29 January 2019

REVIEW: The Punisher Season 2

The Punisher Season 2 on Netflix
Written by Steve Lightfoot
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Ben Barnes, Amber Rose Revah, Giorgia Whigham

This review contains minor spoilers

  • Official synopsis:
Former marine-turned-vigilante Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) has been living a quiet life on the road until he suddenly becomes embroiled in the attempted murder of a young girl (Giorgia Whigham). As he is drawn into the mystery surrounding her and those in pursuit of the information she holds, Castle attracts a new target on his back as new and old enemies force him to confront whether he should accept his destiny and embrace a life as “The Punisher.”

  • Brief summary:
The Punisher delivers a different but strong second season. Where season 1 focused on Frank's internal war, seeking revenge for his family's murder, season 2 is more external: for the 1st time, we see a relaxed, maybe even at peace, Frank Castle as he aimlessly drifts through the Midwest. Frank appears to be adjusting to a normal life again, going to bars, even falling under the charm of a barmaid. However, he is soon thrown back into violence when he crosses path with a young girl who is caught up in heaps of trouble. This time, we see Frank's violent vigilante justice aimed towards external forces (people who have done nothing to him personally), as he attempts to protect this girl, making him a target too, thus introducing us to The Pilgrim.

Meanwhile, we follow trauma-ridden Billy Russo's recovery process with his psychologist. Billy suffered memory loss and has no recollection of the previous season's events, only visions of a skull intertwined with the memory of pain. As Billy painstakingly tries to figure out who, and why, someone would do this to him, Dinah Madani continues to check in on him, convinced he is bluffing. Eventually, Billy escapes confinement and Madani asks the only person capable of dealing with him for help: Frank. This is where the two major plot lines meet.

The biggest changes in season 2 is the cast: only the major players from the first season such as Billy Russo, Dinah Madani, Curtis and Mahoney make the cut, along with a cameo by the one and only Karen Page. Three new characters are introduced: Amy, the girl who pulls Frank back into the 'war zone' ; John Pilgrim, a former neo-nazi now 'righteous' assassin whose goal is to find Amy ; and Krista Dumont, Billy Russo's psychologist who harbours secrets of her own. In some ways, this allows season 2 to detach itself from its previous season: these new characters are at the forefront of the first few episodes.

Season 2 shows us a new side to Frank: relaxed, even happy, as he travels through America. Jon Bernthal's ability to showcase not only pure rage and fury, but also charisma, allows him to carry the show effortlessly. Frank is undeniably likeable, despite the violence he is capable of doing. The bond he develops with Amy is the emotional anchor of the show: Amy is the age his daughter would now be if she were still alive and Frank is determined to get her out of the trouble she's in. This new duo brings some lightheartedness into the show, and brings out a side of Frank we had yet to see.

"[...] the show really benefits from that crucial combination of nuanced characterization and Bernthal's captivating performance. This season is careful never to paint Frank as either hero or villain. If anything, it's preoccupied with the narrow line separating a soldier like Frank from a craven mercenary like Billy. Bernthal brings a wide range to the role, playing Frank as a roaring powerhouse of rage, a grieving survivor, and various degrees in between those two extremes." - IGN

  • Billy & Dinah's unfinished business

Billy Russo's narrative begins with him lost and angry, confined to a hospital room with a mask over his face. He has no recollection of his role in Frank's family's murder, his relationship with Dinah Madani or the showdown with Frank at the carousel. He escapes confinement, eventually fleeing to his own psychologist Krista with whom he falls in love. Krista has secrets of her own, and the two form a questionable (and perhaps not particularly healthy) relationship. However, the show did take time to establish Krista, whilst also revealing snippets and traumas of her past. Thanks to Krista's knowledge as a psychologist, she is able to help Billy figure out how to break Frank.

Season 2 would have benefited Billy's story-line more if they had chosen to focus on his internal struggle and revelations a little longer: his attempts at putting the scattered pieces of his mind back together, him slowly realising the skull haunting his dreams belongs to The Punisher, and eventually a more emotional showdown upon discovering The Punisher is in fact his former brother in arms, Frank. There was a sub-plot which involved Billy recruiting former marines and criminals to steal money, which felt a little unfulfilling and ultimately didn't offer much to the season. We can only imagine how the season could have turned out differently had they embraced this memory-loss theme instead of this sub-plot.

More weight was given to Dinah and Billy's shared past. If anything, season 2 was more about Dinah getting her revenge on Billy than Frank and Billy. Dinah soon reveals to him that Frank was the person behind the skull and therefore his trauma and scars. Season 2 finishes with a sudden and violent showdown between the former lovers with Krista getting caught in the crossfire. Dinah's arc this season is solely focused on Billy: she needs closure and revenge after season 1's events but she remains one the shows strongest characters all the same. Dinah's decision to bring back Frank to New York indicates that she is willing to blur the lines in terms of law and justice, a sentiment echoed through her choice not to take her badge and gun when Mahoney offered.

Ben Barnes did a wonderful job this season, even if there were a lot of comments surrounding Billy's facial scars (and even with characters repeatedly saying how his face is ruined, Barnes is still undeniably handsome). Barnes showcased Billy's inner turmoil and mental scarring through his animated body language and voice work, which is more impressive considering he wears a mask for the first few episodes. And once again, despite his actions, in the final episodes we can't help but feel a twinge of pity towards him, which again exemplifies his talent.

  • The Pilgrim

Following the Marvel TV formula, we once again have two 'villains' this season: Billy and The Pilgrim, portrayed by Josh Stewart. A religious man with a violent background, in many ways Pilgrim's story echoes Franks. He supposedly found redemption through religion, but is pulled back to his violent past because of Amy and is sent after her. According to Steve Lightfoot, he is inspired by the comic book character Mennonite. Pilgrim is scary in his brute violence and his unflinching facial expressions, his capacity for violence the same as Franks.

As far as coming up with a worthy opponent for The Punisher, Lightfoot remarked, “The idea was that, in some ways, they sent Frank after Frank. Pilgrim’s a bad dude but he shows a lot of faith and determination, only to realise he’s been manipulated by the people he’s given all of his loyalty too. In some ways, his narrative isn’t dissimilar to Frank’s story in Season 1. I like that sense of someone realising they put their faith in the wrong place and the wrong people and having to deal with that.” Tripwire Magazine

Season 2 ends with Frank sparring Pilgrim's life, upon learning he is doing what he must to protect his two children. This strikes a cord with Frank, and he decides to deal directly with the puppet master, who sadly remained quite an undeveloped character. If there's one thing all of the characters can agree on, it's that one must do what is necessary to protect their family.

  • A Satisfying End

Overall, The Punisher returns with a strong second season. There are a few under-developed sub-plots, but these are soon forgiven as the final episodes unfold in a rather violent, guns-blazing-fist-fight-bloody manner. All the characters (the exception being The Pilgrim's millionaire string puller) are well written with thought-out, satisfying arcs and backstories. Existing characters such as Mahoney and Curtis are embraced this season, having been given larger roles. Tyler Bates composed a truly great soundtrack and once again the cinematography and general production is worthy of recognition.

With Netflix cancelling Iron Fist & Luke Cage after 2 seasons (the former not so surprising) but then revealing that Daredevil has also been cancelled (despite being one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows on the platform), The Punisher's future is unknown, as is Jessica Jones (a 3rd season to be released this year). With Disney soon releasing a streaming platform of its own, we can only hope that there is a future for these shows, but if this is the last we see of Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle, we can rest knowing he did an exceptional job portraying this character - and that the show can end, like Daredevil, on a very high note.


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