The sixth episode of Marvel’s The Defenders bounces back from its lacklustre previous episode by retuning its focus squarely on the dynamics of the titular team of loners and misfits at the center of the story. Splitting its attentions into a series of partnerships (Luke/Danny, Jessica/Matt, Alexandra/Elektra) “Ashes Ashes” fleshes out the interpersonal stories of the characters but never forgets to advance the plot into darker and more dangerous territories. The result is a satisfying episode packed with tension and a strong set up for the miniseries’ final two hours.
After the largely inconsequential wheel-spinning of episode five, “Ashes Ashes” immediately starts moving the plot forward. Stick (Scott Glenn) has reached a conclusion about Danny’s (Finn Jones) role in the Hand’s plan, and now convinced Iron Fist is a literal key rather than a metaphorical one, he makes the point that the best option may be to simply sideline Danny and keep him hidden away. Danny, who sees this as abdicating his mission and life’s purpose to actively destroy the Hand (and also a betrayal of his fundamentally naive if endearing belief that these bunch of social outcasts are his friends and teammates) refuses. And this leads to the kind of mistrust and poor impulse control that has threatened to destroy this ad hoc team from the start. Meanwhile, Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) worries her control over Elektra (Elodie Yung) is slipping in light of Matt’s (Charlie Cox) efforts to remind her of her previous life. This development is one Alexandra must hide from the other member son the Hand’s council, who are growing ever more dissatisfied with her leadership. Will she be able to retain control over the Black Sky? And will the Defenders’ new plan save the day or tear them apart? And can they finally uncover what the Hand’s ultimate goal for New York truly is?
Writers Drew Goddard & Marco Ramirez deliver a tight, focused script that is well-executed by director Stephen Surjik. As Danny’s sense of duty and destiny collides with the strategy of Stick, Matt and the others, the ensuing fight is among the most effective and hard-hitting of the series thus far. As I mentioned in my last review, telling the story of the fight is not always as easy as it sounds, but Surjik knows how to handle it. This fight seems personal and motivated, and he keeps the editing and choreography clear so we can follow each move and see the emotion that drives them. Danny’s decision to refuse to be sidelined feels like a character regression, but it’s an understandable one. To Danny, the Iron Fist’s role as active and heroic warrior against the Hand is what defines him, and the idea that his role is to hide is reasonable as one that he would refuse to accept. Yes, Danny’s wrong, and he’s acting out of ego, but then Matt is also not thinking clear in his obsession with saving Elektra. What matters is whether their mistakes and flaws are understandable and sympathetic, and in these cases, they are.
The rest of the episode sees Matt and Jessica (Krysten Ritter) try to uncover exactly what the Hand need Danny for. One of the things I like is how Marvel’s The Defenders has postponed Jessica within the group. More than anybody else, she’s the best at figuring things out for herself, suing her skills as a detective to uncover information on her terms. She doesn’t rely on what anyone tells her, and to Jessica, the only info she can rely on is what she has independently confirmed through her own efforts. There’s a great moment where she reveals to Matt that she has done some digging on his past, and that she knows more about him than he realizes. It’s delivered a little awkwardly, perhaps, but I like what it says about Jessica; that she values what she can verify and trusts only when she’s satisfied, and that she prizes her detective skills a lot more highly than her super-powers. What they do uncover clarifies a bit more what the Hand’s larger goal is beyond obtaining immortality and a desire to return to K’Un L’Un, but there’s still more to be revealed there. Additionally, we get a long look at Matt and Jessica’s chemistry, and both the actors and the characters share a fun, sparky banter that works, especially once it’s clear that Jessica has learned enough about Matt to understand where he’s coming from.
Meanwhile, we explore the other burgeoning relationship on The Defenders, namely Luke (Mike Colter) and Danny. Given the fact that the comic book versions of these characters have been partners and best friends for decades, it’s a no-brainer that Marvel’s The Defenders should spend at least some time establishing their rapport. This episode puts that goal front and center after spending some fleeting moments nodding towards it previously, and the result is effortless and endearing. This is due to the nimble way they show Danny’s earnest desire to make a friend against Luke’s bemused disbelief at this crazy kid’s stories about monks and dragons. They look like they like each other, and it’s harder than it looks to make that look effortless.
Amidst all this nice character work is the plot, which keeps moving on two fronts. First, while Matt and Jessica uncover information, Stick reaches a decision of his own that, while predictable, still makes sense and manages to completely upset the apple cart for the Defenders. But the big twists of “Ashes Ashes” comes from a development in the Hand’s camp. Discontent between the five “fingers” of the Hand continues to grow, and Alexandra’s position has been growing more untenable for a while now. But in a twist that actually surprised me, things get completely upended in the closing moments of the show, which sees the Defenders as close to losing as they have yet, and the nature of the threat they face totally changed, and not for the better. It’s a great cliffhanger that serves to both up the stakes and also take the climx into a different, more personalized direction.
With its solid direction, well-constructed script and intriguing performances, the sixth episode of Marvel’s The Defenders puts the miniseries on a strong and surprising sprint to the finish line. 8.5/10