Part of the reason Daredevil’s third season is so good is that it once again centers Matt Murdock’s spiritual journey in a way that allows for layered storytelling. I’ve found three different stories spread across the three seasons of Daredevil that focus on elements of Matt’s religious life: his commitment to Catholicism, his personal faith, and, most interestingly, a terrifying meta story of good versus evil.
One of the interesting things about the show is that it takes Matt’s faith seriously, which allows his worldview to weave around those of his more secular friends. In Matt’s worldview, he was blinded and gained superpowers so that he would be able to fight injustice for God. In his worldview, his spiritual state is more important than his physical, hence why he doesn’t mind getting kicked around and beaten up in the course of making New York a better place. When we met him in season one Matt sat in a confessional, speaking to Father Paul Lantom, asking forgiveness for violence he hadn’t committed yet.
He says it’s been way too long since he’s been to confession, so it’s possible that Matt has come back to his home parish after his years at Columbia Law School, as part of his overall return to Hell’s Kitchen. (We’ll overlook the fact that it’s like a 20-minute ride on the 1 train.) If I have the timeline right, he started Daredeviling right after he and Foggy quit their internship to start their own law firm, so, like, a month before this confession? If that’s correct, it would seem that Matt has given into “the devil” within him, betrayed his father’s deepest wish for him, and begun using violence for the greater good, and realized that he needs a moral core so he doesn’t lose himself. So, he turns to the church—specifically his old childhood church, which turns out to have even more ties to his life than he realizes.
Confessing a sin you haven’t committed yet is bad-ass, yes, but it also isn’t doctrinally sound. You can’t pre-pent. Even a severely lapsed Catholic would know that, which means that Matt has not come to confession in good faith. But the basement latte conversation that he and Father Lantom share a few weeks later is in good faith. Lantom knows who Matt is, he respects him, and as the season goes on he doesn’t chastise him for being Daredevil, he just tries to nudge him away from murder. From this point forward we can assume that Lantom is his literal Father Confessor, and that Matt, who takes his Catholicism seriously, is keeping himself as morally upright as possible, and probably giving confessions and receiving communion as regularly as he can. Especially given that any night of Daredeviling could be his last.
This is important because when we rejoin Matt in the opening scene of season three he is not grateful for his miraculous survival, and he doesn’t thank the nuns for saving his life—he’s too busy obsessing over Elektra. He knows that whatever arguments he made about wanting to bring Elektra “back to the light” he walked into Midland Circle with the other Defenders with no intention of walking back out. He knows he was committing suicide. He chose sexy death with Elektra over being God’s superhero. Father Lantom seems to intuit at least some of this, and immediately offers to hear his confession and give Matt Communion.
Because, again, in this worldview Matt is in a state of sin. He is out of joint with God, Catholicism, and his universe, and until he repents of his decision at Midland Circle and receives Communion he is, spiritually speaking, fucked. He and Lantom both believe this.
And Matt literally turns his back and tells his Father Confessor to “give it a rest.”
Over the next four episodes Matt rails against his faith, speaking about God not as New Atheist or as a Recovering Catholic but as a betrayed lover. There’s no external romantic plotline for Matt in this season, because his real romance is with God, and they’ve had one hell of a falling out. And for all Matt’s attempts to hit Nihilism up as a rebound chick, he just can’t quit the Lord.
But, tellingly, he just keeps talking about God, not to God—he ignores Sister Maggie and Father Lantom’s invitations to Mass (hell, Karen attends Mass before Matt does) and he certainly doesn’t pray… except for one notable exception.
At the end of the first episode he goes out hero-ing for the first time (back in an all-black outfit that is at least partially constructed from a nun’s wimple) and while he rescues a girl and her father, he ultimately loses the fight. The goons try to leave him in the street but he calls them back, throws one of them a metal pipe, and offers his throat, saying “God forgive me.”
The goons are understandably confused and bolt when they hear sirens approaching.
So that’s two suicide attempts now.
But of course that happens out in the street, away from his church, and away from the priest and nun who he’s desperately trying to impress with his anger. When he speaks with Sister Maggie of Father Lantom he says, well, he says this:
“I realize now that Job was a pussy” (Note that Frank Castle’s idea of complimenting Matt was telling him that he wasn’t a pussy after all.)
“I’ve seen [God’s] True Face now. In front of this God, I’d rather die as the Devil than live as Matt Murdock.”
“I no longer care what God wants”—says the guy who just begged God to forgive him while trying to commit assisted-suicide-by-metal-pipe.
“I’m Daredevil. Not even God can stop that now.”
