Massive spoiler alert for season 2 of Daredevil!
This was a relationship that – to me, as a person who didn’t watch or read any interviews prior to diving into the season, and who saw only one trailer – caught me completely off-guard. Not only because these characters actually interacted in a plausible, interesting way, but it’s also to do with the fact that Frank Castle and Karen Page fill a void that the entirety of Daredevil has missed out on so far apart from an inkling of it here and there. It’s the virtue of an honest relationship actually featuring its female protagonist. Holy frickin hell finally, it’s about time.
Generally, I don’t really focus on ships much when I watch shows or films. Stories about romance – even potential romance – normally don’t do very much for me and sometimes sour a plot with way too much secondhand embarrassment. But when a ship like this falls in my lap – one that could literally go anywhere whether it’s in a romantic, platonic, familial, sexual, etc. sense because it’s inherently character-based – it’s like something snaps inside me. I begin to yearn for stories about people like this because they actually seem like they could be real.
Let’s start with Karen, arguably one of the most important female characters the Marvel Cinematic Universe has portrayed to date. I’m firmly of the belief that as a show, Daredevil is as much about her as it is about Matt Murdock. I mean, let’s just rename the show right this minute anyway, because I definitely cared more about her in Season 2 than I did Matt.
Karen starts out as a character practically thrown into the lion’s den that’s the crime and violence of Hell’s Kitchen. She’s treated like a pawn for a portion of the show’s first season before she grows a thicker skin, and learns to ask all the right questions. She begins much like her comic counterpart – a damsel in distress who desperately needs Daredevil’s help – and that was extremely worrisome. It was scary to watch her interact with most of the characters. I was so scared she would randomly get hurt (again) or, well, fridged.
But the relieving thing about how the show’s writers and Deborah Ann Woll herself portray Karen is her inner strength. The kind you catch a glimpse of in a twinkle of her gorgeous blue eyes, or when her jaw clenches determinedly. She appears meek, antsy, and unsure of herself half the time, yet when push comes to shove and she can’t take anymore, she will outright kill a man. Of course, that’s the worst extreme of Karen’s desperation, but the in-between moments are where I as an audience member love her the most. Pulling together two threads of the completely volatile person she is, is her resilience and thirst for truth. Karen is terrified out of her mind most of the time when it comes to the truth, but she knows that being lied to is far worse. Girl certainly has some trust issues and I relate.
That’s one of the major themes in Season 2 of Daredevil – what constitutes a hero when all you’re doing is keeping things in the dark (literally and figuratively). Karen has to look for answers herself when people to her left and right – Matt, even Foggy – shut her out. They don’t mean to – they just want to protect her – but they’re absolutely blind (no pun intended) to the fact that she can handle herself. She isn’t a coward, nor is she weak. In fact, she is arguably even more like Matt than even Matt himself realises. Like him, it’s not even as though her moral code is unshakeable. It’s merely taking shape as Hell’s Kitchen shows its true colours episode after episode. The saddest part about the Matt/Karen/Foggy dynamic is that all this growth has to happen without them really being friends or even sharing scenes. They have to drift apart and find new people. For Karen, this happens to be where Frank comes in.
“People like her are why I do this.” Matt says this about Karen in Season 1 and in essence, that’s also what Frank sees in her. Frank is slightly more worse for wear though – he’s absolutely cynical. He says to Daredevil, “You’re one bad day away from being me.” It’s heartbreaking that this is what it comes down to – there are no good days left for Frank Castle. At least, none until he properly meets Karen and realises what she’s willing to do not just to help him, but to understand where he’s coming from. She’s the only one who actually wants to be there throughout the course of his trial, but it was never because she was seeing through rose-tinted glasses.
That’s one of the strongest elements of their relationship – there really isn’t a “crush” phase. Karen first sees Frank wielding military-grade weaponry as he shoots up a hospital, for crying out loud! As far as good first impressions go, that’s pretty bad. Frank also has no illusions that he’ll ever be charming or just plain cheerful ever again, so he never tries. Yet Karen digs deep on her own volition. She’s assertive and curious and is willing to even break into his house to find out more about him (and of course tells him about it later), and that’s probably more than anyone’s ever done for him in a long time.
Jon Bernthal has this to say about Frank, and how he relates to Karen:
He’s a guy who has seen his life as he had known it is over now, and he’s in this dark nightmare […] anyone who tries to build a wall [around his heart] like this, there will be cracks in it. […] What’s great about the character of Karen, and what’s so beautiful about the way that Deborah Ann plays her, is that she cracked me open and she gets in there. She’s relentless, and she’s strong.
