The saying that "New York is the city that never sleeps" explains why vigilantes are always prowling the streets at night. The Defenders are certainly living that New York ideal as they go through one hell of a week. After some really strong opening episodes, this is what I made of the season’s second-half.
Episode 5, Take Shelter – After the 5 Fingers of The Hand unite against them, the Defenders get their friends and loved ones into protective custody before it’s too late. Stick encourages Matt to step up and lead the team.
Now as cool as the fourth episode's standoff was, I really liked the way this episode didn’t pick up instantly. Not only was the Fingers assembly montage with classical overture fun but returning to the existing fight from Murakami’s perspective establishes the idea of The Hand converging on the restaurant and the Defenders situation becoming desperate. The ensuing fight is pretty badass too with a good mix mass minions and key boss figures among The Hand ranks. Director Uta Briesewitz shows the various strengths and weaknesses of team members. Jessica is strong but she’s not a trained fighter and so can be undone by the precision strikes of Murakami. Matt’s feelings for Elekra compromise his decision-making while despite Luke’s high defense, he’s still vulnerable against speed. Individual weaknesses reinforce the value of teams.
The episode also expands well on the motivations of The Hand and their purpose in New York. It’s been previously mentioned that the 5 Fingers were former residents of K’un-Lun here we see that their master plan is principally to return there. So it looks like there is a doorway to K’un-Lun deep beneath New York (that huge hole from Daredevil Season 2) but they need the Iron Fist because he is the key to unlocking it. This even goes as far as casting the Fingers into some degree of sympathy in that we can agree with their objectives but their methods.
It’s interesting to see the different reactions of the various supporting characters upon being brought into protection. While the likes of Claire are immediately (even if reluctantly) accepting, we see the contrast of Karen’s denial in believing she’s left that part of her life behind. There were some hints in the early episodes that this season might address the state of Matt & Karen’s relationship but that seems to be getting minimal screen time and as such doesn’t feel very impactful.
I’m also not crazy about Elektra’s identity confusion. It just feels like something that Defenders doesn’t need with so many other characters to surface. I’d much rather she was seen as beyond saving only for a season conclusion of Matt & Stick taking her away for rehabilitation to be picked up in Daredevil Season 3.
The opening action scenes were superb and while this is still a good episode, it feels like the weakest so far. Yet at the same time, it covers a lot of required ground by dealing with the supporting characters and it’s rather cool to have them all in the same room. Especially getting Misty & Colleen face-to-face, hopefully a sign of a future team up.
Episode 6, Ashes Ashes – Learning that Danny is the key to The Hand’s plans fractures the team in the best way to approach this. Matt & Jessica seek out more information on Midland Circle while Alexandria faces increasing challenges towards her leadership.
Sudden injections of conflict into hero groups don’t always work. Too often they feel like an excuse for fan fulfilment hero on hero fights but this episode introduces this idea well by taking a logical approach. If Danny is the key to The Hand’s victory, then it makes sense to hide him away but doing so contradicts Danny’s purpose of fighting The Hand and avenging K’un-Lun. What’s more, the ensuring Devil Vs Fist beat down is a good contest between the two skilled fighters. Danny’s ultimate loss also gives Luke and Danny the chance for some good bonding scenes later in the episode that leaves the door open for the pair teaming up as a duo in the future.
Jessica & Matt’s investigations were an enjoyable distraction from the main events that served as bonding scenes for the pair by showing Jessica aware of Matt’s past tragedy and even using it positively. It works towards the idea of the pair not just cooperating but understanding each other. Such scenes are always interesting with Jessica because she’s such a reclusive character. While she’s still keeping her own past ordeals private, she can still recognise those feelings with others.