(Also, can I just mention how tired I am of Job? Jonah, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah–there’s plenty of dark stuff in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament! Why does everyone always go leaping for Job?)
When Sister Maggie says, “You’re talking to a nun, kiddo. Love and redemption are pretty much our sales pitch” he snaps “Yeah, well, I’m not buying” with all the venom of a scowling eighth-grader. When the woman he rescued in the first episode says “Thank God for you,” Matt tells her, “He didn’t help you. I did,” sounding eerily Punisher-esque.
At one point Matt goes upstairs to church, and hovers in the doorway to tell Father Lantom that he used to eavesdrop on people praying—he could hear them even if they only whispered—and believed that God was letting him hear the prayers so he, Matt, could answer. “That’s all I was trying to do—I was trying to help people. But I am not what I was.”
Which is sort of the key to the larger arc of the three seasons. Matt initially found meaning in his new abilities by using them to enact what he thought was God’s will. As his urge to become the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen rose, he sought support in his church, and while his faith may have been there from the beginning, he recommitted to the practice of that faith over the course of season one. When Matt is conflicted over how to deal with Fisk, he turns to Father Lantom, and the two of them talk in church with a crucifix hanging above them. Matt occasionally glances toward it, but keeps an attitude of reverence and respect. We see the wounds on Matt’s body, but he doesn’t acknowledge them as much as he focuses on his moral and spiritual concerns. Father Lantom talks about God allowing the Devil to fall and become evil as a symbol of what could happen to people who step off the path of righteousness. It’s after this conversation that Matt begins embracing the Devil persona more, to make himself a symbol in much the way Batman does in the DC universe—but where Batman’s symbol is borne of fear, Daredevil borrows a symbol from God in order to answer people’s prayers.
But by season two, Matt’s in full martyrbation mode. When Punisher comes to town and knocks Matt out, the Devil hallucinates a motherly nun telling him to stay down, to rest, as she tends his wounds and squeezes a bloody washcloth over him. The camera, from Matt’s hazy point of view, pans over a crucifix, lingering over Jesus’ wounds before resting back on his own blood. This is Matt, mostly unconscious, comparing himself directly to Jesus and allowing himself to stay down. Throughout the season he’s snippy and mean, alienates Foggy, yells at Karen when she tries to talk about Punisher, blathers on about the need for redemption, but seems totally uninterested in Karen’s concern with Frank Castle. And when he debates with Frank Castle? After years studying catechism and way more years studying law, he can’t win the argument. Matt has become quite literally holier-than-thou, which of course leads directly to an epic fall when Elektra shows up. Because suddenly her redemption is not only possible, it’s necessary, despite the fact that she’s just as cold-blooded a killer as Punisher. The religious imagery, and Matt’s religious commitment, disappears almost entirely from the latter half of this season, as does Father Lantom. This carries into Defenders as Matt is faced with the literal resurrection of his ex-girlfriend, but rather than talking it out or dealing with the religious implications of her being back from the dead, he just wallows in their usual S/M dynamic and tries to die with her while she tells him “This is what living feels like.”
Which is how, in season three, we end up with Anger!Matt looking at a church full of people praying and says of his Estranged Boyfriend, “All I ever heard was pain, and all He ever gave any of us was silence.”
In the midst of this performative anger, Matt’s ongoing internal monologue takes the form of Wilson Fisk. Internal Monologue Fisk asks him, “You don’t think God knows you tried to kill yourself?” and points out: “God returned your hearing just in time to hear my name chanted by the crowds. Just in time to learn in the long run, I won! You lost! Does that sound like God’s forgiveness?”
“No. Sounds like Hell,” Matt replies.
But just as he’s finally trying to reach out to Sister Maggie, he overhears her prayer, and realizes she’s his mother, and that Father Lantom has known all along. And then Matt—the guy who has made his two best friends keep his secret for YEARS—is angry that someone has kept a secret. Furious and Even! More! Betrayed! Matt storms off to try to get the drop on Fisk.
And it works. He’s able to infiltrate Fisk’s penthouse, and hides out in the camera suite with poor frightened Not Oracle (by the way, what the heck is her story?) and is revving himself up to sacrifice his soul for the murder he almost committed years ago when he learns that Karen’s in trouble. He finally listens to his better nature and bolts off to save her, arriving just in time to watch an example of true sacrifice when Father Lantom dies protecting her.
