“Karen” provided some much-needed backstory for its title character, and built to a major sacrifice and a fantastic closing fight sequence.
This review of Daredevil Season 3, Episode 10, “Karen”, contains spoilers. You can check out our spoiler-free review of the first six episodes by clicking these words, and find our review of the previous episode by clicking these ones.
Judging by the episode title, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the tenth episode of Daredevil’s third season focuses primarily on Karen (Deborah Ann Woll). But it might surprise you to learn that in her not-too-distant past she was a hard-partying coked-up drug dealer in the middle of nowhere, struggling to amass enough cash to keep the family’s diner business afloat. Perhaps this won’t be too much of a surprise, actually; Karen’s darker past has been hinted at throughout all three seasons of Daredevil, and her particularly turbulent treatments in some of the better-known comic-book story arcs (Frank Miller putting female characters through the wringer? You kid!) don’t exactly provide much light-hearted material to draw from. (There’s even a rather on-the-nose line referencing her blowjobs-for-heroin backstory, if you’re listening for it.)
Still, this episode is long overdue. Karen has been a central component of Daredevil since the beginning, but she has rarely been asked to do anything of actual worth. Even in this thus-far excellent third season, the majority of her time has been spent sobbing and simply reacting – her only proactive choice was to be dangerously stupid. But it seems like that has been a characteristic of hers forever. As a junkie dealer shacking up with an obvious wrong-‘un, she created problems for herself that had a knock-on effect for her father and brother, and used the fact that she was being expected to provide in her late mother’s absence as an all-too-convenient excuse.
It’s a good job that “Karen” was so well-written, because the smart script made its title character’s behaviour at worst understandable and at best extremely sympathetic. Grappling with small-town ennui and being asked to shoulder outsized responsibilities, not to mention still mourning the untimely loss of a parent, Karen’s need to rebel and her fear to leave the town and her family behind gave the episode a solid emotional centre. It hardly makes up for some of the dopey things Karen has done and continues to do in the course of the present-day story, but at the very least it provides a justification for some of her more irritating attitudes and characteristics.
You can also understand why her brother would burn her boyfriend’s trailer, even if it did ultimately get him killed. Oops. I’m not entirely sure if Karen losing pretty much her whole family and then essentially being banished by her father thanks to her actions constitutes too much sad backstory, but it certainly isn’t too little. The woman’s had it rough, to say the least. No wonder she cries so much.
The theme of blame – of oneself and other people – has been persistent throughout Daredevil’s third season, and is addressed specifically by Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie) when “Karen” returns to the present day. On some level, he has had to live with the fact that he intentionally withheld Matt’s (Charlie Cox) parentage from him, and as is typical of the show in its current form, that decision wasn’t straightforward or easy, and Matt’s reaction is either as appropriate or inappropriate as he deems it to be – the hardest part about making mistakes is that you don’t get to decide whether or when people forgive you for them, no matter the circumstances.
And there are always mistakes to be made. The dilemma Matt faces in “Karen” is that he has already infiltrated the inner sanctum of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio); if he leaves, his intrusion will be detected, security will be “tripled”, and the same opportunity will never present itself again. But he’s also aware that Dex (Wilson Bethel) has been dispatched to kill Karen. Without his protection, she will almost certainly be killed.
He chooses Karen. I mean, obviously.
Now, on the one hand, it’s highly ridiculous that Matt made his way from Fisk’s hotel to the church in roughly four seconds. On the other hand, good grief, this sequence was fantastic. Father Lantom’s sacrifice! Karen whispering instructions to Matt! The red backlighting! The fight in and amongst the pews, as Matt, in his do-rag and skipping-rope wraps, took on Dex in the Daredevil suit! The symbolism! The choreography!
And this accomplishes several things, narratively. Matt suffers defeat at the hands of his rival, who, despite having failed his mission to kill Karen, still survives. It raises the awkward question of whether or not he can really best Dex one-on-one. Matt’s closest confidante is dead, and died saving one of his best friends from a situation that he wouldn’t have been involved in were it not for Matt. What will that do for his mental state? How will he regroup? What will his next move be? And having been thwarted this time, how will Fisk and Dex respond? So many questions, so few episodes left to answer them. And perhaps, as a result, the best single season of Marvel’s collaboration with Netflix so far.