Frank Castle has a dilemma that he will not admit to. For the first few episodes of The Punisher season 2, the character, as played by Jon Bernthal, is trying to move past his Punisher lifestyle and find new enjoyment in life, but as he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, he springs into action.
He very well could have kept on moving on, and chalks his impulse up to chivalry and force of habit. What he won’t admit though, is that he wants, needs, and perhaps enjoys his punishing. This is the dramatic question that season two appears to set up, before fumbling it entirely. Rarely does the show ask whether or not society needs the Punisher, and after watching the entire second season, I’m leaning towards “no.” At least in this way.
The Punisher (Season 2)
Showrunner: Steve Lightfoot
Release Date: January 18, 2019 (Netflix)
One thing I will always agree to is that Jon Bernthal is the perfect actor for the character. He gives off a terrifying aura for most of his screentime, yet can easily switch to a homeliness when around certain characters—and it’s all believable too. While the opening of the season gets off to a slow, dragging start, it shows promise as it displays a Frank Castle in his potential post-Punisher life.
But this is a Netflix-Marvel show (one of the last ones, actually), and something’s got to give—it can’t be thirteen hours of a gruff middle-aged man driving around country roads and hanging out in bars. The inciting incident is sparked by a young grifter named Amy (Giorgia Whigham) who is attacked by would-be assassins, bringing Frank into a web of conspiracies. With no Micro this season, Amy acts as Frank’s de facto sidekick. In the meanwhile, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) has somehow gotten the best plastic surgery in the world for his face but struggles with the loss of his memories and nightmares of a white skull bringing him pain.
These plotlines really never converge in any meaningful fashion—it is both strange and actually quite irritating.
John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart) — a devout Christian, family man, and intensely violent assassin — is in pursuit of Amy, and by extension, Frank Castle. It’s a chilling performance from Stewart, who remains stonefaced through all of his screentime, but it ends up coming across as derivative. There is nothing substantial to his cliched faith, a stark contrast to Daredevil‘s thoughtful take on belief, and ultimately Pilgrim just feels like a cross between Gabe from The Office and Michael Nyqvist acting as Paul Bettany’s character in The Da Vinci Code but in some sort of True Detective season 1 ripoff.
Ben Barnes is a skilled enough to pull off the tortured soul role, giving it all as a traumatized, semi-evil semi-sympathetic figure. The problem with his storyline is his frequent scene partner, Floriana Lima as psychiatrist Krista Dumont. While I’m sure Lima is fine in other roles, she is entirely unconvincing in the poorly-written role given her—as she treats Russo, we see that Kristy has her own trauma, and the two characters form a dynamic that becomes painfully predictable. I sensed some nefarious intentions from Dumont at first, but what might have been misdirection was just purely bad acting and writing. It doesn’t help that there is just way too much screentime devoted to this pairing, and I’m pretty sure that a real-life psychiatrist like her would not be allowed to practice in the real world (source: I have a psychiatrist father).
Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) was a standout character in season 1 of The Punisher, but like many in this show, the writing does not serve her well. Madani was a multi-faceted, motivated character in the first season, but all of her actions this season focus around an obsession with vengeance against Russo. Every other scene with her is someone telling her to back off, immediately followed with her not doing it. And despite her being basically the second lead character and having more regular interactions with Frank Castle, their relationship is totally undefined, and viewers must be told that she has full trust in him rather than showing anything with substance.
While Frank Castle’s wingman Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) may not be an irritating character, he appears to be irritated by everything going on around him. He is a reluctant sidekick, being told to stay on the sidelines to avoid potential harm and legal troubles, but diving in headfirst for his friend. Every scene with him after a fight is basically him complaining and expressing his regret. Every character keeps getting themselves into unnecessary messes, digging themselves deeper and deeper into holes so far into the ground to the point that you don’t see how they can emerge in an exciting fashion.
These dueling plots are messes, not only in the world and the story itself but in the writing. Frank Castle switches between both plotlines, returning to New York for the sole purpose of catching Billy Russo but suddenly not caring upon arrival and focusing on the Amy situation. Everyone makes rash, logic-defying, and irrational decisions that get them deeper into trouble to the point where it is comical when there are no actual consequences.
It’s a miracle that the action is well-choreographed and satisfying — if bloody, hardcore violence happens to be your thing. After a slow burn of thirty minutes in the first episode, the show sprung to life with a thrilling and violent fight scene in a bar. One fight sequence in the middle of the season took place in a weight room, with Frank utilizing everything around him at his disposal—in fact, he beats some dudes up to the point that they should look even worse than Billy Russo (listen, I’m still not over him being handsome, even though everyone pretends to be mortified by his appearance here).
I generally like diving deep into story themes in my usual overly-long reviews for this website, but I don’t have a lot this time around. Whenever I feel like I understand what the show is going for thematically, it pivots in a manner that gives me narrative whiplash. Jon Bernthal is still the perfect Punisher, but watching him bellow while shooting two rifles is only so sustainable. The Punisher season 2 could have asked some real questions about what place a violent vigilante has in 2019, but instead, it focuses on tired narrative tropes that feel ten years too old and an overextended feud that leaves an absurd trail of destruction.
Good thing Netflix totally loves its Marvel shows and will probably give this one another chance, right? Right?