WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel's The Punisher Season 2, streaming now on Netflix.
Frank Castle deserves better than the finale of The Punisher's second season, and so do the viewers.
It can be convincingly argued the debut season told all of its protagonist's story we need, as Jon Bernthal's vigilante uncovered the truth about his family's murder, and exacted revenge against those responsible. There was even a case to be made for actually killing off the title character. But Netflix instead brought back The Punisher for another bloody crusade, a decision that's commercially justifiable, certainly, but more than a little shaky from a creative standpoint.
Oh, the second season starts out promising enough, with Frank as the archetypal drifter of so many Westerns, seeking some sort of peace but instead attracting trouble. Walking into a roadside bar outside of Detroit, he strikes up the beginning of something with bartender Beth (Alex Davalos); when he then hits it off with her precocious son, it seems as if he might have a chance at happiness. But this is The Punisher, and that's simply not in the cards.
When he comes to the aid of Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham), a smart-mouthed young con artist who, even after the murders of her friends, has little clue about the danger she's in, Frank is placed on a collision course with a relentless killer (John Pilgrim, played by a Josh Stewart) and the wealthy family that pulls his strings. That leads to one of the best episodes of the series, the Assault on Precinct 13-inspired "Trouble the Water." The chemistry shared between Bernthal and Whigham, and the excruciating tension of their characters' rapidly worsening predicament, make it easy to gloss over the problems with the premise: the chance meeting of Frank and Amy; the botched blackmail scheme involving honest-to-goodness film (in 2019!); and a family willing to murder untold scores of people to prevent anyone from learning their son, a U.S. senator with presidential aspirations, is gay.
However, it's with the determination to continue the dangling thread from the first season, Frank's decision to allow Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) to live following their climactic brawl on the carousel. With that choice, The Punisher commits itself to seeing their rivalry play out, again, with a physically scarred, and psychologically fractured, Billy returning to even the score. There are undoubtedly a few ways that could have unfolded in a satisfying way, although we're left to wonder why. Season 1 completed Billy arc, and he served a clear purpose, personalizing the betrayal Frank experienced; the man he once called "brother" played a hand in destroying his life.
But in the second season, Billy isn't part of Frank's story, at least not initially; he's the primary antagonist of Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), which might have been fine if the series were called Marvel's Agent Madani. It's only after Madani brings Frank (with Amy) back to New York City to find the newly escaped Billy that they come into conflict. Even then, Billy feels like little more than a distraction, an agent of chaos unleashed by his twisted therapist (Floriana Lima).
It's perhaps no coincidence that the season finale it titled "The Whirlwind," after a biblical reference made by the religious Pilgrim rather than anything having to do with Billy (although he, of course, also reaps the whirlwind). Madani discovers in the previous episode that Billy had been staying with his manipulative therapist Krista Dumont since his escape. A particularly brutal fight between the two women ends with Madani pushing Krista out a third-story window, seemingly to her death. An enraged Billy, in turn, attacks his former lover, who shoots him three times; they're left bloody and motionless on the floor of Krista's apartment. But -- surprise! -- all three somehow survive, although Billy is mortally wounded and in desperate search of medical attention, no matter how fruitless that may be.
Meanwhile, erroneously believing Pilgrim has taken Amy hostage in order to get back the photographs, Frank kidnaps Senator David Schultz to use as a bargaining chip. That's a solid plan, as far as federal crimes go, except that Pilgrim didn't have Amy (not then, at least; he grabs her shortly thereafter). And soon Frank finds himself without his own hostage, after Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) releases the senator. That triggers the face-off viewers have been waiting for since at least the season's third episode. Frank and Pilgrim are shadowy reflections of each other; each has a strict code. They recognize those similarities, and swiftly arrive at a mutual respect that leads Pilgrim to release Amy before he and Frank pummel each other. When Frank is about to deliver the finishing blow, Pilgrim asks that, when he hunts down and kills the Schultzes, the family behind this bloody swath cut across half of the country, he spares his two sons, who have been in their "care." They were well-treated hostages of the Schultz family, much like Pilgrim's ailing wife was before them.
That's perhaps the precise moment the finale goes skidding off the rails, compounding the earlier problems of the season. We know Frank isn't about to kill children, but he surely acknowledges that Pilgrim made his own choices. He may have been beholden to the Schultzes (Corbin Bernsen and Annette O'Toole) to pay for his wife's medical treatment, but once she died, he didn't need Frank to free his sons and return them, as he does. However, that's the least of the finale's problems.
Bleeding out, Billy calls Curtis for help, only for Frank to show up and, without a word, fire two bullets into his chest. There's an attempt at some sort of closure, with Billy muttering something about being glad it's Frank there when he dies, but here's the thing: Frank got his closure in the Season 1 finale. Despite the best efforts to rekindle that rivalry this season, it fizzles, never feeling like more than a retread of what happened before. What Frank does here is murder, even if we're unlikely to find anyone to mourn Billy's loss. Season 2 transformed Billy into Madani's antagonist, with some degree of success, only to deprive her of his death.
Unfortunately, however, the finale gets even worse in its closing moments. Following an emotional farewell between Frank and Amy, the action skips ahead three months, not to find Frank (or "Pete") trying to reunite with Beth, or wandering the country's back roads, but rather committing himself to a never-ending war in crime in the most hackneyed of ways: by tricking two rival gangs into a meeting, in a scene apparently lifted from an early-'80s action film ("Oh, you wanna dance?"), so he can mow them down.
Considering Netflix has already canceled three of its Marvel dramas, there's probably a good chance that the last we see of this version of The Punisher isn't Frank coming to terms with loss or the cost of violence, but instead Bernthal's vigilante bellowing as he opens fire with twin machine guns.
It's a striking image that will no doubt please longtime fans of the Marvel comics, but it's hardly a fitting end to the season or the series.
Streaming now on Netflix, The Punisher Season 2 stars Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle, Ben Barnes as Billy Russo, Amber Rose Revah as Dinah Madani, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Jason R. Moore as Curtis Hoyle, Josh Stewart as John Pilgrim, Floriana Lima as Krista Dumont and Giorgia Whigham as Amy Bendix.