The knob on the proverbial stove of Marvel’s “The Punisher” on Netflix steadily rotates clockwise in Season 2, and the flame spreads throughout every frame like Frank Castle’s (Jon Bernthal) blind rage, growing to a crackling roar at times. But the simmer is a frustratingly slow burn— Steve Lightfoot‘s sophomoric television iteration of “The Punisher” takes several central plotline detours, which, for some viewers, maybe too unhurried.
Yet for every incongruous scene, or story arc that drag in the writers’ attempts at world building and character exploration, there are at least, exciting twists, explosive bursts of action, brutal violence, and wonderfully bedraggled fight scenes to make up for them, shot with a calculated riotousness by this season’s talented group of directors, that echo Castle’s pugnacious, reckless, street brawling fighting style.
Not everyone watches “The Punisher” to see Frank Castle’s twisted brand of justice carried out through fists, guns, and creative violence. Viewers cared about Castle in Season 1 because the show deftly explored the anti-hero’s broken psyche and resilient battle for redemption and peace of mind. Carnage will always come, but the human element is key. Where “The Punisher” Season 2 falters though is through jarring tonal contrasts and awkward adaptions of the villain Jigsaw (Billy Russo, aka Ben Barnes, whom they strenuously, but fail to, humanize) and a lame, half-hearted interpretation of The Mennonite (Josh Stewart).
Castle finds himself reluctantly looking after a scared, but lying and mysteriously-motivated, 16-year-old named Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham, Kat in “13 Reasons Why“), and, subsequently, becomes intermeshed in her illegal affairs, inevitably bringing the Punisher back into the public spotlight. John Pilgrim, a man of extreme violence before he turned to religion, (Stewart, an intimidating performance), wants something that Amy has, and will stop at nothing to get it.
The political reinterpretation of The Mennonite in Season 2 implies the character was formerly a white nationalist who returns to his murderous ways to do one last job for his former employer. However, the writer’s don’t leverage this, given that he is a “reformed” white nationalist struggling to stay on the path of redemption, and it all feels like a missed opportunity.
Meanwhile, FBI agent Madani (Amber Rose Revah) keeps a close eye on Russo, whose psychiatrist, Dr. Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima), has ulterior motives for him. In this arc of “The Punisher,” Jigsaw targets the vulnerable, going after veterans in Curtis’ (Jason R. Moore) support group to gather a group of militant hooligans, mobilize, and wage war against anyone and everyone.
At the heart of Season 2 lies the relationship between the young Amy and Castle which is something of father/daughter affair, albeit a gripping and bitter one. Representing the daughter that was taken from him, much like Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) in Season 1, these characters help him fill the painful void left by the murder of his family. Whigham’s sympathetic, star-making performance compliments Bernthal’s rugged, ragged edge one. Beyond the Hallmark-esque message that one can find love again after experiencing loss, this season further touches upon themes of redemption through Pilgrim’s 180-degree ideological shift, the mistreatment of American veterans by government neglect and societal shunning and more. There’s also a biting critique of flawed masculinity, and, of course, the resilience of humankind’s innate instinct to survive.
Tonally, “The Punisher” teeters too often shifting from buddy comedy, to romance, to psychological thriller, to action/adventure, with shocking acts of violence struggling to hold the amalgamation of the many genres together. Stylistically, Lightfoot and company take more risks than they did in the first season. There are some expertly crafted sequences and montages to the eclectic sounds of Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin and Cat Power delivering a breathtaking cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s politically-charged “Fortunate Son” (for those that still think “The Punisher” is pro-war, right-wing propaganda, or a celebration of violence, they must be watching a different show entirely).
Perhaps most refreshing and multifaceted, is the series’ exploration of Castle’s vulnerability. We have and continue to witness him flex his machismo countless times, but rarely have we seen the softer side of the character examined for such an extended amount of time.
Although Season 2 of “The Punisher” begins too sluggishly, and despite its distracting detours and tonal issues, it builds to a largely satisfying conclusion. The antagonists definitely hurt the show though. The inclusion of multiple villains in the MCU on Netflix has worked in the past (“Daredevil” Season 3, for example), but not only are these two characters too interesting to have their arcs cut in half, but their individual storylines also create an, at times, distractingly divided storyline. Ultimately, it’s not reason enough to deter viewers from watching the ‘Punisher,’ but truthfully, it might just be a show for Marvel TV diehards at this point — oh, to be a fly a wall on the of the Netflix metric bean counters to see just how many viewers get past the first half. [B]