DISCLAIMER: The following article contains spoilers for Daredevil Season 3 on Netflix. Read on at your own discretion.
Human beings are special for a number of reasons. Our capability of empathy isn’t necessarily one of those of reasons, because many animals such as apes and monkeys have exhibited these kinds of behaviours. But our ability to find profound meaning in otherwise meaningless things is very special.
I’ll give you an example; Opportunity.
The Opportunity Rover (nicknamed “Oppy“) was a Mars exploration rover deployed in July of 2003 and arrived on Mars in January 2004. Its mission was explore the surface of Mars by observing soil samples. It was only supposed to be operational for a few months but somehow managed to survive well beyond that, living on for fifteen years and travelling over 45 Kilometres- the most any Rover has travelled so far.
Sadly, Oppy had been experiencing some technical issues for her final years. In 2014 her memory capabilities were damaged, meaning she’d forget to record data from time to time. It was described by NASA as spouts of Amnesia. At this point they had her operate on RAM alone.
By late 2018 they lost communication with Oppy due to a planet wide dust storm. In February, 2019 they gathered to hear Oppy’s final status update which included, among other things, two equipment measurements – her battery’s power was dropping due to the high volume of dust in the air and that it was receiving low light on her solar panels.
Her final words, effectively, were relayed to the general public by Jacob Margolis. A a science reporter with KPCC, tweeted a paraphrased version of what John Callas, the mission’s project manager, had said regarding the contents of Opportunity’s last update that the rover sent back on June 10.
As NASA ended their attempts of communicating with Oppy, the last data streamed to her was Billie Holiday’s “I’ll be Seeing You“. They’d later hold a press conference to confirm that the mission had officially ended. Because of Opportunity they learnt a lot about the surface of Mars, which you read about in more detail via Jacob’s twitter thread I linked above.
But what I found most interesting was the way people reacted to the death of Oppy. People were legitimately heartbroken. To them Oppy’s last words didn’t just mean that her battery was low and that the dust storm had rendered everything dark.
It communicated the fear of death. The fact that as a living organism every single one of us essentially operates via a battery. Someday that battery that will run out and the last thing we’ll ever see is darkness. In that moment we’re all on Mars, surrounded by a dust-storm, freezing to death.
That heartbreaking sentiment is what makes us unique. It’s easy to find this kind of meaning from another person, but to feel this much from a robot? Goddamn that’s beautiful. How on earth could people be so worried about AI’s? We’d love them too goddamn much.
This entire moment in the history of space exploration gives the perfect chance to explain the importance of imagery. Typically reserved to fiction, imagery is used to depict an emotion or theory via visual cues. It’s kind of like how the Green Light in Gatsby isn’t just a green light. It’s a visual representation of longing. The colour itself is a reference to jealousy- a corrosive feeling that has effectively put Jay Gatsby’s life on standby. A man who’s effectively trying to reclaim the past.
You get a lot of information from how imagery is composed. How it changes over time. If the visual cue gets crisper over time, it means that the character’s journey has been an improvement overall. But if those visual cues tarnish, it means that the character’s journey has diminished their position- either emotionally or physically.
Which brings us to Daredevil and the meaning of the Rabbit in a Snowstorm.
I’m not much of an artist, so if you want a proper breakdown of colour theory you’d be best reading this. If you look at the painting long enough, focus on how the dirt of grey intrudes on the white, you’ll be able to see the little white rabbit stuck in the middle of a snow storm.
It’s kind of like how you can see objects and things in the shape of clouds. Like a cloud in the sky could be shaped like a cow. It’s not- we just think it looks like a cow cause our mind renders its general shape and composition, compares it to various other images you’ve encountered in your life and eventually- without even realising you were doing all this work- you’ll say to yourself “hey, that cloud looks like a cow“.
Sometimes you won’t even realise that a cloud looks like a cow until someone else points it out to you. At this point your brain takes in this verbal cue alongside the visual cue and it takes you a little bit longer to realise it, because your brain has to take in consideration two things instead of one.
In the same way, you may not have considered that there’s a little white rabbit on the canvas if the title of the painting wasn’t “The rabbit in the Snowstorm“. Similarly, you may not have taken into consideration the imagery of the green light in Gatsby is someone didn’t point it out to you.
But I digress, back to the topic at hand.
So Daredevil is the show about a blind lawyer who, through his enhanced senses, has learned to become a ninja and in turn became the vigilante protecting a burrough of New York called Hell’s Kitchen. In the show he mostly deals with petty criminals, drug lords and other ninjas from a secret society.
By far his most revered villain is a crime lord by the name of Wilson Fisk. This big, stocky man who’s extremely intelligent- a master tactician. I personally interpret the character to be an undiagnosed autistic person suffering from severe PTSD, brought on by his fathers abuse and eventual murder by how own hands.
If Wilson wasn’t living in severe poverty, perhaps he could have diagnosed by a doctor. If his father wasn’t such a brutish ass-hole, perhaps Wilson wouldn’t have suffered from PTSD. If this were the case, Wilson could have become an ordinary, emotionally healthy, law abiding citizen.
But it wasn’t, so Wilson in turn became an emotionally stunted sociopath with delusions of grandeur and severe anger management issues. He became Kingpin.
In the beginning of season one the only thing that Wilson cares about is power. All of that changes however when he meets Vanessa, an art curator who he falls in love with. He’s gifted the rabbit in a snowstorm by her, as it’s his favourite painting- partly because it references back memories from his childhood, but also because its the same painting he was looking at when he met Vanessa.
