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The Punisher - Season 1 - Episode-by-Episode Reviews

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Netflix released the first season of The Punisher today, and below I’ve got some thoughts on each of the 13 episodes. These were written as things went along, which means you can read to wherever in the season you’ve seen without fear of future spoilers. A warning, though, that full spoilers are discussed in each episode’s write-up, so only read what you’ve seen. Each is broken up with a photo, so you can be precise with what you do and don’t see.

In addition to this, I’ll be doing an overall season review over the course of the weekend. Look for that on Monday.

Episode 1: “3 AM”

Frank’s role in Daredevil season two makes the first hour a much simpler affair in terms of world-setting than, say, the job Iron Fist had. There is an extent to which the series needs to establish Frank to those not steeped in the MCU, and whether or not it does that to full effectiveness is up for debate, but there’s probably enough of a backstory provided that this contingent of viewers can grasp the general idea and understand his killing towards the end. It’s very interesting to see how he lives - dishevelled, alone in a small apartment, dreaming each night of his wife, working swinging a sledgehammer on a construction site all the while masquerading as Pete Castiglione and not talking to anyone. The series begins - after a time jump following the opening titles - sometime after The Trial of the Century, and so his aversion to violence for much of the episode makes sense. It’s interesting, too, to see how little he seems to enjoy killing both the construction crew and the poker players as opposed to the satisfaction he gets from his killing spree in the prison hallway. Incidentally, that construction site scene says The Punisher will be just as, if not more, brutal and bloody than his Daredevil appearances - and that show itself.

Though “3 AM” reminds us of the character and already begins to fill in gaps his Daredevil appearances left, it does a good job of teasing other aspects. We’re quick to learn exactly how Dinah Madani will play into the series (*) and where her arc will likely cross paths with Frank’s; she’s got an interesting background too, and Shohreh Aghdashloo as a mother - a performer I’m always grateful to see. Things are progressing by the credits, Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Micro discovering Frank, and it’s clear there’s already a momentum to this series.

(*) Also worth noting: C. Thomas Howell’s Wolf is a slimy character, but one who is even more uncomfortable to watch given the last few weeks’ worth of news.

Episode 2: “Two Dead Men”

The Netflix model really does allow a show like this to take its time with fleshing out story, occasionally working to hinder it. (Bloodline, in particular, was guilty of this.) “Two Dead Men” does what it says on the tin, and centres mostly on the cat-and-mouse game between Frank and presumed dead David Lieberman, aka Micro. This narrowly focused approach so early in the season is actually pretty welcome, and it’s preferable to let the hour - and this does push an hour, at 56 minutes long - indulge in the dynamic. Lieberman is in the unique position of sharing Frank’s deceased status, but that’s about all he shares. His intellect is clear to see but that is clouded somewhat by his immense stupidity, not in making any wrong moves but in making the moves against Frank to begin with.

Granted, he did get what he wanted with Wolf being killed - a clever scene in which he never once had the upper hand, despite how it may have looked - but it is as yet unclear quite what Lieberman wants. The tables turned quickly and now he’s in trouble.

Couple of other things worth noting. Although Wolfe implies that he was involved in the Castle family murder, it seems unlikely that he’s the sole mastermind; he alludes to a collective group. Also in that conversation comes the revelation that he thought Lieberman got the tape from Frank. Karen returned, still packing her gun and wanting to help Frank. And Madani, now the ranking officer, made inroads with Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), Frank’s best friend in the Corps. Not a whole lot happening there but groundwork.

Episode 3: “Kandahar”

Perhaps Lieberman isn’t quite as stupid as he looks.

Again, this is a very self-contained episode, but it does wonders to shed light on Frank’s time in the Corps - more specifically, the time that helped lead up to his family’s death - and Lieberman’s presumed death. Paul Schulze’s unnamed character enters the fray and is immediately earmarked as someone who will cause Frank a lot of problems, even before he takes a punch to the face. The circumstances of Frank’s anger in that final Kandahar scene are interesting to note: torturing and killing Ahmad was no issue, and nor was taking out the other target - a mission failing after he saw it coming unleashes that pent-up fury. It speaks to his status as an anti-hero, confirming that there’s some semblance of good in him we should be rooting for. Then again, he did end the episode saying he would kill everyone involved, so your mileage may vary. The episode was clever in how it handled Frank’s capture of Lieberman, letting him gain the upper hand just as Frank had fallen into that routine he spoke so confidently about earlier in the hour. As a dynamic, Jon Bernthal and Moss-Bachrach seem to interact well, so them working as partners should be fun.

