Iron Fist - S1E6-9 - Review: Punching a Little Stronger
It was a heartbreaking to discover that all the early criticisms bestowed upon Marcel/Netflix’s Iron Fist in fact had plenty of valid points, like re-watching your favourite early childhood movie as an adult only to discover you were too young to see how bad it was. Yet after a rocky start, Iron Fist does show some improvement with its middle section of episodes. Here’s what I thought of them.
Episode 6, Immortal Emerges from Cave – Danny accepts a formal combat challenge from The Hand for the release of the chemist’s daughter while her father’s worsening condition forces Claire and Colleen to risk taking him to a hospital. While Joy deals with crisis management Ward is having a crisis of his own.
The main story of this episode highlights perhaps one of the biggest problems with the show, or at least an area in which it has failed to deliver. Each of the 4 Defender shows were designed to have their own unique strength. For Iron Fist, this was meant to be its martial arts content with its titular character being the best fighter we’ve seen to date…. But he isn’t, at least in how the show’s fight choreography is being presented. The sequences are still decent most of the time but at no point do they feel like they’re backing up the verbal hype around the character. Case and point, this show doesn’t even match the Daredevil fight sequences. Some fight sections barely go a few seconds without a camera cut and angle change, making it feel so manufactured and produced rather than the more organic punch-ups we’ve witnessed Matt Murdock have. This episode’s Hand version of Mortal Kombat isn’t anywhere near as engaging as it should be. In fact, the second round fight is actually bad and neither does the recurring theme of Danny seeing and hearing his master’s words carry much effect. This could have been done so much better by having Danny flash in and out of his training days during the fights, blending the past and present into one. However, the visual and ritual side of the challenge was enjoyable, as was the use of Madame Gao as the facilitator. The final minutes confirm there is much more to her than meets the eye.
Claire and Colleen continue to make an enjoyable team in balancing Colleen’s fighting ability with Claire’s wit. Their scenes also carry much more dramatic weight than Danny’s endeavors because the outcome feels much more uncertain. Claire even gives us a, “Sweet Christmas”. I also like the direction they’re talking Ward’s character with his sudden drug addiction. Surprisingly, it makes him the most developed character on the show when comparing his “corporate dick” introduction to this fragile man on the edge. Neither does Ward feel like an antagonist anymore. I’m interested to see where he’s heading next.
Although the fighting is not up to expectations, this episode may be more appealing due to its increased action content, and we even get the first oh so subtle Avengers name check with, “the incredible green guy”. The episode also continues the running theme of destiny with the main character conflicted over getting back his life as Danny Rand or sacrificing all to become Iron Fist. The only trouble being the end destination of, “screw it, I’m going to be both” still seems so obvious and makes all this indecision seem less important.
Episode 7, Felling Tree with Roots – After Madame Gao visits him at work, Danny discovers The Hand has a secret division within Rand Industries from which Gao is running her heroine operation. Ward struggles to keep himself together as his father’s demands push him over the edge.
This is another improved episode with its central mission giving it the feel of a weekly episodic show, much more self-contained. Danny learns of the secret floor 13 in his building then immediately acts upon it. Harold pushes Ward further than he can handle early in the episode and we see the consequences before the end. It’s much better structured than some prior episodes. It also found a good balance between developing the separate stories of both Danny and Iron Fist. The board room scene is good step in Danny’s journey to become himself as he once again stands by his moral principles against sleazier business practices in embodying the ideal of his father. Involving Karen Page was a nice touch too. Having her break the story is not only a fun Easter Egg, it also tells us that character is succeeding as a journalist (she’s employed and making the front page a year after joining The Bulletin). There were a few other Daredevil nods too like Gao mentioning the Dogs of Hell biker gang from Hell’s Kitchen. In fact, this episode seems to imply Danny choosing to be Danny Rand rather than Iron Fist after the conclusion of the last episode. He previously mentioned taking a vow of chastity…. Yet here decides to wing it instead.
Not only do we see the most creative use of Danny “fisting up” to date as he uses it do slide down the elevator cable but after half a season, they divulge a crucial detail that explains much more of its prior use. Using the ability drains Danny’s chi, which is why can’t use it all the time. That makes a lot of sense but why it’s taken until episode 7 to tell us certainly doesn’t. As for the rest of the action, although the warehouse assault is relatively brief the Triad involvement is good and brings them into a greater wider purpose within the show.
The humor in the episode could do with some work. While there are a few good laughs, Harold should cut off a few more fingers for that Iron Fist sex toy joke. Speaking of Harold, I’m liking more and more the direction his and Ward’s arc is taking. Throughout the season, Harold’s allegiance has been a grey area, one moment showing loyalty to the Hand and the next helping Danny like he’s playing both off against each other. However, his reactions to the information of Gao’s heroin distribution plans imply something different. Is Harold seeking of replace Gao within The Hand? She’s an old woman and can’t go on forever (so he would think). Harold is a business shark with the opinion that, “rules are for pussies” so it seems quite believable that they’d try to scheme his way up The Hand ranks by helping Danny take down Gao only to slip into her seat at the table. The episode’s conclusion also throws considerable interest into just where Ward will fit into all this now. It could even be Ward that makes the crucial power play.
Iron Fist reaches its halfway point leaving us with much to talk and speculate about (at least for 20 seconds before binge-watching the next episode). The mysterious Bakuto also feels like a playing a bigger part in the end game and looks like he could even be Colleen’s teacher.
