'Daredevil' Showrunner on Fear, Its Antidote and Matt Finding His Way Back

Erik Oleson breaks down season three, decisions he made about Karen and Fisk and why he wanted the show's core trio back together.
David Lee/Netflix
Charlie Cox in 'Daredevil'

[This story contains spoilers for season three of Daredevil.]

After more than two years away, Daredevil returned to Netflix with a third season that finds its central trio more divided than ever. Masked vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is presumed dead and licking his wounds in hiding. His best friends and former colleagues Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) have both moved on with new careers, and their law practice together is long shuttered.

All three are forced back into action together by the resurgence of kingpin Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), whose power and influence over New York City has only grown during his incarceration. Under new showrunner Erik Oleson, season three eschews crossovers with Netflix's other Marvel shows to instead delve deeper into the psyche of all the show’s central players, and builds to a finale in which Matt comes closer than ever before to crossing a moral line into murder.

Oleson spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about striking a tone between earlier Daredevil and The Sopranos, how the political climate shaped the themes of the season and why he couldn't bring himself to kill Fisk in the finale.

Coming in as a new showrunner, what did you want to bring to the Daredevil mix?

When I sat down with [Marvel Television head] Jeph Loeb in the very beginning, he had some ideas about the components of the season — the return of Wilson Fisk being a big thing — but then they gave me the freedom to go off and shape the season. I wanted to treat Daredevil season three like my run of the comics, in the way Frank Miller had his run, or [Brian Michael] Bendis had his run. Tonally, I wanted to hit something between season one of Daredevil and The Sopranos: something emotionally honest and character-driven and grounded that was also a twisty-turny thriller.

We settled on the theme of fear, and the fact that fears enslave us, and I put that on the writers room wall. Fear informs the way people behave in the world, the way people vote, and it's ripe picking for tyrants and villains out in the real world who want to use our fears against us, to manipulate us into doing wrong, and pull out the darkness in all of us on their ascent to power.

On the flip side, I also wanted to prescribe the solution to that, which is the power of a free press, the power of the law, and the power of collective action. Karen is using the power of the press, despite a villain trying to bash the press and turn it against itself. Foggy does not lose faith in the law, and pushes for it as the one thing that keeps us from descending into darkness. And Matt, as he goes from being isolated to coming back around to his friends, represents the collective action of how one can bring down a villain who tries to divide us against one another.

That depiction of Fisk as a narcissistic tyrant preying on fear and targeting the press feels very timely. Were you deliberately commenting on real-world politics?

Yeah, there were a few things I wanted to address with the series that spoke to our contemporary life right now: the toxicity that's out there, the rise of a narcissistic tyrant who unabashedly appeals to people's darker natures and fear and hate to turn us all against one another. I was very disturbed that we haven't learned the lessons of history about people like that. I had just come off of The Man In The High Castle, where I studied at length the writings and methodologies of Adolf Hitler, and to watch those same kinds of techniques being applied in 21st century America, and also in other places around the world right now, is just mind-blowing to me. So I came in with a bit of an agenda to make people really deeply consider whether we are acting out of fear when we vote today, or when we treat certain groups of people a certain way today, and if in fact we are acting out of fear, we should recognize that those fears are enslaving us, and ask ourselves why. And is there a reason for hope? I very much wanted to use the Marvel flagship as a vehicle to speak about hopeful, uplifting themes, which would encourage people to listen to their better angels, instead of the devils on their shoulder.

I wanted to treat Wilson Fisk as a very sophisticated, smart villain who was able to employ tactics straight out of Putin's playbook, and manipulate the system to create the conditions for his ascendance. A lot of what you see in season three is all real-life stuff. We're talking about deep recruitment, destabilizing a target's life before you even make an attempt to recruit them so that they are ripe for the picking, which is what Fisk does to Ray Nadeem [Jay Ali]. Psychologically destabilize a borderline personality, which is what Fisk does to Poyndexter [Wilson Bethel].

On that note, how does Dex's development into Bullseye play into the season's larger themes?

I love origin stories, and this character ends up becoming an iconic villain in the Daredevil pantheon, but I wanted to start him from a human place. What makes a character like that into a villain? There's a version of Dex who could have been an upstanding member of society, saving people's lives as a sharp-shooter in the FBI SWAT team. But because of the corrosive nature of Fisk, Dex is instead drawn to the dark side, and there are a lot of otherwise decent people in today's society who are unfortunately being called to the darkness by people who appeal to their worst impulses. I very much wanted to tell a story about a borderline personality and a character who's afraid to be his true self. Honestly, I think that he's one of those guys who would have marched through Charlottesville with a tiki torch. He once could have been a decent, solid member of society and put those fears aside, but when somebody appealed to those fears, and manipulated those fears, he instead ended up becoming a villain.

This season features no crossovers to other Marvel/Netflix shows, which is a change of pace from the previous seasons and The Defenders. Why did you make that choice?

