One Batch, Two Batch, Penny and Dime
Back in 2016, when Jon Bernthal's version of the Punisher was introduced in the second season of Daredevil, comic book fans knew it was the Punisher they'd all been waiting for. Bernthal's hard-hitting, psychopathic take on the character with an unorthodox sense of justice and the unflinching brutality with which the Punisher gunned and tore down anyone he deemed worthy of being dead not only captured the essence of the character with which he has been portrayed in the comics, but the vulnerability and the grief underneath the facade of a killing machine gave this version of the Punisher a certain depth that the movie renditions seriously lack in. This was the Punisher we knew and deserved. So naturally, when Bernthal's Punisher was universally hailed by all as the best version of the character, Netflix announced a 13-episode spin-off show of his own, and called in Hannibal's Steve Lightfoot to serve as the showrunner.
Now I gotta be honest here. When I first came upon the prospect of the Punisher having his own show, I was a little skeptical. No doubt the Punisher had managed to shine in Daredevil's second season (especially in episode 4, "Penny and Dime," which was arguably the best episode of the season), but that was as a supporting character whose best parts included his interactions with the show's main cast, especially Charlie Cox's Daredevil. Even the hard-hitting monologue by Jon Bernthal at the end of episode 4 worked so well because of the differences in the virtues of justice held by him and Matt Murdock, and that was the moment when Murdock finally realised what made the Punisher pass judgement with such finality over his enemies. The Punisher is just a man who has been pushed over the edge by the death of his family, and his grief and the thirst for revenge is what drives him to pull the trigger every time he crosses paths with a foe or some random criminal.
But now that I've seen all 13 episodes of The Punisher, it's absolutely clear that not only Bernthal can carry his own show, but the show itself is one of the best Marvel-Netflix shows, at par with the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones and only loses the top spot to Daredevil Season 2, which is quite a different kind of beast altogether.
The first episode "3 AM" re-introduces us to Frank Castle and his killer antics, as we see him take down a couple of mobsters, by brutally running them over with a van, then strangling a member of the cartel in a cubicle, and finally executing the sole survivor of the Kitchen Irish through a precision rifle, from almost a mile out. In the process, the show let's us know through this opening montage that it isn't going to pull any punches, violence has always been a central part of the Punisher in the comics, and the show readily embraces Frank Castle's barbaric nature without any hesitation, and relishes in the nasty ways in which the Punisher so un-apologetically murders his enemies. But the first episode isn't about that. It's more about Frank Castle than the Punisher, and how he tries to adjust to civilian life once he believes that his mission for revenge has been accomplished and those responsible for the deaths of his wife and two kids are dead. He is broken man, haunted by the dead and is kept up at night by dreams of him being re-united with his wife, as he looks at her illuminated face and tender smile with a sense of affection and familiarity that Bernathal's performance makes absolutely believable, only to watch in horror as she is once again killed in front of him all over again. This is a man who blames himself most of all for losing his family, and his inner struggle not only makes us sympathize with the character, but also shows what makes him capable of committing the kind of violence he is infamous for. He has a fire burning inside of him and his guilt and regret keep him from abandoning the path of violence, as towards the end of the episode he viciously beats a bunch of small-time robbers to death with a hammer, to protect a young man from being killed in cold-blood, and then goes on a shooting spree against some high valued members of a criminal organisation.
The first episode does an amazing job of setting up the tone for the season to come and also introduces us to Amber Rose Revah's Dina Madani and Michael Nathanson's Sam Stein, both of whom are self-righteous, truth-seeking agents working at the department of Homeland Security. Madani is a character that somehow doesn't seem to fit in the world of the Punisher throughout the season, and even though Revah has done an excellent job to portray her, there are moments in the show when Madani's presence seriously hinders the pacing, and this continues till the end of the season, as her character is never truly fleshed out. Michael Nathanson on the other hand is completely wasted as Sam Stein, and his character has been reduced only to serve as comic-relief, whose only chance to shine onscreen comes in episode 8, when he is unpredictably murdered during one of their operations.
