What is it, to be a cheesy voiceover montage in the last moments of a season finale? Do you have to try to sum up an entire season’s worth of themes using vague doublespeak and an army of cliches? Will you narrate over clips of our heroes looking vaguely sad or frustrated in the vain hope of wringing some pathos out of this big hunk of corn pone? Must you include strange or cryptic teases for future seasons or series? Or can you just speak in platitudes about heroism and strength and hope that somewhere in that stew of hokum you stumble onto some mild profundity?
The closing sequence of “A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen,” the finale of Daredevil’s second season, is an appropriate finish to an episode that felt more like the ending to a second-rate action movie than to the heady-if-pulpy superhero drama the show manages to be at its best. It featured a big final puzzle to solve, a big villain to fight, and a big crazy death in an attempt to retroactively give a fairly perfunctory battle with an undifferentiated pack of ninjas some stakes.
To that end, the second that Daredevil told Elektra that if they made it out of this mess, he would leave New York and they could run off together, it became immediately clear that Elektra was done for. She may as well have told Matt that she was only one day from retirement, but had to take care of this final mission before she was out of the game for good.
I’m not arguing that Elektra shouldn’t have died (however temporarily) in her skirmish with The Hand necessarily, though that choice has issues of its own. The problem is that the conversation that precedes it is so generic, and so telegraphs that Matt and Elektra will never get to follow through on these plans, that when she takes the blow intended for Daredevil and dies in his arms, there’s no surprise or tension to the moment. Instead, it’s just an eye roll-worthy, foregone conclusion.
Nevermind the way that The Punisher is awkwardly shoehorned into the scene. It’s unclear why he only shows up in time to take out the last four ninjas. Did he have trouble getting a cab? Or is it just narrative convenience rearing its ugly head in a blatant way? His cheesy nod to “Red,” is the stuff facepalms are made of, and it sent the most interesting new character from this season out on a sour note.
The episode, of course, must also attempt to provide some kind of closure on the “no killing” theme that Daredevil put forward throughout the season. Matt Murdock, like Frank Castle, is suddenly willing to use lethal force on his attacker after Nobu has killed the woman he loves. When forced to hold his dead lover’s body, even Daredevil with his religious objections reaches his limit. (Or maybe it’s different because Daredevil knows that Nobu can come back from the dead? The episode doesn’t make it clear, and it smacks of narrative oversight rather than genuine complexity.)
It’s a pretty unsatisfying finish for the most meaty thematic throughline of Season 2. In better hands, the scene could have been a commendable exploration of the idea that even the noblest hero has a breaking point where they set aside their ideals. But here, the execution felt like the standard “girlfriend dies, hero rages with grief” tableau.
It might have helped if Elektra herself were a more interesting character, or if her connection to Matt had been better developed and communicated, or if Nobu and his ninja henchman were something other than a crop of faceless mooks fresh from the Halloween store. With those millstones in place, Daredevil crossing the line he’d made so much out of doesn’t feel like the culmination of the character’s meditations on lethal force as reflected in foils like Punisher, Elektra, and Stick. It just feels like a thin excuse for him to go all tough guy hero on a collection of undifferentiated cannon fodder cadets and their stock bad guy leader. There is some laudable symmetry in the idea that Daredevil believed himself to be pure and ends up killing someone (kind of), while Elektra thought she was tainted but ends up sacrificing herself, but it’s still weak broth in the face of the other problems in the episode’s end game.
“A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen” isn’t all bad though. Seeing Foggy sit across the table from Jeri Hogarth is a minor thrill, and while their exchange veers a little too far into cheesy “wink-wink” territory, it’s still nice to see these two superb characters bouncing off one another. At the same time, Foggy’s interactions with Matt at the end of the episode put the right button on the Nelson & Murdock portion of the show, with a recognition that their friendship is compelling, but also destructive for them both.
Speaking of compelling but destructive, Stick and his wry, cut-to-the-chase mentality are always nice to have around, and his no-nonsense slaying of Nobu after Daredevil had softened him up puts Stick into some appreciable “Giles from Buffy” territory. And as always, even when the material doesn’t give her much to work with, Deborah Ann Woll puts in a great performance as Karen Page that manages to sell both Karen’s strength and her distress in a given moment.
There’s even the hint of quality storytelling with respect to the romantic elements of the episode. Matt tells Elektra that he wants to be with her because when he’s with her, he doesn’t have to hide anything; she already knows who and what he is. And with her gone, Matt endeavors to forge a more real and honest connection with Karen by showing her the other half of his life.
But despite that tease for Season 3, the entire Betty and Veronica routine with Karen and Elektra was a crock from the start, and that little reveal does little to validate it. Even ignoring the fact that Matt’s divided attention undermined every moment when he professed to love either one of the objects of his affections, but neither of the pairings worked as well as they needed to. In the end, the romantic elements of this season felt like a minor, inconsistent subplot instead of the vital part of the larger season arc they were meant to be.
Overall, “A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen” is a cliche-ridden mess, and it cements the downward trajectory of Season 2 as a whole. The first season of Daredevil wasn’t perfect, but there was a heightened realism that helped ground the proceedings, and a clarity-of-purpose from the Fisk storyline that helped keep the season focused even as it encompassed more and more characters and plotlines. In Season 2, however, the story of the Punisher and the story of The Hand felt, for the most part, as though they were on parallel tracks. (And on the few occasions when they would intersect, they made for strange bedfellows.) The Punisher’s story was the clear highlight of the season, even if the finish to it also underwhelmed, but the vague mysticism of The Hand and the undercooked bad seed routine with Elektra fell flat and weakened the episodes where they were the focus. The finale, which did its best to smash all these concepts and stories together, comes off as expectedly lumpy and convoluted.
So what is it, to be a bad finale? Does it give even the better elements of your season a disappointing aftertaste? Does the failure to nail the landing on your thematic elements make your prior explorations of those themes seem shallow? Does it require a facile op-ed delivered in voiceover to try to sum up your show’s jumbled conclusions? Look in the mirror. You’re a bad finale. You’re another superhero show that’s bitten off more than it could chew. This is your corner of the MCU. Welcome home.
Andrew Bloom (@TheAndrewBlog) runs The Andrew Blog, where he overanalyzes The Simpsons and takes pop culture too seriously. He doesn’t have a very good sense of smell and keeps waiting for that to turn him into some kind of superhero.