So far this season, I’ve been unsure about the usage of Elektra as The Black Sky. While she’s looked great in combat, the notion of a redemption angle and Matt dealing with his feelings towards her haven’t been a great feature of the show. Thankfully, in this episode, she gets some much needed character development in going full evil. She becomes an amalgamation of Elektra and Black Sky for an even more dangerous result. Similarly, I really liked the challenges to Alexandria’s power within The Hand. Watching an all powerful figure dealing with progressive weakness has been the most fascinating aspect of her character. She’s like the aging Alpha of the pack having to remind people why she’s still in charge even if her strength is diminished.
The shocking conclusion is an excellent game-changer going into the final 2 episodes. This 3rd of the season has been its slowest section but that’s highly intentional before going for a sprint finish.
Episode 7, Fish in the Jailhouse – Matt, Luke and Jessica wake up in the police station after being found with 2 dead bodies and things aren’t looking good for them. Elektra tries to make Danny open the doorway while Claire & Colleen examine their own heroic choices.
I’ve always liked it when superhero shows incorporate the legal perils of being a vigilante so it’s good to see that with established reputations, the Defenders must still face the consequences of their actions. It makes good use of Misty’s position within the NYPD by giving her personnel consequences over trying to help the team. This whole setup also dealt with the aftermath of the prior episode well and provided valid grounds for the team to take the traditional pause for breath in a penultimate episode. Although much of this episode was putting things in place for the finale, its final at was impressively action-packed from the Fingers Vs Defenders rumble to good martial arts based showdown between Elektra and Danny (even if they did overdo the slow-mo).
The episode has some good round-offs over smaller season plots. Matt’s indecision over being Daredevil is firmly in his rear view mirror, “Karen, this is my life”. Then Colleen has regained her confidence and even proves to be a driving force in the heroic necessity of their more extreme plans. It’s a development which pays off a smaller running thread right from the early episodes and looks set to end the season with a bang.
Elektra continues to impress in her leading villain role. Élodie Yung is doing a great job of mixing in mannerisms of her time on Daredevil along with newer features from her Black Sky incarnation. I would have liked a bit more resistance among her fellow Hand bigwigs though as she asserts her control. At best, their efforts are a Sheldon Cooper, Physics Bowl formal protest.
So one more episode to go, can New York’s finest heroes on a TV budget save the day? Either way, I still feel like we can already call this team venture a success. It might have dipped a little in episodes 5 & 6 but at all times, it has entertained me. Hmmm, I wonder who could make a punishing cameo appearance?
Episode 8, Defenders – As The Hand begins harvesting “the substance”, the Defenders head deep underground to stop them collapsing New York City in the process.
Now, big final conflicts in TV shows often fail in living up to audience expectations. Defenders is no exception in that while it’s climatic full team Vs Hand showdown is a lot of fun, it doesn’t quite have the energy of episode 3’s hallway sequence. There are plenty of good action moments but it feels more like a conventional superhero TV rather than the higher standards Marvel/Netflix have set. What’s more, the less expected scenery does give the conflict a more unique feel. Thankfully, this is not the only weapon up the finale’s arsenal. The supporting fighting cast are not neglected with Claire, Misty & Colleen given their own villain showdown. There are some good dramatic stakes courtesy of the literal ticking clock and most importantly, all there is significant fall out and consequences for many involved.
Just like 2012's Avengers was a game-changer within the films so too do these events carry rippling consequences for each hero going their separate way. Director Farren Blackburn gets across the positive value of the team-up. Even the more anti-social likes of Jessica are seen to understand what the group can accomplish by uniting which gives them that vital reason to do it again. The final minutes also gives each hero a decent finishing position for a vague lead into their next respective season, one of which will give plans plenty to theorise about.
So looking back across the 8 episodes, I’m not going to hesitate in calling the collaboration a knockout victory. The first-half episodes were definitely the strongest and the show was at its best in bringing its heroes together rather than setting them to an objective but the important work has been done. The Defenders are in place as New York’s finest giving Marvel/Netflix the confidence to go forward with greater ambition. For now though, we’ve still got a date with Frank Castle before the end of 2017... something tells me he’s going to kill it.