Sunday, August 20, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Defenders' - Matt Breaks from the Group to Try and Rescue Elektra in 'Take Shelter'

Netflix's The Defenders - Episode 1.05 "Take Shelter"

Elektra's loyalties are questioned. Colleen clashes with an old acquaintance. Luke proves he knows how to take a hit.

It is a well-worn trope of the superhero genre that the people who are closely involved in the protagonists' lives are destined to be kidnapped and exploited for control by the main antagonist. It establishes a personal connection for the characters and the audience. The heroes want to have these full lives. They want life to mean something outside of being a superhero. They want a chance to live exactly how the people they protect do. But they are relationships that can be threatened as soon as the antagonists discover that they exist. All of the four shows leading up to The Defenders have featured death of supporting characters in a significant way. In fact, these shows have a tendency to really pile on the killing of characters (both major and minor) as the season builds to its epic climax. Death isn't the only way to raise the stakes in narrative storytelling. Yes, it's an easy and effective way to do so. But it can become repetitive after seeing it over and over again on multiple shows that are also a part of the same shared universe. So, it's not surprising in the slightest that the people Matt, Jessica, Luke and Danny care about are suddenly thrown into harm's way in "Take Shelter." The show addresses that with a solution that will either be smart and lackluster or epically stupid and predictable.

So all of the supporting characters are gathered to one location. Misty Knight is tasked with protecting the friends and lovers of the four heroes. She has the authority to make this a top priority for the police precinct despite having no clue what trouble Luke has found in his investigation into the multiple killings of kids. On the one hand, this is a very exciting and sensible story. The heroes know that these relationships can be exploited because they have been in the past. Daredevil could barely go a few episodes without having Karen Page face certain death. So, they are trying to be proactive about the situation because they don't want anyone to become victims of this war. It's nice to see these collection of characters together as well. They largely group together based on which show they come from. So, Colleen and Claire are in one corner, Trish and Malcolm are in another, and Karen and Foggy are in another. They don't know anything about each other or what's actually going on with their super-powered friends. Of course, Colleen knows a ton because she's been on the front line of battle. But the show just teases these epic meetings. It doesn't really allow for many meaningful interactions. It's a scene that largely left me wondering who Claire has and hasn't met before. I'm pretty sure she knows Karen and Foggy. But they still read as strangers in this moment. And of course, this could ultimately be a stupid move for the protagonists because it's them literally assembling all of these people in the same room. If The Hand attacked there, they would get away with all of them.

That's basically the point of "Take Shelter." Everyone is doing their best to control the situation. They want power and understanding. Everyone has been pulled into this craziness. It is now completely defining their lives for better and worse. It's still amazing to watch when the four heroes plus Stick band together in order to take on the forces from The Hand that have converged on the restaurant. It's nice to see the show cut into this moment mid-action. The previous episode ended with the team standing strong against Elektra. But now, so many other forces have arrived to defeat them. The five leaders of The Hand all have a different strategy. Alexandra is relying on Elektra because the Black Sky is this "enormously powerful" weapon. Sowande has an army of soldiers with guns. Madame Gao has her own mystical powers that give her strength in combat. And Murakami is a trained warrior. All of these various elements descending on this location does lead to a chaotic opening scene. Stick orders everyone to stay and fight together. Matt immediately breaks from that in order to get Elektra to recognize him once more. It's an important moment of rebellion. Plus, the remaining members of the team are more than capable of handling their own in this battle. In fact, it's quite thrilling to watch. Luke can shield the group when the bullets start flying. Plus, he can take a direct hit from a truck. Jessica can throw a punch and Stick is great with his blade. It's a fight that all of them are able to survive.

