Welcome back, Frank? More like, welcome back… me! It’s been a few weeks since I was able to write anything for Nerds on Earth since apparently my body decided (or, more likely, my poor diet and nonexistent exercise schedule over the holiday season dictated) that I need to wrestle with pancreatitis. Never fear, my three constant readers! I am on the road to recovery. And as much as I wish I could heal and brush off injury like Frank Castle does on Netflix, I haven’t quite mastered that art yet.
That’s right. Frank Castle is back! Punisher Season 2 dropped on January 18, 2019, and I spent the weekend doing as much of a marathon binge watching experience as my ailing body would allow, pacing it out to a manageable few episodes a day. I especially wanted to savor the moment since this very well may be it for Frank; at least for the time being. As our readers are keenly aware, Netflix has gone on a Punisher style killing spree cancelling Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage after the airings of their last seasons. It doesn’t take a high Intelligence score (nerdy cross referencing!) to see the writing on the wall for the two remain Marvel Netflix projects: Punisher and Jessica Jones. So where does that leave Frank?
In what may be the final season of Punisher, the presumed penultimate Marvel TV season on Netflix, viewers find Frank Castle finally giving in to the darkness and embracing his role as the Punisher. At the end of Season 1, Frank was left with a very large question mark hanging over his head. Would he finally be finished with his crusade? By having a Season 2, the producers signaled, like most fans of the comic already knew, that no, Frank wasn’t really finished with waxing perps and grunting his pain away.
So what did I think? Read on!
Major spoilers for Punisher Season 2 will follow. Please turn away and run like Frank never does if you want to remain unspoiled.
Strong Supporting Cast Wins the Day
Season 2, like the first, worked best when it leaned on its supporting cast. As the villain John Pilgrim says in the final episode, The Punisher really is “the whirlwind.” Frank’s motivations are clear and his mission is focused. The supporting characters are the ones left to bear the brunt of the consequences. Fortunately for Frank, his supporting cast is even better at highlighting the murky grey corners of Punisher’s world in Season 2.
Reprising their roles from Season 1 are Jason R. Moore as Curtis Hoyle, Amber Rose Revah as Special Agent Dinah Madani, and Royce Johnson as Detective Brett Mahoney. In many ways, each of the actors is featured in expanded roles for their characters. Curtis becomes Frank’s willing wingman for much of Season 2, a role we don’t often see anyone get to fulfill. Curtis may not like Frank’s methods, but we see him come to peace with his tactics, even if there is still disagreement between the two. Agent Madani is still struggling with her near death tussle with Billy Russo from Season 1. She spends much of Season 2 trying to balance her identity as a strong woman with power who feels powerless to the nightmares that haunt her.
In probably the biggest role expansion, Detective Mahoney comes into his own as perhaps the best supporting cast member throughout all of Marvel TV. With excellent turns in Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and The Punisher, Mahoney has become the go-to cop for dealing with these street level vigilantes New York has become infested in recent years. Mahoney does a great job playing the exasperated cop caught between Madani and Hoyle’s conspiracy to cover up Frank’s return and the whirlwind that is both Frank Castle and Jigsaw. Surprisingly, Mahoney comes out looking like a star in how own right. Perhaps it’s time to see a beefed up presence in the comic books for Mahoney.
There are also a couple of stellar guest appearances from the other Marvel shows. Everyone’s favorite two-bit lowlife Turk Barrett returns to give Castle a much needed introduction to some shady Russians. Turk has showed up in all the Marvel Netflix shows in some capacity. Much like the comics, his street-level charm works perfectly as an informant for the Marvel Netflix ecosystem. As a huge fan of the Daredevil comic book, it’s always nice to see Turk show up to add some much needed humor, albeit usually dark and never in favor of the character.
