Just after the title sequence, and eleven minutes into episode nine, Elektra Natchios is cleaning up the previous episode’s mess: Matt Murdoch gets shot with a poisoned arrow and Elektra slits the throat of a young ninja. She saves Matt’s life using the same concoction that Stick used to save hers and brings in what
Just after the title sequence, and eleven minutes into episode nine, Elektra Natchios is cleaning up the previous episode’s mess: Matt Murdoch gets shot with a poisoned arrow and Elektra slits the throat of a young ninja. She saves Matt’s life using the same concoction that Stick used to save hers and brings in what looks to be professionals whose expertise is cleaning crime scenes. Matt is in and out of consciousness as this is happening and suddenly it’s morning. He’s finally awake and immediately asks about the boy (whose age is never disclosed but looks at the very least sixteen years old).
Matt: “Where is he?”
Elektra: “Stick? He left. Remember?”
Matt: “No, not Stick. The boy. The one you killed.”
Elektra: “It’s been taken care of.”
Matt: “Not ‘it.’ He.”
Elektra justifies her actions. The boy ninja tried to kill Matt. If they had let him go, “he would’ve sent his big brothers after” them. It was self-defence and doesn’t Matt’s court system acknowledge murder in self defence? Of course, Matt attacks each of those excuses. He sighs at the notion of nearly being killed. The boy was just a boy and afraid. He wasn’t a threat. He scoffs at her self defence claim. There wasn’t an immediacy of danger but only a perceived future threat. “It doesn’t work that way,” he says. He insists on calling the police but Elektra throws out the insanity of their situation – an ancient ninja organization, a shadow war, and a giant hole in Manhattan – and no legitimate institution would hold Elektra accountable for the murder of a boy who doesn’t technically exist. The battle has begun, she says, and now it’s time to look towards fighting it and not back at the ninja who was their enemy. This time, she doesn’t promise Matt she won’t kill. If she has to, she will.
Matt: “You said you wanted to be good.”
Watching this for the third time, I can’t help but feel those words like a slap across the face. The shift in Elektra’s own face and mood mirrors that feeling but what threw me and what prompted this essay is what she says afterwards. Afterwards, Matt tells her that her heart races when she kills and that she enjoys it. She might want to be good for him but it’s not who she really is.
Elektra: “The first time I took a life, I was twelve years old. I did it of my own volition. I wasn’t saving another. I wasn’t even protecting myself. I did it…because I needed to know that I could. Not that I could get away with it. Not that I could get used to it.”
Matt: “And you enjoyed it.”
Hearing that confession a few times now, I realized the show was either trying to make Elektra sound like a sociopath or had accidentally inferred that she is. But within the context of the show itself, she is most definitely not. However, I think it’s safe to say the show did set out with that intention or at the very least, the actress who played her did:
“We think Elektra is a sociopath. This world is a game for her. It’s like a chess game, and what motivates her is what she wants. She’ll use anything she needs to use to get to her goal, and if she needs to kill people, she will. She has this coldness in her, and I tried to keep that. But on the other hand, we wanted to create a character with different layers. I think Elektra isn’t a bad person, but she’s not a good person. She’s a person with different traits, with layers, and she’s seeking who she is. In this season, there’s an arc to her story. Hopefully, she’ll find we’ll find out who she is, by the end of it.”
–Elodie Yung at the 2016 TCA Press Tour
Before we go any further, let’s first define the concept of the sociopath. When we think of sociopaths, we imagine remorseless people who lack empathy. Sociopathy, however, is not a mental health disorder or even listed in the latest version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder) as an illness. Generally, psychologists refer to it as a set of related traits or a pattern of personality, and specifically, forensic psychologists use it when referring to a set of traits in the context of criminality; something severe like homicide. These traits include lack of empathy and remorse (which are two things that Elektra does not exhibit). Sociopath is a word that gets thrown around carelessly, without a true understanding of it, so if we’re going to have this conversation, then let’s get specific. Antisocial Personality Disorder is a disorder that can be found in the DSM that does include a lot of the traits that we associate with sociopathy. Dr. Andrea Letamendi explained what ASPD was in an episode of The Arkham Sessions:
“Basically Antisocial Personality Disorder is a…it’s a mental health illness that’s in adulthood. It is characterized by a person not having empathy. A person…basically not having…basically a disregard for social norms, for rules, [and] for other people’s feelings. And so on. On one level, or one side of the spectrum, you might have someone who is pretty uncaring and doesn’t see that someone else might be hurting, doesn’t see your actions might have consequences. On the extreme side, then you have folks who are homicidal, you have folks who are violent, you have folks who are thrill seekers…do things that may feel good to them, maybe pleasurable to them and they may not care that it’s hurtful to someone else.”
–The Arkham Sessions, Episode 35: “The Laughing Fish”
The DSM helps guide and direct the assessments and practices of psychologists/psychiatrists which means an individual would have to meet all of the criteria to be diagnosed.
