Spoilers ahead for Iron Fist Season 1.
A frail old lady who walks with a cane might not seem like the most threatening presence in the Marvel-Netflix universe, but as Iron Fist gleefully reveals over the course of its uneven first season, Madame Gao is far more dangerous than any of us imagined when she first emerged as a manipulative mob boss in Daredevil Season 1.
By the end of #IronFist Season 1, Gao is shrouded in enigma, the importance of her role majorly expanded to the point that she makes the villainy of Kilgrave, Kingpin and Cottonmouth look like child's play by comparison. What was her connection to Wendell Rand? Is Gao her true identity? How old is she, and what's the nature of her powers? Is she loyal even to The Hand, or does she answer to a higher power?
Let's take a look at what we know for sure about Madame Gao, who she might be, and how her influence could be felt going forward.
As the heroin-pushing mafia boss of Daredevil, Gao (played by Wai Ching Ho) commands the respect of Wilson Fisk, and he seems to have an innate sense of the fact that she's not a woman to be crossed. The Hand has yet to be introduced, however, and Gao appears to be nothing more than a highly-respected crime boss.
In Season 2 she becomes more of an active manipulator, but it's not until Iron Fist that the "true" face of Gao is revealed — if you can be sure that anything we've seen of her so far is even remotely authentic. This is hinted at earlier, when she reveals to Fisk that she speaks English after allowing him to believe Wesley's translation skills were needed. Gao reveals information in teases in order to keep others on the back foot. She's always one step ahead.
Iron Fist Episode 6, a brilliant hour of TV, is a big one for Gao — after inviting Danny to a high-stakes combat challenge with three of her most skilled human weapons, Gao goes back on her word, threatening to slash the throat of Radovan's kidnapped daughter unless Danny forfeits. When Danny calls her honor into question, she laughs callously at his naivety — of course she's willing to bend the rules of her own game. Above all, it seems, Gao is a self-preservationist.
Which makes sense, considering her later, casual confession that she lived through the 17th century, giving her a minimum lifespan of 400+ years. Various Marvel characters, particularly from the realm of the mystical, have been associated with immortality or something close to it. The Ancient One, mentor to Doctor Strange, is more than half a millennium old, and he was born in the "hidden land of Kamar-Taj," which isn't far removed from the mystical nature of K'un-Lun, the mountain city accessible only via a wormhole which opens once every 15 years.
So what's the source of Gao's extended lifespan? Although she makes clear to Danny that she's intimately familiar with K'un-Lun, her association with The Hand (sworn enemies of the Iron Fist, protector of K'un-Lun) suggests she hails from somewhere else. Who is this woman?
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Answers might be found in a classic Iron Fist foe. On the pages of Marvel Comics, the Crane Mother was the ruler of K'un-Zi, another of the seven Capital Cities of Heaven. She makes just a handful of appearances, beginning in 2007, and doesn't have personal beef with Danny Rand, but with a previous incarnation of the Iron Fist and the city of K'un-Lun itself. We don't know what level of control Gao exerts over The Hand or what rank she occupies, but it could be that her faction within (the group responsible for introducing Steel Serpent heroin to NYC) is actually Iron Fist's interpretation of the Order of the Crane Mother.
Even if Gao is the Crane Mother, though, that doesn't provide much insight into how she knew Wendell Rand or how much she can do with her powers — presumably the telekinesis she deploys to throw Danny off his feet is just a small taster of what she's capable of. Alternatively, she might be a wholly original creation. Gao is not confirmed for The Defenders, but hopefully we won't have to wait until Iron Fist Season 2 to further unravel the mysteries of the Marvel-Netflix universe's smiling assassin.
Do you believe Madame Gao is the Crane Mother? And how will she make her villainy felt in The Defenders?