This post contains spoilers for Daredevil.
Daredevil's "Nelson vs. Murdock" episode is what happens when you find out your best friend knows every single one of your secrets.
This isn't like finding out your buddy is Batman, Murdock's powers are more all-encompassing. He knows what you've eaten, when you've showered. He knows every time you've lied. Imagine what knowing someone like for years much be like. Forget about not being able to sneak a fart, every bad thing you've done, every white or even major lie, every mistake ... it's all known. And never discussed it.
Foggy calling the act of listening to someone's heartbeat to find out if they're lying "invasive" is interesting, because it is. There's no warrant there, no medical procedure. Murdock just knows everything about someone by being around them. Can you imaging what it would be like to be friends with someone who instantly knows every time you have sex, and with whom? Simply being around Murdock when you know what he's capable of is an act of trust, because you're constantly feeding him information he can use against you.
It's frightening, and it leads us to the next part of this discussion: The fact that the show finally admits Murdock is an addict himself, and Daredevil is himself a villain.
How this began
"I realized how many sirens there were. I realized how much this city suffers every night."
This is Murdock describing what it was like as his powers developed. It's like knowing things about people; he can't turn it off. He knows bad things are happening, and that he can do something to stop it. Who could live with themselves if every quiet moment was spent listening to people suffer, knowing that they could solve it but only knowing how to do so with violence?
Murdock tells the story of the first person he put in the hospital, a truly wretched individual who was sexually abusing a child.
"Her father liked to go to her late at night, when her mother was asleep," Murdock says. Foggy is visibly shaken by the story.
"The mom wouldn’t believe it … and the dad was smart, he made sure what he did, how he did it, didn’t leave a mark. The law couldn’t do anything to help that little girl. But I could."
The way this is worded, and the idea that Murdock had to deal with this as a young man is hard to take. The show sets us up for the idea that anything that happens to this guy is fair game. And then follows through on that threat.
There is no ballet here, no interesting fight scene in the flashback. Murdock simply knocks the guy down and beats him until his own fists drip with blood.
It’s hard to watch, but it serves an important role in this story: We need to understand why Murdock is driven to this kind of violence, while still being shown that what he does, and how he does it, is itself wrong.
Murdock is not in control, and by the end of the show the ability to torture someone quickly and effectively is as much a part of Daredevil as Batman’s batarangs. It’s a part of who he is, it’s a regular tool in his figurative belt, and it’s repulsive.
The show can make a point about how Daredevil doesn’t kill, or at least tries not to, but the way the violence is framed and choreographed tells a very different story. Beating someone until they are knocked out, and then continuing to beat them? That is a thing you do when you want to murder someone, and even if it’s not explicitly stated, many of the bad guys on the receiving end of these blows likely never get up again. This particular story ends with the father being hospitalized, "drinking out of a straw."
What's it like to beat someone nearly to death with your bare hands? "I never slept better," Murdock says. He’s not bothered by the violence, he’s not haunted by it. He loves it. He looks forward to this. This isn’t someone tortured by the idea of becoming a hero, of what he’s capable of, this is someone who does terrible things in the name of justice and then wakes up every morning trying to convince himself he’s one of the good ones.
"Maybe it’s about you having an excuse to hit someone. Maybe you can’t stop yourself," Foggy says. For the first time we see someone who is very likely a good person not buy any of these excuses. Foggy is horrified, and he should be.
"I don’t want to stop," Murdock says. The one thing you can say for the character is that he's only partially fooling himself.
Foggy is right, this story only ends with Murdock’s eventual death. He’s also right to point Murdock’s crime fighting puts himself, and Karen in danger, and they’ve had no chance to learn about what that entails. They’re targets, and they were kept in the dark, if you’ll excuse my language. Foggy continues to tell Murdock the truth; if his secret identity is known, if he get sent to jail or is killed, Foggy is on his own. He’ll look like an accomplice at best, and will wind up behind a building with a bullet in his head at worse.
This isn’t what normally happens when a friend finds out someone is a hero in pop culture; this is what it looks like when a friend finally confronts someone about their substance abuse.
You can see it in Murdock’s face as he begins to break down and cry. He shakes in his seat, and he doesn’t try to defend his actions. For the first time he sees himself as he is; another criminal solving problems with violence. This isn’t a Superman story where the hero is above the actions of the villain, this is a tale where Daredevil and the Kingpin are using the same strategies to achieve their own goals.
"The city needs me," Murdock says, shaking and crying. The Daredevil is trying to put out a fire by smothering it with matches, and the show, at least in this one episode, at least has the guts to admit that.