Bernthal Shines, But ‘Punisher’ Stalls In Second Season

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Netflix/Marvel

The Punisher
Executive Produced by Steven Lightfoot
Starring Jon Bernthal, Ben Barnes, Jason R. Moore, and Josh Stewart
All episodes now streaming on Netflix
Reber’s Rating – C+

Oh Jon Bernthal and Ben Barnes, you both deserve so much better.

When the first season of The Punisher debuted on Netflix in November 2017, I was absolutely enamored with the amount of care given to the characters. The season spent time making the central characters feel realistic and relatable, intermixing brutality with humanity and creating a memorable 13-episode run that was some of Marvel Television’s finest. Bernthal was a tour de force as a tormented and unhinged Frank Castle. When Netflix greenlit a second season I was as happy as can be, my inner Punisher fan boy stoked to see more of Bernthal cracking skulls. But within the last year, Netflix and Disney have had an ugly divorce. Disney announced its own streaming service that would include all of its properties. Netflix, cheerless with the House Of Mouse and clashing over the direction of the Marvel television shows, began killing off their partnership slowly. Luke CageIron Fist, even the acclaimed Daredevil (a top-three show with Netflix viewers) got the axe. Only Jessica Jones and The Punisher are still in the mix.

Though, after binging the second season over the weekend, I’m hoping that Netflix renews The Punisher but only for the show to be better. In the follow-up to the wildly popular debut season, showrunner Steve Lightfoot tries too hard to appease audiences. The narrative is a mess that is both unexciting and disjointed, new characters are insubstantial and hackneyed, and the action sequences too sparsely drizzled throughout the season. If not for the likes of Bernthal and Barnes, as well as the returning Jason R. Moore and newcomer Giorgia Whigham, then The Punisher would not be worth a weekend watch. I know this latest season is unbalanced when I found myself stopping halfway through and streaming 2008’s Punisher: War Zone only to see how mentally unhinged the villainous Jigsaw should actually be. I kid you not.

Unlike the introductory season, seeing Frank tackle the forces responsible for his family’s brutal murder, season two of The Punisher feels overstuffed and scattershot. The season picks up one year later, Castle now out on the road and enjoying an early retirement. Thanks to Homeland Security wiping his record clean neither Frank Castle nor his pseudonym Pete Castiglione exist. Frank’s a free man who can come and go as he pleases. However, after saving a spunky teenager from being kidnapped, Frank finds himself tangling with a Christian fundamentalist tasked to killing them both over a secret the teenager is harboring. Of course, back in New York, a very much alive Billy Russo has escaped from custody, suffering from acute memory loss and trying to re-establish himself. Agent Madani, now in charge of DHS’ New York office, rushed Frank back to New York to handle Russo for good. Somehow the Russians get factored into the equation and a hoity-toity influential family and, before long, Frank’s action in action.

If that paragraph above confuses don’t worry, I spent too much of my time trying to connect the dots. There’s reasons why newer shows only run 13 episodes. That would be so the overall plot doesn’t lose focus and turn into a sizable train wreck. Unfortunately, this is a case where the second season tries to aim too high and is far too busy to come back down to reality. Personally, the story of Billy Russo should have remained in the first season and resumed for another time. We had a whole season of the struggle between Castle and Russo, we saw their hatred for each other by the end, and their chapter was closed. The Punisher does have a sizable roster of foes to tussle with – what, we need to stifle Ben Barnes with a drudging plot thread for a whole season? I get the idea of trying to go bigger and bolder, but how is retreading on Frank’s hatred for Russo really a step forward? Castle clearly moved on, he’s out on the road in the iconic battle van. Now there would have been a great story, Castle in the country.

