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Iron Fist flies over the cuckoo’s nest in a lackluster second episode

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Photo: Iron Fist (Netflix)
Photo: Iron Fist (Netflix)
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Marvel's Iron Fist

“Shadow Hawk Takes Flight”

Season 1 , Episode 2

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There’s a meta moment in “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight” where Harold Meachum sits in front of footage of Danny Rand being interviewed by a psychiatrist. Frustrated, he speaks to the TV: “Ask him where he’s been the past 15 years. Ask him why he’s suddenly come back now.” Harold, I know exactly how you feel. Though Iron Fist’s second episode is a One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest-esque exploration of Danny’s psyche, by the end of it, I’m not sure we know much more about our titular hero than we did at the start. And with so much of Iron Fist’s world still a mystery, that leaves little for viewers to latch onto in the early days of this series. There’s a fine line between purposefully paced and too slow. So far Iron Fist isn’t treading that line as carefully as it needs to.

On the other hand, “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight” is at least a more cohesive episode than the premiere. Danny’s time in the psych ward (where he’s dumped after being drugged by Ward and Joy) is a central anchor for the episode and all of the other storylines swirl around it. Ward tries to bribe Colleen into making a complaint against Danny, which would ensure he stays locked away for good. Joy begins to wonder if Danny might actually be who he says he is. And Harold descends further into campy villainy, which remains the part of the show I’m most intrigued by.

“Don’t worry Danny, you’ll never have to wear shoes again.”

The central question Iron Fist is asking in these first two episodes is an interesting one: How do you prove your identity when you’ve got no living relatives, no legal ID, and no one to vouch for you? At one point Joy’s assistant notes that if Danny is who he says he is, he’s going about proving it in an odd way. But as Joy wisely observes, what other options does he have? There’s the potential for a lot of unsettling creepiness in Danny’s inability to prove his own identity.

But the problem is Danny’s such an opaque protagonist that it’s hard to root for him or even follow his train of thought. When he’s not spouting wise-beyond-his-years platitudes, he’s wildly, almost unbelievably naïve. For instance, after finally convincing Dr. Paul Edmonds (a lovely Murray Bartlett, who I almost didn’t recognize as Dom from Looking) of his real identity, Danny immediately goes into a monologue about his mystic powers. He seems to have no sense that his odd tale might worry the doctor. In fact after he’s done, Danny casually asks when he can leave. So what exactly is Danny’s thought process here? Does he think magic is commonplace on Earth now? Has his time in K’un-Lun emotionally stunted him so that he has a childlike inability to understand human interactions? Do his powers require him to tell the truth? Is he just inherently stupid? I quite literally have no idea, and while a little ambiguity in a TV show is fine—good even—too much just leaves the series feeling unmoored.

In a broad sense, it’s understandable that Danny’s unusual upbringing would leave him a bit out of sync with the normal world. But right now he feels like Robin Williams just come out of the board game in Jumanji or a Vulcan experiencing human culture for the first time, both of which seem far too extreme for what we know of Danny’s life. If Iron Fist were a faster paced or goofier show, I’d be willing to overlook some character wonkiness. But given that this is a largely action-free, 61-minute character study, it’s disappointing that our central hero is as confusing as ever. Finn Jones just isn’t able to imbue his performance with the kind of depth needed to make such an erratic character feel cohesive before his backstory is fully revealed.

We do, however, at least learn a few facts about Danny’s life post-plane accident. He was brought to the heavenly city of K’un-Lun—which only appears once every 15 years—and raised to be a living weapon by the warrior monks who live there. His sworn duty is to defeat The Hand, the cult of evil ninjas constantly giving Daredevil trouble over on his show. And Danny claims that fighting is the only time he ever felt alive in K’un-Lun, which I’m not sure fully tracks with the sheepish Danny before us but I’ll go with it for now.

“My study abroad? Bro, it was SO life-changing.”

Though Harold Meachum is a similarly mysterious character, David Wenham is able to turn in a performance that tracks emotionally, even if we don’t fully understand Harold’s motivations yet. The elder Mr. Meachum is a man who craves power and control, but not necessarily fame or notoriety, given his reclusive lifestyle. In fact, he seems to connect his desire for power with nobler aims since he’s got ties to the massive spiritual battle in which Danny was trained to be the ultimate warrior. And like the Order Of The Crane Mother before him, Harold wants to use Danny as a pawn in his side of that fight.

Caught in that battle on less clear terms are Ward, Joy, and now Colleen, who becomes invested in Danny’s plight despite her best efforts to stay out of it. And where the ambiguity of Danny’s character doesn’t really work for me, the show is doing a better job of painting Ward and Joy in shades of grey. Although she drugged Danny last episode, Joy gives Danny one more chance to prove himself with an M&M test (which doubles as both obvious product placement and the show at least adding some specificity to its characters’ histories). Meanwhile it’s becoming clear that Ward isn’t the full-on villain his father is. He’ll manipulate Colleen into helping him lock Danny away, but he doesn’t actually want to be a part of Danny’s murder. He follows his father’s commands, but Ward’s priorities clearly lie with legitimate real estate deals, not mystical wars. Meanwhile, Joy doesn’t even seem to realize mystical wars are an option, given that she doesn’t appear to know her father is still alive.

You got a license for those guns, Colleen?

Though “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight” raises some potentially interesting questions about agency, power, and trust, it doesn’t utilize those themes as strongly as it could. By end of the episode, Danny has finally re-channeled his Ch’i and broken out of the psych ward using his full Iron Fist powers, which would seem to make his stay there rather superfluous. But at least the image of Danny and his glowing fist has me legitimately interested in starting the next episode. Sometimes in a binge-watch, a strong ending is all you need.

Stray observations

  • Though Danny didn’t help his case by talking about his powers, on the other hand, given how many Avengers, Inhumans, Sorcerer Supremes, and genetically manipulated people are running around, maybe Dr. Edmonds should learn to be a little less skeptical about people who claim they have special abilities. At least give Danny a chance to try his powers without medication!
  • I didn’t fully appreciate it until I watched the episode a second time, but James Hindman does a fantastic job modulating his performance from mild-mannered patient Simon to the confident fake doctor Simon plays at the start of the episode.
  • So Howard definitely lives in a secured penthouse, not an underground bunker as I originally thought. And speaking of which, the best (and spookiest) image in this episode is the “Where did you go?” message that appears on the outside of Harold’s window, hundreds of stories up.
Where did you come from?
  • If Colleen hadn’t happen to go visit him, what was Joy’s plan for getting the M&Ms back from Danny? Was his ability to mail an envelope part of her test too?
  • We’re only two episodes in and I already feel like I’ve seen the plane crash scene 100 times.
  • Kyle is quickly emerging as my favorite character on this series. Let’s give it up for Kyle, everyone.
Sorry I’m not sorry.