There’s a sense of both characters coming together as equals – as adults. Frank and Karen are able to learn and grow through each other because that’s allowed in this relationship. They are flawed but don’t try to hide it entirely. Meanwhile, there’s still a respect for boundaries between them that’s very admirable. Frank asks if Karen has ever held a gun before, even when he’s already worked out that she has. He doesn’t pry into the circumstances leading up to her prior experience with weapons either. He lets her tell her own narrative, and accepts when it’s ultimately none of his business and moves on.
Secrecy is particularly interesting dynamic between the two, in general. “You never lie to me.” That’s not entirely true, but Frank doesn’t pretend to be a good person when he eventually does. Comparing that to how Matt and Foggy almost have a ~bro handshake when it comes to certain secrets (*cough* Daredevil’s freaking identity *cough*), consequently leaving Karen out, that must be incredibly refreshing for her. Frank doesn’t treat her like a child, or even like a pupil. He’s just there for her when she needs him to be, and steps out when that’s necessary too.
Karen: That might not be important to you, but it is important to me. All of them, they think you’re a monster. But, I know that you’re not. You’re not.
There really is no idealism. There is no sense of putting each other on a pedestal – unwittingly or not – because neither character feels they’re better than the other. Monstrosity runs through both of them, even if it’s perhaps a little harder to spot in Karen. But she’s been dealing with a lot of complicated, painful feelings ever since she shot and killed Wesley, and she’s been doing it by herself. She has never been able to confide in anyone about it, but she’s been battling thoughts of being a monster too. She’s absolutely petrified at the thought that that’s what she is, even if she had be that way in order to defend herself.
And here we have one of the reasons she feels compelled to help Frank, and to maybe bring him back from the brink. That’s not to say she’s foolish and believes he never killed anybody. She simply wants others to see the nuances in him she was able to get a glimpse of in their conversations. The Frank that smiles and laughs, even if it takes a lot for him to get there. And as much as this might have been done in hopes of Saving The Male Antihero, I’d argue that Karen herself wants saving too. It’s just that she wants to be the one to initiate that for a change.
Karen: You do this and I am done… You’re dead to me. You hear me?
Frank: I’m already dead.
Finally, as there are cracks in the facade of Frank’s tough exterior, there is a bulletproof quality to Karen that only hardens as Season 2 progresses. This is the resilience I talked about earlier in this (really long) blog post. It takes a lot for someone to say they will walk away from a person completely – that something is the very last straw. In this case, Karen certainly had to, but she only does so because she cares far too much. She holds out hope that Frank could be like Daredevil, but it’s a tough call when she actually knows and sees him for who he is. In this way, their relationship is juxtaposed so starkly with her budding romance with Matt, someone who’s so caught up in keeping up appearances that he inadvertently lets her suffer for it.
Both these men have clearly let Karen down. Obviously, it’s probably a lot easier for her to patch things up with Matt because no one actually dies. But arguably, Frank refuses her request to be Good outright because in the long-term, he knows he’s of better use to his city by literally purging it of bad guys. By the end of the season, Karen proves she understands this too. Much like how he implores her to keeps her distance from him after putting her in yet another crossfire earlier in the season, he recognises that where it’s too late for him and perhaps Daredevil, it isn’t too late for Karen, who he sees as heroic in her own right.
She can and has to finally walk away. It would be an insult to both of them if she had compromised.
Yet, even as he steps out in full Punisher gear during the season finale, Karen doesn’t call Frank by that moniker. She whispers, “Frank…” under her breath, because he’s human to her, first and foremost.
Frank: People that can hurt you, the ones that can really hurt you, are the ones that are close enough to do it.
That’s what’s so darn interesting about this relationship. It’s definitely not the 100% Greatest Healthiest Most Perfect ship. But it takes these characters places they need to be, especially Karen. So much of Frank’s ~manpain is actually served up for her benefit. After being tossed around in a sea of utter fear and confusion throughout Season 1, it’s very affirming to see her really make big decisions for herself in Season 2, despite the colossal amount of shit people put her through. I can only hope for more of this dynamic in the future. (WHERE’S SEASON 3, NETFLIX?)
I’ll finally end my post by saying this: I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to think that – in less shitty Hell’s Kitchen – Frank and Karen would happily sit at Josie’s together, down beers and confide in each other. Maybe he would tell her about his favourite breed of dog and she would take him to her favourite restaurant for ~exotic food. They’re the most unlikely yet most truthful of pairings, so it just works.