The final four episodes of The Punisher attempt to wrap up the unnecessary hodgepodge of side stories.
Episode 10’s opening shot is the New York Bulletin’s headline declaring Frank Castle (John Bernthal) and the wannabe foolkiller, Lewis Wilson (Daniel Webber), to be “Homegrown” terrorists. The middle chunk of the series desperately tried to establish Lewis as the dark mirror to Frank. Filtered through the slimmest understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (basically, what other pop culture interpretations have already bungled), we watched Lewis go from traumatized vet to nail bombing psychopath. What makes the two killers different? The Punisher likes to get up close and personal with his murders. Bombs equal cowardice but Castle’s sniper rifle is honorable? There is a conversation to be had here, but the Netflix show just can’t figure it out. Instead, the Lewis Wilson storyline ultimately amounts to one giant distraction from the revenge plot driving the main narrative.
For the last moments of Lewis Wilson, we begin with as poetic a metaphor as the show can muster. Undercover as a member of Anvil’s private security, Lewis kills the occupant of a hotel room in an effort to infiltrate the suite of Senator Ori (Rick Holmes). He spots a pair of caged parakeets in the corner and attempts to free them from their prison. They refuse to exit. He pushes their cage against the open window, but they sit content on their perch. Lewis bangs on the side of the cage. The parakeets happily rest inside. Ah yes, that’s all of us in a nutshell. We’re doomed to enjoy the cage that has sprung up around us. Shall I applaud? Yeash.
I’m getting snarky with The Punisher. I apologize. My frustration with this series stems from my deep affection for the character. That’s how geek culture works. We love you until you hurt us. Frank Castle is a complicated comic book hero to adore. One, he’s not a hero. He’s a broken human being compelled to murder the bad men in the world because of the aching void similar villains bore in him when they took his family from this Earth. Since 1974, The Punisher has been slaughtering villains in increasingly grotesque ways. In those 43 years, the morality behind The Punisher has ranged from dark knight avenger (Carl Potts and Jim Lee’s Punisher: War Journal) to sociopathic serial killer (Garth Ennis’ MAX series).
I tend to gravitate towards the shattered Frank Castle. The maniac. We get hints of that tragedy in this series, but in pop culture terms, the hard focus on revenge simply lets Frank off the hook for his heinous actions. How is he different than Charlie Cox’s Daredevil? I’m all for Season One defining he’s ethos, but we spend far too much time away from Frank Castle for us to get any semblance of what this character should or even will be. When we get to the final lines of the show, it is more of a reset than the To Be Continued… that is essential to the propulsion of comic book characters.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. We still have Lewis to dispatch.
Told through flashbacks via interrogations conducted by Detective Mahoney (Royce Johnson), we see the hotel firefight from the points of view of Senator Ori, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), and Agent Madani (Amber Rose Revah). It’s a solid melee of violence that our primordial brains are never allowed to enjoy because of the halting narrative device. This episode acts as the sum problem for the entire series. Just as you attach yourself to one storyline you’re ripped away to a thread you never asked to be stitched.
Lewis Wilson ends his time on The Punisher trapped inside a walk-in freezer with a bomb strapped to his chest. Locking eyes through a tiny glass window, Frank encourages Lewis to pull the trigger, “You can do it.” BOOM! It’s a revolting summation of Frank’s fractured headspace, and it’s the closest that this Punisher gets to the Garth Ennis comic book version I so hate to love. As one-dimensional and frustrating as the PTSD portrayal is, maybe this should have been the A plot propelling Season One. The Punisher works best when the audience is confused as to who to root for. The moment you fist-pump after an explosion, you really should reflect on your blood lust.
With Lewis resting in pieces, The Punisher is finally allowed to get strapped for his royal rumble climax. Don’t bother to question why we were put through the sadsack Lewis Wilson saga, it was all filler designed to make us salivate for the necessary VS. match. That truckload of artillery stolen at the start of the series at long last gets unpacked so that Frank can go full-John Wick on his enemies. Jon Bernthal looks good in that skull Kevlar. I don’t know why we had to wait eleven hours to see it, especially since he was already decked out in costume by the end of Daredevil Season Two, but again, that’s the Netflix formula. Withhold the obvious fun, see how long we can hold our anticipatory breath.
Just when Micro’s (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) family learns that Pete the handyman is in actuality the most feared psychopath in New York City, Billy Russo’s henchman come to collect them for bait. The Punisher lures the Anvil goons to Micro’s basement HQ and the resulting shootout certainly achieves a level of action we’ve been denied so far in the series. Frank kicks it off by tossing the severed head of unlucky fellow number one of two dozen into the center of the room. Attached to the rolling noggin is a grenade that ignites the free-for-all combat. Foreheads get tapped, throats get cut, and limbs get severed. I’m here for Bernthal’s gorilla screams. The man is rage incarnate.
That should have been the climax, but we somehow have two hours left. We still need to wrap up Agent Madani’s purpose. She gets Frank Castle on tape. He reveals the truth behind the assassination of that Afghani agent that started her journey, and she takes a minute or two to rationalize this new truth. There’s a hostage exchange for the Micro clan, and Frank is captured by Agent Orange. We’re treated to a gross mixture of sexuality and torture as Frank fantasizes about making love to his wife as Orange pummels him with his fists. Russo mystifyingly aids in Frank’s escape from Orange, and the (hopefully) last man responsible for the destruction of the Castle family is transformed into fleshy pulp.
Episode 13 concludes Season One with a Mortal Kombat face-off between Frank Castle and Billy Russo. We get flashbacks to happier times when Uncle Billy fostered some love for the Castle children. He’s a real swell fella who loved cotton candy, Billy the Kid mythology, and Merry-go-rounds. Naturally, that’s the stage for their final (?) confrontation. Shots are exchanged, but honor dictates a stabby knife fight. The Punisher naturally gets the upper hand, shatters the Merry-go-round’s central mirror with Billy’s head, and drags the right side of his face across the glass. Frank resists slashing his throat for some reason, kicks his skull back into the mirror, and then repeatedly slams his mushy mug into the shards over and over and over again. The arch-nemesis Jigsaw is born. Kinda.
Is this The Punisher? Jon Bernthal looks and acts the part. He’s the only reason to press on. In the final scene when Frank rejoins the VA group session he states, “I never thought about what I was going to do next. When the war ends. Silence…how do you live in that…I’m scared.” That’s exactly where he was at the beginning of the season when he thought he had killed all the men who had done him wrong. Of course, there was one more bug under a rock to squash. And there still is. Billy Russo is alive. He will return, and the revenge will never end. But that obvious engine of motivation is not The Punisher I’m interested in following. It’s close, but no cigar.
This Netflix series was not at all interested in the source material. I get it. Most aren’t. If this version had come out in the 1990s, I would probably have a tremendous amount of nostalgia for it in the same manner that I do Dolph Lundgren’s direct-to-video delight. However, in this era of Avengers and Defenders, I want to see my four-color heroes on screen. I want a proud and confident adaptation. I don’t need characters labeled with familiar names to simply placate my fanboy whims. How is Frank Castle any different from the endless line of Schwarzenegger or Stallone action heroes we had decades back? You had thirteen hours to explore his psychology, and it was wasted on dead-ends and thinly drawn clichés.