But again, the show is still spending a lot of time living in the ambiguity of whether or not Elektra remembers her past life. The Hand and Stick have been preaching that she is now just an empty vessel. She has no memory whatsoever. But Matt is still insisting that she is still in there trying to get out. He rationalizes this because he believes she had the opportunity to kill him twice and chose not to. That's a huge deal. In fact, she even attacks Murakami when he threatens Matt outside the restaurant. These feelings force Matt to once again put on the mask and persona of Daredevil. He's been so reluctant to become the devil of Hell's Kitchen once more. The Hand weren't expecting him to be a problem because he's been inactive for awhile. He's tried not to be a vigilante any more so he can have flourishing relationships with the people he cares about. Elektra's death broke him. And now, her resurrection has pulled him back into this headspace. He believes he needs to save her. He still loves her. He's fighting for her. He kept this a secret from the rest of the team in the previous episode when they were laying everything out for each other. That was bound to be a destructive decision. And not surprisingly, that's exactly what occurs. He's threatening Sowande for information to the confusion of everyone else. He ultimately comes clean. But him keeping this secret possibly ruins the only credible lead they have right now.

This episode also highlights that the leaders of The Hand are no longer capable of coming back to life. They used the last of the magical substance in order to bring Elektra back. Of course, Bakuto from Iron Fist has risen from the dead as well. But now, death is on the table once more. That's a very good thing for the show to articulate now. There is no legitimacy to the life-or-death stakes of this shared universe if any character can be brought back at a later date. There needs to be the fear of finality in order for things to be intense. Plus, all of the magical conspiracy stuff is never what this show is best at. It's better when it sticks to the grounded emotions of the characters. Right now, they passionately need to protect the people they love and get answers. Luke has captured Sowande. He could detail The Hand's plans to them. Instead, he just gets into everyone's minds and tries turning them against each other so that he can escape with the Iron Fist. It's a plan that seemingly works. Except he completely forgot about Stick who quickly beheads him. That's a surprising and brutal moment. It once again proves just how graphic The Defenders wants to be with its gore. First, it cut off Stick's hand. And now, it has cut off Sowande's head. It's a swift and important action. The defenders may have lost the hostage. But The Hand lost one of their own. That's a scary prospect for them. They are clashing over the mission. Alexandra is worrying that she no longer has control. That's absolutely terrifying. She needs the Black Sky. And in the end, the Black Sky has left. She's chosen to try to remember her past with Matt. This past that Alexandra thought was destroyed is rearing its ugly head and threatening everything she's trying to do. That will probably only make her more vicious and terrifying to watch though - which is very exciting.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Take Shelter" was written by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, Douglas Petrie & Marco Ramirez and directed by Uta Briesewitz.
  • As I've stated previously, I skipped Iron Fist. Everything I read said the show was tremendously awful but Jessica Henwick was good. And now, I see exactly what those reviewers were talking about. Her character arc is still inconsistent. She goes back-and-forth on wanting to work with a team. But her fear of not being able to have a stable life is heartbreaking. That's a fantastic scene between her and Claire.
  • Ramon Rodriguez makes his debut for the season as Bakuto from Iron Fist. Again, it's nice to have faces with the main antagonists of the season. The Hand works better as an evil organization when there are people in charge. But Rodriguez seems to be playing things a bit hammier than the other four. It's a little distracting and could become problematic.
  • And of course, Bakuto gets a personal story right away. Is he working in The Hand's best interests? Or is he trying to lure his former protégé, Colleen, back to the organization? It's played as a mystery. But it shouldn't get that much screen time. Colleen should just been on the side of the good guys. She's better as a character that way while also dealing with the trauma of her past.
  • Trish wants to get into more investigative reporting on her show based on the rumors about the recent "earthquake." And now, she's in a room with Karen, a reporter, and Colleen, who actually knows what's going on. So, they could be an interesting partnership should they actually speak openly with each other.
  • Matt is the only defender who feels the burden of pursuing this life. As Stick points out, this is his double life coming back to hurt him. It does allow for some variety in the storytelling. Karen is frustrated that she has to go into protective custody. But it also seems a little silly when comparing to how easily the other defenders have been able to find happiness while being vigilantes in this city.
  • There's an important distinction between Alexandra and the other members of The Hand as well. She is seeking immortality because she fears death. She's the one actively dying at the moment. The threat is very real for her. The other three want immortality in order to live long enough to return to their home. They miss it and want to return.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.