Madame Gao has emerged as one of, if not the most intriguing characters in Marvel's Netflix universe, and it appears she will continue as a major antagonist in the upcoming Defenders miniseries. Played by actress Wai Ching Ho, she was introduced as the leader of the Hand's New York operations, and Wilson Fisk's partner in crime, in two seasons of Daredevil, and her role was explored in greater depth on Iron Fist.
With the Defenders gearing up to face the Hand as a team, it should come as no surprise that the enigmatic Gao will somehow factor into the plot. The mystery surrounding her character helped cultivate her appeal on Daredevil and Iron Fist, with the latter rating more questions than it answered regarding her apparently supernatural abilities and suggestions of a remarkably long life. And with speculation swirling around the role of Sigourney Weaver's villainous Alexandra in The Defenders, not to mention the few revelations we've been given regarding Gao's true role in the Hand, we're forced to return to the question of just who -- or what -- she really is.
Madame Gao is... The Crane Mother
Created by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja, the Crane Mother was introduced in 2007's Immortal Iron Fist #4. Many fans believed this is who Gao would be revealed as when it was revealed that the heroin she was slinging bore the mark of the Steel Serpent. In the comics, the Steel Serpent was the champion of K'un Zi, one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven and sworn enemies of K'un Lun. The title was bestowed to Davos, the disgraced son of Lei Kung (K'un Lun's sensei), who turned his back on the city after not being nominated for the Iron Fist trial. He eventually died and was brought back to life by the Crane Mother of K'un Zi, as her champion in the tournament of Immortal Weapons, and as part of an eternal war on K'un Lun and whoever wields the Iron Fist mantle.
In Iron Fist, Davos showed up to try to bring Danny Rand back to K'un Lun, after the hero-in-training abandoned his role as sentry of its gateway. However, Danny made it clear his path was fighting for justice in New York, thus leaving a disappointed and angry Davos as the sworn enemy of the man he once called brother. In the season finale, we saw Gao eavesdropping on Davos, who was seemingly colluding with Joy Meachum to kill Danny. Given that Iron Fist's first season ended with Gao's role in the Hand an uncertain one as her ninja squad seemed fractured following a coup from Bakuto (a rival faction within the hand), this scene could mean that Gao may be eyeing an alliance with Davos as a potential protege, particularly given that they now have a common enemy. This potentially foreshadows the Crane Mother and Steel Serpent relationship from the books.
Madame Gao is... A Black Sky
"That thing in the container was not a child."
That's what Stick said in Daredevil's first season, after murdering a young boy who was being transported from Japan to New York by Nobu Yoshioka of the Hand. This child, who was killed despite Matt's attempted intervention, was revealed to be a Black Sky -- a mysterious being who is very powerful, and apparently worth going to war over. Nobu, however, explained that despite its rarity, there was more than one Black Sky in existence. Daredevil's second season revealed that Elektra was a second Black Sky, a twist which appears will explored through her resurrection in Defenders.
While we've yet to see a Black Sky in action and assess its true powers, given how it's revered by the Hand, we have to wonder if Gao be one, herself. She said in Iron Fist that she was alive in the 17th century, and she also spent time in K'un Lun, both clues that may hint at her being immortal. We also saw her physical prowess against Daredevil and Danny Rand, taking both heroes down with relative ease, and showing that there's more to her fragile demeanor than meets the eye. We also witnessed what can be perceived as telepathy from her while being held by Claire Temple and Colleen Wing in interrogation. Given that she could also speak to Danny through cameras that should have been a one way channel, it's apparent that Gao has abilities (mystical, perhaps?) she's keeping close to her chest. Gao as a Black Sky would be a major revelation, casting her character as something even more sinister than initially believed.
Madame Gao is... The Beast
Introduced by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz in 1986's Elektra: Assassin, The Beast is, basically, a demon. It has influenced The Hand for centuries, guiding them through genocidal acts so that they can assume dominion over the world. Ironically, those possessed by the demon have displayed superhuman abilities such as telepathy and enhanced strength, which fits what we've seen from Gao so far. Of course, you wouldn't expect an old lady to be such a powerful entity, right? That's the beauty of this possibility, though. The demon made waves in 2010's Shadowland event, where it possessed Daredevil in order to take control of Hell's Kitchen as leader of the Hand, and went head-to-head against Luke Cage, Iron Fist and other street-level heroes.
Daredevil has not shied away from black magic-esque story elements such as folks having their blood drained, and the apocalyptic hole in Midland Circle. This crater has a hellish presence to it, and while it may tie directly into Alexandra's story, that may just be a misdirection to throw us off Gao's trail. The fact that Gao was pulling the strings of two Immortal Weapons (Bride of Nine Spiders, Dog Brother #1) in Iron Fist hints that a lot of people fear her, and illustrates that she has a lot of resources at her disposal. Could she be exerting influence on a secret army of warriors in the upcoming series? That would explain why Stick also brought Stone into play in a Daredevil cameo in Season 1, perhaps as someone to level the field. Could this also hint at a rivalry or tussle for power between Gao and Alexandra? Hopefully we get some light shed sooner rather than later. Gao's a tough character to pin down, but it's clear that she will continue to be a deceptively cunning individual, one that will certainly be wreaking more havoc on the MCU.