Frank Castle is one of those multi-layered characters that is a tough sell. His motivations and humanity aren’t always directly on show for everyone to see. As such, satisfying the whole fan base is a difficult, uphill battle. The blinding ultra-violence is a staple of The Punisher and to take it away wholesale will alienate a large portion of the people Netflix are trying to get to watch it. But to base 13 episodes solely on that would make for an eventually boring series that would run out of steam fast, let alone get it a second season.
Thankfully, 2017’s first season was so well put together, its protagonist so perfectly balanced between revenge-fuelled and local helpful hero, and its straight-from-the-headlines story so well woven that it bred a near perfect action thriller show that kept you hooked to the end. It had you begging for more.
So here we are. Just over a year later and Frank’s (Jon Bernthal) return not only has fan’s hopes to live up to, but its own high watermark too. The life of The Punisher is never a simple one. Even when he’s free and clear of the world of awfulness that haunted him, a year removed from the hellish events in New York, to have a few moments of peace might be asking too much. Being the good guy he is, he can’t help but intervene when he sees 16-year-old Amy (Giorgia Whigham) being stalked by a shady group of black ops soldiers. But things spiral completely out of Castle’s control when a friend of his gets hurt in the process, setting off his angry need for revenge.
Baiting the group that went after Amy, Frank ends up in the middle of a bigger storm than he could have imagined. A Russian blackmail plot that threatens a US senator is just the tip of an iceberg, whose deep and dark waters include a reformed Nazi with a new life as a man of God/hitman known as Pilgrim (Josh Stewart).
Meanwhile, The Punisher’s past is on a collision course with him as his former squad-mate Billy Russo (Ben Barnes); the man he all but killed on the merry-go-round 12 months prior has escaped the secured hospital wing he was in. With no memory after the Marines, a face full of scars and a head full of nightmares, Billy is about to upturn Castle’s entire world and the man known as Jigsaw has no idea why.
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Netflix knows. It knows that the way to keep you engaged with these shows is to drip feed the audience a little bit of everything a little bit at a time. A perfect episode of any of the Marvel/Netflix collaboration episodes will flash you a little action and tease a little story. It is going to show you just why they chose these actors by making them put their best on screen. Even though you’re watching on the streaming service, it will leave you at the end of the hour salivating for more.
But it takes a superior level of quality to keep that model going for a full season. A duff episode in a weekly show doesn’t necessarily hurt it, but a duff episode while binging a series can knock your immersion and clear the show from your list because of it. The recent seasons of both Luke Cage and Iron Fist are examples of the way a show can go if it isn’t cultivated properly. The Punisher doesn’t suffer from the issues those shows did in their returning seasons, but it does show some of the warning signs.
With a little sag around the midsection, as the action and story is stretched out to fill out the gaps between the gunfights, The Punisher does hit the same issues that almost all of the Marvel shows do; 13 episodes is too much and does hurt its pacing slightly. Luckily, it isn’t a terminal problem, but one that needs to be remedied.
One of the other pitfalls to binge television is that writers and showrunners don’t get the opportunity to course-correct a show halfway through after audience feedback. You have to have faith that your show works from start to finish. And confidence is something that The Punisher has in spades.
The Punisher isn’t just about a vigilante wearing a skull that stretches from nipple to nipple mindlessly killing people. It isn’t a straight up blood-porn show, it never has been. The show, the films and the books are about the powerlessness of the average Joe. It’s not enough to just be a good guy, because there’s always someone bigger and badder fighting against them. The Punisher is the extreme version of the average good guy in a world equally as extreme; and he knows it. He fights against it, but ultimately accepts that he’s a blunt tool used for the crudest of jobs – and not always willingly.
If the first season of the vigilante’s story was about how veterans are treated, how they’re left alone in the cold to fend for themselves without the help they need, the second season has a far more sinister underlying plot.
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The Punisher in 2019 isn’t subtle in its politics. This second season looks not only at those instruments – both blunt and precision – but it looks at the puppet masters controlling them from afar.
