Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Daredevil is that it doesn’t ever stop being an origin story. This is a problem closely related to the one I brought up in my recap of the penultimate episode: Daredevil constantly eschews exploring new themes in favor of the same old one, with its characters presenting arguments for whether or not Daredevil should kill over and over again.
But it also runs deeper than that. Daredevil has never really cast its protagonist as the fully-formed hero we want him to be, the one teased by the looming figure on every episode’s title card. The closest it ever came to that was in season two, in which Matt was openly operating as Daredevil — but that was in a story that challenged Daredevil’s methods and mission at every turn. Matt Murdock has never been allowed to simply be Daredevil, confident in his mission, a man without fear. This is part of what has made season three so frustrating as it wraps up: It’s out to deconstruct a character who has never really been that firmly constructed to begin with.
The season three finale, “A New Napkin,” opens with Matt, in his black suit, working his way to Dex by interrogating Manning, who gives him something that he can use by telling him about Julie, Dex’s former fixation.
Turns out Fisk had her killed, and he knows where the body is. He also says Vanessa got Nadeem killed. At this point, he’s singing, happy to part with every secret in order to save his life, so he goes with the last one he knows, revealing what Fisk wants to do next: get married. Tomorrow night.
I honestly appreciate how much of Kingpin’s arc always boils down to crime-lord romance. It makes Wilson Fisk feel unique in the annals of comic book villains. Love stories are usually given to the hero, but Matt is wholly unconcerned with romance this time around, so all we have is Fisk’s dark devotion to Vanessa, and I kind of dig it? Dude commits.
So, remember that farewell video Nadeem recorded at his home before he died? Turns out he snuck a full confession and testimony into the end of it, naming every corrupt FBI agent, as well as Ben Poindexter as the Daredevil Killer. It’s a video he intended for his wife to find and get to Foggy — which she does after Dex brings her in to get her to go along with the posthumous smear campaign Fisk has enacted against Nadeem, pinning OPR Agent Winn’s death on him. Mrs. Nadeem covertly gets the phone to Foggy, telling him it contains her husband’s last-ditch plan. And it’s a plan that might work, because, as Foggy tells Karen, a dying declaration is admissible in court. (I suspect it may be more complicated than that, but let’s roll with it.) But more importantly, they have another shot at taking Fisk down by the book — if only they can tell Matt before he tries to kill Fisk.
While at the FBI office, Dex gets a call from Matt, who says he’s coming for him, and his suit. He’s also read up on Dex’s history, taunting him about his therapist, and telling him that Fisk had Julie killed so he could replace her as Dex’s conscience. Dex, furious at the salt being rubbed in his wound, refuses to believe Matt. Matt says he doesn’t have to, and gives him an address.
At the given address, Dex finds Julie’s body, and Matt, calling him on the phone again, tells him that Fisk killed her, that Fisk is getting married tonight, and that Fisk doesn’t deserve happiness. Matt’s game, it seems, is to goad Dex into killing Fisk for him — or at least use him to clear the way for himself to get to Fisk.
It works, too. As the wedding guests, a mix of underworld players and the powerful people in Fisk’s pocket, arrive at the hotel, Dex drives into the hotel’s garage in his Daredevil costume, with Julie’s frozen corpse in the passenger seat. He’s there to fight his way to Fisk, and Matt is more than happy to follow.
Meanwhile, Wilson Fisk is married to Vanessa Marianna. They say their vows, they kiss, and they arrive at their reception, where they begin to dance. This being a 21st-century wedding, the guests surround them, recording them with smartphones. Only those smartphones begin to play something else, instead — Nadeem’s confession. And then the band stops playing, because Dex is there as Daredevil, ready to kill Fisk. And then Matt arrives to stop him.
