Spoilers: 'The Punisher' Season 2 Couldn't Rewrite Its Own Politics
Spoilers for the full season — you’ve been warned!
Frank Castle is not a hero, and that’s what makes him such an interesting and sometimes frustrating character within the Marvel universe. He simply is what he is: a gun-toting vigilante who uses his Marine training (paid for on the taxpayer dime!) to target and execute criminals. A man who lost his family to unthinkable violence, and now operates outside the legal system he no longer trusts. A grey character who views the world in black and white. Or, if you prefer to look at it another way, he’s a serial killer — albeit one that may be saving innocent lives with every evildoer he takes out, even if he’s doing it out of vengeance rather than justice. And that’s the thing, really: Frank may not change, but the lens with which we view him does. It made sense that Frank was introduced as a villain, hellbent on killing Spider-Man, in the pages of Marvel comics, just like it made sense for him to show up shooting Matt Murdock in the head in season two of Netflix’s Daredevil. In the context of our spandex-suited heroes — who are also vigilantes — he’s the dark side of the “taking the law into your own hands” coin. But give him his own series, filled with gangsters, assassins, institutional corruption and government agents hamstrung by their own red tape, and he becomes that quintessential American myth: the Good Guy With A Gun, the only thing standing between you and the Bad Guys With Guns who are knocking at your door (or school).
Which is why I don’t envy the producers of Netflix’s The Punisher, trying to make a show about that character in today’s political climate. It was intriguing to hear that season 2 would be introducing a new villain inspired by The Mennonite, a fundamentalist Christian killer, because it seemed like the show might actually address the fact that the Punisher is a bit of a poster boy for the alt-right movement. And it does, sort of. The new season nods at Trump’s America, and Russia, and neo-Nazis, and explores what sets Frank’s unique brand of nutjobbery apart from everyone else’s. But in the end, it isn’t able to reconcile it all. Or maybe it doesn’t want to. Because if it were to fully acknowledge that violent extremists with their own axe to grind are wrong, then hell — there goes the show. Make no mistake, Frank is absolutely a violent extremist, and the real question is if we — the public, the audience, the American people — should condone that violence just because it happens to be working in our favor.
The season starts promisingly enough, with Frank stopping overnight in Michigan while on a road trip in his super-not-sketchy van. And it’s refreshing — not just because it’s rare for the Netflix/Marvel joints to vacate New York City (Danny Rand’s weird Asian tours notwithstanding), but because we’re given a glimpse at what Frank is like when he’s freed from the baggage that comes from his past. He doesn’t have a mission, or a destination. He doesn’t even have his own name! He’s got a fresh identity and a fresh start, and he even makes a love connection with a bartender! But soon enough he’s faced with a dilemma in the form of a crew of thugs targeting a teenage girl. Sure, he could call the cops (though as we learn later, they’re corrupt), but instead he, you know, kills everyone and saves the girl. Because at his core, that’s who he is: the guy who wades into danger fist-first. Unfortunately, he’s also the guy who gets in way over his head, because it turns out that the girl, Amy, is in possession of some dangerous photos. She and her crew of teenage hooligans were hired by some high-level Putin-adjacent Russians to get proof that a particular young Senator (and Presidential hopeful) is gay, in order to blackmail and control him. And that senator just happens to the be son of some super-conservative, super-rich Christians who are willing to do anything to ensure their boy winds up in the White House with his squeaky clean image intact. So they send out John Pilgrim (the sorta-Mennonite villain) to kill all the Russians and the teenagers, and then to track down Amy and Castle and get the pictures.
And that whole situation should be more than enough to keep Frank busy for a season, but NOPE! Cuz his old frenemy Billy Russo breaks out of the psych ward and is on the run. His face is plenty scarred from his carousel show-down with Frank last season, but it’s his brain that’s the real mess. He doesn’t remember what happened. All he knows is he’s haunted by a very specific skull in his dreams. He finds sanctuary with his overly-sympathetic therapist, Krista, who would be really good at her job if she wasn’t, you know, harboring and sleeping with a dangerous fugitive. Agent Madani immediately tracks Frank down and brings him back to NYC with Amy in tow, to help her find Billy. So now Frank is fighting a war on two fronts — and despite the misleading trailers for this season, John and Billy don’t join forces to take down Frank. The cases don’t ever really intersect at all. But they both offer very specific and illuminating challenges for Frank to face.
On the one hand you have John Pilgrim, who is a dangerous killer with his own warped moral compass. He is guided by his religion even as he breaks a pretty important Commandment. Like Frank, he uses his “code” to rationalize his actions — but where Frank views the world in terms of innocence and guilt, John evaluates his victims based on their sins (or pure necessity). And though he seems like a relentless murder machine at first, it turns out that his sick wife and sons are essentially being held hostage by those crazy rich Christians so he’ll do their dirty work. He’s actually a reformed white supremacist who had tried to get out of the criminal biz and turn to God, but his own religious community has dragged him back into it. And that’s why Frank ultimately takes mercy on John — for the sake of those sons. Despite all the evil John caused, Frank knows he would have done the same to save his own kids.
Because that’s the thing about personal codes: they’re never absolute. Find the right pressure point and anybody’ll cave.
Billy, on the other hand, represents the cost of vengeance. He essentially becomes the Frank of season 1: when he discovers that Frank is the one who nearly killed him he feels betrayed, since he can’t remember what he did to deserve it. He’s consumed by his own confusion, pain, and rage, but underneath it he’s still the same greedy, manipulative jerk he always was. He rounds up a crew of veterans and starts committing a series of robberies for cash. But rather than a gang, the group is more like a fraternity — a toxic brotherhood that Billy manages for his own ends. But Billy also represents the possibility of change. His affair with Krista is the one genuine thing he has in his life — the same way Frank felt about his family — and his desire to escape the country with her almost matches his desire to to get revenge on Frank. Or course, in the end neither Billy or Frank ever truly changes. They both can’t deny their nature for long.
