REVIEW: THE PUNISHER – SEASON 2

Jon Bernthal in The Punisher (2017)

Starring

Jon Bernthal (The Accountant)
Ben Barnes (Westworld)
Amber Rose Revah (The Devil’s Double)
Jason R. Moore (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)
Josh Stewart (No Ordinary Family)
Floriana Lima (Supergirl)
Giorgia Whigham (13 Reasons Why)
Deborah Ann Woll (Mother’s Day)

Ben Barnes in The Punisher (2017)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST CAST

Royce Johnson (Demolition)
Tony Plana (Ugly Betty)
Alexa Davalos (Clash of The Titans)
Corbin Bernsen (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)
Annette O’Toole (Smallville)
Ilia Volok (Power Rangers Wild Force)

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Limitless TV)

Rob Morgan (Stranger Things)

Frank Castle doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who gets out to the movies very often, so we’ll probably never know what he thought about Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But you have to assume he’d identify with Kylo Ren’s infamous monologue, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. It’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.” That pretty much sums up Frank’s struggle since losing his family in a hail of bullets and transforming himself into a remorseless vigilante.Amber Rose Revah in The Punisher (2017)That same struggle takes on a new form in The Punisher Season 2. Having finally tracked down and punished every single person responsible for the deaths of his family, Frank is finally a free man. But can someone who spent so long being defined by hate and a thirst for revenge actually find peace? Can Frank let his past die and rebuild his life, or is he doomed to forever be defined as the Punisher? It’s a compelling dilemma. But ironically, it’s only when Season 2 clings to the past that it becomes the show it was meant to be.Jon Bernthal in The Punisher (2017)Initially, Season 2 comes across as a major departure from its predecessor. The premiere touches base with Frank (Jon Bernthal) as he aimlessly wanders the Midwest and finds his true calling as a Shooter Jennings groupie. It’s a slow start to the new season, but one that sets the mood nicely. We see Frank coming so close to remembering how to live as a normal human being again, to the point where he even develops a romance with a local bartender. But the fact that Frank so quickly and recklessly throws himself into the first fracas he can find shows that he was only ever waiting for a new mission to come along. If the driving question of Season 2 is whether Frank Castle can find peace, the first episode alone makes it pretty clear that it’ll only be with a gun in his hand.Josh Stewart in The Punisher (2017)The first few episodes of the season attempt to make a fairly clean break from the events, characters, and setting of Season 1. Sure, the show touches base with old favorites like Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), but the focus in this early part of the season is fixed more on newcomers like wayward teen grifter Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham) and former Neo-Nazi-turned-God-fearing assassin, John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart).Jon Bernthal and Jason R. Moore in The Punisher (2017)Unfortunately, it’s here where one of the fundamental flaws of Season 2 becomes apparent. These newcomers struggle to measure up to the strong supporting cast seen in Season 1. Amy initially comes across as an obnoxious, conniving brat, as well as a crude attempt to replace both Karen Page and Micro in one new character. It’s a good four or five episodes into the season before she finally begins to gain some semblance of depth and forges a more believable bond with Frank.Jon Bernthal in The Punisher (2017)Pilgrim (who’s loosely based on a character from the comics called The Mennonite) often shows potential as a man whose struggle to leave his dark past behind him mirrors Frank’s own journey. But both Pilgrim and his handlers, the nefarious right-wing billionaires Anderson (Corbin Bernsen) and Eliza Schultz (Annette O’Toole) are badly underdeveloped. This season creates the impression that showrunner Steve Lightfoot wanted to create a conflict that could rip from as many headlines as possible. You’ve got your right-wing extremists, your shady Russians blackmailing politicians, and your rampant gun violence plaguing Middle America. But none of this material seems especially well thought-out or ever comes together as a satisfying whole. By the time the focus shifts back to New York and the renewed feud between Frank and Billy, the Schultzes and their dirty dealings become a light afterthought.Ben Barnes and Charles Brice in The Punisher (2017)Fortunately, at least Season 2 capitalizes on the foundation established in Season 1 where Billy is concerned. We see Billy Russo, handsome businessman, transform into Jigsaw, psychologically tormented killer. The series only loosely adapts the Jigsaw from the comics, however. Rather than depicting him as a hideously scarred supervillain out for blood the moment he escapes police custody, Season 2 takes a more understated approach to Billy. His scarring is less dramatic. Early on, he wants only to understand his sad lot in life and the skull-clad demon that haunts his dreams.Jon Bernthal and Jason R. Moore in The Punisher (2017)The result of all of this is that Billy remains a sympathetic figure throughout the season. Even when his dark, depraved side begins to burst forth again, we understand the pain and trauma fueling his actions and the profound sense of loss that plagues him. Barnes’ performance improves leaps and bounds over that of Season 1. At times it’s bigger and flashier, but often Barnes is able to bring a wounded subtlety to the character. In some cases, Barnes is even required to act from behind a mask for prolonged periods, showing a gift for using body language and voice to make up for his concealed features. Jigsaw may not quite rival the likes of Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave as the best of Netflix’s Marvel villains, but he’s close enough.The new season also further cements Bernthal’s Frank Castle as the best live-action incarnation of the character to date. To be fair, Bernthal has had far more time to make the character his own than actors like Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson. Regardless, the show really benefits from that crucial combination of nuanced characterization and Bernthal’s captivating performance. This season is careful never to paint Frank as either hero or villain. If anything, it’s preoccupied with the narrow line separating a soldier like Frank from a craven mercenary like Billy. Bernthal brings a wide range to the role, playing Frank as a roaring powerhouse of rage, a grieving survivor, and various degrees in between those two extremes. Season 2 is also kind to both Revah’s Dinah Madani and Jason R. Moore’s Curtis Holt. Both characters are able to take a more active role in the conflict, including directly joining Frank in his war against Billy. Dinah’s emotional gauntlet is one of the highlights of the season, as she continuously grapples with her profound betrayal from Season 1. As for Curtis, we see his loyalties tested and his life begin to buckle under the weight of being Frank’s friend, culminating in his decision to forge his own path and choose for himself what he believes to be the greatest good.Ben Barnes in The Punisher (2017)Season 2’s fundamental flaw is that it forces viewers to accept the good with the bad. It makes some significant improvements to Season 1’s formula in terms of pacing and action. Following the methodical “Roadhouse Blues,” the season’s narrative quickly builds momentum. Whereas it seemed like Season 1 was content to go multiple episodes without giving Frank a chance to do some punishing, pretty much every chapter of Season 2 includes at least one significant action sequence. There’s also a greater variety to the action this time around, with some fights unfolding as raw, gritty, hand-to-hand brawls and others ending with hundreds of bullets littering the streets of New York. Honestly, the best thing that can be said for Season 2 is that, unlike its predecessor, it didn’t seem overly drawn out at 13 episodes.Jon Bernthal and Giorgia Whigham in The Punisher (2017)But the flip side to this is that Season 2 leaves me wanting so much more in some areas. Again, so much involving the Schultzes, John Pilgrim, and that whole halfhearted conspiracy feels poorly developed. These characters disappear for multiple episodes at a stretch and even when they return, they connect to Frank’s struggle only in the most tenuous ways. More often than not, Pilgrim comes across as a refugee from a completely different show. This season may be more eventful than its predecessor, but it’s also far less focused. Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima) may be the biggest offender of all. This is a character who is obviously a villain lurking in plain sight from her very first appearance. Yet never do the writers make more than the most rudimentary effort to flesh out her background or justify her erratic behavior. She functions in her capacity as someone to shine a brief, fleeting light into Billy Russo’s demented life, and that’s it.Ben Barnes in The Punisher (2017)Looking back at Season 2 as a whole, it was like watching two completely different story pitches being crudely grafted together. And that’s to say nothing of some of the other questionable storytelling choices made over the course of the season. However little this season succeeded in tying together these loose narrative threads, it did at least manage to give characters like Frank, Dinah, Amy, and Billy’s story the closure they needed. “The Whirlwind” is both the most action-packed and most emotionally charged installment of the season. It’s here we see Frank take those final steps toward becoming the Punisher through and through. With little prospect of a Season 3, it’s heartening to see the series end on such a definitive note. The Punisher Season 2 improves on the first in some key ways, establishing a stronger sense of narrative momentum and giving fans much more action. At the same time, the series also falters in other areas. Its narrative is more unfocused, and its new characters struggle to measure up to the old guard. This season does capitalize on the foundation established by Season 1 in terms of the Punisher/Jigsaw rivalry, however, and it leaves Frank Castle in a good place in the finale.

