White Awake by Daniel Hill, Free for CAPC Members
White Awake brings us back again and again, gently but inexorably, to the truths that we’re so unwilling to face, steadily prying our hands from our eyes.
Daredevil has always been an unapologetically religious show, leaning in to the character’s Catholic roots rather than shying away from them. Season 1 opened in a confessional booth where Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) asks forgiveness for sins he’s about to commit as the vigilante hero Daredevil. Matt regularly invokes God and his faith as reason and rationale behind his vigilante actions, and he spends time in mass and communion seeking guidance and absolution for his sins. This is why, in season 3, it makes sense that Matt would end up back inside the church when he faces his first true crisis of faith—a crisis brought about by the loss of both his love and his faculties after a terrible accident. Matt Murdock is caught in a season of grief, his dual identities as man and masked vigilante sundered from each other. In a battle with God, and unable to reclaim his moral compass, he determines to live only as the devil inside and leave Matt Murdock behind.
To truly follow and understand Matt’s journey in season 3, one has to be familiar with the spiritual tempering he’s already gone through in seasons 1 and 2—from the beginning of his “mission” in the confessional booth, through his confirmed belief that he was doing God’s work in serving the people of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, through conversations on rooftops with the Punisher on the nature of justice, through paying the ultimate sacrifice so that others may live at the end of The Defenders. Matt Murdock has always been known for his steadfastness, his faith, and his devotion to the moral high road, especially his belief that he must never kill. But all this is shaken when, in episode 1 of season 3, Matt awakens to darkness, grief, and literal silence. He can’t hear or smell, which means he can’t “see” (in the special, sense-heightened way that allows him to be Daredevil). After the terrible accident that nearly took his life, he may have been “resurrected” physically, but Matt Murdock is a broken man. And this brokenness—the loss of the faculties that give him the powers to fight crime, to be “God’s perfect soldier” as he says—leads also to spiritual darkness. God, he feels, has abandoned him. His attitude reflects that of C. S. Lewis who wrote in A Grief Observed, “He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.” Because Matt views his superhuman abilities as a gift from God to bring judgment and justice on God’s enemies, his literal deafness leads to the belief that God is being silent in the face of his anguish. “We finally know where we stand with one another,” Matt says of God.
Where does Matt stand with God? Daredevil season 3 opens with Matt Murdock as Daredevil suspended in fire and blood in an upside-down cross position. He is then expelled through water into darkness, his body and spirit broken. These images of a falling away from faith—a sort of reverse sanctification—let the viewer know from the first moments of episode 1 (titled “Resurrection”) that the most faithful hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to face not only a season of grief, but a dark night of the soul. As Frank Castle, the killer vigilante known as the Punisher (played by Jon Bernthal), once told Matt in season 2 during a fateful rooftop conversation, “You know you’re one bad day away from being me.” It seems, both in episode 1 and as season 3 progresses, that the “one bad day” Frank predicted may have arrived. Matt is disillusioned, faithless, alone, bitter, and—having lost regard for human life including his own—both suicidal and tempted to effect justice through killing. Season 3 of Daredevil is Matt’s crucible, where he has to reckon not only with his presuppositions about God, but his notions about self, calling, and sin—and what it looks like to unmoor not only that self, but his dual natures from moral absolutes. What does it look like for the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen to operate not as an agent of God, but as an agent of pure wrath?
The villain Wilson Fisk gives Matt—and thus us, the viewers—the opportunity to find out. Matt Murdock never once, the entire season, takes back up his red mantle of Daredevil, despite saying in episode 1 that he’d rather “die as the devil than live as Matt Murdock.” This does not mean, however, that there is no one running around in Matt’s suit. FBI agent, former army sharpshooter, and closet psychopath Ben “Dex” Poindexter (Wilson Bethel), under the manipulation of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), takes on Daredevil’s persona and supposed mission while Matt wrestles with God and the physical limitations of his recovery. But Dex is a psychopath, detached from faith and any moral absolutism outside of a shifting “north star,” as he calls it. Wilson Fisk, master manipulator that he is, realizes this about Dex and places himself as the moral center of Dex’s universe, able, therefore, to convince Dex to do anything he wants him to. Dex is a weapon for Fisk to point and shoot, and Matt Murdock is the target—Matt’s life is the life Fisk wants more than anything to destroy.
As Dex cuts a bloody swath through Hell’s Kitchen, in Matt’s suit and under Daredevil’s name, Matt is able to gradually see what the devil inside—his vigilante persona—actually looks like outside of his faith. Outside of the God who (as he’s always believed) called him to be his servant—to protect, to hope, to persevere.Daredevil season 3 is a warning against the devil that lies within us all, the prowling lion that seeks to destroy. It is a proclamation that life and death are spiritual matters. But it is also a promise of redemption for those who seek.