What could have been a really villainous treat takes a back seat but what we do witness is a fiery passionate rage. Josh Stewart actually makes Ben Barnes look like a direct-to-video foe, his villainous turn one of the better Marvel/Netflix adversaries yet. John Pilgrim is an interesting creature, a radical Christian who is a dedicated father and loving husband to a wife who is terminally ill. His past is what intrigues the most, having spent time as an alt-right ultra nationalist who struck out in anger against anyone and everyone. The scars and sins of his previous life haunt him, they’re etched across his arms and chest, pale saddened eyes weary of a life that still terrify his dreams. Though Pilgrim doesn’t get as much time dedicated to fleshing out his character, Stewart is absolutely first-rate and spellbinding every chance he gets. I wish that the writer’s room opted to tell more of Pilgrim’s story, the faction that he leads, the followers that obey his orders.

Instead of a story about religious zealots and a politically-influential family, The Punisher dedicates way too much of its time on Billy Russo’s re-emergence. Ben Barnes made for one of the best television villains in ages but to wipe his mind completely clean feels like a cheap plot point to continue his story. The fact that Russo survived eating the carousel mirror in the season finale is a miracle on its own, but to survive with just a few scars is absolutely laughable. The Jigsaw persona here is only a reference in a passing sentence. The Jigsaw I know is a deranged sociopath who takes pleasure in carnage. This version of Jigsaw spends half the season hiding and whining about how his mind is like a unsolvable puzzle, leading petty heists with a rag-tag gang he assembles. The erosion in Billy’s character is ultimately frustrating, but Barnes makes best of the material given to him. Hell, only Ben Barnes could take this matter and give audiences a rousing performance. (At least Punisher: War Zone did manage to get one thing right. They gave us the Jigsaw we deserve.)

You see? Now *THAT* is Jigsaw. Courtesy Lionsgate/Marvel.

Billy Russo would probably be better off if he wasn’t shacked up with his therapist. You read that right. The one character that totally flattens the season’s subplot is the good doctor/psychiatrist Krista Dumont, portrayed by Floriana Lima. You know, a recurring character trait lately seems to be the two-faced character playing both sides. Doctor Dumont develops a bit of an unhinged edge thanks to her relationship with the struggling Billy Russo. From the start we’re painfully aware she’s a bit of a flake. Call it one-part Stockholm Syndrome, another part cookie-cutter villain’s gal, but Dumont is woefully overused in piecing Russo back together. She doesn’t want him in her apartment, then she lets him come and go as he pleases. They hook up, connecting because of their affinity for pain. In the long run The Punisher becomes overly reliant on her character serving as Billy’s squeeze and reason for splitting town. Russo’s story should have been about enacting revenge, not trying to stitch together his past. Lima’s acting has been better but here, she makes Sarah Paulson’s performance in Glass worthy of an Oscar nomination. Lesson learned for a third season I hope.

At least Bernthal hasn’t lost a step. At this point, with three seasons under his belt, Bernthal has officially usurped Thomas Jane as the true model of Frank Castle. There isn’t enough that can be said of the rage, pain, humanity, and barbarity of his afflicted loner. Castle did have many stories in the 80’s and 90’s that weren’t reliant about his thirst of wiping out the Mob. This time around, and one fact I’ll give Lightfoot apropos for, is that Castle has moved on. He’s laid his demons to rest, though his nightmares occasionally intrude his contentment. His need to spill blood is only required when backed into a corner. As much as Castle is on the ropes this season, the amount of actions sequences does seem to be less. To tip the scales, at least the sheer brutality of the fights is far more gruesome and detailed. I know that Bernthal has told the masses he’s made peace if the show is cancelled but let’s face it – we need more Punisher, and Bernthal’s the only man to take charge.

Netflix? Hey, if you’re reading, do us all a favor. Sure, this season lacks that Garth Ennis-inspired charm woven into the first season. I expected so much more out of The Punisher. The revelation the villain was an alt-right Christian fundamentalist? Can you imagine what kind of fun we could have had? Instead, season two is saddled by melodrama and anemic theatrics sprinkled with Bernthal’s dazzling return as Frank Castle. Though I fear Netflix will go ahead and cancel the show – and for the love of God, don’t you even think about it yet! – I really do hope we get at least one more season. Not only does Bernthal need a chance to do the character justice, but we the audience is owed one last hurrah too.