person they’ve never seen before.
  • I think it’s supposed to be roguishly charming, but Danny purchasing Colleen’s building was super creepy to me. There’s a weird “I own your livelihood now” quality to it that feels more like coercion than the show means it to.
  • Apparently this is what “takeout” looks like when you’re a billionaire.
  • Danny sure does take a lot of punches for someone who once chastised Colleen for allowing herself to get hit in a fight.
  • “He punched through solid metal with his bare hands.” “His hands? Are you sure it wasn’t his fist?” “Why do you have to be so goddamn literal about everything? That’s clearly what I meant.”
  • I’ll leave you with this:

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