Spoilers ahead for Daredevil season two.
After seven episodes of dour grimness, episode eight of Marvel’s Daredevil brought us a marvelous treat. We saw the surprise return of Wilson Fisk, played once again with seething bravado by Vincent D’Onofrio. The girthy crime lord was a constant source of delight in the show’s first season, antagonizing hero Matt Murdock for 13 episodes before being hauled off to prison. He was a raging child in the massive body of a man, his refined manners only briefly disguising his petulance and viciousness. His vocal cadences — filled with pauses and emphases that seemed chosen almost at random — were unique and hilarious. Even though D’Onofrio played Fisk with laser-focus seriousness, his energy and abandon provided fun in a show with far too little of it. His absence looms large over the first seven episodes of this season (which were the only ones released to critics in advance of the season’s debut).
Then, in a reveal that would have felt right at home in a comic book, Fisk returns. The eighth episode focuses mainly on the trial of Jon Bernthal’s vigilante gunman Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher. Castle loses his shit on the witness stand and starts screaming that he’s guilty, prompting the judge to have him incarcerated. But something’s afoot. Earlier in the episode, we saw a corrections officer whisper something mysterious to Castle before his outburst, and once he’s in prison, that same officer escorts Castle to a secluded room. Inside, the Punisher finds a hefty man bench-pressing an impossible weight. The man sits up, revealing himself to be pasty ol’ Fisk. “I see you got my message,” he says, his eyes calmly devious and his head slightly cocked. Cut to the credits.
The next two episodes feature an abundance of D’Onofrio treasures. He only gets six scenes, but he dominates all of them. The operatic language and weird vocal tics he crafted last season are here in abundance. Take, for example, a little monologue he deploys to woo Castle. “I assumed that the stories that I read in the paper about your ... attacks on the criminal world ... were apocryphal,” he says. “How could one man be capable of such ... " — and here he pauses for three full seconds — "violence?”
Speaking of violence, we get to see D’Onofrio inflict a fair amount of his own. A handcuffed Fisk has a jailhouse conversation with Murdock in episode ten, and it begins with a simmeringly intense battle of words between the two men. But Matt makes the grave mistake of threatening Fisk’s lady-love, Vanessa. Fisk’s eyes narrow. He lightly grimaces. Then he makes a sound that I can only describe as reptilian before lunging forward and revealing that he was able to break out of the cuffs at any time. He slams Matt’s head into the table between them twice before screaming, “Speak her name again! Go ahead!” You think he can’t get any louder, but D’Onofrio turns the volume knob all the way up and breaks it right off the machine. “While I try and sleep in this bleak place ... the one thing that keeps me warm,” he bellows, “is the thought that I will look down upon this city ... the city that birrrrrthed me ... with the woman that I love, who ... whom I love with everything that I am!”
Interactions like this are filled with a manic energy that the first half of the season sorely lacks. In all of his scenes, D’Onofrio offers us a heady mix of goofiness and terror. We see Fisk’s adorable first day in prison, where he sits alone at a lunch table like a terrified transfer student arriving at a new school in the middle of third grade. We see him enact an extremely bloody long con to curry favor among a cadre of inmates and overthrow the top dog. We see him retain an air of refinement and dignity despite his massive frame, onesie jumpsuit, and canvas sneakers. We even see him sip red wine out of a tiny, disposable plastic cup while listening to classical music in a prison cell. There’s never a dull moment when Fisk is onscreen.
I'm tempted to say D'Onofrio's performance is an example of what a good actor can do with subpar material, but the fact is he gets to work with dialogue that's miles ahead of what other characters get to say. It seems like Fisk acts as a muse for the writing staff in a way that Matt, Frank, and the rest simply don't. Luckily, it feels like he's going to get many more opportunities to terrify and tickle us in the third season. His final scenes aggressively foreshadow the idea that he's returning to his rightful throne as primary villain. “You see, when I'm finally let out of this cage,” he says to Castle, “it won't be to wage war, it will be to win one.” One can only hope.