Frank may have willingly walked into this life and into his fight, but once he finds his way back to New York with Amy, the illusion of free choice is all he has. Castle’s will may be stronger than most, but those that know how to push his buttons – namely returning Homeland Security Special Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) – know exactly how to get him to do their bidding and make him think that it’s his choice to do so. Thankfully, he has found in Amy a reason to fight through the control and be himself. The Punisher gets to be a surrogate father to a teenage girl who is as desperate for the parental figure as he is for the opportunity to parent the daughter that he lost. Ultimately, it is this relationship – and the one with long time friend Curtis Hoyle (Jason Moore), who gets a far bigger role in this second season – that keeps the man who should be judge, jury and executioner grounded.
The puppet master role stretches far past Madani, however.
While John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart – The Collector) may be the violent antithesis of The Punisher – cold, calm and collected in everything he does – it is the man pulling his strings (Psych’s Corbin Bernsen in a terrifically menacing turn) and the Russian behind him that we should be taking notice of. The man with the political needs and the want to destabilise the landscape. John Pilgrim is a tortured man with a past as haunting as Frank Castle’s; and just like Frank, that past and his desire to be a better man is being used against him. Make no mistake: He’s evil. But his motivations have been twisted by a man that knows how to do and say just the right things to twist a man’s mind.
And then, there is Jigsaw. Billy Russo comes into his second season a quite literal broken man. He doesn’t remember how he got to where he is and is desperately seeking a way to fix his mind. His vulnerability is used against him by the psychiatrist that has brought him back from the brink and is supposed to be helping the man function properly. Doctor Dumont (Supergirl’s Floriana Lima) positions the former marine as a man she can control with the right set of words and the perfect sympathetic tone. It works for a time too.
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The genius in Billy’s character (and the writing team’s portrayal of him) is the way you’re made to feel for him. His predicament is one that any viewer would be scared to be stuck in, to not know how we got to that point would be terrifying and Barnes gives us his best scared face for the duration of the episodes he’s trying to remember. All while being manipulated by the not-so-good Doctor. The two key moments for Russo are the realisation that Frank, the man he’s called brother as long as he can remember, has violently turned on him and the moment he discovers why. Barnes deserves a world of recognition for this performance. These brutal, heartfelt moments that make the audience care for a character like Jigsaw are second to none in this season.
To say The Punisher is a perfectly driven character piece, isn’t to say that the show is action light or lacking in the blood and violence departments. On the contrary. The violence and action add to the characters. On the surface it can seem needless and gratuitous, but in reality the moments that leave Castle covered in blood with an ever increasing body count only serve to strengthen his resolve and have audiences loving him a little more, giving him more of a reason to hate both himself and the people putting him through this. Billy’s story develops in a way that manifests in the only way his brain knows how: To fight. Whether it’s Frank or his own demons, the only response his body ever has is to try to combat it with violence. And when his and Frank’s worlds collide, it is choreography worthy of the most graceful ballet. But, you know, one riddled with bullets.
This follow-up season also showcases some great moments of action. Set pieces are excellently put together from buildup to execution. The much advertised heist gets a full 15 minutes of screen-time that has you on the edge of your seat, breathless with excitement. Its Jigsaw/Punisher face-off not only heightens the tension and ups the ante between the pair, it keeps the audience on their toes the whole way through. The scene is second only to the John Carpenter inspired Assault on Precinct 13 homage that, this early on in the season, is as much an action junkie’s dream as it is a statement of intent for the remaining ten episodes.
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Overall, this second season of the ultra-violent thriller builds on what the first season (and The Punisher’s introduction in Daredevil) laid the perfect foundation for. Season one toyed with the well known origins of the character, but a fresh story that still keeps fans happy is what was required here. It needed to keep the feeling of The Punisher without treading the same well-worn ground again. In that respect, the show certainly delivers. It’s a 13-hour adrenaline rush lined with political intrigue and more than a few casual nods at certain policies that the writers aren’t a fan of.
For fans of The Punisher, his second outing on Netflix is required viewing. But there’s plenty to be taken from this show for everyone; from casual marvel fans to those with no prior knowledge of the universe it sits in. It is a perfect television event that ups the already high bar for Netflix binge TV.