Available on Netflix
Marvel’s The Punisher is constantly surprising. It’s surprising that it’s so surprising. An unexpected spin-off from season two of Marvel’s Daredevil, its potential seemed limited: an ex-marine is a bit hacked off that his wife and children are killed by gangsters, so tools himself up to the nines with all the guns and ammo he can get his hands on to punish those responsible. And in an age of the alt-right and mass shootings, an angry white man shooting up the neighbourhood because he thinks it’s gone to the dogs doesn’t really have great optics.
Yet, season one of Marvel’s The Punisher was one of TMINE’s Top N shows of 2018, a musing on men’s role in society, class, the brotherhood of soldiering and the nature of war. It saw ‘The Punisher’ aka Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) facing up to former best friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) in New York to deal with moral infractions by the CIA, the alt-right and corporate greed, all while slowly realising that maybe he can no longer fit into a family thanks to the violence he’s seen – and meted out.
More surprisingly still, there was actually very little ‘punishing’. Indeed, I pointed out that “Frank Castle hardly feels like ‘The Punisher’ at all.”
Season two isn’t that different in that regard. Indeed, contrary to Netflix’s standard “first season as a pilot” rule, I’d say here, it’s “two seasons as a pilot”, with Frank only becoming The Punisher in the season’s – and perhaps the series’ – final scene. Up to that point, what we have is a curious retread of the first season, but with perspectives switched.
Season two opens with everyone in very different places from where they started season one. Russo is laid up in a coma in hospital, his face now a mangled ‘jigsaw’ thanks to Frank’s work in season one. Department of Homeland Security special agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) may now be in charge of New York’s DHS operations, but she’s obsessed with Russo, visiting him every day in hospital, convinced he’s faking his coma and, when he wakes up, his apparent amnesia about what he did in the first season.
Meanwhile, Frank’s in a good place, travelling the US. Unfortunately, one day he goes to the wrong bar and ends up having to save Giorgia Whigham’s Amy Bendix from a group of highly trained killers. Soon, fundamentalist Christian ‘John Pilgrim’ (Shooter‘s Josh Stewart) is on his tail trying to kill both him and Bendix.
You can bet, of course, that those two plot threads are going to intertwine, but their resolution? Maybe not what you’d expect from The Punisher.
The road to redemption – and revenge
If season one was all about acknowledging your past mistakes, season two is about learning to live with them, either by accepting your nature or by transforming yourself. Structurally, it’s pretty similar to season one but it still manages to avoid being a mere retread.
The first episode of season one was more or less a standalone, designed both to inject some excitement into proceedings before a lot of quite talky episodes hit the viewing queue to establish Frank’s new mission, following his short intermission as a non-lethal builder. Here, though, the first three episodes are the standalone that does the same job, with our Frank having to go through the clichéd “wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time” set-up to introduce Whigham and Stewart, before everything gets rounded off with an Assault at Precinct 13 style episode and everyone can return to New York.
After that, we have the return of season one’s big question – what would you do if your brother-in-arms betrayed you? Except this time, Russo doesn’t know what he’s done so he gets to experience the shock and misery of knowing all his former friends and lovers now hate him. Russo gets to emote far more than Castle did in season one, since he has a government-appointed therapist to talk to (Floriana Lima), which makes the theme far more explicit.
Meanwhile, Castle is recreating the bond he had with Micro, but with Whigham instead, which makes for a very different experience. Whigham becomes more of a surrogate daughter, and since she’s not an innocent child, but a conwoman teenager, that gives Castle plenty to handle, without being able to use violence, of course. Similarly, we get to learn about Stewart and his motivations, which aren’t necessarily obvious, just as Russo’s weren’t in the first season.
Structurally, though, the second season pulls everything forward very slightly. There’s far, far more violence, to quite sadistic and impossible levels throughout the season, with Castle explicitly breaking his hand in one episode yet being able to take off his bandages and punch men into pulp with the same fist just a few days later. The blood loss and cuts are similarly unsurvivable for most of the season.