Daredevil has a strange tradition of setting its big climactic fights far from its most impressive set pieces in any given season, and the three-way fight between Dex/Daredevil, Matt/Daredevil, and Fisk is no exception. It’s fine, yes, but it’s also the least imaginative, and certainly the most narratively confusing of this season. While Dex may have been necessary to get Matt past the sheer number of penthouse guards, he’s just a third wheel in a conflict between Fisk and Matt that’s been building all season, and he doesn’t have to be. Dex killed Father Lantom! He and Matt have a very personal beef right now! But Daredevil doesn’t really have the time to address that anymore, and so Dex becomes less a mortal enemy, and more another person standing in Matt’s way.
Here’s a weird thing about the final moments of the fight between Matt and Fisk: As tired as it is, and as down as I’ve been on it, the moment that Matt has Fisk at his mercy and instead chooses to bellow about how he won’t let Fisk change who he is worked on me. Maybe I’m cheap, or suffering from Netflix Show Stockholm Syndrome, but Matt’s sudden, painful affirmation of who he is, and his vow to have Fisk locked up and sworn to keep Matt’s secret (lest Matt inform the authorities that Vanessa ordered Nadeem’s death) is a weirdly cathartic moment. Matt has been suffering all season long, and we’ve been enduring his long downward spiral for 13 episodes. Seeing him finally yell out about how he needs to be a better person is maybe the only satisfying payoff you could get in a season like this one.
Fisk concedes, because he’s in love, and the two strike a deal: Fisk will go to jail quietly, and keep Matt’s secret, if Matt will keep Vanessa out of things. Detective Mahoney then arrives to take Fisk in — and to point out that the man dressed in black watching over them is in fact the real Daredevil.
The remainder of “A New Napkin” is about Matt making amends. He returns to Sister Maggie, seemingly at peace with the suffering he’s had to endure in his life because it ultimately led to Daredevil, a way for him to save lives. Sometimes he’d stray, but Lantom would help him find his way again — and he wants Maggie, his mother, to maybe do the same for him.
Matt, Karen, and Foggy are a trio once more, and Foggy, grabbing the titular new napkin, has an idea: Nelson, Page, and Murdock. It might work out. Matt’s moving back into his old apartment and sticking around. He’s got friends, and he’s happy to have them. (So does Dex, apparently, as a stinger reveals him undergoing an experimental surgery to repair his spine, leaving one loose end out there.) It is, for the most part, a happy ending. It’s just one that feels weirdly disjointed from the season it closes the book on.
Throughout its third season, Daredevil had a strange penchant for outright stating what it wanted to be about, despite not really doing the work to back it up. In the comics, Daredevil is frequently referred to by writers (but rarely by characters) as “The Man Without Fear.” That moniker was in place from his first appearance, with Stan Lee’s scripts suggesting that through his unique combination of handicap and superpower, Matt Murdock has been endowed with a certain recklessness that sighted men would never have. It was a nickname for a hero that was initially more swashbuckling and adventurous, before Frank Miller’s tenure as Daredevil writer redefined the character as the subject of dark crime epics.
Fear, and Matt’s confrontation of (or utter disregard for) it, have given us some of the very best Daredevil stories, and in its final moments, Daredevil’s third season wants to argue that it’s told a story that deals with that. “If Father Lantom had an enemy, I’d say it was fear,” Matt says in his eulogy for his late mentor. “Lantom taught me to transcend my fears, to be brave enough to forgive. And to see the possibilities of being a man without fear.”
But this season hasn’t told that story, really. It’s told a story about a stubborn man who has no real reason to go on doing what we are supposed to believe is his mission, who is emotionally stunted and destructive to the point that his friends are probably better off without him. (A cruel point that Miller’s Born Again quietly makes in the comics, and which is kind of made here.)
And what’s frustrating about all this is that, even if Daredevil had explicitly set out to tell an extremely long origin story, I still don’t quite know who this Matt is, or if Daredevil is going to be in his life, or what he wants Daredevil to be. Matt has been a man lost in a tunnel for so long that now that he’s found his way to the surface, he’s not quite sure how to be. Which leaves us with the question: should we stick around to find out?