Here’s my least favorite scene of every Daredevil episode: The blind but supernaturally gifted vigilante (Charlie Cox) alights on a random baddie and pummels some key information out of him. The horned hero breaks bones, inflicts brain trauma, pushes one henchman off a building, and punches another into a coma — all while telling anyone who’ll listen that he wages war by a strict moral code. Crossing the line into murder, the Catholic crime fighter insists, would be to play God, but doing everything up to that point is still cool. Were the Netflix series set a decade ago, Daredevil’s alter ego Matt Murdock might well use his legal training to pen memos justifying torture for the Bush administration.
Other than superhero dogma, it’s been unclear why this crusader in tights draws his line at slaying — one of the many faults of Daredevil’s silly and superficial debut season. But we finally get a sense of our hero’s sense of justice in the series's vastly improved, if narratively disheveled, sophomore year through two new scene-stealing characters: Marvel fan favorites The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra (Elodie Yung).
The Punisher is chaos incarnate; his introduction in the season premiere takes the form of a spray of bullets aimed at the Irish mob. His bloodthirsty approach to vigilantism diverges from Daredevil’s in its embrace of firearms, and his willingness to massacre gangsters without a thought to the consequences contrasts with Season 1 villain Wilson Fisk’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) efforts to organize crime. The martial arts-trained Elektra, on the other hand, is more dangerous for her lack of conscience. First appearing a third of the way into the season, she accelerates Matt's gradual detachment from normalcy and forces him to finally acknowledge the pleasure he takes in doling out pain.
Daredevil’s second season is a herky-jerky contraption, wholly engrossing in parts — generally when The Punisher or Elektra are in action — and artificially breathless in others. (At least Foggy and Karen are less annoying this year.) The rapacity of The Punisher’s bloodlust makes Daredevil’s initial search for him urgent, and a series of twists and betrayals — along with the slickly claustrophobic fight scenes, including a hallway tribute to Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy, complete with hammer — supplies a thrum of tension and dread.
Potential but unnatural allies with Daredevil, the mere presence of those two assassins pushes new showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez (taking over from Season 1's Steven DeKnight) to define the title character more sharply. Set on a rooftop (do super-powered beings ever congregate anywhere else?), most of Episode 3 is devoted to parsing out the differences between Daredevil and The Punisher. Though she’s straight out of sexy-spy central casting, Elektra manages to generate genuine heartbreak from her regret at how her relationship with Matt went awry 10 years ago, when they were both lonely college students seeking a connection with someone who really understood them. It helps that Bernthal and especially Yung make crackling scene partners for Cox, who has yet to achieve that level of chemistry with cast members Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Henson.
Eventually, the season’s messiness catches up to it. Of the many characters that return to haunt Hell’s Kitchen, only D'Onofrio and Rosario Dawson's reappearances feel necessary. The love triangle between Matt, Karen, and Elektra doesn’t flesh out beyond the Madonna-whore archetype, and Karen remains such a drip that she hems and haws when voicing her opinions around her would-be boyfriend. Her efforts to redeem The Punisher as a victim of extreme PTSD make her seem dumber than the show intends, and the idea that he's not culpable for his clearly premeditated crimes — you don't get triggered into piercing a meat hook into a gangster's skull or waiting for the ice pick you’re pushing into an eye socket to crunch through to the other side — is just one of this season’s several undercooked themes. That’s not even counting the show’s disappointing transition from noir to doomsday legend. Even for a battle-tested fighter like Daredevil, swinging from the evils of gentrification to the actual apocalypse must cause whiplash.
Surprisingly, it’s the fallout of the friendship between Matt and Foggy that proves to be the season’s most affecting development. The former college roommates are hardly in any scenes together, making Foggy’s accusations in Episode 9 — that Matt doesn’t care how his possible death might hurt him and Karen — ring that much truer. Matt likes to call New York "his" city, but a city is, in the end, just a cluster of relationships. Judging by how he’s let go of Foggy and Karen this season, Daredevil may soon be a hero who has no remaining ties to the world he’s trying to save.