Cards on the table time: I love action, I’m intrigued by Catholic guilt and its relationship to vigilante justice, and I love long-winded conversations about morality, so Daredevil is an easy sell for me. Going into the Netflix’s second season I was a little nervous, because (a) I’m not into Punisher, and (b) I tend to get sick of Elektra. So how is it that in a season featuring a Punisher who made me cry, an Elektra I found riveting, plus many (many) long-winded conversations about morality, the one element of the show I can’t stop thinking about is Karen Page?
I didn’t even like Karen Page last season.
(Note: Spoilers for season 1 and 2 of Daredevil.)
Well, OK, that’s not quite fair. We were introduced to her as a brave/terrified young woman, in over her head but still fighting for the truth as her old employers tried to frame her for murder. Your heart would have to be carved from granite not to root for anyone in that situation, and Deborah Ann Woll did a tremendous job selling it. She was wide-eyed, exhausted, shaking like a Chihuahua in a lightning storm. Even when she was presumably safe, it was clear that she would be haunted forever.
When Matt and Foggy hired her I was excited that the show committed to following the fallout in her life, rather than becoming the ‘case of the week’ show I was expecting. But as the season unspooled, I found myself turning on her. I was irritated by her crush on Matt because it felt more like she’d imprinted on the nice man who saved her from jail more than a genuine interest in who he was as a person. (And when she asked Foggy to touch her face, in an incredibly gross attempt to substitute him for Matt, I recoiled from the screen.) Even worse, her fumblings into Wilson Fisk’s past and inept attempts at detective work started to feel like Harriet the Spy had just wandered into the grittiest corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She lied to everyone, she hid things constantly, and worst of all, her half-assed investigation led directly to the death of both Ben Urich and Wesley. (My second and first favorite characters, respectively.) But it was actually Wesley’s death—at Karen’s hands—that started to turn me back to her.
“Do you really think this is the first time I’ve shot someone?”
With that one line, Karen takes her narrative back from Wesley. Just as in her first meeting with Nelson and Murdock, she’s being held against her will and facing off with a man across a table. She’s in an uncontrollable situation, and thinks she only has moments to live. No one knows she’s here. There’s no reason to think the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen will show up to deus ex machine her out of this. But even in her obvious terror, she’s icily specific. Think how differently this scene could play out if she’d said, “You think this is the first time I’ve ever shot a gun?” And when she does shoot Wesley, it’s not just one panicked shot to incapacitate him, but repeatedly, until she’s sure he’s dead.
From then on she acts like someone who has done this before. She knows how to get rid of evidence, she knows to wipe her prints from the table, she throws the gun into the river, and takes one of those endless post-murder showers that can never quite get the smell of blood out of your nose. She turned back into a character I wanted to explore further—not because she was willing and able to shoot, but because she reacted to her murder the way a normal human would react. Even though it was self-defense, it was a weight she was going to feel for the rest of her life.
In Season Two the show goes in many different directions, and shows us new sides to the characters. Foggy is still the heart of the law firm, and he displays his growing confidence in his job, while Matt, well, acts like a dick. There’s no way around this, guys: Matt’s messiah complex has gone to his head. When you’re arguing moral nuance with the Punisher, and losing? It’s time to re-examine some shit. But it’s Karen who shows the most growth and depth, and by the end of the season becomes an essential character. Karen is still processing what happened with Wesley—and possibly whatever happened in her past that made her good with a gun. While Matt preaches endlessly about giving everyone a second chance, and God being the only one who can decide who lives and who dies, Karen is the one who actually responds to killers with empathy. Matt doesn’t sit by Grotto’s side—Karen does. She concocts a cover story for him off the top of her head, she’s the one who gets him out of the hospital safely when the Punisher shows up, and she’s the one who advocates for him. She almost bolts out into the middle of another Punisher attack to rescue him. That this is empathy, not pity, is clear when Grotto asks her to kiss him for good luck; she holds up a middle finger instead. She’s not trying to make Grotto feel better, but she believes that as a client and a human, he deserves their help. The same consideration she hopes she would receive, presumably, if Foggy and Matt knew her own past. She is willing to stake her life on this belief.
We also see the evolution of her Harriet the Spy tendencies. Where Season One Karen was sloppy in her attempts to uncover Wilson Fisk’s past, Season Two Karen shows that she’s learned from Ben Urich, and attempts a covert, journalistic investigation into Frank Castle and the DA’s vendetta against him. She goes to the DA’s assistant for information, and when Nelson and Murdock both tell her to give up on the case, she first talks to Urich’s old boss Ellison and asks to see the paper’s archives. Rather than being daunted by the piles of aging newspaper she dives right into research, spending hours to find the truth about a man that most see as a monster. It’s inevitable that she go to Castle’s home, inevitable that she does her best to remain respectful even as she sifts through his privacy, inevitable that she alone sees him as a person. Again she goes into a dangerous situation without taking anyone with her, or even telling anyone where she’ll be, because she knows that no sane person would take the risk she’s about to take. But she still feels that it’s her moral duty to explore Frank Castle’s past. The biggest change is that this post-Urich Karen is more wary of danger; she keeps her guard up and escapes the house when the mysterious Suits show up at Castle’s door.