Yet when the continual violence reaches its ultimate and eventual zenith with both Stewart and Russo, it’s not the end of the season. Instead, The Punisher surprises – everyone’s pretty much spent before then, the message of the tale being that violence has to stop somewhere and it’s either with peace or, more likely, a bloody, ignoble death in the gutter, bereft of glory. The Punisher does love its violence, but it also knows that as well as begetting more violence, ultimately, it’s not glamorous and not to be sought.
All of those themes get dabbled with across the season, as various characters try to escape their paths and become something different, hopefully better. Some succeed, some fail, but everyone knows what they have to do by the end.
As a whole, the season is a lot smoother and more coherent than the first season, with no real irrelevant sub-plots after that first almost self-contained period. That makes it a more satisfying experience, at least, even if it’s sometimes logically more ‘challenging’.
More disappointing is its treatment of women. Lima and Rose Revah are basically hung up on boyfriends for 13 episodes, although Lima does alternate that with being hung up on her dad; Alexa Davalos (The Man in the High Castle) gets to show up, get shot then never get heard from again; Whigham is basically a plaything for the goodies and baddies to toss between one another, and always getting in trouble; and Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page gets to return for just one episode and reveal she has feelings for Frank before disappearing again after donating her shoes to a foot fetishist.
There is a point, though, where one female character says, “Men always think they’re stronger, but they’re not”, after which the show does equalise things considerably, as if to suggest that it’s re-evaluating its outlook and demonstrating that maybe women have it right. Soon, they’re setting the pace and Frank needs their help. Unfortunately, the show soon forgets this, with episode 12 having possibly the worst fight scene in modern TV history between two women, with a top-tier female DHS agent struggling to take down an untrained civilian and more or less resorting to hair-pulling and slapping, rather than atemi and a decent hip throw. This is despite some really quite excellent female fight scenes in those first three episodes.
I’ll call it directorial glitch, because things do get immediately better in the final episode, but if you’re looking for a deep message about toxic masculinity, these are all red herrings. This is all about the boys and the girls are here simply to move the plot along.
If you love action and bloody violence, though, The Punisher has plenty to offer, with some impressive fight scenes and shoot-outs. Oddly, though, it doesn’t feel like ‘The Punisher’. There are no real battle tactics, no advanced military manoeuvres for Frank to deploy, no impressive use of specific weaponry for specific purposes. It’s just lots and lots of random shootings and running into battle. It looks good, even if Frank does tend to get hurt rather a lot, but it’s not ‘The Punisher’.
Even when he finally becomes ‘The Punisher’ at the end, walking into a warehouse against dozens of gang members, armed with two machine guns is just plain daft. If there’s one thing season two of Daredevil did at least get right, it was making Frank use his military training to good effect.
But while there are these hiccoughs along the way to the end – and at the very end – the journey is definitely worth making. Unlike other Netflix Marvel shows, this season doesn’t feel like it’s repeating itself. Bernthal, Barnes and Whigham’s performances are all very strong and we get some strong character work from the scripts. The season’s messages are certainly different from comparable shows and it’s frequently contemplative and insightful.
If you can overlook the mistreatment of women and you can take all the blood and something that verges between outright sadism and even masochism, season two is definitely worth a watch, almost never feels unwelcome and rewards you for your time.
Of course, The Punisher is one of only two Marvel shows left on Netflix, with just season three of Jessica Jones still to come our way. If the storming, ratings-winning third season of Daredevil couldn’t overcome Netflix and Marvel’s political issues, I doubt The Punisher will get a reprieve, which means this is likely to be the last we’ll see of Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle.
Which is a shame. He’s undoubtedly the best iteration of Frank Castle we’ve seen on our screens. Moreover, we’ve only really seen him as The Punisher proper in season two of Daredevil and in this season’s final moments. He’s barely had a chance to show us the real Frank.
So I’m holding out for a third season, just to see what Bernthal could do as the full Frank Castle. Dare we hope?