His acquirement of the painting is important because it acts as a visual representation for their relationship. To Wilson, Vanessa is pure- the one thing in his life that isn’t tarnished by the carnage he creates to hold onto power. For a while, this is enough. But Vanessa implores Wilson to go into the public sphere, to become a means for good.
Which is great, for everyone but Matt Murdock- who knows rightly what Kingpin is about. He sets out to take down his criminal empire and succeeds. By the end of the season, Wilson Fisk is behind bars. Vanessa is sent overseas to protect her from indictment and for two years they remain separated.
The tragic irony of course is that the final shot of Wilson Fisk is of him staring off at a white cell wall, which resembles the painting he had been staring at in his introduction.
We don’t see much of him in season two. His role there is to essentially set up the story-line for season three and the ongoing Punisher arc in season two. He doesn’t really come into hos own until season three which is, whooooh, so goddamn good.
The show picks up a few months after the Defenders, where Matt Murdock is presumed dead after- well- a twenty storey building fell on top of him. But he survived! Somehow. Now he’s recovering at a Cathedral/Orphanage where he was raised. Life for Matt has been an unending shit-storm and at this point in his life, he has a crisis of faith. He doesn’t necessarily lose faith in God, but rather he realises that God is a raging ass-hole.
All the while Fisk devises this master-plan in which he manipulates the FBI to help him retake New-York and prove his innocence, making him once again a free man. This time his pursuit of power is for love, as every decision he makes brings him a step closer to reuniting with Vanessa.
This desire of his can be once again symbolised by the white canvas mentioned earlier. Fisk has all of his belongings returned to him in his new penthouse, but he can’t seem to bring back the painting. It was sold at a police auction and the owner refuses to sell it back.
Later in the series, Fisk pays a visit to this owner and tries to persuade her to return the painting to him as it was a gift from the woman he loves. But he owner isn’t having it, explaining that she was a Holocaust survivor and that this paining is a family heirloom that was taken by the Gestapo. She is the only surviving member of her family and this painting is the only thing left of her family.
Fisk, showing a surprising amount of empathy, allows her to keep it. He believes its what Vanessa would have wanted anyway. All seems fine, until Fisk’s plans blow right up in his face.
With great writing, its important to realise two integral things. The first being that actions have consequences and the second is that no matter how smart your character may appear, nobody can possibly know everything.
Fisk may be smart enough to sabotage individual FBI agents livelihoods from inside of prison, but there’s no way he could have possibly predicted that a rival mob would attack his transportation- or that he’d be saved by an elite marksman who just so happened to be one of the FBI agents transporting him.
A compelling maniacal villain shouldn’t be omnipotent. They should be surprised at things, but act accordingly. Fisk in turn improvised by adding this elite marksman, Agent Poindexter (funny name, in the show people just call him Dex) to his master plan. He manipulates this man, who suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder and psychopathy, into become his attack dog.
But even while Fisk is doing extensive research on him, he can never seem to take himself out of the picture. That’s why Dex’s backstory is told in flashbacks inside Fisk’s own penthouse, as if the people in Dex’s life were all just actors performing a play for Fisk. All the while these same flashbacks are shot in black and white, again recalling the white canvas with splashes of grey.
Even when Fisk extends his empathy, it always takes into consideration his feelings, his motives, what this person could do for him so that he can get what he wants. It’s vanity and delusions of grandeur presented perfectly.
So by the time the season reaches its finale, when Fisk seems invincible, Matt Murdock unleashes Fisk’s own attack dog upon him. At this point Dex has become aware of all the ways that Fisk has manipulated him. By the time the finale has come, their relationship has already been strained.
With Dex failing to kill Karen, his mental state declined quickly. Fisk noticed this and began to distance himself, which was one of the greatest mistakes he could have possibly made. Dex, determined to prove himself, kills the owner of the Rabbit in the Snowstorm and returns it to Fisk- he doesn’t even wash the blood stain off of the corners.
This little detail is a visual cue that represents how, despite his best efforts, Fisk’s livelihood will tarnish those he loves. Later Vanessa confesses that she’s been feeling incredibly lonely because Fisk never includes her in his work- essentially she sees only one side of him, when she wants to see it all.
The problem of course is that once Fisk introduces her into this world, she tarnishes in his eyes. Before hand she was the one pure, unspoiled thing in his life. Now? She has blood on her hands.
The imagery that comes with the painting is sometimes not so subtle. Near the end of the season Vanessa even tells Fisk straight up that she feels like one of the beautiful objects that he’s decorated the penthouse with. In the finale, Fisk, Dex and Matt all have a final showdown.
With Dex defeated, Matt proceeds to beat Fisk to a bloody pulp. All the while the blood splatters across the white canvas, ruining the painting. Once again Fisk is incapable of protecting those he loves from the violence that follows his line of work. He takes Matt’s compromise, that he’ll return to prison so that Vanessa won’t be charged with conspiracy to murder.
The last scene Fisk has in the show is of him begging to say goodbye to his wife. But the cops aren’t having any of it. Just like the painting, Fisk’s marriage is damaged beyond repair. He’s taken away, heartbroken.
There’s a lot of thematic devices that’s used in storytelling. But by far my favourite is the use of imagery. We’re a people that can find the most profound meaning in the most arbitrary things. Whether its the shape of a cow in a cloud, the heartbreak of a robot’s final status report, or even just a white painting- tarnished with blood. I think this is beautiful, and I hope you do too.