11:00 am EDT, October 31, 2018

‘Daredevil’ season 3: Breaking down the brilliance of Bullseye

Daredevil season 3 breaks the mold of mentally-ill villains with Bullseye. We take a look at how they did it.

It’s not unique for media to tack severe mental illness onto a villainous character. We are all familiar with the tropes, shortcuts, and sidesteps employed to animate otherwise un-nuanced baddies. Often, mental illness is used as a combination of hand-waved motivation for a character’s bad actions (“Why? Well, he’s crazy!”) and a designation of deepest villainy.

After all, who is going to waste tears on a literal murdering psychopath, a person whose actions are defined by unfathomable impulse? What else is this kind of character but a perverted force to be stopped?

In the character of Ben Poindexter and his eventual alias Bullseye, Daredevil season 3 posits that we might see such a character as… well, someone human.

Beneath the stolen suit, and even with his murderous impulses and deadly skills, Daredevil always reminds us that Bullseye is a man in the clutches of an illness. First and foremost, he is sick — in the literal, and not pejorative sense. Wiser heads than mine can accurately diagnose his specific symptoms, but whether Dex suffers from borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, psychopathy, or some other cocktail of symptoms, there is never a question that he is unwell, and that he has suffered a lifetime of anguish as a result of his illness.

Here is where Daredevil season 3 parts company with most other depictions of mentally ill villains. Bullseye isn’t the senseless, cackling Joker or dispassionate, methodical Thanos. Instead of conceiving of Dex’s mind as some unfathomable, free-ranging darkness, a fallow field for inevitable evil, the series tackles his challenges with equal parts empathy and practicality.

Like a smallpox patient, Dex lives under the weight of a real and palpable disease. And like a smallpox patient, there is no question that he is profoundly dangerous when untreated. But though his contagion expresses itself through violence rather than viral transmission, he is no less a victim of its agonizing grip on his reality.

This is a fraught and narrow path for Daredevil season 3 to tread. The lines of moral responsibility and blame often become blurry in this show, but all the more so when a character like Dex sits in the spotlight. How should we think of man who so often (and so often willingly) succumbs to his desire to kill? Where is the balancing point between blame and innocence by way of insanity?

Daredevil season 3 gives us most of the answer, though it is fairly awful to contemplate.

Ben Poindexter’s tragedy lies in the fact that he knows his own illness. He knows that his urge to kill, be it birds, kittens, or people, is a manifestation of this sickness. Taking life and causing pain is wrong; his desire to do so is both his nature and his foe. In his therapist and the tapes of their sessions, he has guidance (albeit of a weakening kind) on how to manage his illness and urges. And after all those years, he fights on, struggling toward the path of light that he believes will be his redemption.

But Dex chooses the fight. It is a bizarre battle, one where victory is wrongly hinged on the emotional largess of another person. Dex’s attempts to manage his condition and find the light are at best badly misguided, at worst literally deadly. But as disturbing as his ‘treatments’ are, Daredevil season 3 is explicitly clear; Dex follows this path because he wants to get, or at least be, better. Even after engaging in mass slaughter at the Bulletin, he wants to free himself from the sickness that compels such horrors.

Dex must be understood within the context of his illness, but he is defined by his struggle against it. It is, tragically, this characteristic that centers Dex’s journey… and it is this characteristic that Fisk takes away from Dex. Fisk destroys the protective layers that Dex has built against his mental disease, closing off his path until Dex sees no other path beyond chose sickness and easy cruelty.

Slowly and methodically, Fisk strangles and kills the part of Poindexter that could resist the seductive infection of Bullseye. In a very real way, Fisk exposes Dex to his own contagion; he becomes a virus to his own system, destroying his own defenses and welcoming in the evil which so delights (and serves) the Kingpin.

It’s worth saying again that Dex is not an innocent here. He is not deprived of his agency or ultimate ability to chose. The lives of those he loves are not held against his behavior, and despite his illness, he is too intelligent to be deigned a helpless tool in Fisk’s hands. Dex is capable, almost fearless, and the murder of innocents barely registers with him. Defeat and failure effect cut him far more deeply than the lost and ruined lives for which he is responsible.

The fact that Dex remains a figure of potential (and not necessarily realized) empathy is proof of concept for the character’s construction. Dex can only be understood within the framework of his illness, but that framework does not relieve him of the weight of his actions. If it did, this story would have a much different ending, and not just for the man in Daredevil’s suit.

Like Matt, Karen, and Ray Nadeem, Dex must ultimately bear burden of his sins. It is, perhaps, his thematic destiny to end the season with his back crushed by Wilson Fisk, the author of so many of those sins.

And of course, credit also must be heaped (endlessly, in my opinion) on Wilson Bethel, who brings Ben Poindexter to life. By turns transparently anguished and gleefully wicked, with spates in between of deliberately bland sociopath, Bethel drenches every nook and cranny of Dex’s illness with light, bringing clarity to an otherwise bitter darkness.

If Daredevil is given the chance to return for a fourth season, it will be worth paying attention to Bullseye’s future movements. The very last moments of season 3 expose Dex in what seems like a literal transformation; he is becoming something less real, less human than the character who helped define the season. While it is intriguing to think of Bullseye’s impeding transformation, let’s hope that the heart of what made Dex so compelling remains intact.

Let’s hope that Daredevil remembers its profound realization; Bullseye, in all his illness, is human.

Daredevil season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.

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