'Daredevil' Showrunner Erik Oleson Talks Season 3: 'Every Scene Had to Pay Off'

Fear often drives us. It sways the way we vote, our social interactions, and even our ability to have faith in a world that, at times, feels like it doesn't have any in itself. Fear, and the way it manifests into reality — dividing and conquering — is the hidden structure behind Daredevil Season 3. "Our fears enslave us," showrunner Erik Oleson tells Newsweek. It was the principle theme he put on the writers' room wall.

This is Oleson's stamp on Daredevil. He wanted his own iconic run with the character, in the same way Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, Jeph Loeb and Kevin Smith had theirs. In this wide-ranging conversation, Oleson speaks about Daredevil's inherent Catholic contradictions, his cognizance of pacing challenges, the Sister Maggie reveal, the structure of Karen Page's episode, the hidden meaning of Dex's origin story, and the thematical structure of the season.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

daredevil season 3
'Daredevil' Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix. Marvel / Netflix

Sister Maggie challenges Matt's morality. She asks him all the right questions.

Erik Oleson: Sister Maggie is a candle who grows into a real beacon of hope for Matt, spiritually. He needed somebody to help him find his way once again. He's obviously in an incredibly dark place and goes to the most sinful of places that any Catholic can in Episode 1 when he attempts suicide-by-thug. That is the worst of all mortal sins. And god knows what is in his heart.

It was important to me to begin the season in an emotionally truthful place. Looking at the events at the end of The Defenders where a building fell on his head and the fact that Elektra didn't get out of the building when he did, as far as he knows, and that damaged him mentally and spiritually. I wanted to let Matt process the events that had come before, and that was part of the strategy of teaching the audience this season was going to be a little bit different. This season was going to treat all of these characters as emotionally real people as opposed to treating them as props or devices. And that's not to criticize the earlier seasons of the show, they did a terrific job, but for me, my favorite shows are ones which treat characters dimensionally and treat every character in an ensemble as the protagonist of their own journey — Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Sopranos, The Wire the model of premium prestige television.

I wanted to build a structure where, if you are a devout Catholic watching the show, you could read into the events of the early episodes as a message from god to Matt, a spiritual call from the angels to bring Matt back from the brink. Is it happenstance that at Matt's darkest time the villain he defeated in Season 1 has come back? At the very same moment he gets his hearing back and he realizes he can hear again after using the neti pot and fighting those thugs in Episode 2, and he's walking out of the hospital realizing he's getting his abilities back — that is the exact moment he hears Wilson Fisk is out of prison?.

On one hand, you could say that's the writers room doing it. On the other hand, you can say that is the moment god is speaking to Matt and giving him a renewed sense of spiritual purpose and reminding him of his role in the world ... and giving him a way out. Even if Matt is not conscious of that while it's happening, that's what I was going for.

This season had good instincts regarding restraint when it came to portraying Catholicism, the overall brutality of this season's cast and the obvious Fisk-Trump parallel, all of which could have landed too on the nose.

There's a universal theme at work here. What we are experiencing domestically is not unique, it's happening all around the world. The far right in France, Italy, Turkey; point to a country on the map and there are people who are appealing to fear to bring out the worst in people. In the comics, Daredevil is the man without fear. That's the symbol of Daredevil, but Matt is also a human being, and every human has something that they are afraid of. Fear holds us back from being our best self.

If Karen Page this season was afraid that she's not a good person because of what she did to her brother in her backstory, and that she's beyond redemption, that is a fear that is fueling her behavior all season. If Wilson Fisk is afraid that he is unworthy of the love of Vanessa because he is humiliated in front of her and he's not going to be strong enough to live up to the woman he loves, that fuels everything he does this season. The theme of fear really trumped the other aspects of the story.

The heroic storylines of Marvel are trying to appeal to the better natures of people and push back against hate and fear and the dark side of human nature, allowing the better aspects of human nature to prevail, and so that's the way that we hinted at a certain person who may be in power right now in the United States. But it also appeals to the people who follow that person to just think about whether or not their fears are being manipulated, and whether or not they are being pushed towards doing things that are not the best for themselves or for the world.

In terms of Matt's Catholicism being treated respectfully, of course the core essense of Matt is his Catholicism and the strong moral compass that it provides to him. I think there's a lot of humanist elements to Matt Murdock. Whether or not you are a Catholic, you appreciate that human life is precious and that crossing the line into vigilante murder changes the core set of beliefs that drive Matt. One of the reasons I love Daredevil so much is because he has so many inherent contradictions. He is an attorney at law who at night is a vigilante. On the other side, he is a practicing Catholic who believes in god and yet goes out and plays god delivering what he believes is god's justice. That's a contradiction to his beliefs.

The "Karen" episode why one episode instead of spreading those flashbacks out?

I wanted to expand the filmic vocabulary this show uses to tell story and do a number of things that were surprising and cool for the audience. Fisk's theater of the mind sequences that dive into Dex's backstory in Episode 5 is an example. The Karen episode is another. I was curious about why Karen Page behaves the way she did in seasons 1, 2 and The Defenders . I don't believe in sidekick characters. A show is better when you fully flesh out the ensemble. You can't really name a "sidekick" character in the Sopranos you always understand why they behave the way they behave. First of all, Deborah Ann Woll is a fantastic actress. Most people don't realize how good she is.