REVIEW: THE PUNISHER – SEASON 1

MAIN CAST

Jon Bernthal (World Trade Center)
Ben Barnes (Westworld)
Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Suburban Girl)
Amber Rose Revah (Indian Summers)
Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil)
Daniel Webber (11.22.63)
Paul Schulze (Zodiac)
Jaime Ray Newman (Bates Motel)
Michael Nathanson (The Wolf of Wall Street)
C. Thomas Howell (The Amazing Spider-Man)
Jason R. Moore (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST STAR

Shohreh Aghdashloo (Star Trek Beyond)
Geoffrey Cantor (The Tick)
Clancy Brown (Highlander)
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Limitless TV)
Rob Morgan (Starnger Things)
Kelli Barrett (Mr. Popper’s Penguins)
Tony Plana (Ugly Betty)#
Ripley Sobo (Batman V Superman)
Tim Guinee (Iron Man)
Nicolette Pierini (Annie)

The Punisher begins with Frank Castle believing he has completed his mission for revenge against the mobsters who killed his family and hanging up his skull-adorned costume. Six months later everybody thinks Frank Castle is dead and, having grown a hipster beard, he’s taken a new name and landed a job on a construction crew where even though more modern equipment is available, he’s able to take a sledgehammer to concrete walls. Frank is about to discover that he did a lot of punishing for nothing, or at least that his punishing was only partial, because it turns out that the death of his family relates to his black ops military service in Afghanistan and he’s going to have to start punishing again. This time, he has an ally in a former NSA analyst Micro, whose family thinks that he’s dead, too. Frank, who works better alone, finds himself in an unlikely partnership and almost a friendship. Castle has to reconnect with former brothers-in-arms Curtis (Jason R. Moore), now working to support soldiers suffering from PTSD, and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), now the slick head of a private security concern. Meanwhile, the bad stuff that happened in Kandahar has attracted the attention of Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani, a child of Iranian refugees. Also involved, and providing links to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, is Daredevil regular Karen Page, whose status as compassionate, frequently endangered Marvel TV sidekick/innocent bystander remains intact.punisher-110The Punisher was a gritty, great start for the character. It helped build the character’s past while presenting a self-contained and intriguing story. There are some definite current modern themes explored and it feels very different from anything on the Marvel Netflix side of things in the past. It was nice to see a character in this series once again take pain and have many potentially fatal situations.  I enjoyed watching the season, fans of the character will find this captured the anti-hero very well though some may feel it’s rather slow to get going. Once it does all move quickly and things are all well developed it doesn’t hold back on the action or tension. The Punisher is a solid character so it’s nice to see a full season actually deliver on what potential there is for this badass within the universe.