Meanwhile, Curtis and Billy meet and bond a little. It’s nice to see Billy using his success in this second life to help his comrades less fortunate by funding the support group, even if he feels too guilty to attend himself. Them sharing a drink at Frank’s headstone was similarly enjoyable, although it’s hard not to wonder if Curtis will soon let on that he’s alive. Lewis is in a bad way, too, not helped by O’Connor’s insistence that guns are the answer. It’s tough not to suspect he’ll have a larger role in matters as the season progresses.

Episode 4: “Resupply”

“Resupply” - the first of the season not to be written by series creator Steve Lightfoot - is largely a much calmer instalment than those before it. With Frank taking centre stage for much of the opening three, this shifts focus slightly and gives a wider-reaching look at The Punisher’s universe. Opening on Lewis digging his trench set the tone for that, with the struggling veteran eventually finding himself being rejected by Anvil. This story and perspective of former fighters finding it difficult upon returning home is clearly one the show wants to utilise; the only question is how much it can: a) devote screentime to it without detracting from Frank, and/or b) seamlessly integrate Lewis and Frank. For the moment, more time spent here isn’t a bad thing. Is the rejection going to make him snap? It sure seems like it.

The final sequence was an odd one, managing to simultaneously lack the intensity typically required but remaining enthralling nonetheless. It was perhaps a glimpse at the future status quo, with Frank the muscle coming in to steal the guns after Lieberman’s technical expertise blinding - or, rather, deafening - Homeland Security. Saving Madani gives Frank a redeeming quality, after very little evidence that he is little more than a thug to date in the series, but also allows the show to get two characters from very different worlds encountering one another. It’s been clear from the get-go that she would cross paths with him; knowing he’s alive finally gives her a purpose having spent much of the first four episodes in a meandering, somewhat detached story.

Episode 5: “Gunner”

So, Paul Schulze - Frank’s Agent Orange - is soon to be deputy director of the CIA.

“Gunner” - named after Gunner Henderson, the man in Frank’s unit who shot the video in which Ahmad was murdered - was a very predictable episode, at least in certain respects. Much of what happened to Frank was visible a mile off, and although the show managed to make it engaging enough that it can be overlooked, it’s frustrating all the same. You could see the plot points being ticked off the checklist one-by-one and, with them, the next one on the agenda.

What makes that so disappointing is that some of the pieces are beginning to fall into place. Or, at least, become clearer. Rawlins’ identity came at just about the right time and already we can see how much power he still wields and will continue to wield, even with the skeleton soon to be dug up. Frank and Lieberman are starting to work well together (*) and are making some sort of progress in uncovering this vast conspiracy; Rawlins even received a threat as his soldiers were taken down. Madani, now armed with the knowledge of Frank being alive, is pushing to find him off the books. In isolation, all of that is good progress, but it was undermined by how the hour played them.

(*) There’s almost a buddy cop feel to their dynamic at this stage, for better or worse - leaning slightly towards worse.

The highlight goes to Bernthal and Deborah Ann Woll, who shared an impressive scene by the waterfront in which both are nearly desperate for the other to see things their way. These two have created a fascinating rapport and they convey so much in that conversation. It’s clear that they care for each other - though descending down the rabbit hole of an actual romance is exactly the opposite of what the show needs - and the occasional check-in between them is much appreciated.

Episode 6: “The Judas Goat”

Early on in this hour, Curtis insists that he and his fellow soldiers are nothing more than Cassius, the goat he was given, forced to save, and that subsequently died in the early days of his time in the Corps. It’s an interesting viewpoint, essentially believing he and his brothers-in-arms are animals whose lives don’t matter. The events here, and in the series to date, would certainly seem to support that claim, and if nothing else, The Punisher is teetering on being a political commentary on the way veterans are treated after their service.

Which brings us to Billy Russo, the title’s “Judas Goat”: the traitorous member of the group of supposedly meaningless souls, working against the man he called his brother just hours before; Frank, in turn, had previously described Billy as his family. This isn’t a new or inventive concept, and the reveal here - shocking as it tries to be - does little to stun. The potential conflict from someone Frank holds so dear working against him is too great an opportunity to pass up (not to mention keeping him with as few friends as possible in this lone wolf fight against Rawlins), and this reveal gives the season something of a kick, tightening the screws and raising the stakes. Not to mention that Ben Barnes’ general demeanour thus far has been menacing incarnate.