The show finds it's primary antagonist in Ben Barnes' Billy Russo, who is both charming and downright ruthless as an ex-marine military contractor. While the first six episodes try hard to paint Russo as one of few good people on the show, his ulterior motives are painfully obvious from the moment he steps on screen in episode 1, so the huge amount of time the show takes to set him up as a good guy is thoroughly wasted and thus the big reveal at the end of episode 6 that Russo is in fact, working with the bad guys, namely Paul Schulze's William Rawlins does not work and fails to pack a hard punch.
Still, the manner in which the show develops Russo's character is intriguing and successfully convinces us of his worldview, which makes him one of the most layered antagonists since Wilson Fisk from the first season of Daredevil. Russo's interactions with the central characters, namely Madani and Castle, prove to be a strong aspect of the show and are entirely fun to watch. His arc at the end of the season builds him up nicely to return as the Jigsaw (a primary antagonist of the Punisher in the comics) in the second season of the show, if it does happen.
Another delightful additon to the cast is that of Ebon Moss Bachrach, who plays the Punisher's sidekick David Lieberman in the show, and acts as Castle's sole voice of reason and morality and his shared screentime with Bernthal is quite dynamic and excitingly fresh. He also adds the much needed subtle bits of hilarity to the show and Bachrach's unique portrayal of the character makes him one of the best parts of the season.
Deborah Ann Woll's Karen Page also returns, and though she only has a limited part to play, her character successfully manages to bring out the emotional vulnerability within Frank Castle, exposing the softer side of the otherwise formidable vigilante.
The action sequences in the show are absolutely hard-hitting and do complete justice to the fierce nature of the Punisher, but it's in the quieter moments that the show truly manages to shine, the credit for which definitely goes to Steve Lightfoot's exceptional writing and his unique vision for the show's characters which is evident throughout the season. His painful attention to detail and the rigorous buildup of Castle's character not only gives new dimensions to a character which is thoroughly one-dimensioned in the source material, but also shows the comprehensive understanding he holds over the characters he chooses to write for.
The subtle manner in which Lightfoot manages to ground the show in reality and the depiction of PTSD and trauma through the eyes of the veterans who find themselves stuck at war even after returning home gives the show a unique approach, and proves that the show is not just about mindless violence and hidden agendas, but has something coherent to say about human temperament. The strong sense of loss spread throughout the season gives the show an emotional edge, and enables us to understand and connect with the characters we would have otherwise failed to identify with. In a show about a solo man shooting criminals and lowlives to death, it is surprising to see an actual debate on the implications of gun violence, and the soul-shattering manner in which the Punisher upholds his moral code of killing is something that the show primarily manages to get right without much tampering of the source material.
Still, the show has it's faults. The pacing especially gets slow during the middle of the season, which is something typical of all the Marvel-Netflix shows, though it doesn't completely hinder the show's ability to keep it's storyline going, as the slow-burn concept somehow manages to work in a show that is supposed to be quite mobile and eventful. But this results in the final bunch of episodes of the season being completely packed and busy with intersecting story arcs of multiple characters and tying up the loose ends. There are big moments in the show that fall flat and characters that could've developed to their complete potential, but such failed opportunities are fortunately a rarity.
As for the music, Tyler Bytes does his job well by providing the show with a gritty, country-tinged theme which enhances the dark and brooding atmosphere of the show, even if the music is not exactly memorable. But over the course of the season, it kinda does starts growing on you.
The season ends on quite a satisfying note, and the build-up of the whole season pays off refreshingly well, while also setting up storylines and villians that have the potential to be fully explored in the second season, if the show gets renewed by Netflix. Castle is done with being the Punisher and is finally able to open up to people and get in touch with his emotions of grief and fear. The monster rests beneath, for now.
The Punisher is a dark, gritty and electrifying entry to the already rich universe of the Netflix-Marvel shows and expands upon the psyche of a vigilante haunted by his past and is not afraid to cross the line in pursuit of justice. Jon Bernthal gives an Emmy-worthy performance as Frank Castle and the smart writing and bold choices make this one of the best TV shows to come out this year. Highly recommended.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 22, 2017:
I have not watched this show...yet. I typically love Marvel's shows. This one seems pretty violent, I can't watch gory violence. I may have to give it a go and find out for myself. Thanks for the head's up! :)