Since we first saw Frank Castle in Season 2 of Daredevil, Jon Bernthal’s Punisher has been a standout character across the shared universe of Marvel Studios’ film and television projects. While most other stories under their banner are bright, mixed with elements of fantasy, and star superpowered individuals, The Punisher has struck a stark contrast. Its star has no powers to speak of and is driven only by intense anger and a quest for vengeance. He slaughters unflinchingly, challenges other heroes belief systems when he occasionally comes across them, and generally makes for a riveting watch if only for how different this Marvel Studios story is from any other.
As most of the Marvel / Netflix TV series are cancelled one after the other (Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage are already off the table) it’s hard not to wonder if the second season of The Punisher is the last one we’re going to get. If that is the case, we’re lucky we got such a great end to the grittiest superhero show Marvel and Netflix have produced to date. Although not everything goes perfectly, the story told over the course of this thirteen-episode season reflects the nature of its titular character in a fascinating way, and holds nothing back when it comes to the action. Here’s what we decided are the things we liked, and the things we didn’t so much when it came to season two of The Punisher.
20 LIKED: IDENTITY THEME
When we last left him Frank Castle had successfully avenged his family, which leaves him (and the audience) wondering what’s next. What does a person driven by vengeance do after their vengeance has been achieved? Who is that person now?
That’s the question Season 2 asks time and time again. It’s a question asked not only of Frank Castle but also of the supporting characters. Agent Madani is torn between her hatred of Billy Russo and her desire to be, as Sergeant Mahoney puts it, ‘an honest cop.' Billy struggles while trying to regain his memories, trying to reconcile who he remembers being with who he apparently became. Pilgrim, the new antagonist, struggles with his past in a similar way. They force both Frank and the audience to consider whether or not he’s different from the people he’s trying to stop.
19 DIDN’T LIKE: OVER-ANALYSIS
While the analysis of Frank Castle’s identity is interesting and a great overall theme for the show, on at least one occasion it’s taken much too far.
We’re talking specifically about Episode 10, "The Dark Hearts of Men." This episode unfolds in a non-linear fashion and takes its theme exploration to an extreme, focusing mostly on the identities of Frank, Billy, and Pilgrim. Where it works is with Pilgrim. His identity is explored mostly visually as he gets dragged back into his past. Frank and Billy, on the other hand, are compared mostly through a conversation had by Dr. Dumont and Agent Madani. They say…too many things. We can’t help but think the writers decided the audience wasn’t smart enough to notice the similarities before, and so now we need two characters to tell us directly.
18 LIKED: STRONG MINOR CHARACTERS
One could argue The Punisher suffers from being too drawn out, a symptom of a thirteen episode season. There are certainly times when it feels the action has stalled (we’ll get to that later), but one very positive thing the show does with all this time is introduce some excellent minor characters.
There’s Beth, a bartender Frank meets in episode one who gives him a glimpse at redemption and a return to normal life. The small town cops working under Sheriff Hardin who get dragged into Frank and Amy’s fight with Pilgrim, Delia Robinson the labbie who looks up to Agent Madani and even the morgue assistant Karen Page has a, unique relationship with. Though these characters only pop in for a single episode, they all feel like real people and don’t fall into the trap of being there for the sake of exposition.
17 DIDN’T LIKE: THE MIDDLE
It seems after several seasons of various Marvel Studios / Netflix TV Series the major problem that plagues them all, even The Punisher, is still pacing.
With thirteen episodes in a season, it often feels like things slow down and lose focus somewhere in the middle, and this season of The Punisher is no exception. With two villains involved, there are also two plots going on. Pilgrim and Amy Bendix are introduced and developed in the first few episodes, but then take a back seat to the Jigsaw problem. Episode 7 is the slowest of the bunch, and feels mostly like a refocusing of the antagonists. Amy Bendix is trapped and bored in a camper for much too long while her subplot simmers on the back-burner.
16 LIKED: THE ACTION
If the first season of The Punisher was lacking in action scenes (some episodes saw Frank and Micro in their hideout a little too much, without Punisher coming out to drive up the body count), the second season definitely shows they’ve learned their lesson.
