Friday, March 25, 2016

Unadulterated Elektra Backstory Comes Through "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel!"

The Good: Good performances, Character revelations and direction
The Bad: Physical darkness of the episode, Medical science, Predictable plot
The Basics: Stick and Elektra's backstories are made explicit in the Daredevil episode "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" when Stick is captured by The Hand.

When the second season of Daredevil was first teased, I - like many fans - was super-excited about the addition of Elektra to the cast and the narrative. I had a lot of trepidation about the addition of The Punisher to the second season of Daredevil, as he was a character that never actually interested and I was unsure how he would fit into the narrative without overwhelming it. Perhaps the irony of my initial concerns was that the execution proved to be opposite in terms of the quality of the storylines and characters. The Frank Castle (Punisher) storyline was used to draw out further character traits for Karen Page and it became a pivotal aspect of the relationship between Foggy Nelson and Matt Murdock . . . and Jon Bernthal gave a shockingly deep performance as Castle. On the other side of the storyline, Elektra has been surprisingly underwhelming in Daredevil and she seems to be serving the larger plot by foreshadowing to elements for the eventual Shadowland plot being used on Daredevil, while distracting Matt Murdock from his daytime responsibilities. With the Frank Castle plotline being virtually ended by ".380," the penultimate episode and the final episode put the onus on the Elektra plotline to bring home a strong finish to the sophomore season.

"The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" picks up in the final minute of ".380" (reviewed here!) and one cannot discuss the new episode without revealing where the prior episode ended. Given that Elektra and Stick were squaring off at the end of ".380," "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" opens in an exciting place and the penultimate episode finally makes explicit the backstory of Elektra. Matt Murdock's conflict with Elektra on-screen came from the revelation earlier in the season that Elektra knew his old master, Stick, and their history ten years prior was artificially generated . . . and that Elektra is a trained assassin who completely lacks his moral compass. "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" explains Elektra's perspective without Matt Murdock's judgmental nature.

Opening with Elektra as a young girl, training at Stick's remote compound, Elektra holds her own against the older boys she it pitted against. Elektra is observant, but she is undisciplined; still, she learns fast. Stick pulls her off before she can kill her training partner and tries to advise her on how to be an effective weapon in his ancient war. Back in the present, Stick and Elektra fight because Stick attempted to have Elektra killed. Daredevil arrives and intervenes to save Stick. They are distracted enough that The Hand's ninjas are able to abduct Stick. While Karen Page looks for closure at the pier where it appears Frank Castle was killed the night before, Foggy Nelson says goodbye to Matt Murdock and they agree to shutter Nelson & Murdock.

Tipped off by Nelson to old bootlegger tunnels below Hell's Kitchen, Daredevil goes looking for The Hand's lair to rescue Stick. Karen Page is pushed by Ellison to complete her expose on the Punisher, so she visits the only person she knows who respected Frank Castle, Colonel Schoonover. After a charming conversation with Schoonover, Page finds her life in danger from The Blacksmith. While Daredevil fights for his life against ninjas who make no sound and Stick struggles to remain alive through The Hand's torture, Page confronts The Blacksmith.

"The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" suffers from a narrative problem that observant fans - the only ones who would truly care about Elektra's backstory - will catch almost instantly. When Elektra revealed her true nature to Matt Murdock, she reveals that she was a child when she first killed and that she did it just because she could. The first flashback scene has Elektra at the right age, so astute viewers will pretty much immediately figure out that the purpose of the episode is to illustrate on-screen how Elektra made her first kill. The story of her first kill is set off against her promise to kill Stick if she gets to him first and the set-up does not disappoint fans . . . but, because we know what is coming, it also does not thrill them. The episode feels largely inevitable instead of exciting, at least on the Elektra front.

Similar foreshadowing was done in the Punisher plotline in ".380." Astute viewers will note that The Punisher only starts taunting the man on the boat after he sees the face of the boat's primary guard in ".380." That and the explicit remark from one of the final cadre of killers set against Frank illustrates a connection between Frank Castle and the drug kingpin known as The Blacksmith. "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" resolves the story with the hidden villain of the season by revealing The Blacksmith and while it might not be the biggest surprise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is enjoyable to watch and frees up The Punisher for his own adventures unencumbered by any mysteries from his own origin story.