When Castle rejects both Nelson and Murdoch—the actual lawyers—and chooses to speak to Karen about the case, this is why. It’s not because she’s the woman, or because he wants to apologize for terrifying her with a shooting spree; it’s because she alone was willing to go to his house and engage with the humanity that was taken away from him. Castle is willing to spill his family’s tragedy to Daredevil because he’s half-dead and the cops are on the way—it’s entirely possible that this will be his last chance to tell his story. Here the show is telling us something sad, explaining pain through a monologue. But Karen’s silent tour of Castle’s home is the show trusting us to experience that pain. We’re expected to allow Castle’s loss to enter our own minds without the mediation of an actor monologuing. This is the scene that gives us the real weight of Castle’s loss, and shows us why he became the Punisher. By structuring this arc in this way, the audience is allowed to connect the dots as Frank speaks. We can see him sitting in his daughter’s room, refusing to read her book. We can see that this space has become sacred in his mind, and so we jolt when we realize, along with him, that Karen has been there.
Matt attempts to become the Punisher’s Father Confessor; Fisk treats him like an attack dog he can unleash; Foggy begins and ends openly terrified of him. Karen, on the other hand? She defends him to Matt, rejecting all of his good Catholic attempts to push her into agreeing with him, and remain the sweet girl she is in his mind—she even allows this argument to ruin their second date. She’s the one who talks Frank through the arguments Matt and Foggy make on his behalf, to make sure he understands. She insists that he has a moral code—and that’s after he pursued her through a hospital like The Terminator. She’s the one he comes to after his escape from prison, and she’s the only one who wouldn’t shoot on sight when he turns up at her door. He even listens to her when she tries to talk him out of killing. (Unlike Matt, Karen has earned the right to talk to Frank about his moral choices.)
Finally, I think her responses to Matt show her growth more than anything. As the season unfolded I was dreading the point where Karen would be held up as the “good” girl, the sweet, small-town blonde, to contrast with Elektra, the dark-haired “bad” girl who kills ninjas for fun. The show sidestepped that potential land mine by making both women complex, interesting, and best of all, driven by their own passions instead of just acting as foils to Matt Murdock. And it does offer a few mirroring moments—Karen’s idea of a great date is inexpensive Indian food, while Elektra loves luxuriant foods like caviar and champagne. Both women knot Matt’s tie for him—but when Karen does it she’s helping him dress for a funeral, while Elektra is knotting his bow tie as they infiltrate a fancy Roxxon soiree. The show gives us these examples without comment, but it’s Matt who pushes this contrast. He wants Karen to be the “good” girl—the light that pulls him away from the “darkness” of Elektra. Especially during their heated Punisher conversation, Matt offers Karen a chance to retreat into a simple, black and white world, and she refuses. Karen’s world was never simple or innocent, and she’s not the fragile creature Matt has created in his mind. But after he’s basically abandoned her and Foggy for most of the season, Matt pulls a White (Red?) Knight, demanding a chance to protect her. Karen shuts him down with my favorite thematically-loaded line of the season: “I am not yours to protect.” Perhaps she’s the voice of New York, demanding that Matt examine why exactly he wears that suit every night…
I’m not saying that Karen’s arc was perfect—it’s ludicrous to imagine that she’d be allowed to move into Ben Urich’s private office, interview people, and stare at a blank white screen for months while real journalists are doing real journalism in shitty cubicles all around her. But when she finally steps into her new career and begins writing her article about costumed vigilantes, she finds her voice by interrogating the idea of the hero. She states up front that heroes aren’t costumed vigilantes or gods from other worlds, but the New Yorkers reading the article, who look themselves in the mirror each morning and set out to work in their city. Is it cheesy? Yes. Would a New York newspaper ever pay her to write it? Hell no. But by affirming her neighbors as heroes, and implying that she considers herself, Foggy, Ellison, Ben Urich, et al, to be the heroes the city needs, she brings Daredevil back down from the rooftop ninja wars, chain fights, and murky occult scheming that Matt finds himself lost in. As the one who stands by Grotto and Punisher, who stands for community and justice, she effectively replaces Matt as Daredevil‘s moral center, and embodies the soul of the show.