Unless we’re mistaken not a single episode goes by in Season 2 where Frank doesn’t end someone’s life. The gore in some of these scenes is excellent, serving as a poignant reminder both of Frank’s brutality and the stark difference between The Punisher and all other Marvel properties on television and film. The climactic fight scenes still feel significant amidst the more gratuitous ones because they mean something. When Frank and Pilgrim finally face off neither one has a hostage, and so neither has any reason to fight. They do anyways, because they’re both driven by anger and they both express themselves through violence. The action is fantastic, and paced well throughout the season.
15 DIDN’T LIKE: THE GOOFY FALL OF DR. DUMONT
The fall of Dr. Dumont is an interesting idea in this show. She starts out as a very sympathetic character and holds what is at first a noble belief that everyone is worth saving, including Billy Russo.
Her desire to help Billy becomes so obsessive it turns into a desire to redeem him at any cost, including the lives of other people. It’s punctuated by a literal fall that’s been foreshadowed all season long. To loosely quote Chekhov: if you show in the first chapter a character is afraid of heights, they better be thrown out a window in the second or third. The Punisher delivers on a great setup, but a goofy slow-motion shot made us laugh out loud, and the execution lost some of its punch.
14 LIKED: PILGRIM
This season’s new villain is an original! Played by an intimidating Josh Stewart, John Pilgrim is a mystery for the first few episodes and as things progress we get a look at a backstory not unlike Frank Castle’s.
Both men are driven by a kind of self loathing brought about by events in their past. For Frank it’s the demise of his family, for John it's what he did before he found a family. As Pilgrim comes apart at the seams trying to track down Amy and Frank, we get a glimpse of the person he used to be and his inner struggle with who he is (or at least thinks he is) now, a pious man. Though the villain suffers from having to take a backseat to Billy Russo, he’s a great new addition to the Punisher mythos.
13 DIDN’T LIKE: PEOPLE BEHIND PILGRIM
Although John Pilgrim by himself is mysterious enough to hold the audience’s attention initially, eventually the curtain has to be pulled back on his origins.
Unfortunately the mystery was the best part. When we learn the truth about the people behind Pilgrim, it’s a little disappointing. The plot vaguely follows some of the political stories of the day, implying corruption at the highest levels of government and a Russian villain’s desire to control a potential Presidential Candidate. Their manipulation of Pilgrim feels so obvious it’s surprising he doesn’t catch on sooner. When the villainous couple who pull the strings are on screen they stand out. There’s at least one riveting scene with Annette O’Toole (she meets Pilgrim face-to-face to bring him news of his wife’s death), and a great performance by Corbin Bernsen as her husband. We can’t help but wonder, would these have been better villains if they didn’t have to share with Jigsaw?
12 LIKED: BILLY RUSSO
At times it feels like this season of The Punisher is at its best when it's returning to its roots, and it does so a lot when it focuses on Billy Russo.
Maybe you liked Jigsaw’s makeup, maybe you didn’t. There are a lot of people who want to criticize the show for not going far enough with Billy’s scars, but the character’s arc more than makes up for it in our opinion. As a foil for Frank Castle, Billy struggles with amnesia after Frank put him in a coma at the end of last season. This is used to great effect. Russo remembers who he was before his accident, not who he became. So when The Punisher comes at him brandishing the iconic skull on his chest it’s Billy who feels betrayed. It’s a very effective device and it makes the fundamental question of Season 2 harder to answer; is there a difference between the Punisher and those he punishes?
11 DIDN’T LIKE: VALHALLA & JIGSAW’S ARMY
What Billy represents to Frank this season is powerful. He forces us to look at Frank more critically (though to be fair, Frank does this himself every time he turns someone’s face into a surrealist painting) while we ask ourselves whether or not he’s worthy of another chance.