Once again, fans get to see Deborah Ann Wohl reprise her role as Karen Page from Daredevil as well, perhaps for the last time for the foreseeable future. Season 1 of The Punisher suggested heavily that perhaps Frank and Karen were more than just acquaintances, and Season 2’s brief appearance doesn’t do much to alter that perception. That’s right, Daredevil. Frank may have stolen your girl! Page shows up late in the season, and only for one episode. However, her appearance is an important one. She reminds Frank in his darkest hour that perhaps there is a better way out of this mess than going full-Punisher. Ultimately, Frank does not listen to her, but her appearance as a tempting guardian angel is a nice juxtaposition to the end of the previous season. Had she shown up earlier, perhaps Frank would have heeded her call. But by the time she arrives late in the season, Frank already knows what must be done.
New to this season is Giorgia Wingham’s Amy Bendix, a con artist who Frank saves in the first episode and ends up being dragged into Frank’s whirlwind of super violence. Throughout the season, Amy manages to give Frank a sense of purpose. She also uses the cunning she learned as a grifter to aid Castle in his nefarious war against Russo and John Pilgrim. In the first episode, she gives Frank the hilarious nickname “Rough Road.” She doesn’t know how right she is when she sarcastically calls him this, but she finds out soon enough. Amy adds both humor and heart to the proceedings.
Comic Book Connections
I felt like this second season, more so than the first, pulled some deep cuts from the comic book series to flesh out its cast of characters. Marvel TV made the right decision by sourcing a few of their characters from the comic books. It’s assumed that a television series based off a comic book would naturally lift a few ideas and characters from the source material, but Marvel TV pulled a few obscure ones out of the dust bin to fill everything out.
Talk about obscure? Let’s look at Amy Bendix first, who clocks in with all of four appearances in the Marvel Universe. The young scammer viewers meet in Season 2 is loosely based on a character of the same name from the famed 1990s story Suicide Run, which ran from Punisher 85-88, Punisher War Journal 61-64, and Punisher War Zone 23-25. I wrote about that epic storyline last summer and you can read more about it by clicking here. In that story, Amy, who has an undefined mental disability, helps help heal a wounded Punisher, who in turn helps her small town sheriff father defend the town by an onslaught of hired thugs. That should sound really familiar to Punisher Season Two viewers, as this little slice from Suicide Run is the premise to the third episode of Season 2, the excellent “Trouble the Water.” The Amy from Netflix is quite different from the one in the comic books, but it was cool to see Marvel borrow so heavily from Suicide Run.
Want more comic book obscurity? The one surprise from Season 2 comes in the form of its second villain, the religious extremist John Pilgrim, who is yet another obscure character from the Punisher comics. Pilgrim is based off a similar character from Jason Aaron’s Punisher Max series, The Mennonite, who has all of three appearance in the Marvel Universe. Like his Netflix companion, the Mennonite has an ailing wife with two sons who gets hired to take out Frank. That’s where the comparisons end. Unlike his Netflix version, the Mennonite eschews using guns and is ultimately killed by the Punisher. That’s right, in the Netflix series, he’s spared the indignity of having a safe land on his head! The Punisher doesn’t kill someone! It’s actually fitting, as Frank realizes that Pilgrim is being used by Anderson and Eliza Shultz to further their son’s political ambitions. The last episode features a rare moment of Frank allowing a villain to ride off into the sunset with his sons.
Of course everyone assumed or guessed that Billy Russo’s Jigsaw would be one of the villains of Season 2. Those prognosticators were not disappointed, but Jigsaw is physically much different than his comic book counterpart. Jigsaw has always been portrayed as having heavy scarring on his face. Viewers of Season 1 probably assumed much the same would be the case for Season 2… and yet, miraculously Russo walks away from his near-fatal encounter with Punisher with only a few scars to show for it. This is hardly the image of Jigsaw fans expected, but everything else about the character pretty much falls in line with fan expectations. He’s insane, broken, and trying to figure how he got into this state. Once he cracks the code that it was Frank who caused his memory, we get several episodes of cat and mouse as the two try their best to end the other. When that inevitable end does come, it’s muted in a way that fans probably didn’t expect.
