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The Punisher - Season 1 - Review

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In addition to the below, an episode-by-episode review, written as the season went along, is available to read here.

Doing The Punisher as a series was a risky proposition from Netflix and Marvel. Though his role in Daredevil’s second season was far and away the best aspect of it, there’s a big step between a handful of appearances in another character’s show and focusing an entire season around him, particularly given his anti-hero status and the general lack of superpowers Frank possesses.

What it did provide was an opportunity for Netflix to push this universe into even darker, more violent territory, a danger in and of itself with the possibility of descending too far down that avenue. Given the track record of Daredevil - in which someone impales himself on a spike in an early episode - and Jessica Jones - people being mind-controlled into killing themselves - that was a high bar to top.

In “Home”, the season’s penultimate hour, that was achieved. It was an hour so bloody that you wonder just how much money was spent on the red stuff to create some near-sickening sequences. Whether or not the violence was gratuitous is up for debate, even where calling it occasionally over-excessive could well be an understatement. Despite this, there was no stage where the numerous pools of blood didn’t ring true with the characterisation of Frank, both here and in Daredevil. He certainly isn’t a character for the squeamish.

As the first season progressed, it became evident that The Punisher, like its predecessors in this universe, was given too much time for not enough story. There was no better example of this than Lewis’ arc, which, having shown promise in early hours, quickly unravelled.

His was a story that made sense to tackle. In a show where most of the main characters were somehow involved in war in Afghanistan, dealing with the effects of PTSD and providing a commentary on how haunting it can be was smart. Yet in turning him into a terrorist, it became less a commentary than it did a statement, as though The Punisher knew it wanted to provide a view but was then unsure of what exactly to say; like when you’re writing an essay and give just one paragraph near the end to an important point.

It’s an understandable hesitancy, not least because the topic is such a sensitive one. Getting it wrong would be a huge failure. And although it would be harsh to say it got it wrong, it certainly didn’t get this right. Once O’Connor was killed, Lewis’ motivations became clouded and bizarre; learning that he was lying about his past and thus arguably talking nonsense with his anti-government rhetoric should have been enough to dissuade Lewis from doing something reckless, not push him to it. It’s especially sad because Daniel Webber, perhaps typecast after his Lee Harvey Oswald in Hulu’s 11/22/63 last year, was excellent, embodying the role and making him worthy of viewing, even when the story lacked.

Frustratingly, “Virtue of the Vicious”, the most inventive hour of the season, focused far too much on being clever and different and not nearly enough on the meat of the story. As a result, the conclusion to Lewis’ arc felt like a secondary objective, the show simply wanting to rid itself of him before the main events of the final three episodes.

In a similar vein, the gun control arguments that took place around the same time fell on deaf ears. The Punisher is a show that essentially worships guns with an almost orgasmic enthusiasm. It lives and breathes weaponry - the numerous shots of Frank’s wall of guns in his and Lieberman’s basement suggest as much - so it feels a touch out of place to debate the morality and legality surrounding them. The fact that the only character with any opposition, Senator Ori, appeared just twice suggests little commitment to having an actual debate and rather just addressing the existence of the issue rather than taking any particular stance on it.

What made the season work largely came down to the two leads in Frank and Lieberman. A few episodes into their partnership, it was as yet unclear whether their interactions - close to mirroring a buddy cop dynamic - were actually any good, but the longer the season went on, the more depth both showed and it was remarkable how quickly the two became legitimate friends for whom you could root, both individually and together. The two getting drunk together in episode eight (*) was probably the turning point for this.

(*) This being the same episode in which Frank kissed Sarah, a scene that provoked little more than perpetual dread in the lead-up but which was actually done in a deft enough manner to work. It didn’t destroy Pete and Sarah’s friendship, nor did it send David into a spiralling fit of rage. A rare occurrence.

Ebon Moss-Bacarach may not have the largest range - or, at least, wasn’t given the material to showcase said range - but in portraying Lieberman as the scared, geeky type, he was superb. In the same way that Daredevil introduced Frank, there was depth and emotion to Lieberman’s character from the word go. As one of the more grounded characters, it was easy to look to him as a significant portion of the show’s core. With Frank widowed, it was the Lieberman family who were the anchor, especially given how both worlds collided.

Some of the best scenes of the season came in that side of the show, particularly during the final three episodes in which David reunited with his family. The Punisher is a story of revenge, but it is also a story of reunion and, somehow, of happiness. It was near torturous - in a good way - to see Lieberman watch the rest of his family while unable to go near them; though we want little more than for that to happen, his near-miss reunion with Zach in episode eight gave off major alarm bells of stupidity, and suddenly him being there is the worst possible thing.

Right from his first Daredevil appearance, Jon Bernthal has been immense in this role. Humanising him back then was critical to giving this series any chance of succeeding, and things only picked up where they left off. Over the course of this season, we see that despite Frank being a psychopathic killer with little remorse, he does have a much softer side, as evidenced with Sarah, Karen, and in that aforementioned drinking scene with Lieberman.

