Waiting on The Punisher’s endless echoing loneliness is a bit of a slog.
The middle chunk of Netflix’s The Punisher gets bogged down in the muck of predictable subplots. I’m here for Jon Bernthal. He seemed like the perfect match between actor and character. He’s the punched-out slab of beef from Rocky strapped with Rambo’s rage and arsenal. Anything that distracts from his mission, or slows him down to a B-Story in his own show is a crime and a waste of talent. Unfortunately, as we wander into the fifth hour, the series appears almost directionless. A simple kill-all-the-bastards-that-killed-my-family plot stretched into a thirteen-hour misguided exploration of PTSD. UGH. Are all Veterans ticking time bombs waiting to explode on our flabby society?
Frank Castle and his reluctant partner-in-revenge, Micro, continue their hunt for the shadow men responsible for the slaughter of Frank Castle’s family. Bernthal and Ebon Moss-Bachrach charm us with their bickering. Neither particularly likes each other, but they’ve come a long way from attempting to end each other’s lives. The subplot involving Frank’s casual visits to Micro’s past-life family diverts from the plot by attempting to win some sympathy for both players. We’re not watching this show for the adorable gorilla playing house routine. For The Punisher, I want empathy, but I don’t necessarily need sympathy.
You’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun? Well, after episode four, we now have Frank Castle’s Truckload of Artillery. Being a Netflix show however, we’re going to have to wait a while before it goes off. Flamethrowers, bazookas, miniguns, oh my. We want the ruckus. Please bring it.
The hunt for Agent Orange (Paul Schulze), the CIA spook who ran Operation Cerberus, first leads Frank to the backwoods compound of a former Marine pal. Gunner (Jeb Kreager) is your typical paranoid patriot covered in camouflage and crafty with booby traps. The Goonies act comes in handy when Orange sends a platoon of private security. Episode five is shot like an early entry in the Call of Duty series. Lots of shaky machine gun POV wobbling over a forest floor. You’ll want to come prepared with your Dramamine.
Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) goes running to Frank after she’s picked up and questioned by Agent Madani (Amber Rose Reyah). Woll is exceptional at siding our sympathy for this maniac we should fear rather than cheer. She’s doe-eyed for Frank, and her entire purpose on this series is to reveal the humanity beneath The Punisher persona, and maybe, unintentionally tease us at the dream/nightmare potential of Season Two.
As Frank attempts to convince Karen of the righteousness of his mission, she pleads with him, “Where does that end?” When all the responsible men are worm food can Frank Castle hang up the skull? Karen knows the future, “All I can see is the endless echoing of loneliness.” I can’t help but crave that ultimate maniac. That’s where the comic books have been living for the last forty-three years, but film, TV, and whatever Netflix is have always been more concerned with origins than what comes after.
Agent Madani continues to fumble with her investigation, and mystifyingly falls into the bed of Frank Castle’s war buddy, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). While she chases her own tail, Russo is gathering Homeland Security’s Punisher intel for his boss Orange. Madani becomes aware that some mysterious higher-up bugging her office, but she’s unable to outsmart the mole, and the planted operation to drag him into the light only results in the inevitable massacre of her fellow agents. When Madani attempts to soothe her pain in the arms of Russo, his (maybe) guilty conscious sputters, “Hey, sex is not going to make your problems go away.” Groan. Gross. Dumb.
The filler continues with Daniel Webber’s traumatized Lewis. As we saw in the first four episodes, Lewis is finding it impossible to integrate back into society after his experiences overseas. He’s alienated from his VA group sessions, an encounter with a wannabe Popeye Doyle NYC beat cop fuels his indignation, and by the midway point in the series, Lewis is building nail bombs while covered in another man’s blood. He sees The Punisher as an inspiration, and this dark mirror causes Frank to question his methods for about a minute or two. The difference between the two killers? Frank explains, “There is nothing in this world I hate as much as a bomb…God damn cowards. New York doesn’t forget. Whoever did this is in a world of shit.” We’ve got another target to take out.
While Madani and Lewis become the driving force of the middle section of The Punisher, Frank and Micro have been reduced to minor domestic disturbances. Micro’s wife seeks a man to guzzle wine alongside, his daughter is desperate for a handyman daddy, and his son is transforming into the schoolyard bully. Frank can fulfill all their needs under his good-guy Peter persona, but it’s gonna get awkward. Neither man deserves the white picket fence, and I’m waiting on Agent Orange to free our heroes (and us) from this drivel.
The highlight of the midway point happens when Frank and Micro infiltrate the military compound of Colonel Bennett (Andrew Polk). He was apparently the third man in charge of Operation Cerberus, and will hopefully name the right names to bring The Punisher to his ultimate enemy. Russo’s boys, of course, are lying in wait. Before the firefight though, we’re treated to a game of dominance. In what might be the closest we ever come to the Garth Ennis run on the comic book, Frank interrupts Bennett mid-submission, complete with ball gags and an ass whipping. The leather strapped dominator is on Russo’s payroll and announces The Punisher’s appearance. Frank’s ready for it though, drops a couple of smoke bombs into the room, and the foggy assault is easily the coolest moment of action in the series so far. Who doesn’t love red laser sites slicing through impenetrable mist? There’s one problem though. Nothing gained for The Punisher other than another dead witness. More filler!
At the conclusion of Episode 9, Frank Castle’s met face-to-face with Lewis. He managed to convince him not to explode their fellow marine friend, Curtis (Jason R. Moore), but only minutes before the NYPD show up on their doorstep. While Frank’s fleeing through the suburbs and getting his face plastered all across the news, Micro is finally meeting with Agent Madani in an effort to share information. Are all the pieces coming together? Um, why do we need so many pieces? Maybe even more so than any other Marvel Netflix series, The Punisher feels like a two-hour movie stretched into an absurd thirteen hours. With four hours left, I’m still on board with Jon Bernthal’s interpretation of the character, but I’m not interested in the show’s interpretation him. That’s a weird place to be.