Episode 8, The Blessing of Many Fractures – Danny, Colleen and Claire follow Madame Gao to the heroin factory in China with Danny conflicted over killing her if she is responsible for killing his parents. Ward and Joy’s severance deal takes an unexpected turn.
So the main story sees the show leaving New York for a Chinese away mission (although still filmed around the New York area). At times, you’ll wish they hadn’t bothered; others you’ll be glad they did. The bad comes from the middle section of the episode which devolves into a rather dull stake-out once again, seeing the show being let down by poor uninteresting dialogue. Either side of that though it’s pretty great. The journey itself provides a good emotional venture into Danny’s character as he repeats the flight he never completed 15 years ago and is understandably freaked out about in places. Then there’s a nice morality debate being fought between Claire and Colleen over Danny’s, “Gao must die” debate. Both ladies represent their arguments well. Claire not only as a nurse but as someone that’s been through personal loss and witnessed people becoming killers is understandably pro-life. Whereas Colleen‘s Bushido warrior principles align with the idea of taking such vengeance as justice. This even pulls well into the ongoing Danny Rand Vs Iron Fist theme. As the Iron Fist, he should kill Gao as a Hand agent. As the lawful citizen Danny Rand, he should bring her to justice. This is all helped by making Gao feel vulnerable enough to be killed off. Although she has surprisingly become the show’s main villain to date, she’s still portrayed as the servant of something greater so the show could well kill her as that big bad emerges.
The final act in China delivers some of the best action we’ve seen all season, though nothing more than well-executed one-on-ones with believable and threatening opponents. Claire finds her own, all be it unnamed, sword-wielding lady nemesis and despite her skill, comes across as being outclassed. Not only is this a great visual spectacle but services Colleen’s developing arc well. Throughout the season, we’ve seen her with a growing desire for battle and violence with the feeling that eventually she would push herself too far and meet her match. Here, we see that nearly happen and sets the idea of Colleen being less formidable than she imagined before her final defeat. Then we have Danny squaring off against the best character the show has produced yet, Zhou Cheng, as drunken master-like figure. Not only is he oozing charisma but his ensuing fight is an utter delight of unorthodox fighting moves. Hopefully, we’ll see him again for the season end.
The Ward and Joy story continues well in the aftermath of being ousted by the Rand board. Joy’s private detective that was, “She was worth every penny…. When she was sober” is a fun Easter Egg that she hired Jessica Jones (also see Claire getting a letter from Luke in prison in the opening scene). The story focuses well on their brother/sister relationship and Joy’s journey of admiring and even trying to become like Ward for the sake of the company. Ward’s bloody visions do look cool but we could do with a bit more insight into them. Is this a drug effect or just all in is head?
It’s back-to-back better episodes for the first time all season and hopefully marks a real progression in the show as things start coming together.
Episode 9, The Mistress of All Agonies – With Madame Gao captive, Danny is determined to find out her connection to his father while Colleen takes a turn for the worse. An old face makes a surprising return along with some other new faces in town.
The struggle for momentum continues as this episode takes a downward turn. Let’s start with the undead elephant in the room over the opening return from the grave. Its impact is moderate at best because we’ve already seen Hand affiliates come back before (like Nobu). In fact, when the show went into detail in showing how this character was buried, they’re return seemed all but certain. Next, the scenes of wandering the streets in a half drunk/half zombie state are embarrassing for all involved. They only redemption comes in the end results as we see their emotional range vastly stretched towards a newfound lust for life and unpredictable moments of murderous violence with the implication that they are slowly turning into a monster. This is a good payoff from events of earlier episodes and may in fact be Danny’s big final episode fight opponent in the making.
The interrogation of Madame Gao is also a mixed affair. On the plus side, there is some good psychology being thrown about as Gao proves to be just as lethal with her tongue. Her attacks against Claire and Colleen are good, particularly her implication that Claire is deliberately seeking out these hero encounters out of a desire to feel special despite being rather ordinary. As a great 70's teenager once said, “Burn!”. These scenes also give us some more insight into both Gao and Colleen’s characters. Gao mentions spending most of the 17th century being interrogated, which would imply that she’s immortal. We also learn that Colleen was trained by her grandfather, and the concluding cliffhanger would affirm her as more than just a small time martial arts instructor. The bad comes from the same problems as the last episode’s stake-out. When the episode slows down, iT barely registers a heartbeat with several scenes carrying little interest. The big show down was a nice spike in the arm though and it’s good to see that Claire is developing through these fights rather staying the helpless character in the mix; she even has a preferred weapon in those bear claws.
The episode’s biggest strength is mystery with two new players in the mix of questionable purpose. The as-yet unnamed figure (no spoilers) with a pretense for silver foil throwing stars presents as an assassin after Danny doesn’t kill the food truck owner despite that being the easier option so he seems more like a bluff that will turn out to be an ally. Then by contrast, the returning Bakuto seems to be on their side but something seems off about him and everything that plays out in the climax. This sees the best use of Gao in the episode as she tells Danny that Bakuto is a trap creating some great uncertainty whether she’s just lying to pit good guys against each other or telling the truth in the face of a greater threat and villain. Like episode 5, this comes with a strong ending that feels like the next chapter ending before going into the final episodes.
Overall this middle third of the season is better from Iron Fist but still notably below expected standards. It sees some slowly built elements come together well and makes particularly good use of Claire Temple’s character. Hopefully it will at least stay at this level for the finish…. And I don’t know about you I’m gonna be rather pissed if we don’t actually see the dragon, Shao-Lao the undying, let alone see Danny fight it before the end of the season.