The Punisher” Season 2 (January, Netflix) might be the most violent season of TV I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the budget listed fake blood and wound makeup as the biggest expense. Some episodes are bleak enough to affect my overall mood for the next day. Still, while the usual Netflix Marvel Cinematic Universe problem of slow pacing is present in the middle episodes, this is overall solid serial storytelling.
There are few other TV characters who are as fun to watch as the titular Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), whether he’s cutting through a swath of bad guys or answering his colleagues’ moralizing with mumbled statements about how he is who he is. Season 2 mushes two plotlines together, and the best features John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart, a droopy eyed character actor who displays similar low-key menace in “No Ordinary Family”), who ultimately emerges as the bad-guy answer to Frank.
The other thread is like a long “one last scare” from Season 1, as Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) – known as Jigsaw in the comics — is still alive, but lacking memories of what he did: namely, killing Frank’s family. The writing room led by Steve Lightfoot raises interesting questions about whether someone is responsible for actions if they don’t remember them, and then answers in the affirmative as Russo perhaps inevitably falls into his true nature again. I think the writers intended to get more of a creepiness factor out of his romance with the needy psychiatrist Krista, but actress Floriana Lima (“Supergirl”) plays Krista a little flat for my taste.
“Punisher” Season 2 runs through a lot of themes, including the overdone question of whether the hero is as much of a monster as the villain – something it doesn’t quite earn because the answer is so clearly “no.” There are also pontifications on military brotherhood – with Frank’s best friend Curtis (Jason R. Moore, always a compelling presence) returning – and the chilling possibility of disgruntled veterans banding together to use their skills to carve out a slice of power.
But what works especially well is Frank’s organically emerging relationship with teenager Amy (the appealing Giorgia Whigham, who will also star in “Scream” Season 3 if it ever gets released). A viewer can’t help but think this kid is out of place in this world, but it’s fascinating to see her becoming tougher while under the reluctant tutelage of Frank.
Here are my rankings of the 13 episodes of “The Punisher” Season 2:
1. “Roadhouse Blues” (episode 1, Lightfoot) – It’s odd that the premiere would be the best episode of a good TV season, but that’s the case here. Frank is fully in Western archetype mode as he rolls into a small Michigan town and aims to enjoy a few drinks in peace. For being a killer, Frank’s brief but tender romance with bartender Beth (“Man in the High Castle’s” Alexa Davalos) is cute, but the main reason he can’t leave yet is that a group of vicious killers are targeting a young woman calling herself Rachel (we’ll later learn her name is Amy). So we get the best bathroom fight since “Terminator 3” and a spectacular dance-floor scuffle wonderfully backed by “Me and Bobby McGee” over the speakers.
2. “Flustercluck” (9, Lightfoot and Ken Kristensen) – Frank brings his A-game, starting with cutting off a bad guys’ thumb in order to access his cellphone. He runs into six bounty hunters in an alley, and the lead hunter announces “There’s one of you and six –” He’s interrupted by six quick bullets from Frank’s gun. The hour also features a pivotal moment for Amy when she shoots a bounty hunter. The way she is shaken after killing a man for the first time feels genuine, and Frank’s comforting (by his standards) words are a nice summation of his character: “I don’t get killed. I’m the one who does the killing.”
3. “The Whirlwind” (13, Lightfoot) – It seems like several times this season, Frank returns to the junkyard trailer he’s using as a hideout to find Amy has run off, so it’s kind of absurd that Curtis has gone off to turn their hostage – the Senator – over to the police, thus spoiling Frank’s trade with Pilgrim for Amy. Other than that, this is an excellent finale. The literal junkyard brawl between Frank and Pilgrim is grimy, visceral and insanely violent, but it also cashes in on the undercurrent that has been brewing for a while: These two men aren’t all that different. While this season hasn’t given a lot of screen time to the Senator’s powerful parents (who have set this whole plot in motion), it’s nonetheless delicious when Amy and Frank confront them. A nicely staged scene finds the wife’s blood slowly running across the dining table toward her husband as he mulls the choice Frank has given him: He can kill himself or live in a world where his evil deeds have been revealed. The hug between Amy and Frank at the bus station is sweet, but lest we think “Punisher” has gone soft, it ends with an appropriate final image of Frank machine-gunning down a bunch of generic criminals.
4. “Trouble in the Water” (3, Kristensen) – The show delays revelations about “Rachel” but makes up for it with an outstanding mini-movie in the style of “Assault on Precinct 13,” except in a backwater town. The tension of Frank, Amy and the deputies being surrounded by Pilgrim’s men in the sheriff’s station is palpable, and it’s awesome when Frank sneaks into the woods and takes out the gunmen one by one. We learn here that Pilgrim is a devout religious man, something that makes him seem even more dangerous.
