Here is where we finally talk about Born Again. I’ve intentionally avoided talking about any comic-book source material thus far — I generally prefer to talk about the show for what it is, and not compare it against whatever it may be adapted from. But, more than any season before it, Daredevil season three is working from a single comic-book story — perhaps the most famous Daredevil story, Born Again, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.
As far as seminal graphic novels go, Born Again is an oddity. It’s considered a quintessential Daredevil graphic novel, but Daredevil is barely in it. Instead, it’s a story about Matt Murdock hitting rock bottom, as Wilson Fisk (not imprisoned, and operating with impunity as the Kingpin of Crime) learns Murdock is Daredevil, and uses his power and influence to ruin him. There’s little in the way of action, and it’s not great for getting a good sense of what Matt Murdock is like — he spends most of it paranoid and destitute, living on the streets and barely keeping it together.
One of the fascinating things about the third season of Daredevil is how it’s translated the narrative of Born Again to make sense in this version of the Daredevil story. Entire scenes are re-created in new contexts (Matt being sent to the bottom of the Hudson in a taxi), story beats large and small are rethought (literally everything involving Karen Page), and new elements (most notably, Agent Rahul Nadeem, and this show’s version of Bullseye) — are folded in. It’s an interesting thing to take apart, if you’ve read the comic.
In many ways, it improves on the source material, making more thoughtful choices than the original comic did. (I really can’t stress enough how Born Again’s subplot wherein Karen Page, who has become a strung-out junkie who sells Daredevil’s secret identity for another hit needed reworking.) In others, it’s a little less satisfying, namely in the service of being a TV show. A big part of what makes Born Again work is its unbearably sharp focus on Matt’s descent — something that Daredevil knows would make for unbearably grim television, but it also meanders too much in its efforts to ratchet up a comparable level of dread and despair across its entire cast.
The show’s compromise, then, is Rahul Nadeem, the good cop with just the right amount of zeal and arrogance to facilitate his own undoing, and give Wilson Fisk a clear path back to power. If you’ve been frustrated by the focus on Nadeem, “Revelations” hopes to prove that it’s all been worthwhile. And for the most part, it works.
In “Revelations,” Nadeem finds out he’s been so thoroughly and completely rolled that there’s nothing to do but gape in horror. This moment comes just as he’s about to try and right himself, bringing the Office of Professional Responsibility’s Agent Winn to Hatley’s home so he can tell her, safe from prying ears, about the vast conspiracy he’s begun to suspect he’s played into. But as soon as Hatley opens her door and apologizes for renovations, I knew it was over. Renovations means tarps everywhere. Tarps everywhere means that Hatley can shoot Winn in the middle of Nadeem’s taped confession with the gun that he handed over to her, record herself screaming as if Nadeem killed Winn, and give the recording to Fisk’s fixer, Felix Manning, who’s been waiting in the wings.
It turns out that Hatley has been in Fisk’s pocket from the start, doing her part to try and dissuade Nadeem from involving himself too much, or crossing a threshold like this one where she had no choice but to blackmail him and bring him fully under Fisk’s control.
Now, there are no more pretenses. Dex, now Fisk’s willing stooge and also a fully reinstated FBI agent, becomes Nadeem’s shadow, intimidating him at home, making him call Daredevil to lure him into a trap, taking him to his first meeting with law-enforcement officials who are also completely in Fisk’s thrall, doing his bidding, calling him by a code name: Kingpin.
I realize that, while I’ve done it casually as I know these characters from the comics, Daredevil has never actually used Wilson Fisk’s comic-book alias — mostly because it’s kind of silly. A crime lord as clever as the Fisk of this show, working so effectively from the shadows, giving himself a nickname? Poppycock. Being a person who generally prefers comic-book adaptations to fully embrace their comic-book roots, I disagree with that decision, but it’s redeemed here: Wilson Fisk has, from captivity, managed to achieve a level of influence that supersedes the reach he had when free. That’s a whole new level of power. That’s an ascent to supervilliany, complete with an honest-to-God supervillain name.
If there were any doubt about this, it’s solidified when Dex and Nadeem accompany Fisk to a meeting with the last remaining major players in the underworld. It’s a moment where Fisk fully flexes his power to both Nadeem and the assembled bosses, showing the former that his house arrest has been a fiction this whole time, and the latter that Fisk has the FBI under his sway.
This was also meant to be a performance for the benefit of Matt Murdock, but Matt, suspecting Nadeem is setting him up under duress, doesn’t show up to the meet. He really, really wants to though. He’s spiraling further due to the revelation that Sister Maggie is his mother, but instead of confronting her in the sanctuary, he finds Father Lantom, who spends his free time in a dive bar shooting pool with people who have no idea he’s a priest. And all he had to do was remove the white collar!
Matt, quite reasonably, feels betrayed by Father Lantom for all of the years he knew Sister Maggie was his mother and did not tell him, even though he was an orphan who thought himself alone. Lantom has little to say for himself, other than how we often aren’t willing to see our parents as people.
So we get a flashback, where we see exactly that. A young Maggie, as a nun who hasn’t taken her vows yet, sneaking off with her friends to see a boxing match where Battlin’ Jack Murdock is fighting. How she falls for him when he asks her to be his cutman, because a nun wouldn’t slip anything into his water. How she goes home with him, they have a child, and she slips into postpartum depression, believing herself to have betrayed God.
It’s not clear whether or not Lantom told Matt any of this — but he’s hearing his father’s voice now, haunted by his apparition as he breaks back into the old gym where his dad used to fight and starts to rope his hands up, with the intention of taking Nadeem’s bait and fighting his way through Dex to kill Fisk.
Throughout, Jack Murdock’s voice is telling Matt that he’s playing himself, that Daredevil is just a way for him to feel better about being a violent man. And soon, his dad’s voice becomes Fisk’s, taunting him until Matt fantasizes about beating Fisk bloody, breaking his neck. He arises from the bench he never got up from, calm, and leaves to carry out his plan.
For a few minutes, Daredevil lets us think that Matt has completely fooled himself into thinking that he can take Dex and Fisk, despite their trap. But it turns out the building that we see Matt breaking into isn’t the restaurant where Fisk is meeting, but the hotel where he’s supposed to be under house arrest. Matt finds Fisk’s secret room, and the woman he’s blackmailed into monitoring every feed when he’s not there and wearing his ankle bracelet when he’s not around. He also learns that Fisk’s people have found Karen Page at the Clinton church he’d been staying at, and that they want her dead.