This is the review for the fourth episode of The Defenders. To discuss subsequent episodes or the series as a whole, please visit our Spoiler Space.
Teams are made up of people who want to be there. Imagine being forced to work alongside people you didn’t know, didn’t trust, and didn’t particularly want to be around. (If your parents imposed childhood sports on you, you may have some familiarity with this hypothetical.) Now imagine having abilities that meant the wrong decision didn’t just lead to bad consequences for you, but potentially fatal implications for anyone in the vicinity. Now add a heaping helping of childhood baggage, emotional trauma, or outright pessimism. That’s the situation the Defenders are in. Each of them has a good reason to go it alone. If they can manage to set aside even one tenth of their issues over the course of a single night, that’s a win by any measure.
“Royal Dragon” is a bottle episode of sorts, an opportunity to lock our heroes in a room together and not let them out until they’ve come to some kind of understanding. And with the exception of Ms. Jones, each one manages to hang tough, setting aside their skepticism and unease—even if it’s just for the sake of their own cause, as Luke tells Jessica—in order to learn enough about the Hand to figure out what they’re up against. Of course, by the end of the hour, they needn’t have worried about getting a sense of the enemy. The enemy shows up in person, with Alexandra appearing in order to offer Danny a deal: Come quietly with her, and everyone else lives. Really, this was little more than a chance to gather more intel for her side; given how little the four fighters trust even Stick, there’s almost no way Alexandra wouldn’t have known her offer would be rebuffed. But now she’s seen everyone up close, and gotten a sense of their personalities. Luke may not have given her a name, but she doesn’t need one. She saw the dynamic at work within the Royal Dragon restaurant, and that’s the kind of information that will help her determine just how the Hand will retaliate. If Stick didn’t throw a dinner knife through her neck, it’s probably not for want of desire.
Still, part of what adds momentum to this episode is how much the series is underlining Alexandra’s ticking clock. She’s dying, and her immaculate outfits and endless wraps increasingly look like symbolic efforts to ward off the coming mortality she told Elektra she never wants to face again. We still don’t know exactly what the master plan is, but it must have something to do with Alex’s impending demise, as she risks potential violence to enter the Royal Dragon and offer Danny a deal. She’s counting on something to happen that will allow her to avoid her fate, and even with Black Sky doing her bidding, these people pose a threat to her goals. It’s why she sells Elektra on the idea of her new life being some proto-feminist means of shaking off old and unhealthy allegiances. It echoes in the very motto that drives her and the other leaders of the hand: “Together, we serve life itself.” It’s a slogan that’s true, in a way: It just doesn’t specify whose lives.
Stick unveils the history of the Hand tonight, and it not only helps explain all those bodies Danny and Colleen kept stumbling across (The Chaste, a group sworn to uphold the ideals of K’un Lun and fight the Hand, of whom Stick is the sole surviving member), it gives us a brief but sufficient reveal of the identities of the other major players in this struggle. Madame Gao, Bakuto (R.I.P.), and White Hat—a.k.a. Sowande—are all the original heretics of K’un Lun who prized immortality over peace, and who have followed Alexandra throughout the centuries, striving to attain the power to preserve their endless lives. The fifth and final member of the Hand is someone we meet in this episode, Murakami: His conversation with Alexandra suggests he might be the deadliest of all of them, and his casual disemboweling of the bear during their talk conveys the impression of a man not impressed by her leadership. He always expected they would “reunite” one day, as he tells her, implying the Hand is somewhat less of a hive mind than might be expected. That’s not necessarily a good thing for our heroes.
But despite being another installment of all talk and no punch, “Royal Dragon” is a solid episode, mostly because the rough-and-tumble sparring is still present; it merely transitioned to the verbal realm. The banter flies fast here, and everyone gets a clearly defined point of view and perspective that helps keep this from devolving into an endless round of to-team-or-not-to-team. Danny, the eager puppy dog, is obviously the one rooting for a superhero squad to take on the Hand, his single-minded drive to take down the organization being the guiding principle that defines his behavior. The others are varied in their responses, but all have a sense of caution and limited sphere of action in which they see themselves operating. Stick might be an asshole, but he’s also right: Unless they understand the magnitude of the threat (“I’m the guy that’s gonna help you save New York”), they won’t commit fully. So he talks about history’s catastrophes—Chernobyl and so on—as the coverups for the Hand that no one realizes, hoping against hope that all of them, even resentful Matt and rebellious Jessica, will join the cause.
Luke, as usual, probably has the best take on it all. He’s totally skeptical about all this superstitious hokum (check out his great eye-roll when Danny stoically announces to the others that he is “the immortal Iron Fist”), but he wants to keep his neighborhood and his people safe, and that means learning as much as he can about the Hand, and if necessary, teaming up with this clueless but good-hearted billionaire to make that happen. Matt, by contrast, has personal beef with Stick, and makes no bones about wanting out; until Jessica makes him see reason, he’s not even willing to remove the scarf covering his face. But once he learns more of the danger, and has a one-on-one with Stick about Elektra in which he voices the possibility she might not be completely lost to them, he’s willing to put his well-earned suspicion on hold to bring down the latest threat to those he loves. And Jessica, well, what did you expect? She says “fuck you” to the whole thing until she goes and confirms it for herself, with some old-fashioned detective work that shows someone (Alexandra, obviously) has been assuming different identities throughout the years. Also, she beats down a goon sent to monitor Michelle Raymond’s house, and then hits Elektra/Black Sky with a car for good measure. It’s a nice reinforcement of Danny’s assessment of her at the beginning of the episode: “Whoa, she is very strong.”
It ends on a cliffhanger, but everything that needed to happen, happened in this Chinese restaurant. Everyone revealed their histories—or at least enough to satisfy the curiosity of their fellow super-powered allies—and once Jessica rejoins them all in the line at the conclusion, the Defenders are ready to be a team. “Don’t use that word,” Luke warns Danny, but it’s too late: They may go their separate ways once the showdown with the Hand is over, but these four will be in each others’ lives from now on, for better and worse. And occasionally, just because it’s hilarious.
- This series is single-handedly salvaging Danny Rand in a way that seemed almost impossible by the end of his solo series, just by leaning into the idea that the character is meant to be the Noble Idiot, someone who endears themselves to us by dint of embracing all those dunder-headed traits Iron Fist season one often tried to pretend didn’t exist. Stick: “The immortal Iron Fist is still a thundering dumbass.”
- On a related note, Luke and Danny’s conversation at the dinner table has actually sold me on the idea of a series based on a partnership between the two somewhere down the line. They’re like a perfect mismatched buddy-cop dynamic at this point. How about it, Netflix?
- “Are those pork?” “No, they’re shrimp…Oh, that guy’s got pork.”
- Nice easter egg for any Elektra fans, as she re-enters the weapons room and eyeballs the Okinawan sai.
- Jessica is sick and tired of people busting out martial-arts moves on her. “Am I the only one left that doesn’t know karate?!”
- I will admit, it seems very unlikely Elektra would let herself be hit by a car like that. Even that half-second of warning would’ve been enough.
- Hero of the episode: Danny Rand, for managing to get Luke Cage to smile and share an appetizer with him, and for continuing to shake the sour taste of his solo series by becoming the naive, comic-relief version of himself he always should have been.