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Last year, Warner Bros. was in the news for an alleged “no jokes” mandate on all their DC superhero films, spawning a wave of debate on the value of humor in superhero narratives and Warner Bros.’ serious approach to its current slate of DC properties. (While the “no jokes” policy hasn’t been officially recognized, the first trailer for Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice certainly suggests that it is in place.) I believe that humor is essential in superhero stories, but I also believe that humor is essential in all stories. In my college theater classes, I was taught that humor wasn’t necessarily about telling jokes or making people laugh, but about showing the audience that the character you are creating finds pleasure in some aspect of life, which invites the audience to care about that person.

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Humor provides contrast in overwhelmingly dark narratives, and in stories that traffic in human suffering, humor can be used to build sympathy that heightens dramatic stakes. And again, humor doesn’t mean jokes. Sometimes it takes the form of banter, establishing a sense of comfort between characters. Sometimes it takes the form of unspoken sexual tension, taking advantage of actor chemistry to show how sometimes just being in the same room as a person can bring someone pleasure. In superhero narratives, humor can be found in an action sequence if it’s filmed in a way that highlights fantastic thrills instead of realistic property damage. There are a lot of ways to create humor without jokes, but “The Ones We Leave Behind” largely ignores them to deliver a particularly joyless episode of Daredevil.

Douglas Petrie’s script for this chapter is a big downer, largely focusing on how Matt and Karen struggle with recent trauma and ending with the death of Ben Urich at Wilson Fisk’s hands. There are a few scenes with Foggy Nelson and Leland Owlsley that lighten up the mood simply because of the way those characters interact with others, but the primary source of humor in this episode comes from an action sequence showing Matt sprinting, leaping, and flipping across rooftops in his civilian clothes. He’s trying to keep up with a car transporting one of Madame Gao’s blind drug runners, which amplifies the tension, but he’s also showing off, jumping across rooftops in a gray suit in the middle of the day. So much of this episode is depressing, but Matt’s parkour session introduces an element of fun that considerably picks up the pace of the story.

The material with Matt taking out Madame Gao’s heroin operation is this episode’s main strength, emphasizing exhilarating superhero elements in the middle of a story that is preoccupied with gritty crime drama. The rooftop sequence brings the pleasure, and Matt taking out Gao’s warehouse brings the pain, both externally and internally. He takes a hard hit from Gao, who reveals immense strength hiding under the illusion of a weary old woman, but that’s nothing compared to the pain his soul feels when he realizes that Gao is using blind people to package and distribute her product. Even with a mask on, Matt’s shock and disgust is clear in Charlie Cox’s performance, and his terror in that moment is the thing that forces him to fix his relationship with Karen, who is going through her own horrific experience.

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The end of last episode gave Karen her big moment of power when she shot and killed Wesley after being attacked again, but the show still can’t stop casting her as a weak victim. She has a cold resolve at the start of the episode when she gets rid of the murder weapon, but that immediately crumbles when she makes her way home and starts feeling the weight of what she just did. She’s overwhelmed by fear, immediately rushes to grab a bottle of booze, and starts weeping on the floor. Then we see her in the shower, voraciously scrubbing herself clean while she cries some more. She’s buried in guilt and fear, and without the support of Matt and Foggy, she turns to the bottle.

I understand that Petrie is trying to show how devastating Wesley’s killing is to Karen’s mental and emotional health, but it’s all just too much after spending a season with Karen The Victim, and makes me seriously worry about the future of her character. There’s a shady part of her past that hasn’t been revealed, and I’m beginning to fear that that will be where the writers fold in some of the more tragic elements of Karen’s comic-book story. If Karen’s life is going to be this rough in the present, she desperately needs an episode like “Nelson V. Murdock” that shows a time in her life when she wasn’t drowning in despair. Any bits of happiness for Karen in Hell’s Kitchen are surrounded by sad events that make the world look hopeless, and it would be nice to see a time in Karen’s life when she was truly happy so that she isn’t primarily defined through her suffering.

The women generally have it rough in this episode. Wilson Fisk’s mother has been more of a plot accelerator than a fully formed character for the entire series, and she stays in that role as Wilson tries to convince her to leave the country after learning that people are trying to get to him through her. Then there’s Doris Urich and Vanessa Marianna, two women that spend the entire episode in hospital beds playing cheerleader to their tortured mates. It’s a refreshing change of pace when Marci Stahl enters the episode after the script spends so much time on these uniformly weak depictions of women, and while Marci may be a caricature of an icy blonde, it’s excusable because she has a strength and authority that most of the other women in the episode lack.

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As usual, the main exception to this show’s unfortunate representation of female characters is Madame Gao, who proves in this episode that she’s even stronger than we previously thought. This chapter marks her last appearance this season, but it’s very likely that she will be appearing again, probably in the upcoming Iron Fist Netflix series. Gao’s product is called “Steel Serpent,” sharing a name and insignia with one of Iron Fist’s nemesi, and while there’s no overt mention of the mystical city of K’Un Lun, Gao’s hint that her place of origin is a considerable distance from China and her high power level suggest that she comes from the same place that will turn Daniel Rand into a kung-fu superhero. I don’t care how she comes back, I just want more Madame Gao in the MCU, because she’s made a big impression as this show’s most powerful woman and one of its few significant people of color.

This entire series is about one white man’s unrelenting quest for power and how he tramples over the rights of others in order to build his empire, hurting a predominantly non-white community in the process. In a piece for New Republic exploring how this show approaches gentrification, Jeet Heer calls Wilson Fisk a supervillain reimagining of controversial urban developer Robert Moses, a connection that is made explicit by the copy of Robert Caro’s 1974 biography on Moses, The Power Broker, visible behind Fisk when he confronts Ben Urich in his home. Wilson’s efforts are choking the life out of the disenfranchised residents of Hell’s Kitchen, which makes Ben’s strangulation a chilling encapsulation of Wilson’s narrative arc. But did this show really have to kill off its primary person of color? With Claire, Ben, and Gao all gone, this series is now just a bunch of sad white people, and it’s disappointing to watch the diversity drain out of a series that should be embracing the wide spectrum of people found in an urban environment.

Stray observations:

  • Wilson mourning over Wesley’s body is a very nice moment of tenderness from Vincent D’Onofrio, who brings a lot of compassion to Wilson’s interactions with the people he cares about in his life. That affection is what causes Wilson to act so viciously when one of these people is threatened, like when he discovers that Ben Urich had tracked down his mother.
  • Wilson Fisk would probably lighten up if he actually watched one of those cat videos he bitches about this week. What a killjoy.
  • I can’t say I’m all that sad about Ben’s death if it means we can stop listening to newspaper employees bemoan the fall of journalism because of the Internet. In a show full of heavy-handed writing, those scenes are some of the worst.
  • How many canes do you think Matt Murdock goes through in a week? He tosses them in alleys quite a bit.
  • “Maybe this isn’t the best time to be beating your men to death. He did what he was told. I think they call that loyalty or something.”
  • “My head’s fine where it’s at.”
  • “That’s disappointing. I thought this was a booty call.”
  • “I’m not a complete asshole.” If you want Marci to respect you, all you have to do is die.
  • “I should have just had her shot.”

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