At the very beginning of the season, I was given the option of having some of the other Marvel characters come by, but Marvel wasn't mandating it. The tone I wanted to achieve for the show just did not really fit with drop-bys from characters from other shows that are written with an entirely different tone. To me, sometimes the appearance of Marvel characters from other shows distracts from the story that you're telling, so I asked to not do it and Marvel backed my play, and that's the reason we don't really have any crossovers except for some smaller ones — we have Blake Tower, Fisk’s lawyers, Rosalie Carbone [Annabella Sciorra] who is in Luke Cage — but I only wanted to do it if it was not a distraction. I think to have Danny Rand or Jessica Jones or Luke Cage drop by would have taken you out of it. One of the core challenges on a show like this is that the villains always have to be more powerful than your hero in order for there to be any real dramatic tension. If you have a bulletproof man and an invincible woman and a kung-fu master walk in, suddenly the balance is thrown off, and the whole show kind of spins off.

Karen's backstory has been hinted at a lot before but never shown. How did you settle on the final version of that?

I knew coming into the season that I wanted to more fully flesh out Karen and the reasons she behaves the way she does. We have seen her flirt with Matt, and flirt with Foggy, and flirt with Frank Castle, but those relationships never really went anywhere. And I was interested in whether or not there was a deeper psychological reason for why she never fully opens herself up to a romantic love. Going back to the idea that every character is enslaved by a fear, for Karen, it is the fear that she's unworthy of love because she's not a good person, because of this event in her past. That fear has prevented her from ever forming a meaningful lasting connection, either romantically or with anybody in her life.

One of the things that Deb Ann Woll and I discussed at the very beginning of the season was that whatever backstory we came up with, Deb didn't want it to be that Karen shot somebody to save a bus full of children, or some kind of cop-out like that. Deb had already invented for herself some backstory elements, which allowed her to go to deep places in her scenes with Daredevil and with Frank Castle, so she and I spoke at length about that. Then I called up my predecessors [previous showrunners Steven DeKnight and Marco Ramirez] and asked if they had ever fully worked out Karen’s backstory, and the answer was no. They had hinted at things, but I was really free to invent one.

The only problem was that the backstories that they both hinted at were not really in sync with one another, so there was a bit of a head-scratching, to come up with a backstory that honored the dialogue of the previous two seasons and lined up with it, but then also went deeper, and explained these deeper psychological truths about Karen, and gave her this scar tissue. It was a lot of work, and I'm so proud of what we came up with, and I think episode 10 is maybe my favorite of the season. I'm in awe of Deborah's ability to bring layers to a scene.

This is the most we've seen of Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer). How did you figure her out?

Everything Wilson Fisk is doing is fueled by his fear that he is unworthy of Vanessa, the love of his life. He was humiliated in season one. On the cusp of his romantic climax with her, he was hauled off to prison and forced to send her into exile, and so everything that he's doing is driven by his desire to vindicate himself in the eyes of Vanessa. From her side, Vanessa has always thought that she could observe Fisk like a piece of art, and not get the paint on her hands, not get her hands dirty, and she comes to realize that’s not possible. If you ally yourself with somebody that is that carcinogenic, you too will get cancer.

Structurally, what that meant for me in the writers room was I wanted Vanessa to recognize that and convince Fisk that if they're partners in life, they're also going to be partners in crime, and he could not treat her like some object, some pretty thing to keep in a cage. She is going to be his equal partner, and that gets through to Fisk. He actually gets woke to the feminism of Vanessa and invites her into his lair, and she is the one who orders the assassination of Ray Nadeem. Fisk is blown away, and has never been happier or more attracted to her, now realizing that she is as strong as he is, and now the two of them, together, have ordered the assassination of an FBI agent who was turning state's witness.

Getting to the question of whether to kill Fisk: I assumed Matt would use Dex to kill him, but he doesn't end up dying at all.

We talked about a lot of different endings. There were ones where some of the characters died: Fisk in one scenario, Vanessa in another, and we talked about versions in which Matt was not the one who caused that, so he wouldn't cross into the murder zone. But also from the character standpoint, it was the correct ending. Over the course of the season, Matt comes to understand that it's his fear of abandonment that has been driving everything he's been doing. He’s been abandoned at the beginning of the season by God, by everybody he cares about, he's lost Elektra, and in his past his father is killed, his mother abandons him, so there's a deep-seated fear of losing anybody who gets close to him, and he's in a very dark, angry place.

But as he regains the desire to join with his friends to achieve justice, I don’t think the murder of the tyrant is the correct answer. We wanted to allow Matt's better angels to win out over his inner devil, and we wanted the friendship and the collective action of his friends to pull him back from damming his everlasting soul. There's also the fact that there are just more stories to tell with Kingpin and Bullseye and Vanessa, and taking them off the board at this point wasn't something that any of us wanted to do.

The finale ends with Matt, Karen and Foggy back together and planning to start a new law firm. What does the future look like for them?

Marvel and I agreed at the very beginning of the season that, whereas the friends are divided, you want to end them in a different place. Each one of the characters was able to confront their fears this season — Foggy is afraid of failing his family, Karen is afraid that she's not a good person, Matt is afraid of being abandoned — and so they're all in a new emotional place at the end. And all of them are realizing that the most self-actualized they've ever been, and the happiest they've ever been, is when they were working together to help people in need, as opposed to Foggy working at some high-end law firm, or Karen going off and being an investigative reporter. The core of the show in a lot of ways is that law firm, the law partnership between them, and I want Karen to be a part of it, and I have plans for where that's going.