Can you really be mad at The Punisher for eventually doing exactly what any TV show about The Punisher would have to? I mean, it’s right there in the title. The dude is going to punish some people, and he’s not exactly a slap on the wrist kind of guy unless that slap is part of an intricate torture routine. Still, The Punisher walks right up to the edge of what’s possible on Netflix in terms of violence and gore. Vox’s TV critic argued the show ultimately “simplifies the problem of violence,” and I don’t entirely disagree.
Two weeks ago, though, I reached the halfway point of the show’s first season and found it to be a surprisingly nuanced, almost perfectly paced story about the physical and mental costs of war, more Thank You For Your Service or American Sniper than Daredevil. What could have been a morally bankrupt celebration of violence turned out to be a somber reflection on the soul-crushing pursuit of justice at all costs. It struck me as the most transcendent and surprising work in Netflix’s Marvel universe since Jessica Jones.
In the time since then, two things have happened: 1) I’ve finally finished the season; 2) I’ve encountered several people who had an entirely different take on the first half of the season than me. What I saw as the exhilarating equivalent of an especially good version of Homeland dropped into the MCU others saw as a boring drama which led them to impatiently ask, “Is there going to be any of the actual Punisher in this Punisher TV show?”
Well, I hope they stuck around for the second half of the season because it delivers more Punisher action than I honestly know what to do with. The skull and bones finally come out and Frank Castle turns back into a one-man murder machine, using guns, knives and often just his bare hands to decimate a small army of mercenaries on his path toward the season’s big bads. The show saves the most shocking moments for the inevitable boss battles, which sees Frank visiting a level of brutality upon his enemies I’ve rarely seen before. Technically, I still haven’t seen some of it because once Frank puts his hands on that one guy’s …. well, let’s just say I could see where things were going and had to look away.
To recap, by the halfway point of the season Frank Castle and his reluctant partner Micro had uncovered almost every part of a conspiracy cover-up involving military figures running heroin through Iraq and killing or buying off anyone who knew about it. Frank’s time as a Marine inevitably entangled him in this heroin operation, even though he wasn’t entirely aware of what was happening at the time. So, his family was killed in an attempt to get to him, and since his “death” on Daredevil all the power players assumed the problem had been dealt with. That made it easier for him to start knocking them off one by one. How do you know, really, to be on the lookout for a dead man?
The second half of the season ups the tension considerably when Frank is caught on a police car’s dash cam footage and revealed to all the world and his enemies as being very much alive. Moreover, he eventually discovers what the audience knows well before him: Billy, his former best friend and fellow Marine, is and always has been in cahoots with the bad guys.
Thus, the story turns into Frank’s quest to kill both the CIA head honcho, Rawlings, who was in charge of the heroin operation, and Billy, who didn’t personally murder Frank’s family but knew about it and did nothing to stop it. Frank, of course, gets to them in the end, gouging out Rawlings’ eye sockets in a graphic murder scene and mutilating Billy’s pretty face instead of killing him, which leaves him in a comatose state and the perfect fall man for a CIA looking to make the story go away.
Billy Before Frank Gets To Him:
Billy After Frank Gets To Him:
When Billy wakes up, he will stand trial for treason, murder and who knows what else. Frank, on the other hand, gets to walk away a free man (it’s best not to think about the dozens of people he killed, most of them former soldiers just doing their job for Billy’s private security firm). Rather than reunite with Karen, have a meal with Micro and his family, or simply get the hell out of town, he heads straight to his friend Curtis’ self-help group for soldiers to mournfully describe his horror at what to do with himself now that he no longer has a war to fight. That’s how the season ends.
And now I feel very conflicted. The Punisher is superior to almost every other show in the Marvel Netflix universe in so many ways – pacing, story construction, the steady escalation of tension, cliffhangers, acting, a perfectly balanced ensemble cast, compelling villains who don’t overshadow the hero. There’s even a bit more formal experimentation, such as a later episode which Rashomon’s us through a crime scene via the differing accounts of eyewitness interviews, some of whom swear Frank was working with a suicide bomber.
The problem is the first half of the season makes you forget you’re watching The Punisher, and the second half goes too far in reminding you of what you’re really watching. All the intricate plotting and intriguing character studies give way to classic Punisher action which then gives way to a brand of brutality not even seen in the Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane or Ray Winstone Punisher movies. It’s enough to leave the hardcore Punisher fans thrilled but also registers as a slight let down for those (translation: me) who might have deluded themselves into thinking this was going to be something more. It’s not so much the violence that disappoints but the sense that the show ultimately lets Frank off the hook.
Beyond that inherent imbalance, there are several glaring missteps. The back half of the season takes a poorly conceived stab at a gun control episode. Lewis, the homegrown terrorist built up so perfectly in the first half of the season, turns into a simple foil, a copycat vigilante deemed unworthy due to his shakier methods and ethics, a somewhat ironic role reversal since that’s the exact same function Frank served for Daredevil. The depictions of gun violence (such a sensitive topic after recent world events) teeter from respectful to recklessly glorified. Characters who used to have a problem with Frank’s brand of justice suddenly endorse it. Not enough comes of Madini, the Department of Homeland Security agent perpetually one step behind everyone, learning of Frank’s full role in the death of her partner back in Iraq.
I’m still figuring out how to take the following: There’s an entire episode which disturbingly, if accurately equates Frank’s reception of pain (he’s tied to a chair and pummeled relentlessly by Rawlings) to sexual gratification (while being pummeled he escapes into his mind and either imagines or recalls an especially satisfying bout of lovemaking with his now-dead wife, the show cutting between images of the couple orgasming together and shots of Frank being punched hard enough to break a rib and puncture a lung).
His fantasies eventually turn into a choice between accepting death and embracing an imagined afterlife with his wife or choosing life and then immediately murdering Rawlings. We know what decision he makes:
Here’s what The Punisher showrunner Steve Lightfoot (Narcos, Hannibal) told EW about the violence: “What I hope we did in the show, around Frank and everyone else, is show the cost of being around that violence emotionally. I think any nature of being around that sort of violence for any length of time massively changes people, and I feel like the show had to be cognizant of that.”
That’s why the season ends with him admitting his great fear in life is not death or continued war but instead peace. A soldier through and through, Frank Castle doesn’t know what to do with himself when there’s nothing left to fight. As Lightfoot put it, “There’s the guy Frank would like to be and the guy whose nature and all of his experiences made him [into]. The thing in the end that makes us empathize with him is that he knows that what he does isn’t always good. He’s not unaware of his own fault. Just because he’s recognized something about his nature doesn’t mean he’s not going to succumb to it pretty quickly.”
Should there be a second season Frank will continue fighting his war, probably against Billy again, who is now perfectly set up to assume the Jigsaw identity he occupies in the comics as an iconic Punisher villain. And the debate will live on as to whether The Punisher is a good version of the type of show society need less of or a good-to-flawed show which ultimately succeeds in pleasing its core audience of Punisher fans (or both?). Few of those fans are probably going to criticize a Punisher show for doing Punisher things, and when taken as a whole I still regard Punisher as being among the finest efforts in the Marvel Netflix universe. I just have my reservations about how it all ends in its ultimate quest to turn this one-time antagonist into a sympathetic anti-hero.
What about you? Let me know in the comments.