5. “Fight or Flight” (2, Lightfoot) – It’s a little frustrating that “Rachel” won’t tell Frank why the baddies are after her, but it’s a testament to how well Bernthal and Whigham play off each other that their scenes are compelling anyway. This episode is like the hotel-room portion of “The Terminator” spread into a bigger showdown. I love how Frank combines two rooms by smashing a hole in the closets, thus giving him a way to outsmart the assassins.
6. “My Brother’s Keeper” (8, Bruce Marshall Romans) – This episode has a lot on its plate, but it’s all compelling. The opening machine-gun shootout in the street would have “Heat” director Michael Mann saying “Damn!” Billy’s formation of a group of disgruntled ex-soldiers who aim to operate only for themselves and become “gods” is something I didn’t expect. Amy, Curtis and Agent Madani (Amber Rose Revah) make a fascinating trio as Frank’s allies. Although I don’t like NYPD officer Mahoney (Royce Johnson), who always gets in the way, I do like his summation of feds: “All you do is cover your asses and hide shit.” And one of the most beautiful scenes of the year finds Frank visiting his family’s gravesites at night as a storm brews.
7. “The Abyss” (11, Laura Jean Leal) – Although the stakes are high, the shenanigans in Frank’s hospital room are nonetheless entertaining as “Daredevil’s” Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), Madani and Amy converge for an impromptu planning session. Karen brings up the idea of a romance with Frank, and while her presence in this episode is definitely a plus, I don’t know if “Punisher” has earned such a romance (After all, where was Karen before this episode?). The only thing more delayed than Amy’s story this season is the explanation of Krista’s fear of her third-story apartment window, which she keeps curtained. It’s finally answered here, and it’s harrowing: As a kid, she survived the same fall wherein her dad committed suicide.
8. “One-Eyed Jacks” (5, Dario Scardapane) – When Frank takes out an entire cadre of Russian weightlifters at their gym – using bars and weights as weapons – it’s “Punisher’s” answer to the “Daredevil” Season 3 hospital hallway fight. If these guys are in a competition to see who can go to the most insane lengths to acquire a small piece of information, it’s a close call. In this episode, Frank and Amy (who has finally revealed her real name and the fact that she was part of a small-time con that made her a target) start to work as a team. And here’s a rare smile-worthy human moment for this grim series: Frank likes Giovanni’s Pizza.
9. “Collision Course” (12, Scardapane) – This is largely an exercise in setting up the pins for the finale. The Madani-versus-Krista scuffle is interesting in that it’s unusual for two women to fight in “Punisher,” although I suspect the writers were aiming to wring more “Columbo”-style tension out of Madani’s suspicions that Krista has been harboring Billy. It’s awesome to see Amy purposely going after Pilgrim by hiding in his car’s trunk.
10. “The Dark Hearts of Men” (10, Lightfoot and Angela LaManna) – I’m not crazy about the mini-thread of Billy making Frank think he killed innocent women in a shootout. For one thing, it would’ve been a horrible accident, which is different from intentional killing; for another, I suspected right away that Billy framed him. On the other hand, this is an outstanding Pilgrim episode. When he cuts through his enemies in a similar fashion to how Frank operates, I forgot for a moment that he is evil and I rooted for him. And there’s a nice Curtis moment too, as he tries his darnedest to not kill any of Billy’s followers, who are ex-soldiers like himself: “We’re the same!” he yells to the men shooting at him.
11. “Nakazat” (6, Christine Boylan) – If we look closely, we can see how the Netflix MCU shows are faithfully adapted from comic-book arcs, but some episodes hit you over the head with it. Overall, “Punisher” Season 2 seems straight-up adapted from an older comic, and it’s especially apparent here in this 1990s-seeming hour as Frank and Amy need a roll of film developed. So they go to an underground softcore porn photo lab. The photos are of a Senator’s gay relationship, something that powerful people are using for blackmail. On the plus side, Amy uses her skills in a mission with Frank, posing as a waitress then making a quick outfit switch to blend in with a group of students. I thought Amy would become a superhero with magician skills, but surprisingly, the comic character has no dual identity.
12. “Scar Tissue” (4, LaManna) – After the three excellent mini-movies to start the season, things slow down as we catch up with Russo, who wears a mask to cover the scars Frank delivered to him in the Season 1 finale. When he finally removes the mask after an hour of buildup, he really doesn’t look that bad. (That’s a trend this season. Although the makeup effects team gets a workout, no one ever looks quite as bad as they should after the vicious fights.) Since Billy genuinely can’t remember his bad acts, “Punisher” raises the interesting question of whether this is a “new Billy,” and if so, is he responsible for the old Billy’s actions?
13. “One Bad Day” (7, Felicia D. Henderson) – This is the season’s most clichéd hour, with Agent Madani at one point saying “If we do this, we’re no better than they are.” Granted, Frank’s torture of one of Billy’s men does go considerably into the gray area. The manager of a check-cashing place that gets held up by Billy’s gang adds some spice to a familiar sequence, as she would rather die than give in to the thieves’ demands.
“The Punisher” Season 2: