The last time we saw Frank Castle he had exacted his revenge by shooting Ray Schoonover aka The Blacksmith, discovered Schoonover’s secret armory and burnt down his own house. He had become the Punisher.
Hard to imagine a bigger debut than that of Jon Bernthal’s take on the legendary comic book vigilante in Season 2 of Daredevil on Netflix. Ever since then fans have been lusting for more and they got their wish in April of 2016 when Netflix officially ordered a Punisher standalone season consisting of 13 episodes.
So here we are 18 months later and I can tell you unequivocally after watching the premiere 13 episodes, that it was worth the wait. So fire up the battle van and let’s take a closer look!
*Disclaimer, their may or may not be a battle van.
What show runner Steve Lightfoot, Jon Bernthal and the rest of the cast and crew have done with this character proves they understand one simple thing, in Frank Castle’s world, violence is his language and that language is essential to the narrative. By not pandering to the violence, like previous versions of the Punisher, but rather treating it with reverence in such a way that every blow he lands or shot he fires carries special significance or meaning. The way an etymologist chooses each word carefully and never without meaning, so to, does Castle with his brutality. He’s disciplined and not overtly quick to rage so when the blows come, they arrive in true Punisher fashion. He’s rarely seen out of control.
The show starts off with Frank tying up loose ends so to speak leftover from Daredevil Season 2 and then jumps forward 6 months where we find Frank, using the name Pete Castiglione, trying to live a secluded but normal life. He has a beard, lives in a crummy apartment and works construction but it’s not too long before the violence and crime of the city get under his skin. The first episode of the season ends how it starts, with Frank disposing of people in brutal and creative ways.
Since we’ve already seen Castle in action, this first episode mainly serves as a way for us to meet background characters that will play pivotal parts throughout the season. Characters like Curt, a Marine friend of Castle’s who runs a PTSD support group. Dinah Madani, a homeland security officer fresh from a stint in Afghanistan whose partner was killed and Billy Russo an ex Marine and teammate of Frank’s from back in the war now running a private security company called ANVIL. It’s Madani, played by Amber Rose Revah, whose own investigation into the murder of her partner that seems to be playing the crusading government worker this time around. The space between her and Castle gets smaller and smaller each episode and it’s only a matter of time before their lives intersect.
As promised by the show runners months ago, Frank’s time in the military does figure heavily into the plot of the first season. It provides the backdrop for events that have and will unfold over time and introduces us to characters, such as the mysterious Agent Orange, that will undoubtedly make Frank’s life exponentially more difficult. The scenes which give us these moments from Frank’s past are some of the most important and violent of the season, especially where Agent Orange is concerned.
Aside from these scenes, the show has the same beats and rhythms of previous Netflix MCU shows but with seemingly more emotional weight. That is in large part to Bernthal’s troubled and emotionally wounded take on Castle. His demons stem from not only the death of his wife and kids but his work in the Marines’ which may have indirectly led to the death of them. As events unfold that expand his circle of enemies he too must learn to trust again and expand his circle of allies if he hopes to survive.
This is where we see familiar faces like Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) who re-enters Frank’s life when he needs information about someone he thinks is on his tail. Page still harbors a soft spot for Castle and even though abhors his violent tendencies, is willing to help him despite her reservations. Page brings balance to the show reminding Frank that he is human and that he could maintain a civilian relationship should he choose. But like most relationships in Frank’s life, there’s risk associated with knowing the Punisher and Karen seems willing to take that risk even though that makes her somewhat of a righteous metaphor.
Speaking of relationships, the most interesting and intentional of the series so far is his not so chance encounter with David Lieberman aka Micro. If you remember from Daredevil right before Castle burns his house down he finds a disc with “Micro” written on it. The enlightened knew what that meant right away. For the not so much it’s a reference to Frank Castle’s partner in crime from the comic books who provided him with much-needed technical and armory support.
In this rendition, Micro is played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach to near perfection adding much-needed levity to break up the brooding. Having been in a similar situation as Castle’s he’s also had to face some of the hardships of losing your family and embracing seclusion. The big difference is that Lieberman’s skill set is much different from Castle’s in that he was a former NSA analyst and is technically proficient and extremely intelligent. This is something that plays into that classic buddy cop scenario where both have similar motivations and emotional investments but different approaches when it comes to reconciliation.
But still, their reluctance to become “partners” is something that becomes a plot focus. It’s clear that in order to be an effective partnership they need to set aside their fears and anxiety and develop a mantra. The psychological back and forth is just measuring sticks before they are able to see each other as victims of system that treats humans as disposable weapons or tools. Whether by seasons end they’ve learned to find some common ground and develop an effective cohesiveness remains to be seen.
A less interesting side plot that I’m sure will pay as the season progresses is that of a troubled ex-Marine by the name of Lewis Walcott. We first meet Lewis as part of Curtis’s PTSD support group and seems to be having a particularly hard time readjusting to civilian life. It’s clear he’s headed for some type of conflict and his failed attempt at joining ANVIL, whose motives aren’t made clear just yet, increases that likelihood. The disenfranchised and the forgotten are two things that Lightfoot relies heavily on for character motivation and what lies ahead for Lewis is uncertain but it’s clear he’s a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. Will he find himself at the wrong end of Frank’s rampage? Or just be symbolic of a system that hasn’t always honored the commitment and sacrifice the service men and women have given to their country.
We’ve seen from Daredevil that Bernthal handles the action well and dispatches his targets with a cold methodical steely gaze. But in the moments when he’s exposed, when he’s naked emotionally is when this show has the opportunity and does employ a little catharsis. This is usually at points in the series when lines are blurred and the distinction between the good guys and the bad becomes less clear.
Frank is resigned to die because he’s not sure that deserves to live.
But make no mistake, this isn’t a touchy feely show about redemption and turning the other cheek. And while forgiveness and empathy are definitely part of the motif, the violence when depicted is brutal, hard-hitting and difficult to watch at times. This show is unlike previous MCU efforts in that respect. Theatricality and deception are powerful agents and are useful tools for some other heroes (ahem) but not in this show. Frank comes right at you and sees the world in very black and white terms and resolves conflict with finality. When you hit, he hits back…and hard.
Which makes one thread of this premiere season confusing and frankly a little weak. The inclusion of Micro’s family while at the onset makes sense, carries little weight and effect going forward. The problem is that it mirrors Frank’s dreams and flashbacks so it feels a little redundant in trying to provide images that portray his strong sense of guilt and anguish. And when used as a tool to show that decisions have consequences, as in Micro’s case, it feels a little forced. But this is minor in its depiction and certainly doesn’t railroad the main plot and its emotional effect as far as how it relates to the Lieberman family can’t be understated.
As general and vague all of this is that’s about as specific as I can be due to embargo agreements. Like a good show, pieces are moving into place as the season progresses and trust me as things unfold and new players are revealed and old enemies re-emerge, Frank’s life becomes more complicated and violent.
Like I said trust is a strong theme throughout this season. Trust in your family, trust in your friends, trust in your government, trust in your country and trust in yourself. Who Frank will ultimately rely on remains a mystery but whoever can get Frank to forgive himself and find some peace may be an indicator. Will the empathetic relationships in his life prove useful or just a means to an end?
What will happen with ANVIL and Billy Russo? Can he be trusted? Will Madani figure out who killed her partner and why? With the government pulling the strings is justice even attainable? Will powerful and more ominous villains complicate things even more? You’ll have to watch to find out…and let me tell you, it’s quite a ride.
Till next time…