Photo: Iron Fist (Netflix)

On a character and storytelling level, the last eight minutes of this episode (Danny and Davos’ conversation in the car and Danny and Colleen’s confrontation in the rain) are perhaps the best Iron Fist has ever been. They offer a more human, relatable version of Danny, and they inject some much-needed genuine human emotion into what has been a fairly stilted season of TV. Unfortunately, the episode leading up to those final eight minutes is kind of a slog. And charming though she may be, even the return of Claire Temple isn’t enough to jazz it up.

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If there’s one thing “Lead Horse Back To Stable” clarifies, it’s just how psychologically damaged Danny is. As Davos explains to Claire, K’un-Lun’s philosophy on dealing with emotions is more “bottle them up” than “talk it out.” And Claire points out to Danny that his harsh upbringing in K’un-Lun never gave him the chance to emotionally process the trauma of both seeing his parents killed and being ripped away from the world he knew. Instead of processing that pain, Danny sought to squelch it by giving his life purpose as the Iron Fist. And when that honor didn’t magically fix his existential dread, Danny panicked and impulsively fled back to his old life, hoping to find meaning there instead.

Clarifying all of that definitely makes Danny a more interesting character on a conceptual level. But it doesn’t make up for Finn Jones’ limitations as an actor. That’s made even more apparent by Sacha Dhawan, who is depicting a similar internal struggle, yet manages to convey it with a subtlety that allows Davos to feel more like a real person than Danny ever has. In his kitchen conversation with Claire, Dhawan perfectly captures the mix of stiltedness, pretension, fish-out-of-water comedy (“I don’t know who Pete is”), anger, repression, and dignity that characterize K’un-Lun’s young warriors. He does in minutes what Jones hasn’t been able to do in hours.

But the bigger problem is that, much like its protagonist, Iron Fist is a series that feels very, very lost. Let’s quickly take stock of Danny’s arc this season: Danny arrives in New York and desperately fights to get his company back; his legal battle is delayed but it doesn’t matter because he discovers Harold is alive and finds in him another Hand-hating ally; he gets involved in protecting a Russian chemist, which includes fighting for said chemist’s daughter in a three-part fight club (remember that?); he meets Madame Gao, learns of her illegal connections to Rand, and chases her all the way to China to kidnap her; he comes back to New York to interrogate Gao with truth serum, but winds up at a compound run by an entirely different faction of The Hand instead; and now Danny’s set on taking down that second faction’s leader as his ultimate purpose in life.

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It’s not really an arc so much as one thing unfolding after the other with little rhyme, reason, or focus. The biggest through-line is Danny’s obsession with stopping The Hand, but that’s far too nebulous of a goal to hang the season on. As far as I can tell, The Hand is a giant international organization with tons of factions, not something that can be “stopped” by one committed superhero in the way Matt Murdock wants to take down Wilson Fisk and Jessica Jones wants to incapacitate Kilgrave. Danny claims that killing Bakuto will kill The Hand like cutting off a snake’s head, but that doesn’t even remotely jive with our understanding of the ninja cult. Bakuto is very clearly just running one small subsection of The Hand, and I don’t believe for a second there wouldn’t be someone to step up and takes his place if he’s killed. As always, it’s hard to tell if the “kill Bakuto plan” is Danny being naïve or the show being poorly written.

Elsewhere, “Lead Horse Back To Stable” finally offers those K’un-Lun flashbacks I’ve been asking for, but their focus—not to mention their obvious budget limitations—is all wrong. The flashbacks depict Danny immediately after he gains his Iron Fist powers, when he first starts to realize how unfulfilled he feels. The problem is, that’s something we’ve already understood since Danny explicitly explained as much to Joy back in episode four. What the show still needs to clarify—in flashback form or otherwise—is why Danny was chosen to be the Iron Fist in the first place. Davos is clearly the more dedicated and emotionally stable of the two, so why was Danny chosen over him? I suspect it has something to do with Davos’ father feeling overprotective of his son, but right now it’s yet another vague mystery in a season fully of them. Danny hates being the Iron Fist and he’s bad at it. How did K’un-Lun end up making such a shitty choice for its most important protector?

“Computer, freeze program.”

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On a scene-to-scene level, there are things to like about “Lead Horse Back To Stable,” most of them having to do with Claire. Her frustrated assertion that Colleen’s faction of The Hand should just change its name if it’s not really The Hand is another moment where I had to pause the episode because I was laughing so hard. Davos trying pizza for the first time and Danny’s reaction to Claire pulling out the stapler are also great. But it just doesn’t add up to anything bigger. I would call “Lead Horse Back To Stable” a table-setting episode, but at this point, every episode of Iron Fist feels like a table-setting episode. I’m not sure this show will ever get to the fireworks factory nor what it would even look like when it does.

But, man, those last eight minutes are really great. Davos and Danny’s car conversation is the first extended dialogue sequence on this show that feels interesting rather than interminable. And Davos’ presence makes Danny seem more like a real person than he ever has before. There’s something subtly heartbreaking about these two broken child soldiers struggling to come to terms with their pain without really having the words to describe what they’re going through. Dhawan in particular beautifully portrays the complicated mix of love and betrayal Davos feels towards Danny, who first usurped the role he thought he was meant to have and then abandoned him altogether.

Anger is perhaps the biggest theme running through these Defenders series, so it makes sense that Danny’s story would come to center on it as well. And the idea of anger is echoed in Danny and Colleen’s confrontation in the rain. Like Danny and Davos, Colleen is suddenly forced to confront the crumbling of her belief system. And Jessica Henwick turns in a heartbreaking performance as Colleen lets the pain and rage of The Hand’s violent betrayal pour of out her.

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We end on an unusual love triangle of sorts, one made up of three people betrayed by the systems and mentors they thought were there to protect them. It’s raw, emotional, and lived-in in a way the rest of the series hasn’t been. If Iron Fist can channel the specificity and point of view of those last scenes into its final two episodes, the season could at least go out on a high note. Or, hey, just showing us that damn dragon already would be fine too.

Stray observations

  • Elsewhere, Harold and Joy cook up a plan to flush out Bakuto by cutting off his offshore accounts. It’s about as boring as that sounds.
  • That’s two episodes in a row without Ward. I wonder how he’s doing in that psych ward.
  • I’m curious if Finn Jones would’ve given a better performance if he had been able to use his natural British accent. Since Davos has such a heavy one anyway, the series could’ve justified it as Danny acclimating to the K’un-Lunian dialect.
  • Given all the things that have happened in the MCU (including an army of giant alien monsters raining down on New York City), you’d think Claire would be a little less skeptical about the existence of dragons.
  • This series can show Kyle being beaten to death and Harold chopping up dead bodies, but Claire can’t say the word “fuck”?
  • Petition to rename The Defenders series Agro Would-Be Crime Fighters.
  • “Do you have a [driver’s] license?” “No but it’s different. I’m rich.” Iron Fist can be delightfully self-aware when it wants to be.

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