It’s a bad time to be Frank Castle, and it’s a bad time to be Lewis Wilson, too. O’Connor, the gun-obsessed ex-veteran determined to take the fight to the government, wasn’t quite who he said he was, and ended up with a knife in the stomach when Lewis confronted him about it. Ridding himself of O’Connor is by far the best thing Lewis has done in these six episodes. Unfortunately for him, the methodology isn’t particularly useful.

Episode 7: “Crosshairs”

A show like The Punisher, knee-deep in guns and put together with a near drooling envy towards weaponry, needs some sort of morality or else the whole thing becomes a bunch of random people shooting at each other with nothing of substance to latch onto. In Frank’s desire to enact ‘an eye for an eye’ on Rawlins (*), it has something of one. But “Crosshairs” - or, at least, Frank and Lieberman’s side of it - is grounded in the struggle of needing not to kill fellow soldiers just for doing their job. It’s compelling, not least because by this stage we’re invested in seeing him succeed and knowing that people who get in his way usually end up in a grave; his background has been well documented and there is no part of him that exists without it.

(*) Though, if that were taken literally, Frank would be sporting a Nick Fury eyepatch come season’s end.

Things are helped now by Billy being involved. Where Frank didn’t want to kill anyone on that base - and Billy is surely included there, even if he knew the truth - his supposed best friend took a very different stance. It’s beginning to look like The Punisher is not a story of one man fighting a vast government conspiracy. Instead, it is one man against two: Rawlins, the man who took it all from Frank, and Billy, whom Frank trusted with his life. That is a far more interesting approach.

Lewis has a fight of his own, one that is simpler on the surface but far more complicated when it comes to winning. After years of being told what to do, there’s an aimlessness about him, not helped by his clear PTSD, and that’s led to the concern his father (Tim Guinee) expresses here. It’s a pretty inspirational moment when he tells his son to fight for himself, set with a backdrop of Muhammad Ali - the second reference to him in as many episodes - fighting George Foreman… and yet, a scene later, Lewis is making what looks like a bomb. There are still plenty of rounds left in that bout.

Over at Homeland, Madani finally realises that there’s a bug in her office, subsequently finding it. Dealing with the bug leaves her between a rock and a hard place: destroying it tells Rawlins she’s found it, and never talking about the Castle case in there would have the same impact. She does make one pretty tragic point, though, telling Sam: “This job is not compatible with family or friends.” That’s probably an accurate viewpoint, and only supports his claim that she and Frank are alike.

Episode 8: “Cold Steel”

Inevitability is a tricky thing. Television and film loves to trick/fool/shock/stun viewers, but there are times when events happen in a particular way because everything to date has suggested they will, and it would be cheap and a culmination of wasted time if those events didn’t happen. The two major moments in “Cold Steel” fall into that trap, and although calling it a trap may well be harsh, it feels oddly appropriate when both could not have been telegraphed more had they been written, all caps, on a giant flashing neon sign with bells ringing.

Those two moments, of course, were Sarah kissing Frank and Sam getting killed by Billy. In the case of the former, there was no outcome that wasn’t that one. The show spent far too much time with them together that it was surprising not that it happened, but that it took so long to happen. Lieberman’s reaction was unexpected, though, and the sequence of he and Frank drinking together was yet another example of how these unlikely allies have actually become friends, even if neither would probably admit it. What makes it even better is that the dynamic between Frank and Sarah didn’t immediately become cold and awkward, such that she enlists him to help Zach when she finds a knife in his bag. On this evidence, it’s difficult to believe Frank as a father, yet he simultaneously fits all of the right characteristics - assertive but caring, with a knack for how to have fun amidst legitimate concern.

Sam’s death was earmarked, probably going all the way back to the first hour in which he became Madani’s partner. Someone was going to need to die in the Homeland arc eventually to push it on, and it wasn’t going to be her. For it to happen by Billy’s hand - who, we learn here, has his mother in a care facility and visits her weekly to dose her with drugs - is even less surprising, because she ultimately needs a reason to turn against him and simply uncovering his face on the opposing side of the battlefield wouldn’t be quite enough. Between this and his Westworld role, Barnes plays evil well. That final scene is a touch haunting, but Madani will probably be even more haunted by it when she discovers the truth.

