When Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) was shot in the head at point-blank range before the events of the first season of Netflix’s The Punisher, the bullet fragmented upon entering his skull, and the wound should have killed him. Instead, it left Castle badly wounded and ultimately trapped within a never-ending state of fight or flight.
That bit of Castle’s backstory hasn’t been mentioned at all since the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil, but it’s something that bubbled to the surface over and over again during The Punisher’s first season, which ended with him avenging his family’s lives. Burying the people who murdered his family seemed as if it might have brought Castle some sense of lasting peace, but The Punisher season two resurfaces that thing inside him that keeps him trigger-happy and makes you wonder whether the Punisher is Frank’s “true” identity now.
Though Castle was able to take out most of the people who had a hand in his family’s deaths, his decision to spare Billy Russo’s (Ben Barnes) life reverberates throughout the new season as it sets out to tell a story about how the two men are both warped reflections of one another. While Billy, with several new facial scars, struggles to recover from amnesia following his last confrontation with the Punisher, Castle’s a ghost by his own choosing, floating through life under a fake name and trying to keep as low a profile as he can. But this season of The Punisher is built on the idea of Castle doing the more classical heroic thing rather than going with the sort of logic we’ve seen him rely upon in the past.
When a drunk at a bar gives a waitress a hard time, you bet your ass Castle gets involved—fighting the guy, going home with the waitress, and ultimately having an awkward conversation with her son in the morning over breakfast about whether Frank’s his new dad. This season wants you to understand that beneath the scowls, barks, and penchant for violence, Frank Castle is a Good Man™ because—in addition to upping the contrast between him and an increasingly Jigsaw-like Billy—it makes it easier for the show to sell you on the idea of Castle as a bona fide “superhero.” A superhero who takes some of the worst beatings in MCU history this season and somehow manages not to die or be injured all that bad even though he doesn’t have a special healing factor.
During Frank’s travels on the road, he crosses paths with Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham), a teenaged con artist on the run from gangsters trying to kill her. He doesn’t hesitate to take her under his wing and keep her safe from harm, though he’s none too pleased to be saddled with a ward. In Amy and Frank’s dynamic, The Punisher attempts to tap into something akin to what Marvel’s X-Men comics did with Jubilee and Wolverine in the early ‘90s. Though neither of them would admit it, Castle and Amy are a dynamic duo who bring out things in each another that make them stronger and keep them safe—but also, at times, bring up painful memories of their respective pasts.
As Castle and Amy’s fates become increasingly entangled, he introduces her to more people in his orbit, like the leader of the local veterans’ support group Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) and DHS agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). Similarly, Billy begins building out something like a chosen family of his own with the help of psychotherapist Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima), who’s helping him put back the fragmented pieces of his psyche to become whole again and restore his memories.
Much of Frank’s conflict with Billy felt deeply personal and intimate in The Punisher’s first season because the two men considered one another to be family. But all of the trust that comes with that sort of bond was shattered after Frank learned of Billy’s role in his family’s deaths. The second season, in a way, makes the smart decision of treating the pair almost as if they’ve been slightly rebooted within the context of the show. It isn’t that they don’t know each other, but rather that The Punisher is telling a story about a new chapter in their lives when Frank Castle and Billy Russo—having lost basically everything that ever meant anything to them—move forward by attempting to more wholly embrace their respective antiheroic and supervillain personae.
For Frank, this means giving himself over to the concept of the Punisher, a person who, though brutal in his methods, is presented as being a fundamentally good guy. Whereas, Billy slowly cultivates his Jigsaw identity by letting his inner demons and rage metastasize like a cancer and consume him. The Punisher and Jigsaw’s war against one another is the classic sort of hero/villain pairing you’d expect from a comic book show—and it definitely works on screen. But in making that conflict its most central focus, The Punisher’s second season loses its grip on some of the more nuanced critiques of the police, American military, its mistreatment of veterans, and American gun culture writ large.
Individually, both Bernthal and Barnes’ performances are arresting, and draw you into their scenes, but it’s when the two characters are playing off the idea of one another that you really see how much more complicated their relationship’s become this season. While Frank and Billy don’t spend all that much time together physically, they’re constantly thinking about and measuring themselves against one another to justify their actions and, at times, to understand themselves. Bernthal brings to the surface Frank’s still ever-simmering rage, but it’s cut through with uncertainty about Frank’s position in the world, and his relationships, which speaks to the fact that he’s a man largely unmoored from the rest of society. Existentially, Barnes’ Billy goes through many of the same arcs that Castle does, but his is a mercurial, chaotic energy reflective of just how much the villain’s life has fallen apart. When the two are separated, you can feel that need in them that makes them want to kill each other, but when they’re together, you can’t help but see how, in a different world, they’d need one another to survive.
The Punisher is attempting to subtly reinvent itself in ways that make sense for the show’s sophomore season. Try as he might to stay away from the life, Castle is a living, street-level lead character on an MCU series—which means he’s destined to forever meet innocent people on the run from the Russian mob and kick himself in the ass for caring. It’s the kind of role that all of Marvel’s heroes find themselves in, regardless of whether they want it or not, but the begrudging hero thing works for Frank surprisingly quickly and he settles into the role within the season’s first few episodes.
It’d be unfair to say that this season was “better” than the last or vice-versa because again, they’re just...different. It’s a move for the show that gives you the sense that, at one point in time, Netflix might have really had plans to see Frank even further transformed or made over into a more heroic character farther down the line. But with Marvel’s deal with Netflix in the state that it is, this season might be Frank’s last.
If that’s the case, The Punisher’s second season wouldn’t be the worst place for the series to end, as it’s a strong outing that’ll please fans, and does the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most violent antihero justice.
Netflix drops The Punisher on January 18.
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