WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel's The Punisher, specifically Episode 5 "Gunner," streaming now on Netflix.
Marvel's Netflix dramas swiftly became known for their hallway fight scenes, those continuous-shot action sequences celebrated as an achievement in both cinematography and choreography. However, there's another signature element of those series that doesn't receive such acclaim, and for good reason: the dreaded "road trip" episode, which on Luke Cage and Iron Fist appeared to serve little purpose other than to fill space in the season order. Marvel's The Punisher continues the road trip tradition, taking its title credit out of his familiar urban setting and into the wooded mountains of Kentucky, but this time the journey actually serves the story well.
The roots of the road trip trace back to Daredevil's Season 1 episode "Nelson v. Murdock," in which Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) tricks Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) into driving her Upstate, to the hospice-care facility where Wilson Fisk's mother secretly lives. In that case, the journey was a subplot involving secondary characters, but it had real consequence -- namely the death of Ben, murdered by Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) in retaliation for the visit to his mother.
But subsequent efforts, on first Luke Cage and then Iron First, integrate the road trip into the main storyline, involving the primary protagonists, but lack any similar sense of consequence, or even internal story logic.
In the ninth and 10th episodes of Luke Cage, Rosario Dawson's Claire Temple drives a wounded Luke (Mike Colter) to the Georgia home of Dr. Noah Burstein in hopes of removing shrapnel from one of Willis Stryker's Judas bullets and saving the hero's life. So far, so good. But then, after threatening Dr. Burstein not to try to replicate the experiment that made Luke bulletproof, and making off with what they believed to be the only copy of his data, they make an inexplicable detour to take in the view of Seagate Prison and then to visit what remains of the Savannah church where Luke's father was pastor. A boring blend of exposition and filler, most of the road trip could have -- should have -- been scrapped, except that, The Defenders aside, Marvel Television and Netflix are married to the 13-episode format. Without the meandering Georgia interlude, Luke Cage would have been left with a gaping hole at the end of its second act.
Worse still is Iron Fist's abrupt flight to Anzhou, China, purportedly in pursuit of the enigmatic antagonist Madame Gao, who, before Episode 8, seemed to be lurking behind every door in New York City. However, the true purpose of the trip appears to be padding and product placement for Hyundai, as the car rented by Danny Rand (Finn Jones), Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Claire is featured prominently in several shots. On the plus side, though, the episode delivers the most entertaining fight choreography of the season, courtesy of warehouse guard Zhou Chen (played by Lewis Tan).
But the fifth episode of The Punisher, "Gunner," is enough to make us forget about those mind-numbing Marvel road trips. Well, almost.
Determined to learn the identity of "Agent Orange," the CIA agent behind the bloody conspiracy that entangled them both, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) and Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) set out for the mountains of Kentucky to find Gunner Henderson, the U.S. soldier who secretly recorded the execution of an Afghanistan National Police officer who stumbled upon a heroin operation at the Kandahar military base. The trip helps to cement the relationship between Castle and Micro, who insists that he come along, if for no other reason than he can help with the long drive: "Get you there all, you know, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed." He can also make a mean hoagie, only not for Castle.
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The Kentucky visit also fully introduces Jeb Kreager as Gunner, a veteran so paranoid and withdrawn from society that he makes Castle seem well-adjusted by comparison. Of course, he has reason to be paranoid, as Castle's arrival is quickly followed by that of a death squad dispatched by Agent Orange (aka William Rawlins, played by Paul Schulze) to eliminate one of the last remaining witnesses to what happened in Kandahar. What follows is a tightly paced, tension-filled sequence that swings between First Blood and a first-person shooter game as a wounded Castle and a bow-wielding Gunner take on nine heavily armed soldiers as Rawlins watches on video streamed from helmet-mounted cameras.
Beyond the intense spectacle of brutal, close combat at Gunner's booby-trapped wooded compound, the sequence delivers real consequences with not only the death of Gunner and the discovery by Rawlins that Castle is still alive, but also in demonstrating Micro's value beyond tech guru and driver. He provides invaluable reconnaissance by swiftly dispatching a drone equipped with a camera, before seamlessly transitioning into the role of battlefield medic to save the life of a severely injured Castle. "Might be hope for you yet, spook," a barely conscious Castle grunts from the back of the van.
It proves to be a pivotal moment for The Punisher, for the Castle/Micro relationship and, just possibly, for the evolution of the road trip episode in Marvel's Netflix series.
Now streaming on Netflix, Marvel's The Punisher stars Jon Bernthal, Ben Barnes, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Amber Rose Revah, Deborah Ann Woll, Daniel Webber, Jason R. Moore, Paul Schulze, Jaime Ray Newman and Michael Nathanson.