‘The Punisher’ Season 2 Review: Bullets for Brains

     January 11, 2019

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My, what a prickly subject The Punisher is. Every time the character is reborn, in comics or on screen, the conversation turns to the value, and limits, of violence in entertainment. The upcoming second season of Netflix’s Punisher series is bound to rekindle those discussions once again, especially in a time when mass shootings are an endless American terror and the debate over the boundaries and enforcement over the Second Amendment rages stronger than ever.

With the thorny conflicts of the real world set like a snare around it, the discourse surrounding properties like The Punisher grows pricklier in turn, and growing segments of the audience demand nuanced, thoughtful content. In its first season, The Punisher actively engaged in that hunger, defying expectations and delivering an ambitious, pensive superhero drama about trauma, service, and the lines of mortality, which often triumphed in the grey area between vigilante heroism and villainy. The second season is another beast entirely, almost detached from the raw emotional vulnerability of the first season, delivering instead a bloody, ass-kicking wild ride that’s more faithful to the tone of the comics (fans of the MAX run will likely be especially happy) than the tone of The Discourse, swapping meaningful commentary for the eternal sound of another chambered round.

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Image via Netflix

If the first season of The Punisher was a meditation on the cost of violence, The Punisher Season 2 is mostly about the violence itself — and oh, what mighty violence there is to behold. There’s no denying that the action scenes are some of the best you’ll see on TV this year or any other; remarkable feats of choreography, effects, shot composition, and performance all provide more kinetic thrills than most blockbuster film franchises. Fans who found last season too slow and focused on Frank’s internal war will be thrilled to see that this season is full-tilt punishing. Sometimes, the series’ set-pieces feel like a gallery: This is how Frank punishes in a bar. This is how he punishes in a gym. Each new setting unfolds creative opportunities for the choreographers to showcase what a beast Frank is.

And Frank is a beast. Jon Bernthal delivers another rousing performance as Frank Castle, even if the script gives him fewer notes to play along the way. Netflix’s seemingly kaput Marvel universe first introduced Frank in Daredevil Season 2, unleashing his rage and grief, fresh off the murder of his wife and children, in the form of one the series’ best antagonists, pitting Frank’s blood lust against Matt Murdock’s martyrdom and ironclad resistance to killing. In that capacity Frank made for the perfect foil, the essential “What if?” who was always demanding the answer to what happens when the law and good men fail. Is there room for a rogue man with a mission and a gun in civilized society? Daredevil didn’t exactly say no, but it certainly cast Frank in ambiguous light, and Bernthal played the highs and lows of the character for all they’re worth. From there, The Punisher launched into his own series, and Bernthal tore through every scene like he was an errant piece of shrapnel, ripping every moment apart with a searing portrait of unfiltered mess of aggression and remorse.

When we pick up with the bristly antihero in Season 2, he’s something else. A drifter, removed from the immediate tragedy of his loss (as he was often depicted in the character’s most beloved comic arcs) rolling through an all-American country bar in his blue jeans when trouble comes his way and he just can’t stay out of it. His internal war has grown ever more external, and likewise, the show puts an emphasis on escapist action over introspection to mixed results. The Punisher is no longer looking at Frank Castle and asking “why?” or “what for?”, it’s simply asking “how much?” and “what’s next?”

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Image via Netflix

If you’re a fan of rip-roaring action in the vein of exploitation (as I, admittedly, am), it would be easy enough to mostly forgive The Punisher‘s second season of its bloody indulgences offhand, were the B-stories not so slack. Whenever Frank is onscreen, the show is alight with Bernthal’s furious energy and a propulsive story befitting Frank’s pathology that just. Won’t. Stop. Kicking. Ass. Highlights include an early bar fight and police station siege that both showcase the thrilling heights the show is capable of with its well-constructed action. However, returning players like Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) and Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) are left in the mud, circling the drain of narratives that should have been tied up in the Season 1 finale.

There are also certain choices that make Season 2 feel pulpier than the first, and not just in the broad approach to the subject matter. Foremost among them is the decision to mask Billy in an intricately illustrated Dollar Store blank face for the first few episodes, which is never as creepy as the show thinks it is. When the mask is off, it’s even sillier. Folks ridicule and mock, telling Billy how he “ain’t so pretty,” but the thing is, even with the thin scars on his face, Barnes is still prettier than most people you’ve met in your life.