Episode 9: “Front Toward Enemy”

It took more time than might have been expected, but Frank being alive becoming public knowledge really changes the landscape of The Punisher as it heads into the final four hours. Yet at the same time, it does little to affect the way he conducts business - it’s difficult to believe that he will change from skulking around in the shadows wearing a hoodie; if anything, the news report makes it doubly important. But in the grand scheme of this world, it changes plenty. Rawlins has worked to kill Frank before it ever resurfaces that he’s alive, Madani has led a secret investigation into him after learning the truth herself - convenient timing for her, since Frank being alive in the public eye rather than just her word will salvage her career - and it’s a halfway step to Lieberman eventually returning to his family.

To that end, he and Madani finally meet, without Frank’s knowledge, and he gives her Rawlins. There’s no scenario where that, combined with the news report, doesn’t put a big red target on her back, but at least it gives her something further to investigate, even if said investigation will only increase the size of that target. This, after an episode in which she wallowed in her own grief and self-blame for Sam’s death, despite Billy’s attempts (*) to dissuade her from such feelings, brings a touch more optimism to the story.

(*) A little too on the nose with Madani’s comment about how he wasn’t there, no?

While the first few episodes hinted at Lewis becoming a prominent character, what happened here was neither the predictable trajectory nor the greatest narrative move. There’s a certain cheapness to a show like The Punisher trying to any sort of debate about guns and violence, even if it is at the same time perhaps best-placed to do so. “Front Toward Enemy” was far too preachy in that regard, and although it’s only natural for people to discuss these issues in the wake of tragedy, it felt wildly out of place here. Lewis’ stand against the establishment is not some deep-seated agenda or belief, but has been ingrained in him by O’Connor. That makes him slightly more intriguing than his mentor because his vulnerable mind has been manipulated, and so there’s salvation to be had.

Episode 10: “Virtue of the Vicious”

When it comes to new things, innovation is key. That’s no more apparent than in television, with each episode needing to differentiate itself not just from other shows but from other episodes within its own show. “Virtue of the Vicious” certainly achieves that, and manages to convey Lewis’ last hurrah in a way that keeps it lively.

Jumping around from time period to time period in the space of a single episode, focused like this, is a risky proposition, especially when trying to show two sides of a story. And although there are a couple of logical inconsistencies - Karen didn’t have her gun when she was interviewing Ori, so where did the one she had in her bag to shoot Lewis with come from? If it was her gun, why lie to Detective Mahoney about it not being hers? - ditching Senator Ori’s tale early was a smart move, especially given how complex the episode made putting together the timeline.

In amongst all of the chaos, both Madani and Frank learnt of Billy’s betrayal, the former making the connection that he was the fifth man who killed Sam. That couldn’t have dragged on much longer and now, at least, they both have another man to go after. Meanwhile, Madani ripping out the bug is a bold move. Rawlins is now an ear fewer and, perhaps, at a heightened rage. Though knowing what she knows puts her in a good position to do something, especially if Frank helps her, she only put herself in more danger by killing the bug.

Lewis being dead is probably for the best heading into the final three episodes. His arc wasn’t the most successful and he, in the larger scheme of things, wasn’t much more than an obstacle to slow Frank’s quest for blood.

Episode 11: “Danger Close”

“Danger Close” is an episode built around things happening. Where previous hours have been more than happy to meander, focused largely on one particular story in one particular moment, this one felt all-encompassing, as though for the first time The Punisher has truly taken a step back to gaze upon its world and move all of the chess pieces at once. In excess, that can become overstimulating; introducing it at this stage works well.

In particular, Lieberman’s reunion with his daughter, as well as the prior kidnapping of his wife and son, are highly effective. This relationship - and Frank’s relationship with all four - has been not only a common thread through much of this season, but an integral part of shaping his and Lieberman’s journey to now. The payoff of the reunion is much anticipated and felt, but Frank being roped back into working with him after his family is taken is believable, like there would be no second thought about it. The subsequent reappearance of the Punisher himself is immensely satisfying, too, though the sequence prior to his massacre in which he gears up for war is perhaps much better at showing his expertise than any firefight ever could.