And as for Frank? He views Billy as a mess he needs to clean up, and nothing more. For Madani and Curtis, Billy’s betrayal is still very present. But Frank processed his anger when he beat his former friend senseless and left him a shell of what he once was. Billy is obsessed with Frank, but that feeling isn’t mutual. Frank is much more invested in protecting Amy, who becomes a sort of surrogate daughter to him. Everything else is a distraction from that singular goal — which doesn’t mean Billy isn’t still a formidable obstacle. He even frames Frank for murder, luring Frank into shooting up a warehouse and staging the dead bodies of three women there, to make it look like Frank accidentally killed them in his spree.
[And this, like a few other plot points, was frustrating sloppy if I’m being honest. The cops find Frank standing dazed over the bodies, but there are like a dozen other dead gunmen in the building — men Frank killed, but who had beaten him senseless first. Everyone immediately believes Frank committed the crime, even though there’s plenty of reasons to run a ballistics test to confirm. But I digress.]
Because of Frank’s “code,” the thought that he might have killed innocent bystanders is a crushing blow. And he didn’t! But… he could have. He absolutely could have. And it’s not like he didn’t just slaughter a bunch of other people he deemed deserving of it. So sure, when Karen Page shows up to help Madani prove Frank is innocent of these three particular deaths, the whole matter is swept under the rug for all involved. Which is weird, because this is just the kind of thing that people like Krista and Detective Mahoney keep trying to call out. Madani has a long conversation with Krista about Billy and Frank and what makes them different, while Mahoney continues to try and impress upon Madani the danger Frank represents. And in both cases, Madani defends Frank precisely because of his code. And sure, he has one, but so do the villains. Billy’s moral compass points squarely at himself. John is doing this for his family, and for God. All three men actually have more in common with each other than they do with people like Madani and Curtis, for one simple reason: they’re still soldiers. They can commit violence and live with the consequences, because they hold onto a surety of purpose. Frank even admits that he’s not just protecting himself from Amy’s pursuers but actively trying to draw them out — essentially hunting them — because striking first is a survival tactic. Sure, Frank would feel guilt over taking an innocent life, but he’s the one deciding who is innocent — even when that decision is made in a split second on the battlefield that is his life. What sets him apart, essentially, isn’t his actions or his code — it’s the extent to which you can trust his judgement. Basically: is he the guy who sees the world, who sees good and bad, the same way you do?
And for the record, saving Amy was also a snap judgement he made on the fly, and he almost immediately regretted it (he grew to love her, but she SUCKEDDDDDD at first). So even Frank isn’t always impressed with his own judgement.
Sure, Frank gets a lot of shit done by working outside of the law, but by having agents like Madani use him or cops like Mahoney condone him, it’s essentially saying that there are times when the system isn’t enough. There are times when the system itself needs men like Frank to do what it can’t, for the greater good. And it’s not like that is something unique to this season, or to any version of The Punisher. What is different this time around is that the show has hamfistedly injected politics into the proceedings — which makes that lesson feel all the more uncomfortable. It’s one thing to enjoy watching Jon Bernthal grunt and bleed and knock some skulls around (I do! I really do!), but it’s another thing to watch him do it in a world that is drawing a lot of inspiration from our own. A world where plenty of dudes with firepower believe their own judgement is all the reason they need to open fire on a bunch of people.
So what is Frank’s judgement, ultimately? He shows mercy on the Russian big wig who tried to tamper with our political system, but who also has a child waiting for him. And Frank helps John, a former neo-Nazi assassin, save his kids. Frank kidnaps and beats the senator, who genuinely was uninvolved in all the violence perpetrated on behalf of him — and Frank doesn’t let him go (Curtis does). But Frank does track down his parents and, after shooting the mom, offers the father the choice of committing suicide or having his reputation ruined by releasing proof that they’d hired killers to bury their son’s big gay secret. That one felt earned.
And then Frank finally puts two bullets into Billy, though Billy was already dying from wounds he’d gotten from Madani. That Frank did it while Billy was trying to apologize only underscored how over it all Frank truly was by that point. On the whole, Frank’s actions probably did protect some innocent people, but he is by no means a good man — it’s just that the world around him is worse. So Frank sends Amy away, and Karen, and chooses the path of violence rather than redemption. Madani resigns from the Department of Homeland Security, only to join an even more morally ambiguous organization: The CIA. And when she tries to recruit Frank, he turns her down. He’s already got a job as the one-man judge/jury/executioner to criminals on the street.
The season ends with a final scene of Frank, embracing his destiny as The Punisher, shooting a warehouse full of thugs. All of whom look hardly older than Amy. It’s framed like a final “F*ck yeah!” moment, leaving Frank on the familiar path fans have been waiting for (should the series inevitably get cancelled), but am I the only one who felt like it was more of a “F*ck you”? After all, Amy herself was a degenerate grifter and blackmailer who just happened to land on the right side of Frank on a good day.
Don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed this season. I always seem to walk away from The Punisher wondering if it might actually low-key be my favorite of the Marvel/Netflix shows. But it’s better when it doesn’t try to justify itself, or defend itself. Because though Frank’s personal code may be different from the alt-right’s, that isn’t what makes him their poster boy. It’s the fact that he’s willing to kill based on nothing more than his own opinion.
Header Image Source: Netflix
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