Lantom doesn’t have a weapon or a super suit. Karen is sacrificing herself to save his congregation, and when Dex takes aim at her, Lantom steps in front of her. His instinctive, subconscious move is to protect the innocent. This is the thing that shocks Matt back into being himself. Which is hilarious, because after months of railing against his religion, he is attacked with it. Dex chucks the entire church at him—weaponizes pews, rosary beads, votive candles, a shattered statue of a saint, they crash through the walls of the confessional—and once again Matt loses the fight. It’s Karen who forces Dex to retreat, then cradles Matt and begs him to wake up (in the show’s second homage to the Pieta). As they’re running away from Dex, Matt finally stops to pray for Father Lantom.
Not in front of a bloody crucifix or a martyred saint, but in front of a simple painting of the risen Christ.
Karen respectfully steps back to give him his space, doesn’t rush him, and notably does not eavesdrop on his prayer. Then of course they get in a giant argument about murder. Matt is furious with Karen for botching his attempt on Fisk’s life, and she’s horrified that he was going to go through with it. She argues from the position of having actually murdered someone… as well as accidentally having gotten at least two other people killed. He listens to her this time, and the huge silent truth is, according to his view of the universe, she’s just saved his soul, with a major assist from Father Lantom.
When Dex returns the two of them huddle up inside a crypt to hide, which if you want to get super metaphorical with me, recalls early Christians hiding in catacombs during Roman persecution… but that’s a stretch even for my academic ass. And then Matt pulls himself together and heads off to murder/not murder Wilson Fisk.
And when he once again chooses the path of righteousness, and doesn’t go through with it, he comes back to Sister Maggie. Knowing that she is his biological mother, he asks her to continue being his spiritual mother. She agrees, and Matt gives a eulogy for Father Lantom, seemingly finally reconciled with his church. Even more important, just as he seemed to have the idea to become “Daredevil” as opposed to just “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” during a conversation with Father Lantom, he credits his iconic tagline to the fallen priest, saying: “He counseled me to be brave enough to forgive, and to see the possibilities of being a man without fear.”
The status quo is restored, Fisk is in jail, Nelson, Murdock, and Page are all friends and business partners again, except now Matt has a sarcastic nun to advise him now instead of a sardonic priest. On the surface it’s an almost exact retread of season one’s moral conflict and resolution, but somehow it still feels fresh and vital.
And I think I’ve figured out why, which brings us to that giant meta-reading I was talking about back at the beginning.
Back in season one, when Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson agree to take Karen Page’s seemingly hopeless murder case despite the fact that she can’t pay them, she asks if they’re just a couple of Good Samaritans. She understandably fears that they might be part of the conspiracy, and can’t believe that they just want to help her. As time goes on she comes to trust them, until the three have become an adorable trio of best friends fighting the good fight. But behind all of that a different story is unfurling.
Over the course of Matt’s conversations with Father Lantom, the priest makes it clear that after much study and life experience he has come to believe that the Devil “walks among us taking many forms.” I think Matt comes to believe that Fisk is one such form. While Karen and Foggy both interact with Fisk as “a rich dickhead who thinks he can pay people off to kiss his ass” (to quote Karen) Matt operates on the belief that Fisk is his era’s incarnation of the Literal Devil. He comes to think that he might have to sacrifice his soul—not just his life—in order to save New York from evil.
As you can imagine, this changes the story significantly.
During an argument about their anti-Fisk case, Matt quotes Sun Tzu to Karen and Foggy—“know your enemy”—but also begs them to “keep digging…but do it quietly” because he’s begun fearing for their lives. Matt himself goes to see Fisk’s partner, Vanessa, and allows Foggy and Karen to think he’s just researching their enemy’s personal life. What he’s actually doing, though, is trying to convince himself that Fisk is human as opposed to a literal demon, so he won’t kill him. Matt pretends to be interested in buying a painting, and finds himself charmed by Vanessa. When Fisk himself comes to the gallery, Matt is shocked and horrified to realize that he and Vanessa truly love each other, and that Vanessa would mourn Fisk’s loss. He leaves quickly, overwhelmed, and Vanessa seems confused: “ have you changed your mind about what you came for?” she asks, sounding almost hurt. Matt replies, “No, I would just need to consider the cost.”
Back at the church, he and Father Lantom discuss the difficulties of walking a righteous path, with Lantom saying “another man’s evil does not make you good”, suggesting that Matt actually went to see Vanessa because he was looking for a reason not to kill Fisk.
But then Fisk has their client Mrs. Cardenas killed.
