Sunday, August 20, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Defenders' - Two Shocking Deaths Have the Potential to Change Everything in 'Ashes, Ashes'

Netflix's The Defenders - Episode 1.06 "Ashes, Ashes"

Stick offers up a theory. Danny finds himself sidelined. Alexandra learns that it's not easy being the leader.

The Defenders has reached the point in its season where it's starting to kill off characters in order to raise the stakes in the main story. Like I've stated in previous reviews, it's the same pattern that has been applied to the previous Marvel shows on Netflix. In this case though, the season just happens to be a few episodes shorter. So, things are condensed and don't drag out for as long as possible. And yet, pacing and familiarity have still been major problems of this season. "Ashes, Ashes" is a very climatic episode. But it's also very frustrating and conflicting. On one hand, it creates an uncertain future for the main narrative because of a swift and decisive action that Elektra takes. It's thrilling to think about and probably makes the audience want to press play on the next episode. The Defenders was designed for binge watching. So, each episode can lag in the middle as long as it ends on a very exciting, tantalizing note that the audience needs to see resolved immediately. On the other hand though, this is an episode filled with Danny at his most insufferable and one-note as well as the narrative just casually remembering something that was introduced in the second season of Daredevil. The big moments really work and are absolutely devastating because of the actors involved. But the inconsistent plotting continues to be very annoying.

One of the better things this show has done is treated Danny Rand less like a multi-dimensional character and more like the plot device that everything else spins around. In so many Marvel projects (especially the movies), the narrative ultimately hinges on the heroes and villains battling over some MacGuffin that will unlock the sinister plan. It's a rigid formula that has gotten very lame and repetitive in the genre. And now, The Defenders images a person as the MacGuffin. He serves a specific plot function. Danny is the Iron Fist. That special power that appears when he can harness his chi perfectly is also the key to unlocking immortality, which apparently dwells deep beneath New York City. The Hand is only interested in the Iron Fist. They could care less about Danny Rand and what he thinks about their organization. They just need that specific power. Danny has always used it as a weapon in battle and is completely dumbfounded by the idea that it could be used for other things. His ability to speak and have an opinion though is why he's a very noticeable and frustrating MacGuffin.

Danny is just a complete idiot who throws tantrums whenever people don't want to listen to his plan. He's not the best fighter amongst the defenders. He's not the most powerful. All he has is a glowing fist everyone is after and a major attitude. Matt, Luke and Jessica seem very rational when they discuss sending him away so that The Hand can't get him. It's a reasonable request. Instead, Danny takes it as a vicious attack against him. To him, it's running away from this war instead of facing it head on. Danny just doesn't have a mind for strategy. He's always running head first into danger without thinking about the consequences. He does that because he believes it's his duty to stop The Hand because they have vague, sinister plans for the world and the people he loves. This leads to yet another super-powered fight amongst the defenders. Again, it's a cool action sequence. The show has genuinely done those well this season. And yet, isn't it too late in the season for the defenders to still be fighting with each other? Shouldn't they be more unified at this point? It seems like they are destined to never be a team who actually like and trust each other until the end of the season. That's just such a weird creative decision. Yes, it's still entertaining to watch. The action is just a little too hollow to actually work.

Danny also believes he's necessary in this war because he believes he knows everything that needs to be known about The Hand. He and the leaders of The Hand came from the same mystical place. They trained with the same mystical people. There's a level of understanding to that. And yet, every significant plot point made about The Hand this season has come from Daredevil. That was the show that introduced the significance of Midland Circle. That building is the headquarters for The Hand. It's also the location of the giant hole that Matt once discovered and then just completely forgot about. Seriously, it's been a consistent character trait of his this season to keep vital information from the rest of the defenders. There's no reason for that to happen other than plot necessity. Matt made the decision to trust and be upfront with these super-powered individuals the moment he revealed his true face to them. He lied about Elektra because it was personal and he wanted to reach her by himself. But keeping this information just makes no sense. It gives them a new lead to pursue. It also gives them a map into Midland Circle for the future because that's where this entire story is building to. The bottom of that hole is where everyone is bound to go down.

