“Punisher” Leaves Viewers Wanting More

“Punisher” Leaves Viewers Wanting More

Chuck Sipps, Arts and Life Editor

***Contains Spoilers***

For a person to be in balance they must live in the present, not the past or future. Frank Castle, played by John Bernthal, or as the criminals of New York know him, The Punisher, is a man so trapped in his past that he believes he has no future. In season one of Netflix’s “The Punisher,” we witnessed Castle’s quest to eliminate anyone who played a part in his family’s murder. In season two we explore the fallout of that carnage and whether Frank has a purpose left in this world.

Having avenged his family’s death, Castle is directionless as the season starts. This slow start allows us to feel the burden that Castle still bears. We pity him as he goes from town to town searching for something he can’t name. A purpose. What does a soldier do when there’s no war to fight?

The events that start the tale are innocent enough. While enjoying a live band at a bar, Castle stops a drunk patron from harassing the bartender. Castle and the bartender develop a romance, and there is a tease that perhaps he can find true happiness with her. However, at the first chance of conflict he dives headlong into it. When a girl at the bar is in trouble it’s a good excuse for Castle to get his hands dirty. As she later tells him, “It seemed like you were happy for the excuse.”

What follows from this decision is a series of violent and bloody encounters that only grow larger in scale as the season progresses. Bernthal brings the Punisher to life like no actor before him. Whether portraying him as a man of endless rage or a broken shell, we sympathize with him just as much as we fear what he will do next. It’s to the shows benefit that they never commit to portraying Castle as a hero or villain, instead leaving it to the viewers to decide: just who is Frank Castle? 

Where the show falters is with new characters that are underdeveloped and the narrative balance. The conflicts this season are twofold: the survival of Castle’s friend turned enemy Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), and the mystery of why the girl from the bar, Amy (Giorgia Whigham), is wanted dead. Despite both stories’ individual strengths, they don’t mesh into a satisfying whole. This season would have been better served to either be a tale of two halves, with one story arc making up the first half of the season and the other the later or saving one of the stories for next season. With the Disney and Netflix partnership coming to end it seems like the show runners wanted to tell all the stories they could this season. The refusal to focus on one arc or the other causes both to suffer.

The Russo arc is the better of the two. It finds Castle forced to once again face down his friend who allowed his family to be murdered in cold blood. Russo is a shadow of his former self. Gone is the swagger from season one, instead he is a man who is even more shattered within than his scarred visage would indicate. It is their inevitable conflict that carries the season and it manages to resolve itself in an unexpected but satisfying way.

The Amy arc feels like it was ripped out of the headlines with everything from evil right-wing billionaires, shady Russians influencing politics, and rampant gun violence. Once again lack of focus comes into play. The story often takes a back seat to the Russo conflict and feels less developed. We get introduced to obviously despicable characters but, they are never given the chance to be fleshed out.

A standout of the arc is The Pilgrim (Josh Stewart) a man who is as lethal as Castle, but all the scarier because he believes what he does is the will of God. If given more screen time to develop he might have rivaled Russo as the villain of the season. Another standout is the returning Agent Dianh Madani (Amber Rose Revah.) As Billy Russo’s former lover, she too bares scars from last season. Watching her struggles is both rewarding and harrowing to watch. 

The Punishers fight scenes are its strongest feature. There is a rawness to the fights that make it feel as discomforting, despite how spectacular the action is. Castle isn’t interested in looking cool. He’s going to take you down as brutally and efficiently as possible. While it lessens the fights impacts that he and other characters seem to have superhuman healing abilities, there is still a visceral feel to the fights that isn’t found in the big screen version of the MCU.

If this is the end of Netflix’s “Punisher,” there are rumors that the Netflix Marvel Universe might somehow be saved but nothing is certain, then at least the show ends with a satisfying conclusion. Yes, it could have been stronger, but it still packs the emotional punch that made season one must watch. Bernthal’s captivating performance carries us through and in the end, he leaves little doubt as to the path Castle will take from here. Frank Castle finally understands his purpose. He must die, so that the Punisher can live.