Bernthal excels at playing these kinds of pressure-cooker antiheroes, and he’s fantastic in Daredevil, nailing the character’s murderous glare and (more nakedly as the season goes on) his agonized interior life.
Last season, Matt Murdock revealed that, as a result of his childhood accident, he’s not blind so much as cursed to see a world on fire; Castle’s traumatic past has similarly warped his perspective, the depths of his pain and grief sending every neuron in his brain up in flames. Bernthal makes for a terrifying angel of death, but he has the dramatic range to humanize that same avenger throughout the series. Late in the game, a graveside monologue about his daughter’s favorite children’s book sends shivers up the spine even as, surprisingly, it touches the heart.
That said, the dynamic between his Punisher and Cox’s Daredevil is most convincing on a physical level – their brawls provide some of the series’ most thrilling sequences, and both actors are in such tremendous shape that they somehow make every round of fisticuffs look not only feasible but fluid. Yes, there are a slew of ideological debates between the pair (or, rather, the same one reiterated multiple times), with each passionately defending their own distinct methods of crime-fighting; but, as performed by two men who let their battle prowess do the talking more often than not, those exchanges feel a tad stilted, and their dialogue overripe.
The conflict between Daredevil and The Punisher is more effectively conveyed in terms of collateral damage and personal identity. With the latter’s gun-ho approach coating the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in blood, the former knows it’s only a matter of time before someone wholly innocent gets caught in the crossfire. But even Daredevil’s less damning vigilantism is already taking a toll on those around him, most notably Foggy, who’s none-too-comfortable covering for Matt as a huge legal trial dawns, and Karen, whose ignorance feels more troubling the closer she and Matt become. Witnessing the Punisher’s reign of terror certainly reaffirms Daredevil’s faith in his own code of conduct, but it also forces him more than ever to confront the consequences of their comparable lifestyles.
The contrast between the city’s polarized defenders is also stark in terms of selfhood; whereas Daredevil wears a mask, and attempts to create a clear divide between his night-time exploits and his daily routine, the Punisher scoffs at such an idea. For him, there’s no separation. How could there be, when his rampage is driven by and rooted in a deeply personal grief?
Castle is single-minded; his tactics may be brutal, but they’re honest, as well as solely accountable to him. In a strange way, that transparency makes the Punisher feel like the more responsible of the pair. The gravity of this man’s actions weighs heavily on him, and he bears the brunt of every life he takes, but his mindset is hardened so thoroughly that he never for a second doubts he’s doing the right thing. Daredevil, on the other hand, dodges soul-searching as much as bullets.
The hero’s attempts to maintain two, divergent lives are challenged even more directly by the return of Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), Matt’s lightly sociopathic ex-lover, also a wealthy heiress bent on disrupting yakuza activity within the city (while coaxing the embers of romance with her “Matthew” back into a roaring fire, naturally).
The season is split roughly into two acts, with Daredevil’s battle royale with the Punisher eventually giving way to the Elektra plotline, but Yung’s sexy, sleek portrayal of the new episodes’ second clear-cut antihero ensures it’s a smooth transition. The history between these two is rich, and no sooner has Elektra appeared than is Matt (and consequently Daredevil) drawn back into a deadly dance with her, quietly nostalgic for the easy chemistry they used to share even as he holds a grudge over what drove them apart (no spoilers).
If the Punisher’s biblical sin is wrath, Elektra’s is lust – she’s titillated by the opportunity to tease and tempt Matt back into her corner, and makes no secret of her continued affection for him. Taken as another test of Daredevil’s moral fiber, she’s almost as treacherous as the one-man army gunning down gangsters in the streets – if he’s averse to his most primitive, vicious impulses, her biggest turn-on is to see him surrender to them.