To save an innocent, Danny enters an epic martial arts tournament
Credit: Patrick Harbron/Netflix

The lone episode of Iron Fist directed by Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA is far from a celebrity stunt. By contrast, it’s the clear standout of the first six episodes. RZA brings a singular aesthetic and a clear love of martial arts tropes – in this case, the grand martial arts tournament.

After her henchman at the pier failed to stop Danny from rescuing Radovan, Madame Gao takes off the kid gloves. She sends out a message to much more elite fighters, and each of them gets a colorful introduction. Two Russians are butchering a big hunk of meat, a scientist is examining a spider, and an assassin is singing A-ha’s “Take On Me” at karaoke while systematically murdering a room of men, when they all get the signal that “the time has come.” The last one in particular is probably the funniest, most unsettling scene Iron Fist has produced thus far, so kudos.

Danny receives the same signal in a different way. After Joy instructs Ward to make sure Danny’s at an important crisis intervention meeting later to deal with video of him apologizing for Rand’s chemical plant, Ward instead finds himself dragged along on Danny’s question to find Radovan’s daughter Sabina. What they find instead is the decapitated head of the Hand henchman from the last episode, planted inside a Rand warehouse alongside the address 430 Cherry Street. Danny recognizes this as an invitation to a Grand Duel, while the whole thing really makes Ward regret throwing away his pills just to impress Joy.

(By the way, their Aston Martin ride seems like yet another demonstration of Danny’s hypocrisy. For a guy who has supposedly renounced material attachments and dislikes his company’s abuse of the poor and vulnerable, he sure loves fancy things. If the show actually dedicated itself to the critique of corporate capitalism that sometimes emerges in fits and starts, that at least would be interesting. But this wishy-washy attitude gets us nowhere.)

Colleen and Claire are not exactly happy when Danny informs them of this Grand Duel idea, even when he says it’s their best chance to save Sabina. For one thing, they can’t keep Radovan bleeding out on their couch forever, and Colleen is especially upset when Danny insists that he must go alone. The show has steadily been building up a Danny/Colleen ‘ship over the last few episodes, and here we get another classic stage of ‘ship-building, as Colleen frets over Danny being in danger and her inability to help him.

Danny, for his part, isn’t even listening to Colleen that closely. He’s preoccupied with a vision of his former master, teaching him about the legend of the Iron Fist and the dangers of the Hand. But though Danny’s attention is focused entirely on the Hand, his master (who exists at kind of a ghostly halfway point between memory and Jedi hologram) warns that the biggest danger comes from within, and if Danny allows himself to feel doubt, he will become his own worst enemy.

Ward, meanwhile, has done a great job of becoming his own worst enemy. After throwing away his pills and finding a dead body, he’s understandably freaking out. Though he is clearly going through desperate withdrawal, he nevertheless tries to attend the crisis management meeting with Joy, only to finally flip out and run to the hospital in a desperate attempt to get more Percocet. Ward is an interesting character with potential – for someone who started the series as a clear antagonist, the subsequent revelations of just how much he gets bossed around, undercut, and ignored by the rest of the cast have given him a bit of depth. But something tells me the show will just focus on his drug addiction and play that off in the most cliché way possible. So far, they haven’t even drawn the connection between his ruthless, inhuman business dealings (which he keeps justifying as the way “business” or “the real world” works) and his anxious opioid addiction. That could form another critique of the way capitalism makes monsters of us all, but Iron Fist continues to seem uninterested in even following the thematic doors it opens for itself.

Tournament time! Upon arrival at 430 Cherry Street, Danny makes his demand: If he wins, Sabina goes free. Madame Gao emerges to accept his terms and make her own: If Danny loses, he must remove himself from the Hand’s affairs. After a ceremonial hand-washing, they cement this deal (interestingly, though, Gao says she speaks for “my master” – is that The Defenders’ super-villain, to be played by Sigourney Weaver? We shall see).

Danny’s first opponent is the two Russian butchers, though when he protests, they say they’re really both the same person (I thought immediately of Legion’s Cary/Kerry). Their layout is the simplest: a circle of blood that no combatant can leave without disqualification. Although the one-two punch takes Danny off guard at first, his master telling him to “be a double-edged sword” helps him get the hang of it. He triumphs over the two-in-one, but not before they ask him what he’s even doing here. After all, isn’t the Iron Fist supposed to be standing at the gates of K’un-Lun, awaiting the Hand there?

Next up is the female scientist, now transformed into Victorian-era steampunk cosplay as the Bride of Nine Spiders. She attempts to beat Danny by seducing him, and it almost works when she gets close enough to inject some venom in his neck. The ease with which she is able to rile up Danny is apparently an indication of Danny’s weaknesses as the Iron Fist. Once again we wonder why Danny left K’un-Lun. Maybe it has something to do with his master telling him to forget about his parents and push that grief down, which might be good for a soulless destroyer but doesn’t exactly make a healthy, happy human being. Eventually Danny overpowers her, and though the whole seduction attempt felt uninspired, RZA filmed the fight in an interesting way, with cloth hanging everywhere like a spider’s web and fog drifting in off the ground. Each round of this tournament basically feels like its own music video, and I love that.

The third and final such video fight takes place between Danny and the Scythe, a.k.a. the Karaoke Assassin, as I will call him forever. This guy brings all kinds of cool-looking weapons to bear, scythes and halberds and spears galore, as he and Danny fight amidst pipes and scaffolding. Soon, Madame Gao emerges to watch the fight in true Emperor Palpatine fashion. I don’t even make that comparison facetiously – once Danny’s victory in the duel seems certain, Gao goes Full Palpatine and threatens to kill Sabina unless Danny forfeits. Against the advice of his ghost master (who insists that Danny must do anything to destroy the Hand), Danny agrees. I’m not sure exactly what happened here. Gao’s breach of honor does seem important for a ritual we were taught was all about etiquette. And if she had killed Sabina, that would have taken away Danny’s prize for winning the tournament, so what would have happened then? Gao snarls that she doesn’t mind being “dishonorable,” but it seems more like she broke the actual rules of the game they were playing. Like, why should Danny feel obligated to leave the Hand alone now? Guessing he won’t, especially since his rescue of Sabina is counteracted by the Hand kidnapping Radovan from under Claire and Colleen’s noses.

Like I said at the top, this is by far my favorite episode of the show so far. Frustrations still abound (“why can’t we just see K’un-Lun??” I scream increasingly louder every episode), but at least RZA was able to apply style and fun to a classic martial arts trope.

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