It’s no small feat to out-Hailee-Steinfeld Hailee Steinfeld on her own show. But Florence Pugh makes it look easy, as everyone’s favorite Baby Black Widow takes center stage this week. Everything that made Yelena Belova such a hit in the Black Widow movie is back and arguably better here; particularly her mix of cutthroat ruthlessness, sarcastic humor, and epicurean 20-something enthusiasm. Even her utterly ridiculous Russian accent somehow works, maybe because Pugh is so good at layering notes of real pain underneath Yelena’s excitable interior.
Not that it’s a competition of course. Steinfeld is also wonderful, and she’s specifically great with Pugh during an extended conversation where Kate and Yelena tentatively bond over mac and cheese. In fact, it’s largely the show’s women who take center stage in this penultimate episode, what with Maya continuing her obsession with Ronin and Eleanor revealing some complicated new sides of herself. It’s a choice that makes complete sense for an Avenger who’s always been defined first and foremost by the women in his life: His friendship with Natasha, his sweet partnership of equals with Laura, his mentorship of Wanda Maximoff. Even Clint’s relationship with his kids tends to be filtered first and foremost through his daughter. Clint is the kind of guy who gets along well with his male coworkers, but who only really seems to have female friends. And that provides a nice, if underplayed, energy to anchor this penultimate episode.
Though it features Clint dramatically re-donning his titular suit and ends with a major crossover villain reveal (good to see you again, Vincent D’Onofrio!), “Ronin” is a low-key character-driven affair that’s mostly focused on getting the pieces lined up for next week’s finale. There are places where this episode could have pushed its dramatics a little further. Kate and Clint’s split is resolved remarkably easily given how dramatically it was introduced last week, for instance. But this hour is a consistently entertaining watch, mostly thanks to Yelena.
“Ronin” fills us in on what she’s been up to since the 2016-set Black Widow movie, which ended with her setting off to free other mind-controlled victims of the Black Widow training program. Yelena spent two years working on that mission, seemingly keeping up with Nat along the way. But during one of Marvel’s characteristically unsettling Snap sequences, she was dusted while paying a housecall to an old friend. By the time Yelena returned five years later (but near instantaneously from her perspective), her sister was dead, and the world seemed content to thank The Avengers as a whole without singling out the woman who made one of the biggest sacrifice plays.
As a long time Black Widow fan, I found it deeply satisfying to watch Yelena provide a crucial rebuttal to Kate’s assertion that Clint saved the world. “No, my sister saved the world,” Yelena counters. “Natasha Romanoff saved the world.” For a cinematic universe that couldn’t even be bothered to give one of its founding Avengers a goddamn funeral, it’s nice to see Nat retroactively getting her due here. The same goes for that incredibly sweet scene where Clint speaks to his best friend’s memory before re-donning the Ronin suit.
On the other hand, I’m also worried that Hawkeye is conflating Natasha’s death with Clint’s time as the Ronin in a way that will make it easy for the show to handwave away the latter while only addressing the former. Yelena is right that Clint deserves to be held accountable for the horrible things he did during his Punisher-esque stint as a murderous vigilante, particularly in a world now eager to hail him as an unquestioned hero. She’s wrong, however, that Natasha’s death is his fault. And with only one episode left—not to mention that pointed pivot to focus on the informant who gave Clint the info he needed to kill Maya’s dad—I’m sensing the show isn’t actually all that interested in taking Clint to task in anything more than a surface-level way.
Which is… fine, I guess? In truth, I’ve never really been all that interested in the “should heroes kill??” question that dominates so much of superhero storytelling, mostly because it hinges on the idea that our non-lethal heroes never accidentally kill anyone during all their various goon battles. (Or that they only fight non-humanoid robots/monsters to skirt the issue altogether.) Still, considering how much Hawkeye chose to make Clint’s Ronin guilt central to this season, it would be nice if it didn’t just wind up sweeping it all under the rug in the end.
There’s some other potential weirdness here too. Even though Black Widow’s post-credits scene showed Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Contessa Valentina being the one to point a vengeful Yelena in Hawkeye’s direction, apparently it was Kate’s mom Eleanor who actually hired Yelena to take Clint out. (Maybe Eleanor was just using the Contessa as a broker?) That makes Yelena’s mission an odd mix of professional obligation and personal vengeance in a way that will hopefully get explored more in-depth next week. Still, at least it gives us Yelena dance-celebrating her first time in New York before noting it’s a business trip so her tourist time is limited, which is maybe my single favorite moment on Hawkeye to date.
It’s the little details that really make this episode sing, like the fact that Clint already knew Natasha had a sister called Yelena. (A real relief for my investment in their friendship!) Or that goofy scene where the Tracksuit Mafia goons discuss their favorite tracksuit-wearing pop culture icons. (Run-D.M.C., Olympian Tommie Smith, Tony Soprano, and The Royal Tenenbaums all make the cut). One of the most exciting moments in this whole episode (at least for deep-cut MCU fans) is just a quick shot of a blurry cellphone photo. With that, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk a.k.a. Kingpin officially hops from the Netflix Defenders Daredevil universe to the MCU proper. And Marvel hopefully starts the process of reclaiming all of those great actors from that now shuttered realm.
Though I have my doubts about just how much resolution Hawkeye is going to be able to deliver in next week’s finale, the show’s smaller scale ambitions mean the pressure isn’t on in quite the same way it was for the season cappers of the previous Disney+ Marvel shows. In fact, these first five episodes of Hawkeye have proved to be a great test run for a series I’d happily watch for several more seasons. If Hawkeye can be an arena to reclaim some Marvel players while giving others a fun place to hang out between movies? Well, that wouldn’t be a bad Christmas treat at all.
- Seriously, what is Maya and Kazi’s deal?!? I haven’t been this confused since that Folgers Christmas commercial.
- Those heading to the multiplexes to see Spider-Man: No Way Home this weekend should take note of Yelena’s comment about wanting to see the “new and improved Statue of Liberty.”
- The season’s strangest dangling thread is that detective who called Kate to come in for questioning about her apartment fire. Why even introduce that subplot at all? My only hope is that it means we’re also getting the return of Royce Johnson’s Detective Brett Mahoney, one of my favorite Daredevil recurring players.
- After that weird Age Of Ultron interlude about Natasha being a monster for not having a uterus/not being able to have kids, I appreciated that this episode casually showed a former Black Widow happily adopting a child.
- Another nice touch: The realistic presentation of lip reading, where Maya is able to understand major words and phrases, but not necessarily track every detail of each sentence.
- I swear to god, if this series doesn’t end with Yelena and Kate taking a Sex And The City bus tour together…