TV Reviews

Season 1 Review: Can You Really Be Mad at The Punisher for Being So Punishing?

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.


  1. surprisingly, I didn’t mind the Punisher actually punishing all too much. Well, I didn’t look for what I suspected the most brutal scenes, but that is kind of what the character does, and I am in a way more concerned with the way wounds which would be deadly in real live are treated in a damned bedroom, and then Frank is up again one day later. Even the government kind of endorsing it didn’t bother me too much because, well, the US government does a lot of shady stuff, and I am kind of happy that Frank admitted “we were all guilty”.

    No, what really, really bothered me was gun control episode. That one really p… me off, and here is why: Let’s put aside that pro gun-control is argued by a sleazy politician while the anti-stance is basically argued by one of the heroes of the show. No, what really angers me is that the whole episode plays like a high budget version of one of those gun lobby vids.

    Trick 1: Let’s pretend that a discussion about gun control is a discussion about gun ownership – which it isn’t. Someone like Karen would be perfectly entitled to own a gun under gun control laws. And to use it for self-defence.

    Trick 2: Portray the politicians who fight for gun control as negatively and cowardly as possible. Just for the record, a politician who wants gun control laws but hires a protection detail is not a hypocrite. Quite the opposite, he is actually doing exactly what he should do: Leaving the shooting to people who are trained to handle a gun correctly. Again, gun control is not about getting rid of all guns, it is about ensuring that only people who are mentally stable and properly trained have easy access to guns.

    Trick 3: Demonstrate that a gun will rescue lives by staging a situation in which someone is helpless without a gun. Never mind that in a realistic scenario, Karen would be most likely killed if she would try to pull a gun on a trained soldier, they need to make the point that she is helpless because someone took away her gun.

    Trick 4: Apply on the larger issue. They do this multiple times. From “the first attacks happened with bombs instead of guns” (yes, but not everyone knows how to built a bomb and people who are buying stuff for put one together might draw attention to themselves) to “this is not the core of the problem”. Which, yeah, it isn’t, nobody has ever claimed that gun control would make attack stop, just that it would make them more difficult. There is a reason why most amok runs in Europe are done with knives instead of guns.

    Trick 5: Pretend that gun control is useless. That plays into number 4, but if I bring the earlier episodes into it, they even have a story about someone loosing his parents because they were killed by a driver who “just got his permit”. So what, we don’t need permits for anything because they are useless anyway?

    There is also the little fact that the stereotypical right wing nut is taken down multiple times based on his character, but they never take down his actual arguments. While the gun control issue is seemingly taken down on arguments. I say seemingly, because the episode just pretends to discuss gun control when it actually discusses gun ownership. You know, the whole “good arguments on both sides” thing…it tries to act as if this is a complex issue when it isn’t complex at all. There is no good argument against the principle of gun control. One can argue which rules make sense and which don’t, but not the very principle of it. A guy who digs a hole in his garden to sleep should not have any access to guns, period.

    Sorry, that was quite a rant, but this episode really, really angered me. And considering Marvel’s questionable relationship to the gun lobby, I wonder how much of this is accident. I want to believe that the writers meant well and something got lost in translation, but that feels more like it got deliberately twisted along the way.

    1. No “apologies for ranting” necessary. That episode contributed to the back half of the season simply not stacking up to the first half for me. The gun control debate was wrong in all the ways you described. More than that, it just felt so entirely off. I simply didn’t see it coming that Lewis’ mental deterioration would culminate in a forced gun control debate when he in fact is a dude running around with a bunch of bombs. The treatment of the gutless Senator also felt lazy.

      I kept flashing back to Vulture’s article about the complicated relationship between law enforcement and The Punisher, and how Jon Bernthal met with tons of military people to prepare for the role and made it is his mission to make them proud. That episode felt catered to them, playing into negative assumptions about liberal politicians and morphing the gun control debate into a gun ownership debate, as you explained.

      My general impression of the back half of the season is that they kind of lost the plot, and I don’t mean the literal plot. No, that keeps flowing in remarkably engrossing ways. It’s more the sense of Frank’s actions being wrong and corruptive to his soul gets a little lost in the shuffle for me. When he dons the armor and prepares for that battle in the bunker it is played as such a supremely cool moment, the pay off we’ve been waiting the whole season for, and there’s way more of that kind of purely awesome action movie stuff than I was expecting given the tone of the first half of the season and it kind of overshadows any references to how bad all of it is supposed to be. That being said, I still couldn’t wait for each new episode, and there are moments which really got me, like Frank and Karen locking heads instead of kissing in the elevator, Frank’s admission to Curtis about how his failure led to his injury and the final speech about being scared of peace.

      But as for the gun control episode, I don’t how much of that reflected anything directly from Marvel. It felt more to me like a gun control episode tailored to The Punisher’s core audience.

      1. Eh, considering that Marvel had to cancel and event with a freaking gun manufacturer at the last Comic-con due to public outcry and was planning a comic which was basically advertising for said gun manufacturer, I am not so sure about this. One should never forget that while the movie division is safely in Disney’s hand by now, at Marvel proper Perlmutter has still considerable influence, and that includes the TV division. Perlmutter is after all a know supporter of Trump and the gun lobby.

        But even if I give them the benefit of the doubt and judge the series on the premise that something got lost in translation, I think that The Punisher just lacks balls. I mean, Jessica Jones really tackled the issue at hand and told the audience some really uncomfortable truths along the way (and maybe even taught some guys why it is so creepy to tell a woman to “smile”). I had my issues with Luke Cage, but it did not shy away from crying out that black lives matter. The Punisher on the other hand, well, it does bring up how expensive it is to train a soldier, but only in the context of “and then we go and throw those people away” never in the context of “and why don’t we spend the same sum on free education for everyone?”. It does bring up that American Soldiers have done some really sh… things, but it never calls out the government for condoning it, even though it did multiple times. Instead it is all hushhush operations by greedy corporate types. The show brings up some issues but never follows them up, and when it does, it misrepresent what the core issue actually is.

        Btw, I have honestly no love for those private army security organisations, but just once I would like to see one in TV which is not automatically portrayed as dishonourable. Just for a change, you know.

      2. If Perlmutter did throw his weight around, which is certainly possible, I imagine the writers we’re already leaning in the direction of not wanting to offend or alienate their core fans of Punisher fans. Unlike just about any other comic book character, The Punisher has a hard right wing fanbase and is so beloved in the military and law enforcement.

        Your BTW…yeah, private security firms always equal Blackwater on TV shows.

        Punisher has been renewed for a second season. It will be interesting to see how it will work when it’s not just Frank vs. Military Industrial Complex. As you said, the first season, however well-constructed it might be, does kind of lose its balls and mostly opts to navigate around the ethical quandaries at the heart of the Punisher story by setting him up against a bunch of corrupt military dudes who betrayed him. What happens now that he might return to knocking off gangs and drug dealers for no personal reason other than he doesn’t know what else to do with himself? That is if they choose to take him back to that Daredevil Season 2 place. They might not. He might remain entangled with the military somehow.

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