Wilson Fisk is a villain who specializes in bringing people’s inner demons to the fore. If he had a superpower, it would be manipulation. Fisk relishes in the destruction of people’s lives, and he knows that everyone will crumble from the inside out if you find the right pressure points, the right nerves to expose and squeeze. He is so assured of the prominence and exploitability of sin and fear in people that he seems almost able to read minds, not just bringing people’s inner demons out to play, but acting as the devil himself. In his dark night of the soul, Matt comes to believe that Fisk is irredeemable and therefore must die to be stopped—and he must be the one to kill him. But Wilson Fisk is not the man wrestling with God, and the salvation of Hell’s Kitchen does not hinge on his rise or fall. A villain is a villain and is expected to act villainous. But a hero who has fallen from the straight and narrow—who is “one bad day away from” becoming a killer, is in danger of plunging the entire soul of a community into darkness, as well. The story is not—has never been—about the redemption of Wilson Fisk. It’s about the redemption of Matt Murdock.
The reclamation of Matt’s faith is not just about saving his own soul, it is about saving the people of Hell’s Kitchen. His determination to separate himself from Daredevil—to leave Matt Murdock behind—represents not only a fall from faith, but a separation of body and spirit that can’t be sustained. It leaves him incapable of taking down the villain who would have him operate in just that manner: as only the devil inside. And Matt Murdock’s redemption just might point to wherein lies the redemption of us all.
The shifting moral compass of Dex as a mock Daredevil, the devilish lack of morality displayed by Wilson Fisk, and Matt’s own slow journey back to faith in God as True North reveal not only the private and corporate nature of both sin and redemption, but also that the reclamation of our souls lies outside ourselves. It lies in forgiveness—most specifically, God’s forgiveness. Matt has always known this; he just needs to be reminded. As early as episode 1, while encouraging some street thugs to kill him, he says, “God forgive me,” even though earlier the same episode, he refused the eucharist, said, “I am what I do in the dark now. I bleed only for myself,” and tossed a crucifix away.
Matt’s season of grief and rage against God goes through ups and downs, but it becomes clear that his episode 1 “resurrection” was a resurrection of the body, only. His mind, his soul, his spirit are slowly baptized back into communion with God and his redemption is a process that is shown through a variety of ways over the course of the season: He must forgive his spiritual mentor, Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie), for a long and surprising betrayal. He is restored to the fellowship of his friends. He goes through another symbolic resurrection (from the posture of a pieta, nonetheless) after a fight with Dex in the church. He begins once again to wear the color red against his skin beneath his black clothing, and the crucifix (also against his skin) which he tossed away in episode 1. He is restored to the full use of his sensory powers.
But Matt’s full redemption doesn’t come until the final episode of the season when, in fighting Wilson Fisk, he refuses to kill him. Matt goes to Fisk’s apartment planning on killing him, and it is the ultimate test. Although Fisk doesn’t want to die, in a perverse way he goads Matt on, because he knows what murder will do to Matt Murdock’s soul—and Fisk, as the master manipulator, relishes in bringing Matt to his greatest crucible. Fisk has always wanted to supplant God in Matt’s life, and if Matt kills him, Fisk believes he will have won. But at the moment of climax, Matt releases Fisk, refusing to do so. He will send Fisk back to prison instead, even if that prison can’t hold him. At the end of himself, Matt gives up his carnal rage as he realizes that showing undeserved mercy to Wilson Fisk is a mercy to his own soul. He shouts, “You don’t get to destroy who I am!”
Long before this, on a rooftop in episode 3 of season 2, Frank Castle and Matt Murdock quarreled over the nature of justice—whether it ought to be retributive or restorative. “I think that the people I kill need killing,” Frank said to Matt. “I think there’s no good in the people I put down… I hit ‘em and they stay down.” But Matt disagreed. “Redemption. It’s real, and it’s possible. People deserve another chance… to try… and if you don’t get that, Frank, then there’s something broken in you that you can’t fix.” Matt didn’t know, at that time, that the redemption he spoke of—the redemption he believed so strongly in—would someday be a redemption he himself needed to repair a brokenness he couldn’t fix on his own. As C. S. Lewis wrote when he went through his season of grief, “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” Daredevil season 3 is a warning against the devil that lies within us all, the prowling lion that seeks to destroy. It is a proclamation that life and death are spiritual matters. But it is also a promise of redemption for those who seek. When we fix our compasses on God as True North, nobody ever gets to destroy who we are.
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