"The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" offers viewers subtle characterization for Karen Page. Page's backstory in Daredevil has only been obliquely alluded to - including a headline in a newspaper this season from Ben Urich's file on her. Page is motivated by her backstory elements and her fears about who she might become having killed Wesley in the first season. Ellison pushes her to complete her story on Frank Castle not knowing what truly pushes her . . . and it puts her in danger. It also explains her desperation to humanize the man behind The Punisher. Page has also made the transition in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" from legal assistant to professional reporter.

The return of Clancy Brown to Daredevil allows him to deepen his bit role within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Brown is one of the few men who has a screen presence that is able to credibly pull off a role that could believably command Bernthal's Castle. Schoonover is an interesting part for Brown and he is absolutely credible as Bernthal's former commanding officer. Brown's role in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" is satisfying enough to allow viewers to forgive the old trope that the Marvel Cinematic Universe uses pretty much constantly; if a character's death is not shown graphically on-screen, odds are they are coming back. To date, there are ridiculously few characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who are actually 100% dead - The Clairvoyant and Tripp on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Odin are the only ones who come instantly to mind. So, viewers are not at all surprised when Frank Castle shows up again.

"The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" excitingly makes Elektra's backstory layered and deep while confirming Stick's version of the story of the conflict between The Hand and The Chaste. Elektra is hard to see as heroic - she is not given an episode with perspective that humanizes her like Kilgrave was given in the Jessica Jones episode "AKA WWJD?" (reviewed here!) - as she is a trained assassin who seems to enjoy the act of killing. "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" fleshes out Elektra's backstory in a way that makes her almost the anti-Kilgrave; Elektra had to tame her inner demons and channel them into her work, but her life was surprisingly carefully constructed by Stick. The episode's emotional climax comes from Daredevil and Elektra facing one another and Murdock appealing to Elektra's humanity and it is surprisingly satisfying to see someone who is not a slave to their instincts act like they want to. By comparison, the resolution of The Punisher plotline allows the anti-hero (he does the wrong things for the right reason) to get closure in a way that seems to leave very little potential for the future of the character.

The acting in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" is shockingly good. From Brown to Elodie Yung (Elektra) and Scott Glenn (Stick), the performances are very layered throughout the episode. Deborah Ann Woll exhibits wonderful range as Karen Page and Elodie Yung similarly shows off a decent number of facets. Only Peter Shinkoda is given a monolithic role to play as Nobu runs The Hand with remarkably little depth to his performance - the role doesn't give him much to play with, so it's not his fault.

The science in "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" is hard to buy given how rooted much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in the real world when it is not exploring its heroes and their devices/abilities. The Hand's ninjas have to breathe, but they are able to entirely repress their own heartbeats. Just like the basic biology relying on a conceit that feels a bit off (our hearts beat more per minute than we breathe), the direction is somewhat problematic. Euros Lyn lights so much of the episode so darkly that it cannot be seen well. The episode reiterates the problem in so much modern television and movies; if the effects cannot be seen, it is hard to call them truly special and/or appreciate them.

From a larger storytelling perspective, "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" introduces an idea that none of the characters follow up upon. In the first season of Daredevil when Murdock's mentor is introduced in "Stick" (reviewed here!), he is in Hell's Kitchen to kill the child who the Hand has identified as The Black Sky. "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel" introduces the idea that there is more than one Black Sky, but that idea is not satisfactorily explored or even acknowledged by any of the characters. Indeed, given where the series goes in the final moments of its finale, the failure of that new information to be acknowledged is made even more troubling; it begs the question of how Stick disposed of the Black Sky child in the prior season so its corpse could not be used by The Hand!

Within "The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel," Elektra manages to reach her potential for fans and those who simply have been watching Daredevil. Elektra becomes more deep and intriguing than she has been for the rest of the season, making her suddenly vital to the presence and future of the show.

For other big penultimate episodes, be sure to check out my reviews of:
"Graduation Day, Part 1" - Buffy The Vampire Slayer
"In The Cards" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"S.O.S. Part 1" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Daredevil - The Complete Second Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of the blind vigilante here!


For other television episode and movie reviews from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please visit my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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