Karen, in particular, is a big part of his life, and her underuse throughout - featuring in only four episodes, the last of which came in “Virtue” - felt like something of a slight missed opportunity. What her limited presence did do, however, was make her appearances seems even more valuable, and her scene with Bernthal in episode five, in which he reminisces about his son saying it’s on him to protect the family while Frank’s away, was pure gold. Both performers are able to express a layer of vulnerability that they don’t in much of the show, and it is that depth that makes Frank so compelling.

It helps, then, that so much of the season revolves around demons from his past. With Rawlins the big bad having formerly given Frank’s unit orders, and Frank’s now-former best friend Billy working alongside him, things become personal pretty quickly (*). There’s far more value in a storyline like this, especially with a character like this. It’s all well and good for him to take down a crime lord - he may be a serious criminal, but he largely sees right from wrong, even if cold-blooded murder doesn’t seem to fall into the latter category - but there isn’t a whole lot of interesting storytelling to extract from that. By the time the season ends, he’s open to attending Curtis’ support group and trying to solve his problems by talking rather than with a gun. It’s admirable growth, and although even before that happened, this was a very different Frank Castle to the one we met in Daredevil season two, seeing him make this turn was something of a surprise.

(*) The basis for the story, of course, is Frank trying to take down everyone involved in the murder of his family.

Rawlins had a surprisingly small role, at least in the present day; despite appearing in six episodes total, only five weren’t just flashbacks. What the season seemed to struggle with in regards to him was working out how he could sustain a presence in the present day without it simply being him attempting to kill Frank. Pursuing that as an arc gives Rawlins very limited scope, and essentially made the bulk of the season two men wanting to kill each other. That isn’t a bad thing, but did perhaps lend The Punisher to a slightly disjointed story.

Billy, on the other hand, was far more prominent and the nature of his character allowed for much more exploration. It was almost inevitable that he’d turn out to be dirty - not only was it too good a chance to pass up in terms of exploiting his relationship with Frank becoming untenable, but Ben Barnes may well have been even more typecast than Webber, with his expression radiating a permanent sense of menace. As it was, the reveal was not shocking but merely saddening; coming just a handful of scenes after they reunited, the realisation that Billy - who, despite Barnes’ performance, seemed like a nice enough guy - was involved provoked a sense of sympathy for Frank.

As is often the case with these things, Barnes’ performance, the character in general, and that side of the show all became much improved once the cat was out of the bag. It gave a necessary freedom. To that moment, there hadn’t been nearly enough focus on the bad guys and though that was not an issue, much longer without shifting tack could have been problematic. Instead, the knowledge that he was working against Frank and Madani - enhanced massively once he killed Sam in episode eight - made for a tense run.

His early background was almost enough to feel sorry for him when Rawlins agreed to throw him under the bus for all that had happened. The penultimate episode, consequently, was a curious one, because although there was a clear good-cop-bad-cop dynamic between the two villains in Frank’s torture, it seemed like Billy was somewhat remorseful over what was happening. That didn’t last, and the finale was a chaotic affair of him seeking to kill Frank, largely to survive himself. Of course, that failed, and he ended the season with potential brain damage and, presumably, horrendously gruesome scars from his face’s encounter with a mirror.

The finale was something of a mess with the final battle somewhat underwhelming. Its setting, at the carousel “where it all started”, was fitting and it says plenty about the trajectory of the season that it came down to this. And while it shouldn’t be surprising that The Punisher's love of guns meant the final encounter was largely a firefight in the form of a standoff, it ended up far more mundane than it should have been, given the emotional stakes involved.

In Madani, the show had something of a neutral character, even where she was willing to be lenient towards Frank, who is far from innocent in the grand scheme of things. Amber Rose Revah gave an impressive performance throughout, a crucial element given how long it took for her story to fit into the bigger picture. Despite knowing early on that Ahmad’s murder would be the connective tissue between her world and Frank’s, there was a real sluggishness in the show’s build-up to them truly interacting.

Not until she and Sam discovered the bug did the worlds truly blend - Frank may have saved her three episodes prior, but that was hardly conclusive proof of anything and only fuelled her desire to uncover the truth - and from there it was a rollercoaster ride of emotions, all of which Revah nailed. The episode after Sam’s death, in which she largely wallowed in the sadness of losing him, was a particular highlight, as was her attempt to intimidate Billy in the antepenultimate hour.

Perhaps the only quibble worthy of having with her arc? The near-criminal underuse of Shohreh Aghdashloo, whose three-episode cameo as her mother was far from enough for a woman of her talent. It was something of a recurring theme, too: Schulze deserved more material, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was largely wasted, while Tim Guinee had a real standout seventh episode but was given little else.

The Punisher, for all its faults, turned out a largely enjoyable first season. There were often pacing issues, and its attempted commentary on real-world problems often fell flatter than they should have. However, when it got the material working, it really worked, and the story of Frank Castle and those around him here was fascinating. There is a serious cast on display, and they certainly delivered when asked to.

How does a potential second season run? It was the personal betrayal aspect that made the contest between Frank and Billy/Rawlins work, so subsequent episodes would need to lean on similar ideas, at least in spirit. With some tightening and as interesting a story, season two could well be much stronger.

What did you think of The Punisher? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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