“Upstairs/Downstairs” gives Karen and Foggy something to do, sets Dex on a path of no return, and reveals a new truth about Matt Murdock.
This review of Daredevil Season 3, Episode 8, “Upstairs/Downstairs”, 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.
Daredevil has always had a knack for bizarrely perverting traditional superhero iconography, and I think the opening scene of “Upstairs/Downstairs” qualifies. “Dex” Pointdexter (Wilson Bethel), still wearing Daredevil’s suit, listening to self-help tapes while mundanely vacuuming his apartment, is an odd image; the kind of pointed remark on what type of people feel compelled to don those suits that superhero properties often don’t make or occasionally actively try to distract from. Even though Dex’s suit is a copy, and morally he’s an inversion of the man who usually wears it, both he and Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) have something in common: They’re broken.
People often decry the grim, dark treatments of costumed crime fighting popularised by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and embraced lately by Zack Snyder’s contributions to the DC cinematic universe, but these Marvel and Netflix collaborations have been as grim and as dark as any of them, and yet they somehow get away with it. Why? The easy answer is that they’re of a higher quality, but the truth of the matter is that their grimness and darkness is of a distinctly human variety. These characters – heroes and villains – are all broken; whether they’re donning or removing the masks, they’re doing so to stave off anxieties and traumas that define them more than their superpowers or alter-egos. It’s why Special Agent Ray Nadeem (Jay Ali) suspects Dex almost immediately, and why Dex, having assaulted the New York Bulletin offices and thus taken that dreaded next step towards evil, is so panicked and distraught. When he removed the mask, he was still the same man underneath.
Dex’s desperate conversations with Julie (Holly Cinnamon) in “Upstairs/Downstairs” reminded me of another Marvel character: Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, who was also a deeply damaged man given purpose by the military and then left to self-destruct in civilian life. Yet Frank is an anti-hero, not a villain; he was wronged more deeply, and the targets of his vengeance are more deserving of their fates. But are they really that different? Dex shows here willingness – more than that, a need – to fix himself, to be better, to not succumb to his impulses. It isn’t really a case of making the villain sympathetic, but of highlighting that in these stories the villains are virtually indistinguishable from the heroes. Frank Castle himself said it best in the second season of Daredevil: “You’re only one bad day away from being me.” This third season, thus far, is proving Frank prophetic.
There are plans afoot in “Upstairs/Downstairs”. Matt and Agent Nadeem intend to break into Dex’s apartment and sniff out – perhaps quite literally – any incriminating evidence. If they find any, they leave it out in the open and ring the fire alarm, thus circumventing the need for a warrant. Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy (Elden Henson), meanwhile, concoct a scheme to expose the fact that Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) has violated the stringent terms of his house arrest, although doing so requires Karen to wrangle her job back from New York Bulletin editor-in-chief Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor) and Foggy to publicly debate Blake Tower (Stephen Rider).
Predictably, Matt and Nadeem’s plot doesn’t go too well. For one thing, it requires Dex to be distracted by an attorney who insists he can sue the FBI for unlawful dismissal and thus get his job back, which, as the early portions of “Upstairs/Downstairs” made clear, is just about the cruellest possible means of distracting him given his desperate need to feel valued. All that, and Matt and Nadeem fail to discover anything that explicitly links Dex to Fisk, although they do uncover the audio tapes of his childhood therapy, which reveal he’s a kitten-killing maniac, and Matt can smell the presence of his suit, even though it isn’t there anymore. (Also, Matt being able to unlock Dex’s safe using his super-hearing was a really nice touch, as was Dex ricocheting bullets and throwing glass shards from a nearby light fitting when he caught them in the act.)
Karen and Foggy’s plan doesn’t work out either, but for different reasons. Foggy got his moment in the spotlight at the fundraiser, and had Tower on the ropes until he realised midway through that Karen wasn’t going to arrive. And why not? Because she instead goes to see Wilson Fisk personally, as part of a frankly dubious scheme to get him to either admit to the murder of his father, for which he could be convicted outside the terms of his house arrest, or to attack her in front of his FBI babysitters. This was the best scene of “Upstairs/Downstairs”, even if it did require Karen to behave in an abominably stupid way; the conversation, in which Karen accidentally confirmed Matt’s identity as Daredevil and knowingly revealed her part in the death of James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), was exceptional stuff on the parts of both D’Onofrio and Deborah Ann Woll.
Great, too, is Fisk’s continued manipulation of Dex. After having Julie killed early in the episode, he meets with his new protégé late on, and convinces him that his rage shouldn’t be bottled up, but instead released in a “primal scream.” It’s a fine bit of acting from Wilson Bethel, and the childlike embrace they share afterwards is, I assume, Dex planting both feet firmly on the path of no return. Earlier, when he was forced to burn his therapy tapes, he wasn’t simply destroying evidence; he was doing away with any hopes of healing, and burning the last few tethers of his morality – surrendering himself to Fisk emotionally, right before doing so physically.
And then cliffhanger! Matt, working on the heavy bag after a usual bout of angsty whining to Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley), hears his confidante praying – but not to God. To Jack Murdock, Matt’s father. “Our son is too much like you, Jack,” she says, thus throwing the sanctity of Catholic chastity into some doubt. How will Matt deal with this new revelation that the Sister is also the Mother? I can’t wait to find out.