Iron Fist (Photo: Netflix)

Characters experience a lot of firsts in “Felling Tree With Roots.” The first time you chop off your finger as a diversionary tactic; the first time you dump some dead bodies in a lake for your dad; the first time you’re ousted from your own board for putting ethics over profit. Oh, and Danny also gives up his vow of chastity for his own very special first as he and Colleen get a gauzy sex scene right out of an ’80s melodrama.

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But when it comes to impressive firsts, Ward takes the cake: The first time you murder your father in a blind rage because he drained your secret bank account full of the $25 million you embezzled from your company. And while that would seem like a “first and only” kind of a thing, given The Hand’s penchant for bringing people back from the dead, I’m not so sure we’ve actually seen the last of Harold Meachum.

On a scene-to-scene basis, there’s a lot to like in “Felling Tree With Roots.” It’s less predictable than the first six episodes (I wasn’t expecting Madame Gao to just show up at Rand Enterprises during the middle of the day, for instance). But it’s also an episode that’s just a little too slow for its own good. There’s too much air between the interesting scenes, and that drags the whole episode down. And it doesn’t help that Claire Temple isn’t around to lighten the mood. This episode feels like a throwback to the times Claire would randomly disappear for stretches of Daredevil’s first season, which was also a problem on that series, too.

Thankfully, “Felling Tree With Roots” finally starts to raise questions I’ve long been asking in these reviews. Harold straight-up asks Danny why he can’t just use his glowing fist all the time, while Colleen admits she doesn’t really know what it means to be the Iron Fist, allowing Danny to clarify that the Iron Fist is K’un-Lun’s sworn protector and that it takes him a while to recharge his Chi between magical punches. (Colleen’s question is likely disingenuous, by the way, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) Plus Joy calls out Danny for fighting so hard to get back into Rand Enterprises only to then immediately blow off the nitty-gritty details of running a business, which isn’t a question but which definitely needed to be said.

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I wouldn’t dismiss “Felling Tree With Roots” as just a table-setting episode, but it is an episode that takes stock of where our characters are and what their arcs will be for the rest of the season. That includes clarifying exactly what The Hand is up to with its corporate schemes. It turns out they’ve been squatting on the 13th floor of Rand Enterprises and using the company (along with other corporations like Roxxon) to distribute their synthetic heroin. Madame Gao all but admits as much as she pays Danny a visit and advises him not to worry his pretty little head about his company’s illegal dealings and to just enjoy his rich-boy perks instead. Of course, Danny is far too noble—and far too interested in learning about her connection to his father—to follow her advice, leading to one of the episode’s funnest moments as Danny takes an Iron Fist-powered trip down an empty elevator shaft to spy on her.

During her meeting with Danny, Madame Gao speaks of a shift in the world. And because I guess she was taking a nap that time aliens beamed into New York City to do battle with a space god, a 1940s supersolider, and a man in a flying sentient suit, she frames that shift in terms of the Defenders. Daredevil, Luke Cage, and now a rebellious Iron Fist have converged in New York, changing up the natural order of the world. And that idea of things shifting is reflected in a bunch of this episode’s storylines.

For one thing, the Meachum siblings and Danny are kicked off their own board after Joy fails to get Danny to walk back his statement about shutting down Rand’s cancer-causing chemical plant (Joy’s been stuck in by far the most boring stories this season). Elsewhere, Colleen gets a visit from an old friend named Bakuto (Ramón Rodríguez) and starts to sound less like an innocent martial arts instructor and more like someone with shady ulterior motives, especially once she congratulations Darryl on joining “an elite training program.” In fact, it sounds like Colleen might have far more knowledge of the Iron Fist than she lets on. But whatever her cryptic meeting with Bakuto means, she sets it aside as she and Danny make a big shift in their fighting style by recruiting the more deadly hatchet men to join them on a raid of The Hand’s synthetic heroin operation.

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But the biggest shift of this episode belongs to Ward, who seems to officially cross over from low-level antagonizing force to full-on villain. Before Ward kills his father, this episode drives home just how sociopathic and manipulative Harold is. He first kills and then mutilates two Hand thugs before casually commanding Ward to dispose of their bodies. And just as I began to wonder what, other than familial affection, was motivating Ward to participate in all of this criminal activity, he seemed to have the exact same thought. Ward tries to make a clean break from his family using the money he had been embezzling from his employee’s pension funds. But he has that dream ripped away by his father in the most condescending way possible, which is what causes Ward to snap, kill Harold, dump his body, and actually seem to get some satisfaction from the whole thing.

Tom Pelphrey has been one of the most consistently great things about this uneven season, and he turns in a standout performance in this episode, too. I’m genuinely curious to see where Ward goes from here, which isn’t something I can necessarily say about Joy’s corporate woes or Danny’s Iron Fist angst. Harold’s murder is strangely similar to something that happens in Luke Cage’s seventh episode too, although in this case it’s a much less surprising event. But, again, I have to wonder if The Hand’s involvement in all of this means we haven’t actually seen the last of Harold (I haven’t watched ahead, so this is just speculation on my part).

Although Iron Fist has improved a lot since its early episodes, it still can’t quite overcome its core issues. The biggest one of those is the show’s godawful dialogue, which is only made more apparent by talky scenes like the long, clunky one between Danny and Colleen in this episode. Pacing also continues to be a problem, as it has for so many of these Defenders shows. Though “Felling Tree With Roots” has a lot of interesting ideas, it’s just a tad too sluggish to elevate them into something truly special. As Iron Fist moves firmly into the back half of its first season, here’s hoping it finds a way to streamline its storytelling. That would truly be a Defenders first.

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Stray observations

  • This isn’t exactly a critique, but it would’ve been sweet if Colleen had been the one to deliver the classic, “Are you sure you wanna do this?” line, seeing as Danny is (presumably) the one stepping more out of his comfort zone.
  • Jessica Henwick is generally one of the better parts of this series, but even she couldn’t sell the fawning monologue about Danny using martial arts like “a second language” and it being so “inspiring” to watch. The show doth overcompensate too much, methinks.
  • Was Madame Gao’s request for better lighting a self-burn on how dark all these Defenders shows are?
  • Two moments that genuinely made me laugh: Danny casually walking into Harold’s apartment just moments after Harold swears on his kids’ lives that he hasn’t been in contact with him. And Madame Gao reminding Danny that he’s the one responsible for watering his own plant, because of course that’s something Danny would need to be reminded of.
  • “We gotta go, now.” “Go where?” “To get a bundle of arrows.” This is the first “cool” line Finn Jones has actually been able to pull off.
  • I gasped out loud when I saw this. I didn’t know bank accounts could go that high.

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  • Ah, yes, that’s much more familiar.