Let’s try out the criteria on Elektra. Her self-esteem is not dependent on personal gain nor is her goal-setting centered on personal gratification. We think this is the case when we first meet her because she did things out of boredom or for the fun of it but only because it was the guise she wore during her manipulation of Matt while in college. She’s cocky in the way that many of us are confident in our respective jobs or skill sets. It’s just that her skill set is being very good at fighting and killing. Her goal-setting is the farthest thing from personal gratification because she believes she’s in the service of a greater good; being the only line of defence against The Hand as a member of The Chaste and she’s not the only person to believe this. Stick does too. Also: throughout the show, we watch Elektra grapple with not fitting into “normal society” (lawfully and culturally) while the men in her life exact their – conflicting – judgment on her. She’s fully aware of the societal norms in place and has negotiated a disregard for them in favour of this “greater good” she’s chasing. It’s like Matt deciding to go out and physically assault people or Frank Castle killing bad guys. Both men do so in the name of a failed system but both do it in spite of the norms telling them their methods are inappropriate.
Maybe the difference between Matt/Frank and Elektra is empathy? I’ve already mentioned that Elektra experiences empathy and remorse. She feels bad for the lie(s) she’s told Matt – their first meeting in college was planned; he was her “mission” – and regrets trying to force him into killing the man responsible for his father’s death. She’s well aware of and receptive to other people’s feelings, concerns, and needs but she’ll ignore them if those feelings, concerns, and needs belong to “the enemy” or an obstacle to her goal. She’s deceitful and manipulative but it’s a requirement for her job in the same way it’s necessary in espionage. I could go on and on about why Elektra is not someone who would be diagnosed with ASPD or even reasonably called a sociopath based on what’s given to us but I also wanted to note the environment that created Elektra and how she’s treated in her life and by the show.
For most of the show, we get to know Elektra through her relationship with Matt and Stick. Her selfhood is so tied to these men that it’s hard to watch Matt constantly tell her she has a choice and then in the same breath judge her for those choices. Or watch her entire relationship with Stick play out on screen. Far too late, we’re given an insight into young Elektra (Ellie) in episode twelve; the second last episode of the season. She looks about twelve or thirteen years old and is getting the crap kicked out of her as grown men fight her as part of her “training.” It’s a violent way to train someone so young and when she’s nearly beating one of them to death, Stick stops her but not before whispering, “Nice work.”
Ellie: You told me to fight. You told me to finish it.
Stick: I didn’t tell you to kill him. He’s an asshole but at the end of the day, he’s on our side of the war. And it’s wrong to kill one of ours.
Ellie: It didn’t feel wrong.
Stick: Listen. Whatever it is that you got inside you, whatever it is that burns so hot, that’s good. But you gotta learn to control it.
Ellie: You said we’re going to war.
Stick: We are. And there’ll be a time and place for you to turn yourself loose. But right now, the last thing you want is for everyone here to be scared shitless of you. Tame that fire or they’ll tame it for you.
This was the world Elektra grew up in. A world where taking a life is not wrong unless it’s someone on your side, some individuals have more worth than others. She is immersed in a hyper violent upbringing, a particular martial set of ethics, and an understanding that she needs to control herself within this particular cultural norm. If she doesn’t adhere to the norm completely, she’ll frighten others, be ostracized or killed as Stick had tried to do. A lot of what we understand as right and wrong or even empathy is learned in childhood so rather than follow up Ellie’s “it didn’t feel wrong” with an attempt at teaching empathy in regards to killing (i.e. killing someone is wrong because__), Stick tells her killing is strategic. We shouldn’t be surprised that a world that functions only in a state of war and uses its rhetoric would mould children into child soldiers. In our world, we’ve also seen how the rhetoric of war within policing can shift officers’ perspective of their job, from protecting all citizens to turning some of them into adversaries or enemies.
That last line about taming oneself before being tamed makes me think about not just Elektra forcing herself into these established norms, but her contending with a secret that Stick and others refused to share with her: her status as the Black Sky. An instrument of evil and a tool coveted by an evil ninja organization, it’s not shocking that Elektra would have issues of abandonment (Stick giving her away to be adopted/Stick trying to kill her), trauma (being nearly killed by a father figure/her violent upbringing), and poor attachments (members of The Chaste hating her/her relationship with Matt).
The Black Sky offers her an explanation for why she is the way she is but it also removes the concept of choice. It parallels the way the men in her life treat her as someone to be “changed” and shaped into their respective world views. Stick constantly says things like, “I tried to house break her,” as though she wasn’t the human being that he raised like a daughter but an animal.
This gets worse when you factor in Elektra’s identity as a woman of colour because someone like Frank can be sympathized with for his violent decisions but not her. She becomes part of a long line of Asian bad guys in the series. Both she and Matt were raised by the same man and yet Stick’s relationship with Matt is infinitely better than it is with Elektra and it goes back to how he views her. She’s not a person to him, and in a lot of ways, the show treats her as such many times.
She’s no longer a bad guy when she sacrifices her life for Matt and says as she dies, “I know…I know now what it feels to be good.” In death, she is redeemed where redemption wasn’t necessary. We expect her to fight for our affections in a way that isn’t required for Frank or Matt. She’s as violent as Frank, Matt and even Stick but it’s her that we expect to change into being better. This is why calling her a sociopath or depicting her as one outside of and within the show is so frustrating because the same is not said of the white men on the show. As an Asian woman taking on an active role in the violence of Daredevil, Elektra’s violence is seen as unnatural and immoral so she must therefore be a sociopath. Whether or not the show meant to do that based on her race (or even her gender) doesn’t matter because of the racial make up of the show, because of who is seen as bad, sympathetic and good.
Elektra is as tragic as that sorry excuse for a funeral at the end. She’s a fantastic character and deserved the love that she lacked in her life.