Who is Frank Castle? First and foremost, The Punisher‘s antihero (embodied by Jon Bernthal) is a killing machine. The first season hammered that point home at an odd time (and perhaps, as the character’s cinematic history proves, there’s never a perfect time for this Marvel title to land onscreen). Beyond that, the Netflix series is challenged by what to do with Frank (or his other identity, Pete Castiglione) while attempting to move beyond the core vigilante function of the character. Further, it became increasingly apparent by the series’ first-season end that Frank was ultimately punishing himself, and when the feds officially directed him to pursue a new life, he can’t cope with a clean slate.
Then there’s one of the grey areas still explored by the series: Is Frank good, as he believes, or is he a bad guy? This dilemma causes the series’ writers to offshoot in several second-season directions. Instead of forming an intricately layered story, the end result is unfortunately clunky and full of enough filler to pad out 13 episodes — rather what could have been better streamlined as a Netflix movie in which frenemies Frank and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) settle their difference (and similarities), once and for all. With that said, the action aspect of the second season (including a bar brawl, a gym throwdown, and firefiiiiights) is actually well-choreographed and quite good. Hardcore fans should be pleased enough on that end, at least.
But let’s get real before continuing. Netflix is steadily canceling its Marvel shows, and The Punisher will likely soon go the way of Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. Before that happens, the streaming service messed up the minds of Frank and other core characters really good. Indeed, there’s a whole lot of trauma to be processed following Frank’s climactic carousel fight with Billy that also involved a gunshot to Agent Madani’s head. The series tried to follow this up while deciding that it might be neat to show Frank’s softer side. And beyond the introduction of Russo’s Jigsaw incarnation, there’s a poorly constructed new villain in the mix. All of this is meant (maybe?) to illustrate Frank’s complex nature, but mostly, the guy ends up confused. It’s sad, and in a season where Frank Castle starts throwing kettlebells at people, no one should be sad. Ever.
(Kettlebells not pictured here, you’ll have to trust me.)
This fight is easily the most satisfying scene of the season. I highly recommend seeking it out as a standalone moment, apart from these identity crises:
Identity Crisis #1: Can Frank be a softie? Right away, Jon Bernthal’s Frank meets his new sidekick, Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham, who is appropriately punchy and quickly racking up TV credits), a young woman with a mysterious past. She’s a character who originates in the comics as a teenager who helps Frank recuperate from injuries. The series transforms her into a sort-of surrogate daughter. And this works, for a few episodes. Frank is forced to really reckon with his feelings over his family being killed, and we see the beginnings of a heart-warming dynamic. He teaches her moves with a gun, and we get to hear The Punisher attempting teen speak, and it’s … a little humiliating but humorous. Inevitably, he grows restless and turns into Frank Castle again. He won’t invest the proper energy in her, and neither can the audience.
It’s not clear if Frank simply grows bored while behaving in a semi-civilized way — reinforcing his previous admission that he enjoyed Marine life more than a settled, domestic existence — or if it’s more about the writers growing impatient in a quest to halfway flesh-out a new villain. That’s John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), a right-wing Christian fundamentalist with a violent history and propensities. Pilgrim’s violent past is presumably meant to mirror Frank’s way of living that he can’t leave behind, along with whatever the writers are attempting to say about extremism at any end of the spectrum. It feels like political filler material, so I’ll leave it at that and move onto the real conflict.