Billy is in a bad situation now. Madani and Homeland are onto him, Frank wants to kill him, and Rawlins - his one remaining friend, if he can be called that - just sold him out as the scapegoat for all of the bloodshed. Madani’s line in their off-camera chat (“You killed Sam Stein, and when I can prove that, your life won't be worth the termination-of-parental-rights form your mother scribbled her signature on.”) was truly brutal viewing, even for someone like Billy. It’s harsh for Rawlins to throw him under the bus, but Billy should have known exactly what to expect when he joined Agent Orange, and it’s hard to imagine much sympathy for him across the board. As for Rawlins… framing Billy for all his crimes doesn’t solve the Frank Castle problem. And although the Punisher might not be coming just yet, Frank Castle’s testimony is.

Episode 12: “Home”

Perhaps the only issue that “Home” has is raising one question: How exactly does this season have 53 minutes left?

This was a violent hour, one that revelled in every drop of blood that fell from Frank’s mouth, every litre that poured from Rawlins’ neck. It was entirely the sort of thing a Punisher series provoked the thought of. Yet despite the focus on the violence, it rarely felt too gratuitous, even where calling over-excessive is arguably accurate. Instead, the attention, rightly, fell onto Frank and his hallucinations of Maria and his torture at the hands of the now-deceased Rawlins. For a big bad, Rawlins has had considerably less screentime than might be expected - Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk and Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave both had far more - especially in the presence of the title character. That may have positively impacted on the effectiveness of this episode, one moment the culmination of all that came before it.

To the show’s credit, it - along with Frank - is far more intelligent than could have been anticipated; it’s clear that there is an actual strategy and a plan laid out in terms of writing this season, at least in regards to this confrontation and its build-up. From the word go, things went just as the (anti-)heroes planned and Rawlins, smart as he believed himself to be, failed to see through it.

When Lieberman actually dies, he’s going to be really damn experienced at it, having been ‘shot and killed’ a second time here. Fake deaths aren’t easy to pull off, largely because of the target of the trickery generally blending into the audience, irrespective of how much it matters to the story. Playing sombre music in a slowed down sequence of his wife crying and screaming indicates his death was legitimate; doing nothing would give the game away instantly. Madani’s “Take him down” comment was just enough to prevent it being a total dud. But the reunion itself went exactly as it should have, and it was tough not to get a little misty-eyed when the four Liebermans hugged.

One episode remains, and there’s one more man to punish. Once Frank recovers, that is.

Episode 13: “Memento Mori”

That could have been better.

More specifically, the final 20 minutes could have been better.

It was probably fitting that a show this enamoured with guns should end in a mini firefight on the carousel where it all began, and yet there was a certain impersonality to the whole thing that left the battle incredibly underwhelming. Not to mention the appearance of Madani to be shot by Billy - right on cue, as obvious a piece of timing as anything The Punisher has done. The hand-to-hand work itself was neatly choreographed, and by-and-large pretty enjoyable. But at least some of its impact had been lessened by the standoff beforehand.

The ultimate resolution felt rushed, as though the episode was acutely aware of having spent nearly three-quarters of an hour building up to the epilogue. Frank’s free pass doesn’t sit right, even if it was the only possible way out for him and something Director James (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio) would do to shield the CIA. Madani surviving her gunshot to the head is complete nonsense. Lieberman returning to his house made for a nice touch, and Frank deciding to finally go to Curtis’ support group suggests a new, improved Frank - or, at least, a man trying to be better, which he is in such dire need of doing.

Earlier, the group’s initial disbanding, with Madani telling Frank all bets are off, him going after Billy, and Lieberman reuniting with his family in a safe house (and having some very quick, quiet sex) had been strong. But with so much time left to fill that was never going to be just it, and, save for Frank taking down Billy, things might have been largely better if that first section was towards the climax.

And where’s Karen? For someone who has played such a major role in Frank’s life since he met Matt Murdoch, and in the course of this season - even if she’s only scarcely appeared - it feels odd for her not to be a part of the finale. Last we saw her, she was defending Frank as not being a terrorist; surely, after that experience in the hotel, there needed to be some conclusion between the two?

Frank admitting his fear of not having a war to fight is a strong way to close out the season. It’s just a shame that the rest of the finale didn’t deliver just as much

What did you think of The Punisher's first season?

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