The show purposefully divides the defenders in order for the big plot twists at the end of this episode to happen. Matt and Jessica need to be away investigating while Luke and Stick watch over Danny. Stick once again reveals himself not to be trusted. He knocks Luke out with gas and intends to kill Danny so that The Hand won't get the Iron Fist. He believes that to be the solution to this problem. The Hand can't unlock the door if the Iron Fist doesn't exist in this world anymore. But it all just makes Danny vulnerable to be captured by Elektra. Sure, Stick is still a very worthy opponent. He can put up quite a fighter even though he is just one-handed. But right now, it's just important that the defenders fail to defeat Elektra and lose one of their own in the process. The Hand has the Iron Fist and Stick has been killed. It's not a surprising death. He had more significance this season than I was expecting. That basically made it clear that he was going to meet a tragic fate. Up to this point, he felt like a member of the defenders without needing to have his own series first. That was odd. He needed to be killed at some point in order for the team to figure things out on their own which is where the most interesting conflict largely comes from.

So, Stick's death was inevitable even though it was mysterious when it would happen and who would kill him. Alexandra and her fellow leaders of The Hand will likely meet the same face. They are the antagonists of this season. They are the ones trying to destroy the city for their own personal gains. Sigourney Weaver has been so terrific to watch this season because she brings legitimacy to this nefarious organization. All of the mystical conspiracy stuff can be boring and nonsensical. But with Weaver at the helm, it's been more interesting to watch (though still not tremendous). She brings gravitas to the role. Alexandra's connection with Elektra is one of the most meaningful relationships of the season. The show has put in the work to find the depth and nuance to that dynamic. Alexandra believes in the Black Sky as the weapon necessary to achieve her goals. And in the end, she is proven to be right. Elektra is able to secure the Iron Fist for The Hand. But her unconditional trust in the Black Sky turns out to be her downfall as well. Elektra kills Alexandra because she doesn't want to be an empty vessel. She wants to have a life just like Alexandra's where she remembers everything. Now, she's the one pursuing immortality. It puts her in opposition with her former lover. That makes this story more personal. But it still feels like the show has suffered a significant loss. Weaver was a strong central focus for The Hand. Elodie Yung has really stepped up this season as well. But will this development make the final two episodes more plot heavy? Or will the character work actually feel like it was earned? Right now, it's very uncertain which leaves me a little concerned for the end game.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Ashes, Ashes" was written by Drew Goddard & Marco Ramirez and directed by Stephen Surjik.
  • The supporting characters at the precinct aren't seen at all. They still may ultimately become pawns in this grand war between the defenders and The Hand. But it would be a sudden plot development should it happen. Plus, it seems like none of the characters there will ultimately forge any meaningful relationships.
  • Jessica just casually drops that she knows all about Matt's tragic backstory. She does it in order to get Lexi to tell her what her dad was like leading up to his death. But is all of the information about Matt's father public knowledge? It seems more like she just watched the first few episodes of Daredevil and talked about them openly with Matt Murdock.
  • It's very amusing to see Jessica have very little patience for Matt's whole blind act. She's much more direct and blunt while he's deliberately keeping up a ruse. That's fun. Meanwhile, Luke is telling Danny about his past with Jessica which is a little too awkward. It makes it seem like they are tragic ex-lovers who went separate ways. Their dynamic is much more complicated than that though.
  • Amongst all of this chaos and conspiracy, Luke still wants to treat the death of Sowande as a homicide that deserves a full investigation. He's taken aback by the suggestion that Stick is going to clean up the body and the crime scene. It's a weird moment. Plus, it's building to Alexandra and her conspirators opening a box with Sowande's head inside.
  • Madame Gao, Murakami and Bakuto questioning Alexandra's leadership and plotting a coup feels like a very underdeveloped story. It shows that the antagonists are fighting amongst themselves just like the protagonists are. It shows the stress Alexandra is under right now to secure their grand objectives. But it also feels like a bunch of history of fighting between them is thrown at the audience only to be completely pointless by the end of the hour.
  • Sigourney Weaver and Scott Glenn were two of the best actors on this show. So, their departures will be felt from an acting perspective. Again, it's tragic but not unexpected. Plus, there is still a ton of great acting on this show. The narrative should be fine. I'll just miss both of them moving forward.

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.