I just have to say, Karen's Fisk scene was hands down my favorite of the season.

Also one of mine. I'm a huge fan of push-button dialogue, the technique we used in that scene; dialogue that gets under the skin of another character, and that's a prime example of it. It was so rewarding to give Karen Page the ability to go on her own plan. But what kind of person would go in on a suicide mission? We had to make that real. Until you see Episode 10, you don't understand that Karen is being driven by the fear that everything she does in her life has to make up what she did to her brother. Now you understand why she never formed a real relationship with Matt in Season 1, or with Foggy and Frank Castle. She doesn't feel like she's worthy.

And it's not until the end of the season when Matt tells her, "We are all just trying to do more good than harm in the world and you are ahead on that score." That is a major event for her. Somebody else knows my deep dark secret and is telling me that I'm still a good person. That's going to form the possibility for her to a have meaningful relationship in the future because she's being told, "No you're wrong about yourself. You are not beyond redemption." For all of these reasons, I wanted to give the Karen episode its due so that not just the episodes that come after you have a deeper appreciation for her, but if you go back and rewatch, you now look on her with new eyes.

Deborah Ann Woll was concerned that I was going to write some version of "She shot a bad guy to save a busload of kids." Some cop-out, lame story like that. We wanted to do something that gave her depth and dimension that was always there, in the imaginary circumstances that Deborah made up for herself when she went into scenes with Bernthal and Charlie, but that had not been fully experienced by the audience.

I know you did Arrow, so you're familiar with flashbacks. How are they different from only moving forward?

I'm a writer who works both backwards and forwards. I want to know what it is I'm saying with the season. I don't like to make it up as I go along. I wanted to promise the audience that if you are watching any scene, it's a setup; something is going it happen that made it worth your time. I am cognizant of criticisms of some of the other shows, and shows in general, that have meandering subplots that don't do anything but just fill up time. I'm not a fan of that kind of storytelling.

Every scene had to payoff in some unexpected way. The end of Episode 1 where Ray Nadeem is with his family and experiences rejection of his credit cards and the fear of financial hardship, there is a reason for that. It pays off when in Episode 9 you realize Fisk internally destabilized Ray's financial life so he would be a target for Fisk's recruitment in an unwitting way. It's the kind of advanced, dark arts kind of intelligence community technique the CIA uses. I wanted to give Fisk that skillset to really make him the most sophisticated version of Kingpin that I knew how to make him. Some critics are saying the first two episodes are too slow: wrong. Watch to the end and you realize why.

The Maggie reveal in Episode 8. There was a point where I questioned if it was going to happen, and then it happened. Maggie knows her son's ability, and in that moment where she is whispering that prayer, knows he's downstairs. How did you decide not only on that moment, but also how he was going to find out?

She did not intentionally out herself. She did not realize that he could hear her on the other side of the church whispering a prayer. As far as timing, it was the absolute worst moment for Matt to hear that news structurally. In drama, they say put your hero up a tree and throw rocks at them. We talked about where to bring out the Maggie secret and that was the place where it was most difficult for Matt to be able to deal with it. It was always my intention to have that secret come out this season, and Joe Quesada had a great Maggie backstory in the comics that I wanted to use.

When you are drawing inspiration from comics, the trick is you have to give the audience what they want but absolutely never in the way they expect it. You have to do it that way. Otherwise people know what's coming, there's boredom, and I was also cognizant of criticism of the show's lagging during some episodes, like there being "filler episodes," and I'm a huge nerd for structure and storytelling in general. I was looking at the overall architecture of the season and that felt like the right place to do it.

Dex's arc in particular was the saddest for me to watch, just to see somebody who wanted nothing more than to be healthy and who gets taken advantage of and knocked down. At the end of the season, how do you want audiences to feel about him?

He is somebody who might have gone on to be a good guy, a functional member of society. He suffered from mental illness, but got help. He was on meds, and he had coping mechanisms. He ultimately fell under the sway of a narcissistic tyrant who only cares about himself. Fisk destabilized the things in Dex's life that were keeping him sane and healthy, and Dex ends up heading into the territory where he becomes a murderer and ultimately becomes the character we all know as Bullseye. I was very interested in telling an origin story not only about how a character we know from the comics as a full-blown psychopath and killer, but how somebody in real life could be turned into something like that. The origin let me talk about it in a way that spoke at the larger theme of fear this season, and the people who use fear to bring out our worst selves.

We spoke to some psychiatrists and psychologists about drawing a realistic portrait of Dex and how he might be able to turn into Bullseye. I imagined him as somebody who might have been a good and kind member of society who instead picked up a tiki torch and walked through Charlottesville because somebody out there was appealing to his demons instead of his better angels.

At the end of the season, I think that Dex is a monster who was been created and is left behind by Fisk, and even if society manages to defeat the real life version of that type of personality, it's going to take a long time to wash away the evils that have been dug up by people like that.