Foggy is willing to accept official line on the woman’s death, and goes into proper Irish mourning mode. Karen says, “lets pray the man in the mask gets his hands on him, and rips his goddamn head off”—not knowing that she’s speaking directly to the man in the mask. Matt looks increasingly uncomfortable. Then she says, “if there’s a God and he cares at all about any of us, Fisk will get what he deserves.” Matt agrees with her. But here’s where the two worldviews clash in a fascinating way. She’s speaking as a secular person, a person who left her parents’ religion behind, but who is comforted by a vague idea of cosmic justice. Matt, on the other hand, is hearing her words as a call to action, and when he agrees with her he’s saying, “I know Fisk will get what he deserves, because I’m going to damn myself by murdering him tonight.”
But what the season did so well is that while Matt’s hardcore theological lines threads through all of his behavior, we’re seeing another story, where every single time he tries to go and do something that would put his soul in peril, either Foggy or Karen call him on it. It’s when he ignores their calls and concern that he puts himself in danger.
After Matt finally defeats Fisk on legal grounds, the man lets his mask drop and declares himself a supervillain. This is what he says to the agents taking him to prison:
Fisk: I’m not a religious man, but I’ve read bits and pieces over the years. Curiosity more than faith. But this one story… There was a man, he was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by men of ill intent. They stripped the traveler of his clothes, they beat him, and they left him bleeding in the dirt. And a priest happened by, saw the traveler, but he moved to the other side of the road and continued on. And a Levite, a religious functionary, he came to the place, saw the dying traveler, but he, too, moved to the other side of the road, passed him by. But then came a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, a good man. He saw the traveler bleeding in the road and he stopped to aid him without thinking of the circumstance or the difficulty it might bring him. The Samaritan tended to the traveler’s wounds, applying oil and wine, and he carried him to an inn, gave him all the money he had for the owner to take care of the traveler, as the Samaritan, he continued on his journey. He did this simply because the traveler was his neighbor. He loved his city and all the people in it. I always thought I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it? How even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature.
Agent: What the hell does that mean?
Fisk: It means that I am not the Samaritan. That I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill intent who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.
He wasn’t in the room when Karen met Matt and Foggy, and she first invoked the parable. He presumably wasn’t monitoring their conversation—at least not yet. But when he finally accepts his “true nature,” it’s by aligning himself not even with the shitty people in the Good Samaritan parable, but with the concept of evil itself. He is declaring himself the Devil, and confirming Matt’s worst fears.
In season two the show lost a lot of this meta thread. Matt’s sacrifices went to his head, and he threw himself into being the Punisher’s judge while insisting it isn’t up to humans to judge, and then tried to become Elektra’s redeemer. Then when she actually did come back from the dead, with no help from him (and presumably none from Matt’s version of God) he ditched his faith entirely for her. This was all pretty surface level stuff. But in season three, with the Fisk-Devil back in Hell’s Kitchen, the meta thread began to unspool once more.
Once again, Matt is the only one who knows what he’s dealing with, which is literal evil. He has to watch as corporations and powerful New Yorkers and even some members of the press cave to Fisk’s influence. His own name is once again dragged through the slime and the mud. He ricochets between raging at God—or rather, about God—and being terrified that his New York has become a hell.
But in the background of these scenes a different story unfolds. Mary and assorted saints stand calmly around him while he heals. Votive candles—each of which could possibly be standing in for a deceased soul, and thus, the larger Catholic communion of the dead—flicker in nearly every scene. As his wounds heal and re-open, and heal again, they do so under crucifixes that hang on almost every wall. He’s healing underground, in hiding, which, if the stories are at all correct, is where the church started out back when it was illegal under Roman law. All of these symbols surround him, untouched, un-offended. No lightning bolt is coming for him, because he’s allowed to be angry.
It’s only after he goes out to kill Fisk (AGAIN, Matty? Come on) that he is literally pelted with the physical trappings of his faith. And it’s only after he stops running for his own life to stop and pray for Father Lantom that he and Karen finally reconnect, that the emotional tide of the show begins to turn. Matt gains a new spiritual advisor (and regains his mother) by rejecting the bitterness that pushed him away from Father Lantom. He ends this season reconciled with his faith and rededicating himself to his calling from the altar.
But most important: he defeats the Devil again. After a season of people feeling defeated by Fisk and his machine, and musing about fighting the good fight, making moral compromises, and asking, “How can we keep fighting when we’ve already lost?” Matt defeats his adversary not with violence (although there is plenty of that on the way) and not even with the law, but with love. First by uniting with Fisk to protect Vanessa from Bullseye, then by protecting her from a life in prison, Matt Murdock finds a way to offer the Devil a deal, the two men end the season with a bloody handshake, and once again, Hell’s Kitchen is safe.
…you know, if you think about, Season One of Daredevil is the Hebrew Bible and Season Three is the New Testament…Leah Schnelbach should probably stop now. Come throw votive candles at her head on Twitter!