That element becomes less relevant as Billy’s transition to Jigsaw completes (the name is never properly used, only casually referenced), but what never goes away is the fact that his narrative just doesn’t quite work. He’s often still hung up on the mysteries of Season 1 — things the audience already learned and moved on from. At best, Billy’s narrative is redundant, at its worst, it’s downright boring because we know everything he doesn’t and his moments of revelation play like old hat. His dynamic with therapist Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima) is meant to carry a significant chunk of the season, but their under-cooked tête-à-têtes rarely hit the mark.

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Image via Netflix

The season’s other villain, the born-again Christian hitman John Pilgrim, plays slightly better, bolstered by a committed and engrossing performance from Josh Stewart. Neither villain matches the tragedy we experienced with Lewis Wilson (Daniel Webber), though. Stewart gives more to the character than the character gives to him, and though Pilgrim’s narrative becomes more relevant as the season progresses, particularly in the interesting but unfulfilled ways his arc overlaps with Frank’s; Pilgrim is more often than not shunted to the side in favor of Billy’s taxing story line. When he’s unleashed though, it’s something to behold, and Stewart defies playing the character how you’d expect at every turn.

What works best in the second season is the continuing arc for veteran counselor and Frank’s brother in arms, Curtis (Jason R. Moore), who really gets to shine this season, and the addition of Giorgia Whigham as a mysterious and manipulative teenage girl who falls under Frank’s (sometimes questionable) protection. Their interactions are the spark that keeps the season alight between the set-pieces, and Whigham’s performance, in particular, is a delight, easily putting her on the map as a performer to watch. The age that Frank’s daughter would have been, Whigham’s firecracker makes a perfect counterpart to take Frank on the next leg of his journey, and every moment they share counts as one of the season’s best (Frank is a lot of fun in effed-up dad mode.)

That all makes it extra unfortunate then that this season just doesn’t seem to respect female characters in the way Season 1 proved The Punisher is capable of. Whigham’s character is repeatedly (and weirdly, unnecessarily) sexualized throughout the season — though Frank would never think of her that way, the script certainly positions her as the subject of gross theoretical threats every so often. At the same time, female characters who were hyper-competent in the first season seem to lack their previous skill and acumen (in a particularly unpalatable instance, a familiar character’s demonstrated abilities are degraded to facilitate what amounts to a catfight), and new female characters are generally used as a props that propel the male characters on their journey… an unfortunate step back for a show that’s already shown us it can be better.

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Image via Netflix

That seems to be The Punisher’s overall course in Season 2; a regrettable step back from something that was once more; more thoughtful, more dramatic, more considerate, and more relevant. It’s more in other ways — more action-packed, more brutal, more plot-driven — but without a core emotional anchor to hook into, the whole feels less than the sum of its exciting parts. At a pivotal moment, it seems willing once again to engage with the tough questions surrounding Frank’s murderous punitive instincts but ultimately cowers, committing one of the most egregious acts of letting a character off the hook in recent memory. The Punisher Season 2 wants to have it both ways; wants you to take in the costs of what it means to be a ruthless man of vengeance, but also wants to let you off as easy as its characters, putting aside the heavy questions in favor of pure, energetic spectacle, just a bit too left of reality to be taken seriously.

The good news is that a backslide from great means the show is still pretty good, especially as escapist entertainment. I have no doubt I’ll watch it again, and enjoy it for what it is, even if I’ll always wonder what a more powerful second season might have looked like. Fans who wanted more classic Punisher will be thrilled to see Frank Castle fully pick up the mantle and embrace his ruthless nature this time around. And there’s a place for that in entertainment. Escapism, even hyper-violent escapism, is valid. There are no easy answers when it comes to what’s acceptable in the realm of violent cinema (why do we cheer John Wick and boo other gun-toting vigilantes?), and as far as that goes, The Punisher Season 2 is a lot of fun — really violent, excessive fun. Your mileage may vary. But there’s also no denying that this time around, The Punisher has swapped bullets for brains, leaning into easy entertainment over meaningful narrative.

Rating: ★★★

The Punisher Season 2 premieres Friday, January 18th on Netflix.

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