There are a lot of upsides to Daredevil’s return to the tone, characters, and plot points of the show’s first season. But there’s one big downside too: If, like me, you watched that season over the course of three days back in April 2015, it can be kind of hard to remember what happened in it. Granted, that’s not going to be a problem for everyone. Some people will have better memories than mine, while others will have watched or rewatched the series more recently. But given how thunderously unsubtle Daredevil is when it comes to exploring theme and character, I’m not sure why it’s so hesitant to do a little more handholding when it comes to reminding its audience about the major plotlines from season one. Because when it’s not transforming into an artsy student film (we’ll get to that), “The Perfect Game” serves as a fascinating counterpoint to much of what happened in Daredevil’s first season.
Season one centered on Matt’s indecision about how best to go after Wilson Fisk—by taking him down as lawyer Matt Murdock or by killing him as vigilante Daredevil. Now Fisk is facing a similar struggle. In the last episode, Fisk tried to use his criminal kingpin connections to have Matt killed during his prison visit. Since that failed, Fisk is now using his position as a trusted FBI informant to take down Matt through legal channels instead. He tells Agent Nadeem that Matt was a corrupt lawyer who worked on his payroll. And while that part is a lie, it sends Nadeem on an investigation that could eventually uncover Matt’s double life as a superhero vigilante.
Elsewhere, one of the episode’s strongest subplots is the idea of the chickens coming home to roost for Karen and Foggy. I can’t say I particularly cared about Karen’s investigation into Fisk’s finances or Foggy’s DA campaign, but I really like the idea of forcing them to contend with everything they’ve been involved with over the past two seasons. I’ve always found it bizarre that Daredevil had Karen murder Wesley way back in the eleventh episode of season one and then basically never mentioned it again. But the extended delay pays off in a big way in the scene in which Foggy tries to white knight for Karen only to learn she has far, far more skeletons in her closest than he ever imagined. Of course, that payoff only lands if you remember all the Wesley stuff from season one. (Personally, I remembered the fact that Karen had killed him, but I’d totally forgotten the early stuff where Wesley hired Nelson & Murdock to defend John Healy—the guy who murdered someone with a bowling ball and then eventually killed himself with a spike to the head.)
For the most part, however, this almost entirely Matt-free hour is all about Daredevil’s villains. Specifically, it’s about our new villain, Benjamin Poindexter a.k.a. Bullseye, a name I think I can drop now even though I’m never quite sure where the “spoiler” line lies when it comes to comic book adaptations. In addition to taking down Matt, Fisk sets a second plan in motion as well. If he wants to rebuild his criminal empire from within the Presidential Hotel (which he now owns, apparently), he needs to draw the public’s attention away from him and onto someone else. So he sets about shaping a new villain to distract them.
That core concept—and the highly relevant insight about how easily people are distracted from social woes—is interesting enough that it allowed me to forgive a lot of wonkiness in this episode’s Dex storyline. For one thing, there are The Most Convenient Therapy Recordings Of All Time, which just happen to exist for a man who just happens to have been put on Fisk duty. And then there’s the highly stylized way this episode chooses to bring those tapes to life. For 15 minutes, “The Perfect Game” becomes an artsy black and white student film in which Dex’s troubled life theatrically unfolds in front of Fisk’s eyes. As someone with a high tolerance for stylized storytelling, I didn’t totally hate it. But I didn’t totally love it either. Mostly, I find it really strange that this season of Daredevil keeps introducing these new stylistic elements that only seem to last for a single episode (remember when Matt was talking to Fantasy Fisk?). There’s definitely a feeling of this season throwing a whole bunch of storytelling conceits against the wall and trying to see what sticks.
As for Dex’s story itself, like many things in Daredevil it’s built on a lazy foundation of clichés and yet elevated by some interesting details and a great performance from Wilson Bethel. For whatever pseudo-scientific reason this show wants to cook up (orphaned at a young age, mental health issues, etc.), Dex never developed a sense of empathy or an ability to tell right from wrong. He murdered his beloved baseball coach for benching him during a game and threatened to do the same to his beloved therapist in order to punish her for contracting a fatal disease. Her dying advice to teenage Dex is to find a moral “north star” to guide his suggestible nature, which is why he’s been stalking Julie, who he knew from his time working at a suicide prevention hotline. The most interesting thing about all that backstory is how it recontextualizes Dex’s present day behavior. Now that we know his therapist explicitly taught him to say “that must be hard for you” when someone mentions a hardship, it’s really unnerving to watch him drop it in casual conversation—which he does before botching his first date with Julie.
What makes Dex so interesting and so terrifying is the fact that he’s been able to mask his core psychopathy with a structured life that allows for occasional bursts of FBI-sanctioned violence. It’s a smart commentary on the way that people—but especially attractive white men—are able to take advantage of positions of authority as outlets for their dark natures. Dex’s childhood trauma is also a fascinating foil for Fisk’s own childhood trauma, which, again, was a big part of season one that the show wants you to remember without much hand holding. As a kid, Fisk murdered his abusive father and then worked with his mother to chop up the body and dispose of it. That’s a dark, twisted, rage-filled story that’s similar to, but also different than Dex’s. Superhero stories are often strongest when their heroes and villains mirror each other in some way. In addition to doing that, Daredevil’s third season also offers two villains who mirror each other as well. That leaves lots of thematic potential for the season to explore over its next eight episodes.
- I wish genre TV shows and movies would stop labeling their villains with real-world personality disorders and mental health conditions (Dex’s therapist notes that he has Borderline Personality Disorder in addition to psychopathic tendencies). It doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the character and only further stigmatizes real people with the same conditions.
- Until this episode I definitely didn’t realize that Matt had never been declared dead. That makes all his recent secretive behavior (including his decision to pose as Foggy at the prison rather than just going as himself) seem really bizarre.
- Karen tracks down Fisk’s “fixer” Felix Manning, who turns the tables on her by dredging up her old demons. He also implies that her brother Kevin was a drug addict, which factored into his death.
- This episode references Bullseye’s comic book look by placing a bullseye logo on young Dex’s baseball cap. Clever.
- Probably the most interesting moment in Dex’s clichéd backstory was the calm way his therapist handled teenage Dex’s threat of violence. Heidi Armbruster turns in a great performance in a small but memorable role.
- Another student film moment: The dramatic spinning camera that indicates Dex’s carefully manicured world is falling apart.
- “I brought an audiobook.”