What Didn’t Work as Well?
While I thought Punisher Season 2 was an entertaining season, there were a couple of issues that did not work well. Specifically, my two criticisms of the season are its fear of killing off important supporting characters and the relationship Billy Russo had with his therapist, Krista Dumont.
While Season 2 did have a strong cast of supporting characters for Frank, it once again showed a fear of really killing off any of those characters. Season 1 ended with both Russo and Madani surviving what should have been life ending injuries. In particular, Madani survives a shot to the head at the end of Season 1. Forgiving such endurance is not a biggie for a comic book show as this sort of stuff comes with the territory of the source material. Even Frank takes injuries and wounds on an episode by episode basis that would end a normal man in a heartbeat. Yet, in the next to last episode, we find Madani once again seemingly taken out by Russo, this time in a violent encounter that ends with Jigsaw apparently choking the agent to death. Within minutes of the next episode, we find out that Madani miraculously survived her encounter with Russo.
Madani isn’t the only one that survives the brutality of Punisher’s whirlwind. Both Mahoney, Curtis, and Pilgrim take massive beatings and encounters with deaths that quixotically do not lead to death. I have read enough Punisher comics over the years to know that’s not how any of this goes down. If Frank is the whirlwind that John Pilgrim suggest that he is, his friends and allies ought to have a higher body count. This is a matter of showing us rather than telling us that The Punisher is a whirlwind. As unforgiving and sudden as Frank is to deal with Russo in the head, it’s striking to see how pretty much everyone else gets a pass on finding the ultimate consequence of living in Punisher World.
On the second point, I never really bought the burgeoning relationship between Russo as his therapist Krista Dumont. Played by Floriana Lima, Dumont is portrayed as someone far afield from Stockholm syndrome. Even as her “damaged” past is revealed throughout the middle part of the season, her aiding and abetting of Russo never really makes much sense. Russo is shown to be violent, crazed, and unmanageable from word one in Season 2. Even if Dumont sees the best in everyone and wants to save the lost causes, it seems rather dumb that she would choose the Billy Russo hill to lead a charge on. Russo/Jigsaw is utterly irredeemable. To have a character immediately brush that aside seems even too unrealistic for a comic book show where plot armor can save you from falling out of a window or a massive beating from a Christian fundamentalist.
The Verdict (Judge, Jury, and Executioner… Punisher Style!)
The general beat on every single Marvel Netflix series has been that the second season is almost always worse than the first season (thank K’un-Lun for lowered expectations, right Iron Fist?). While I can’t say that the second season exceeds the first, I do feel like it at least stands shoulder to shoulder with it in a way that the other series have failed. Punisher Season 2 is a satisfying and entertaining season that is marred by the cloud of cancellation that hangs over its own head.
I personally liked Daredevil Season 2, but a huge part of that is the Punisher storyline the first half of the season deals with. Punisher is a divisive, violent character that can be off putting for some viewers. However, there’s no denying the attraction of vigilante violence dealing with the seedier sides of criminal society. If we’re being honest, it’s not just Daredevil that’s one bad day away from becoming Punisher. How many heroes who have a supposed code against killing criminal would really last in the gritty world Frank inhabits without going to his extreme? Not many. And Season 2 goes a long way with giving us a Frank that totally buys into his own dark destiny.
Season 2 ends with Punisher becoming the classic Punisher, trench coat and everything. We’re left with the image of someone who has found their own violent purpose, that there’s no coming back from something like this again. It’s a shame, really. We viewers may not get to see that potential ever really capitalized on if cancelation, like every other Marvel Netflix property, is truly just around the corner. Season 2 ends with a promise of Frank’s destiny being fulfilled. Gone are the shackles of the past. He’s free to be Punisher now. Too bad we may not get to see it go any further for the time being.
The Punisher Season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix. It stars Jon Bernthal, Ben Barnes, Jason R. Moore, Giorgia Whigham, Josh Stewart, Amber Rose Revah, and Royce Johnson.