Where Billy doesn’t work is in Valhalla, with his army of veterans. It’s not inconceivable that Russo could gather these men in the first place. They’re looking for purpose, he provides it. What doesn’t fit is how easily they let it go. Before he convinces them to take down Frank, Billy gives his men a speech about brotherhood, upholding it as sacred. Afterwards he tells them he’s leaving, and when they ask him where he tells them it doesn’t matter. What matters, he says, is who he’s going with. He’s just told the survivors of his crusade he’s forsaking their brotherhood for someone else, and they let him go with hardly a dirty look in his direction.
10 LIKED: AMY BENDIX
Amy Bendix was first introduced in Punisher Comics during the 1990s Punisher: Warzone as a very minor character. However in the Netflix show she’s been given a different backstory and a larger role to the point it’s fair to say she’s a different Amy Bendix in everything but name.
We like a lot about Amy (portrayed here by Giorgia Whigham). She’s intelligent, independent, brave and, maybe most importantly, doesn’t cow to Frank Castle. “You didn’t hesitat," she points out in Episode 2, right after he tries to blames her for dragging him back into violence. Amy’s quick to point out a lot of things Frank doesn’t like about himself, and as the pair find out about their each other’s pasts they form something resembling a father-daughter relationship. Amy Bendix, much like Karen Page in Season 1, brings out compassion in Frank Castle, a character ruled almost entirely by anger.
9 DIDN’T LIKE: MADANI VS. DUMONT
Played by Amber Rose Revah, Agent Dinah Madani returns in The Punisher Season 2. Her character arc follows her emotional recovery, or initial lack of recovery, after being betrayed and shot by Billy Russo last season.
She’s going through a lot to be sure, but as she proved in Season 1 and proves again here, she’s a tough, intelligent character. So why doesn’t she see through Dr. Dumont? In the first episode she tells the good Doctor Billy Russo was the best liar she’d ever seen, and she deals with liars professionally. Dr. Dumont surely isn’t as good a liar as Billy, but it takes Dinah a very long time to even begin to suspect their relationship. It’s a little bit frustrating, and that frustration gets amplified when Karen Page arrives in Episode 11 to fix the problem Madani has inadvertently caused by discussing Frank’s psyche with Dumont. Don’t get us wrong, we love Karen Page, and would love to see more of her. But when she’s used in Season 2, we can’t help but feel she’s doing a job Dinah should be doing.
8 LIKED: FRANK BREAKS HIS CODE
As the theme of identity persists over the season, the question is asked directly by Agent Madani and Dr. Dumont: what’s the difference between Frank Castle and Billy Russo? According to Madani it’s his code; Frank doesn’t kill innocent people, particularly not women or children.
Without spoiling things directly, late in the season Billy finds a way to force Frank to break it. It’s a great device, and it sees Frank spiral. Billy has found a way to make Castle believe what he does, that they’re the same. The plot builds to this moment over most of the season, and when it hits it hits hard (it being scored with a killer cover of "Fortunate Son" by Cat Power definitely helps). The only problem is what comes next.
7 DIDN’T LIKE: THE WALKBACK
As we said before, Frank breaking his code is one of the high points of the character’s arc this season. It’s an extremely effective way of breaking down the hero and pointing out how similar he is to his villains.
The problem is when the show turns around in the next episode and immediately walks it back. No! Frank didn’t kill those women, it was a setup. It’s a mistake for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of how easily it lets Frank off the hook. Here’s the thing: Frank is ruled by anger. We see him lose control even with the people he cares about (i.e. attacking Amy). Eventually a character who makes nearly all his decisions impulsively and based on that singular emotion needs to feel the consequences. It’s not hard to believe that one day Frank’s going to accidentally end a bystander. Perhaps the creators felt they’d made him irredeemable, but wasn’t that the point? Taking the audience to that extreme and then just copping out is a let down. We’ll give them this thought: it’s a lot of fun watching Karen Page, Amy Bendix and Dinah Madani team up to clear his name.
6 LIKED: REDEMPTION
As The Punisher Season 2 progresses the secondary theme that persists is redemption, and the question of whether or not any of the characters are worthy of it.
