The heroes of The Defenders lost a fight to Elektra, and Iron Fist is caught in the Hand’s grasp, but “Fish in the Jailhouse” presents an even more pressing problem: the NYPD. The police find Jessica, Luke, and Matt unconscious at a crime scene with two unidentified murder victims, and the NYPD has a load of questions that they simply don’t have time to answer. They need to move fast, but they also need to be smart if they’re going to make it out of this without completely destroying their reputations.
Coming right after the episode’s opening flashback to Stick and Elektra, this tableau of knocked-out heroes provides a jolt of intensity, especially with the score’s electric guitar and percussion building to that final shot of police lights flashing on Matt. The NYPD is a different kind of threat, and one that they need to handle with more finesse than the Hand. “Fish in the Jailhouse” captivates because it commits to showing the personal ramifications of this increasingly fantastic conflict. It’s hard for these heroes to even say what they’re dealing with out loud because it sounds so ludicrous, but the reality of the situation is becoming clear: They have to risk their futures in order to stop an immortal threat. Even Jessica is now fully invested in their mission, although she acknowledges that the plot is “the dumbest,” to provide some light lampshading. Yes, this is a very stupid plot. And yes, Jessica should be annoyed that she’s stuck in the middle of it.
Episode writers Lauren Schmidt Hissrich and Marco Ramirez recognize that the most interesting thing about the Hand is how it upends the lives of the lead heroes, and getting detained by the police immediately puts Jessica, Luke, and Matt in a more tense situation. Jessica and Luke are people with known superpowers and colorful pasts, but to the police, Matt is just a blind attorney who’s somehow gotten involved with them. He has a connection that Misty Knight is eager to figure out, but if the truth is discovered, it would shatter Matt’s legal career and create shockwaves that would harm Foggy, too.
This episode brings that dilemma to the forefront of the story, and even though Foggy is nervous about how Matt’s crusade will affect him down, he also realizes that Matt is in a unique position to save the city. He actually brings Matt the Daredevil costume at the police station, later justifying this to Karen by saying he believes Matt might exorcise the devil inside him if he finishes this one last job. Like “Take Shelter,” “Fish in the Jailhouse” features a lot of the show’s supporting players, but they have more active roles in the story: Misty interacts with all three heroes as she tries to figure out what the hell she’s dealing with; Foggy and Karen come to terms with Matt being back in the Daredevil suit; and Colleen takes action to save Danny and crush the Hand.
One of the most interesting scenes is Colleen and Claire’s conversation while they’re waiting for Luke to wake up, which mirrors the pep talk Claire gave to Colleen in “Take Shelter.” As the person who can’t seem to escape superhero shenanigans, Claire is wondering how she ended up at this strange, stressful point in her life. “Is sidekick a good look for me?” Claire asks, and Colleen points out that getting involved at all shows that she is just as heroic as the people with superpowers — maybe even moreso because she’s more vulnerable. Colleen has been in the vigilante hero mind-set for a while, but Misty and Claire are just now realizing where they fit in the superhero world. When Claire talks about Luke realizing his full potential, you get the sense that she’s also accepting her role as not just a supportive lover, but an invaluable ally with very necessary medical expertise.
Meanwhile, Simone Missick is giving one of the best performances in the entire MCU as Misty Knight, and the depth and nuance she brought to Luke Cage carry over to The Defenders. Missick makes Misty’s intentions complicated, clear, and totally convincing, painting a multifaceted picture of a genuine hero who feels she can always be doing more to help our community. Misty respects the NYPD and acknowledges the importance of the law, but also recognizes that in a world of aliens, gods, and superpowers, there are some problems that traditional law enforcement isn’t equipped to handle.
Vigilantes with extraordinary abilities could be a huge boon to the NYPD in these instances, and Misty realizes that it’s better to work with these people than against them. Her career is on the line with this case, but her faith in Luke inspires her to trust the heroes, even after they break out of the police station by punching through a brick wall. Though she’s going to suffer for their decisions, she’s still willing to help them because they wouldn’t go to these drastic lengths if they didn’t have a good reason.
In perhaps the most emblematic scene of The Defenders, Jessica, Luke, and Matt are forced to take the subway to get across town because the police have their wallets, and the shot of the three of them sitting on a subway car showcases what makes street-level superhero stories so engaging. They take superheroes, who are typically larger than life, and ground them in a reality that is more recognizable and relatable for viewers. These characters have super lives, but there are also moments that are ordinary and mundane. A two-hour movie doesn’t have much time to spend on these moments, but a TV show lingers with characters to reveal how they live when they’re not fighting. In the case of Jessica Jones, she’ll steal a sleeping homeless man’s beer if her week is bad enough, which continues to separate her from the popular interpretation of a superhero.
Over on the supervillain front, Elodie Yung brings a gleefully sinister quality to Elektra, who is high on the power of both the Black Sky and her new self-appointed position as leader of The Hand. She makes some valid points when she tries to convince Danny to join her, and it leads me to wonder how the series would turn out if Elektra killed Stick and Alexandra and then reached out to the quartet of heroes before grabbing the Iron Fist. Elektra’s long-term motivation is vague, but it looks like she’s mostly in this fight so she can get her hands on “the substance” and live longer. She doesn’t care about the Hand, and she’d be happy to see the organization fall apart. When Gao berates Elektra for killing the woman who fostered so many of the global relationships that allowed the Hand to operate in secret, Elektra makes it clear that the Hand’s current system doesn’t impress her and doesn’t match her idea of what true power is.
I don’t know what Elektra plans to do with eternal life, but maybe she could use her immortality to do some good for the world. When she talks to Danny, she points out that they have both been used as weapons in a war they didn’t start, and joining up with Elektra doesn’t have to mean Danny is automatically evil. Of course, Elektra is still a killer, so she represents a very serious threat if she ever does succumb to the dark side, but in this episode, there’s still hope for rehabilitation. The opening flashback with Stick shows that Matt was able to change Elektra in the past, and her love for him is so strong that I could see her takeover of the Hand being a valiant move rather than the villainous one the show frames it as.
This episode’s pair of big fight sequences occur at the same time, and the action cuts between Elektra and Danny facing off underground and the other three heroes taking on the remaining fingers of the Hand. With less to cover, Elektra and Danny’s fight is cleaner and more visually compelling, particularly the dramatic use of slow motion. The other showdown is more cluttered and relies too heavily on cement blocks to punctuate the action. It’s cool to see Madame Gao use her chi to throw these blocks at her opponents, but it’s not as impressive as well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat.
Eventually Elektra is able to use Danny’s fist to break through the wall built by K’un-Lun’s priests, and the episode ends with a big reveal: Behind that wall is the skeleton of a dragon that looks a lot like the one tattooed on Danny’s chest. How is that dragon tied to the substance? Will it play a part in the culling of New York City? At the end of an episode that spends time looking at the gritty details, this cliff-hanger introduces a rush of mysticism that could spell very bad things for the heroes as they head into the finale.