This is the review for the fifth episode of The Defenders. To discuss subsequent episodes or the series as a whole, please visit our Spoiler Space.
It’s easy to take life for granted. Not in the thoughtless, everyday sense in which we all assume we’re going to keep breathing for the foreseeable future, and therefore ignore all the roses we should be stopping and smelling, but the particulars of our individual lives. The histories and stories that give our identities meaning—these are the elements that don’t amount to much, unless they suddenly disappear. She doesn’t talk about it much, but Colleen Wing had her entire world pulled out from under her. As she tells Claire, everything she thought she knew was upended, and the foundation that gave her life purpose and clarity was destroyed, taking who she believed herself to be with it in the process. Now, she just wants something stable. And on an episode of The Defenders that finally has something resembling a theme, almost everyone is looking for their version of the same thing—some security, something reliable, a reason to believe and a place (or person) in which to put their trust. We don’t all have a Claire to assure us, “You are the foundation.”
No one feels this more keenly than Elektra Natchios, a.k.a. the Black Sky. Murakami is right—she isn’t the vessel they were promised, a blank slate of a killing machine who will serve the Hand without question. Something from her old life carried over into this one, and Matt Murdock managed to bring it to the surface. For all of Alexandra’s reassurances that the Black Sky is her entire purpose, that the old life was a weak and failed one, and she’s been given a second chance to do better, there’s something inside that still feels as Elektra did, only without understanding or meaning. (Plus, kindly embraces seem less effective when they’re immediately followed up with threats to kill you if you fail to serve your purpose.) It must be an awful feeling, bereft of the consciousness of why you feel as you do, yet impelled toward something that might give your suddenly very lonely life a real connection. For all the Hand’s control, the Black Sky can still choose her fate. Even if it leaves her all alone.
“Take Shelter” follows our heroes as they try to keep the ones they love safe, while simultaneously struggling to learn more about their predicament—and hopefully, find a way out of it. At least, that’s what Jessica wants. She continues to be frustrated by the notion that there’s anything more to this than her case, that she’s inextricably bound up in a centuries-old struggle between forces far bigger than any of them. And like the rest of them, she’s pissed that Matt was keeping a secret of his relationship to the mysterious woman kicking their asses. Jessica has trust issues, for obvious reasons, and Stick and Matt did no favors to the group’s stability by hiding the fact of Elektra’s past from everyone. It’s the kind of lunkheaded maneuver these people pull all too often, not telling people what they need to know out of some misguided need to maintain secrecy. Especially if you oppose Stick’s “let’s kill her” plan, it might be wise to let everyone else in on your hopes: “Hey guys, you know that woman who keeps trying to stab us all? Nobody throw her through a wall or anything, okay? She’s kind of a friend.” At least now everyone is clear about the Hand’s powers of resurrection, and their goal of continued immortality.
Part of what works in this episode is finally taking a little time to catch up with all of our supporting characters, in order to remind everyone there’s a broader world here, with people in it who give heft and nuance to the ins and outs of our protagonists’ psyches. As a result, we don’t just get Karen resignedly going with Matt after learning she’s in danger. We also get her too-brief reunion with Foggy. Similarly, Misty doesn’t just have a fleeting powwow with Luke; she also gets a conversation with Colleen, and even returns her sword. And Trish and Malcolm spend a little quality time together, wondering just how many of the disparate plot threads they’re aware of are connected. It’s a bit haphazard, but the scenes help ground all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo, and maintain the pragmatic reality of a city populated by idiosyncratic folks worth defending. It’s too bad everyone who ends up in the police station thinks they have to keep their lips sealed about their relationship to their respective superhero; not only would it make for great conservation if they were suddenly told why there were there and because of who, but they could probably all benefit from starting a “friends of superheroes” support group together.
While there was action aplenty in this installment, it was a bit more disjointed than the ace fight choreography we saw in “Worst Behavior.” After a terrific opening that called back to Alexandra’s love of Brahms’ 1st by highlighting the various leaders of the Hand descending upon the Royal Dragon set to the fourth movement of that symphony, the battle was fragmented and sometimes hampered by abrupt cuts or strangely edited sequences, like Sowande literally vanishing as he gets into the car after setting up Luke to be hit by the truck. There were still some nice moments (Jessica clocking Madame Gao, Elektra flinging Murakami into the side of the building after Matt gets to her), but it wasn’t consistent.
The smaller subsequent fight scenes fared better, focusing on shorter but more smoothly executed sequences. Danny dispatching the goons in the alley was good, and Jessica’s encounter with Murakami at the restaurant was better still, as the show paired Daredevil (back in full costume!) with her, allowing them to play off one another as they fought him off. Matt took the full brunt of the martial arts assault while Jessica hung back and waited for the moments to step in with a thunderous punch, a good foil for their respective talents, and a team-up that played to their strengths much the way the Danny/Luke tag-team at Midland used their abilities in tandem.
There were two reveals in this episode, one intriguing, the other less so. The latter was the return of Bakuto, apparently resurrected after his death at the hands of Davos during the second-to-last episode of Iron Fist. After a brief and odd attempt to get Colleen to rejoin his cause, only to then slice her open and try to kill her before Luke stops him, he heads back to Hand HQ, where they negate all the “mortal enemies” bad blood between him and Madame Gao that drove the plot in that series with a wave of the hands and a clunky, “Just kidding! We’re always on the same side.” They’ve alluded to the fact that the various members of the Hand have squabbled, but it still seems a bit weird these immortal partners would have literally imprisoned one another.
But let’s not linger on that somewhat bizarre justification, because the better twist was seeing the Hand’s top lieutenants start to turn on their leader. Alexandra had put all her Machiavellian eggs in the Black Sky basket, and it backfired on her. We don’t know where “home” is, but we know the others want to get there still breathing, and they no longer think she’s the best one to determine how to achieve that. (Sowande and his severed head would probably agree.) The most likely scenario is that the wall Gao referenced in episode two is blocking their access to this home, and only the Iron Fist can knock it down, thereby allowing them to return. We can probably assume that wouldn’t be good for New York City. But who will lead them in this fight, if not Alexandra?
Someone has to make the tough choices, as the Defenders are learning. Stick may want Matt to lead the group, but when he returns in full Daredevil costume, ready to yank some answers out of Sowande, all he succeeds in doing is losing his temper and then admitting he’s been keeping secrets from everyone. Not the most auspicious start to his commitment to this group. So Stick does what he always does—kill the bad guy, do the thing no wants else wants to or will—and makes the decision for them. The Defenders need to figure out how to fight this battle, and quick. They don’t know it, but they’ve only got three episodes left.
- Consider me officially intrigued by Bakuto’s comment to Gao: “Just because I don’t blind my disciples…” That better not be the last we hear about how they choose disciples, and what it might mean about certain characters.
- Hero of the episode: This one goes to Luke. Not only does he capture Sowande, but he again gets the best exchange with Danny that earns a laugh when Matt shows off his toy by wrapping the cord around Sowande’s throat. Danny: “That’s so cool.” Luke [shrugging]: “It’s kinda cool.”
- I understand wanting to show Colleen’s inner turmoil, but if her inexplicable and out-of-character rant to Danny in the car about suddenly not wanting allies was some ham-fisted attempt to convey that conflict, it didn’t work.
- “That dude was for sure dead last time we saw him, right? Okay, just checking.”
- That was a lot of time spent setting up Sowande as a nefarious mastermind (the whole story about being captured previously) only to decapitate him by episode’s end. Stick isn’t a fan of narrative build-up, I guess.
- “The scarf looked better. Nice ears.” “They’re horns.” Season two of Jessica Jones can’t get here soon enough.