My parents both work in medicine, so any time a show tries to explain something in medical terms, they’re prone to roll their eyes. “That’s not how it works,” my dad will say. “He’d be dead.” Such is the curse of knowing what you’re talking about—it robs your enjoyment of TV shows that don’t.
Sometimes, this sort of TV writing is harmless, like when a sci-fi show speculates on the mechanics of time travel. Other times, it’s laziness. That makes it all the more rewarding when a show does put in its requisite homework on the ideas it explores.
When the marketing campaign for season three of Netflix’s Daredevil started teasing the Catholic imagery, I was skeptical. There’s an understandable allure to adding religious subtext to a show featuring a devil-themed protagonist, but as with any theme people take seriously, stumbling blocks abound.
Daredevil opens its third season in a church. Actually, a healthy amount of the season takes place in the basement of a Catholic church in Hell’s Kitchen, where our sightless hero spends time licking his emotional, physical and spiritual wounds among the discarded statues of saints and angels. As metaphors go, it can frankly be a bit on the nose, but that’s the superhero genre for you. Even in the comics, Daredevil has always been a uniquely religious hero, his Catholic faith holding him to a transcendent moral pattern, even when his skull-cracking vigilante antics can’t or won’t fit into that pattern.
The Netflix show hasn’t avoided this part of the Daredevil’s legacy. The craggy-voiced Father Lantom shepherded Matt Murdock’s soul throughout season one, after all, but the series has never invested quite as much care and nuance in Matt’s faith as it does in season three.
This investment is not always the case on television. Christians levy a number of criticisms at the television industry, from a lack of Christian representation to an absence of morality to an alleged contribution to the decline of an ethically minded society. Most of these critiques, to be clear, are bogus. Some television is definitely fraught with irresponsible morality, but there are also shows like The Good Place, BoJack Horseman and The Haunting of Hill House, which tackle the moral universe in thoughtful ways.
But by and large, things are still thorny when it comes to outright depictions of Christianity. From The Simpsons‘ Ned Flanders to The Mindy Project‘s Casey Peerson, TV has a lot of Christians, but they can frequently feel crafted by someone who’s never actually met a real follower of Jesus.
Let’s start with Casey Peerson, Mindy’s on-and-off pastor boyfriend on The Mindy Project. As played by Workaholics‘ Anders Holm, Casey was a sweet, funny and cool presence in Mindy’s life. But he slept with Mindy, which raises some eyebrows. It wouldn’t be impossible for a show to have a thoughtful exploration of the conflicts within and without a sexually active single pastor, but The Mindy Project doesn’t seem aware such a tension exists. In an interview with Vulture, Holm chuckled about it, saying “When I read the part, there was a lot of me going, ‘Can pastors do this? Is this straight legal with the Bible?'” Seems like the sort of thing an actual Christian might have been able to weigh in on, if anyone had bothered to ask.
There are other examples. Friday Night Lights‘ Landry Clarke was pitched as a nerdy Christian, but his strip-club dalliances were never found at odds with his conservative upbringing (and the less said about Lyla Garrity’s brief time as a bleeding-heart Christian who spouted David Koresh-adjacent mumbo jumbo over the radio, the better). The West Wing pitched President Josiah Barlett as a good, God-fearing Commander in Chief, but his biblical hermeneutic was all over the map.
None of these characters are inexplicable. In fact, in the right hands, they could be the source of some interesting drama. But the fact that these shows don’t even make the attempt to explore their beliefs with intention make the characters seem less like reflections of real Christians and more like objects of ignorance in the writers’ room.
That’s where Daredevil‘s depiction of the Catholic Church feels like a quiet revelation. In this new season, Charlie Cox plays Daredevil as a standoffish, volatile grouch, but he still has enough theological training to spar with his two Catholic mentors, the returning Father Lantom and newcomer Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley plays the patient but salty nun). Recent circumstances have led Matt to reframe his perceptions of God, preferring to see Him now as a distributor of wrath and judgment instead of grace and mercy. Daredevil is feeling a bit like Jonah at the end of his story, frustrated God isn’t dropping the divine shoe on Nineveh. He tries to convince Father Lantom and Sister Maggie that the redemption they preach isn’t coming. They’re determined to prove him wrong.
These three, Matt the surly teen to Father Lantom and Sister Maggie’s long-suffering parents, have lengthy discussions about the nature of God, the book of Job and the way of grace. It’d be easy for these conversations to descend into idle navel-gazing—the sort of amateur Reddit theology that plagued What Dreams May Come and The Matrix—but Daredevil knows what it’s talking about. The obvious attention to detail and research lends gravitas to the religious themes that ooze through the season.
“Stop hiding behind your collar,” Matt seethes at Father Lantom late in the season. “I’m not hiding, Matthew,” Lantom replies. “I’m right here.” And it’s that right there-ness that marks Daredevil‘s boldness, putting its religious themes in plain sight. From Sister Maggie’s prayers, which swap the florid poetry of lesser shows for an honest desperation, to Matt’s discussions on the nature of divine calling, Daredevil goes mighty inside-baseball with some of its language, but that’s exactly what lends it authenticity. Too often, television shows, even one as beloved as Friday Night Lights, feel like they go through the motions of Christianity, pandering and aping hazy stereotypes. Daredevil‘s religion feels lived in.
Daredevil isn’t the only show considering religion from an educated place. The calls on Pete Holmes’ Crashing are clearly coming from inside the house, and The Leftovers had inspiring and insightful religious ideas on the brain. But Daredevil brings its religious acumen to the fore and the show is stronger for it.