As with identity, it’s a theme amplified and shown not only through Frank Castle but those in his orbit. Frank glimpses redemption when he meets Beth and her son Rex, but he isn’t sure if he deserves this second shot at happiness. John Pilgrim believes he’s already been redeemed, and it's the supposed price of his redemption that drives him to hunting down Amy and Frank. Billy and Dr. Dumont reflect it the best, however. If Billy can’t remember the things he did to Frank, doesn’t he deserve a chance to be redeemed? Dr. Dumont certainly believes so.
5 DIDN’T LIKE: DR. DUMONT
Although she’s portrayed convincingly by Floriana Lima, Dr. Krista Dumont’s character doesn’t always make a lot of sense.
Her desire to help Billy Russo is noble, but when their relationship shifts into a perverse romance it’s difficult to tell why. Her backstory goes some way in explaining, and it’s decidedly worth the wait. Russo and Dumont together makes for an interesting dynamic; Floriana Lima and Ben Barnes have a strange kind of chemistry that sells their violent relationship. But it’s still very difficult to pin down Dr. Dumont’s motivation, particularly when she escalates things to the point of being indirectly responsible for three murders. At what point does her love for Billy grow so deep she becomes blind to what she’s done? But we’ll applaud Floriana Lima again for an excellent performance. The look of utter conviction in her eyes when she tells Madani Billy will come for her is both scary and heartbreaking.
4 LIKED: THE SOUNDTRACK
What’s better than the Punisher brutally taking down villains in a Detroit bar? When he does exactly that scored to Janis Joplin’s "Me and Bobby McGee."
There are at least half a dozen other instances of great licensed music (Billy Russo’s fate underscored by Alice in Chains’ "The Rooster" is another standout for elevating the emotion in his last few scenes), but even without those the original soundtrack by Tyler Bates highlights the action and drives tension to a new level in the scenes preceding. We recommend viewing this season with the volume way up!
3 DIDN’T LIKE: DUELLING ANTAGONISTS
Although we liked both antagonists and what they brought to the table separately, we didn’t like them being jammed together into one season.
We can understand why the show needs two antagonists and two different plots, many of the Marvel / Netflix shows have done the same in an effort to keep the momentum going over a 13-episode season. But with time split between them both, neither plot feels like it hits as hard as it could. Particularly the John Pilgrim storyline. It’s vaguely topical, but not enough time is given to it for any real depth to come out of the political angle. John Pilgrim is a great foil for Frank Castle. So is Billy Russo. They’re just different enough to stand on their own. But without being able to focus entirely on one or the other, the show suffers overall.
2 LIKED: THE EXCLUSION OF THE SNAP
One thing astute fans might notice in this season of The Punisher is the exclusion of the events of Avengers: Infinity War. While most other Marvel Studios properties come loaded with what can seem like every reference possible to their other properties, The Punisher avoids it.
This is a very positive thing. There aren’t any other stories in this universe, whether on the big screen or small, quite like The Punisher. The violence hits harder, the stakes are personal, and the tone is a lot darker. There’s a brief reference to Matt Murdock, and it’s in the form of Frank pointing out the stark contrast between them. If the characters of The Punisher were forced to deal with the emotional fallout of half of life in the universe being wiped out, it’d just detract from an already emotionally heavy plot. We’re glad The Punisher was given the freedom to stand on its own.
1 DISLIKED: FRANK CASTLE’S HEIGHT
In case Jon Bernthal ever reads this and comes looking to punish, we want to be very clear up front. Mr. Bernthal’s height isn’t a problem, it's trying to make us believe he's taller (please don't come looking for us).
In Episode 3 Frank and Amy are arrested and we’re treated to a classic mugshot sequence. When Frank lines up for his, he looks to be about 6’4. The thing about Jon Bernthal’s incredible performance as the Punisher is that he doesn’t need this. In our opinion, it’s unnecessary (it’s also trivial, so we aren’t really that upset). Bernthal, from the moment he debuted in Daredevil’s second season, has been the Punisher. It’s undeniable. He embodies the man’s rage and drive perfectly, and layers in subtle compassion when it’s called for. The way he talks, the way he moves, the way he fights with both skill and reckless abandon - you don’t need to tell us he’s 6’4 for us to believe he’s the most intimidating person on the planet.