The Defenders is at its best when it’s exploring the relationships between its main heroes. As I wrote in the last recap, the Hand’s master plan is too cloudy to be truly compelling, but at least it’s bringing this quartet together and forcing them to bond over their experiences as superpowered individuals. “Ashes, Ashes” spends a lot of time delving into these character dynamics, focusing on three central pairs: Danny and Luke, Jessica and Matt, and Alexandra and Elektra. In the case of that last pairing, the return of Elektra’s personality creates some significant changes for the show’s future: Although Alexandra knows how to handle Black Sky, she doesn’t anticipate what Elektra is plotting.
Before the big Elektra twists, the heroes have to figure out what to do now that they know the Iron Fist is an essential part of the Hand’s agenda. The information gained from the late Sowande has the team scrambling to get Danny as far away as possible, but after dedicating his life to stopping the Hand, Danny refuses to be pushed to the sidelines. Danny is a brat in this episode, refusing to listen to his teammates because of his own pride. He’s built up a hero narrative in his head, so he can’t fathom that he’s just a key the Hand needs to open a lock. He fully embraces the Iron Fist identity because it makes him feel bigger, and he lashes out when he’s asked to hide instead of fight.
The script by executive producer Drew Goddard and co-showrunner Marco Ramirez has Danny’s anger rising from his sense of duty, but the performance from Finn Jones gives the impression that this outburst is driven by ego. His privilege comes into play again as he assumes he knows what’s best for the group despite being outnumbered, and he tries to blame his teammates’ decisions on the Hand’s manipulation when they’re making the smart choice. Hiding Danny away isn’t dividing the group: Jessica, Luke, and Matt are all in agreement the he needs to be taken off the grid before the Hand uses him for whatever horrible thing they have planned, and Danny doesn’t want to go along with this strategy because it means he doesn’t get to fulfill the destiny he believes to be his.
Danny throws the first punch when his teammates try to calm his temper tantrum, and the three-on-one fight scene is a considerable step up from the muddy action of the last episode. Showing Matt and Danny’s brawl from a side view evokes the look of a 2-D fighting video game, which is very appropriate for these hand-to-hand fighters. There’s also a sprinkle of humor, thanks to occasional shots of Jessica glowering at these men who only know how to solve problems by beating each other up, and you can feel her judging them while she wonders how the hell she ended up in this situation. Danny takes things too far when he uses his iron fist, and Jessica is the person that shuts down the situation by delivering a swift knockout punch to his face so they can tie him up and figure out where to hide him.
The Defenders is making an effort to sell the Luke and Danny partnership that is a big part of their history in the comics, and these characters do blend together well onscreen. Luke’s incredulity punctures Danny’s inflated image of himself and his personal struggle, and Danny’s need to make Luke his friend brings out a warm, amiable side of the character that doesn’t get much play. In a world where aliens attacked New York City with the help of a Norse god, people should be willing to accept just about any crazy idea that comes their way, but that doesn’t mean they can’t comment on how ridiculous it all sounds on the surface. Luke’s grounded point of view makes it hard for him to swallow Danny’s fantastic backstory, and while he jokes about Danny fighting a dragon, he also acknowledges how wild his own story is (and how he’d rather face a dragon than Jessica Jones).
Meanwhile, an episode like this one highlights how valuable Jessica’s perspective is for not just the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the entire superhero genre. The reluctant hero is a common trope, but rarely is that reluctance as extreme as Jessica’s. She’s a character who has great power, but actively shirks the responsibility that is typically associated with it. She’ll help others for a price, and even then she’s trying not to use her powers unless the situation really calls for it. That doesn’t mean she lacks a conscience, though, and she holds herself accountable when things go wrong that she believes she could have stopped.
“Ashes, Ashes” puts viewers back in Jessica’s world as she teams up with Matt to get more information about the architect who killed himself before the Hand could get to him. They visit the architect’s home and find blueprints for Midland Circle hidden inside the piano, giving them new information they can use to decide their next course of action. (Sidenote: Now that all these heroes have teamed up, I expect the next seasons of their individual series to feature more interconnectivity. Hopefully that means more of Jessica and Matt together, because Krysten Ritter and Charlie Cox have a playful chemistry that makes them very fun to watch.)
It’s clear that Stick is willing to kill Danny if it means keeping the Iron Fist away from the Hand, so when he sees an opening to win this war, he takes it. Jessica and Matt have to rush to Luke and Danny’s rescue when Stick poisons them, but before Stick can take out Danny, Elektra arrives to procure the Hand’s key. Yes, this is Elektra, not Black Sky. She addresses Matt by name when he rushes into the room, and after being used as a pawn by both Stick and Alexandra, she’s ready to take over the board. The first thing she does is kill Stick, but he’s just one of two major casualties in this episode.
Tensions within the Hand continue to grow once Sowande’s death is discovered. His expendability was reinforced by the series spending almost no time on his character, so Murakami’s insistence that losing Sowande is a huge blow rings completely false. He just wants a reason to challenge Alexandra’s authority, and Sowande’s death allows him to appeal to the other fingers’ fear for their lives. Murakami wants Madame Gao and Bakuto to believe that Alexandra will lead them to destruction, but by the end of the episode, she delivers on her promise to retrieve the Iron Fist with Black Sky’s help. Alexandra is dreading the prospect of a permanent death, but while she’s alive, she has no doubts about her superiority. She’s so focused on the threat from the other fingers, though, that she doesn’t consider a new enemy emerging under her tutelage.
Black Sky is caught between her two identities throughout “Ashes, Ashes.” She still has Elektra’s memories, which are becoming more vivid the longer she’s alive. She dreams of a warm morning conversation with Matt while sleeping in his bed, and she cares more about her old lover than anyone else in her life — even the woman that raised her from the dead. The greatest mistake Alexandra makes is giving Black Sky more information than she needs to know. After finding Black Sky at the grave of Elektra, Alexandra tells her details about her former life and her history with “the devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” which isn’t the best thing to do. (Especially when the other members of the Hand are already giving Alexandra grief because Black Sky isn’t being the “empty vessel” they were promised.) Alexandra then reveals that she’s dying and needs Black Sky to regain the substance that grants eternal life, and this key bit of information changes their dynamic forever. Black Sky now knows just how vulnerable Alexandra is, and as Elektra rises to the surface, she sees an opportunity to take control of both herself and the rest of the Hand.
With the Iron Fist in their grasp, the fingers of the Hand continue to bicker about who should be in charge, and Alexandra is sick and tired of listening to it. In one of the finest acting moments of the series so far, Sigourney Weaver delivers a perfectly exasperated eye roll just before Alexandra decides to assert her dominance once again. But when she tells Black Sky to kill the heroes — including the devil of Hell’s Kitchen — Elektra refuses to cooperate. She sneaks up on Alexandra and sticks a sword through her heart, and after telling the other fingers of the Hand that she’s seizing control, she cuts off Alexandra’s head. It’s disappointing to lose Weaver’s strong presence, but the death of Alexandra results in The Defenders’ most dramatic cliff-hanger yet, altering the course of the series as it heads into its final two episodes.