Jon Bernthal stepped up and owned the role of Frank Castle/The Punisher with an explosive and emotionally intense take on the Marvel Comics antihero in Daredevil Season Two. When it came time to put Frank Castle center stage in his own Marvel Netflix series, the result was the sort of brutal and unflinching exploration of the Punisher that Marvel fans always wanted. However, that gift came with a lot of extra wrapping, as an overabundance of side characters and subplots meant to flesh out the Punisher's world, ironically ended up distracting focus from the man himself.
But how does the character's second season fare?
Well, The Punisher Season Two is arriving at a dark time for the Marvel Netflix brand, as companion series Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders have all been cancelled. Fans expect that the remaining two series (Punisher and Jessica Jones) will also get axed after their respective new seasons, and in the case of Punisher, that end would ironically come when the character is finally fully locked, loaded, and ready to take his place in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The second season finds Frank Castle living out the terms of his deal with the government and Agent Dinah Madani after the first season; namely, giving up his Punisher ways and living under the radar as "Pete Castiglione," mild-mannered everyman. A stopover in a small town bar gives "Pete" an unexpected opportunity to settle down and perhaps rebuild a life for himself, but that fantasy quickly gets shot down (literally) when Frank's old instincts pick up on a young teenage girl named Amy (Giorgia Whigham) hiding out in town, trying to avoid some very unsavory and dangerous characters who are closing in on her. When the would-be assassins try to make their move, they find their young target has an unexpected benefactor -- one who proves even deadlier than they are.
The eruption of violence in the quiet community quickly brings law enforcement crashing down on Frank's head, and it's not long before he has to contact Agent Madani (Amber Rose Revah) for a helping hand. Needless to say, Madani isn't pleased about having to cross paths with The Punisher again; at least not until she suddenly has need of his services, and brings Frank back to NYC with Amy in tow.
While Frank, Madani and Curtis (Jason R. Moore) have all been exploring the possibilities of a new lives after being touched by Billy Russo's evil, Russo himself (Ben Barnes) has simply been trying to piece together his old one. We find Billy scarred and broken and unable to remember his past, nor why his dreams are haunted by a nightmarish living skull. After Billy's sympathetic shrink Dr. Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima) fails to settle him, Billy escapes custody and flees to the streets, giving Frank, Madani, and Curtis the chilling feeling of some unfinished business coming back to haunt them. The traumatized Madani wants Billy dead for using and nearly killing her. Both she and Curtis see Frank as the perfect blunt instrument for that job, and Frank is totally willing to oblige.
But while Frank, Madani, and Curtis are focused intently on Billy, what they don't know is that the ruthless and powerful people chasing Amy have dispatched a priest / hitman named John Pilgrim to NYC, on orders to kill Amy, The Punisher, and anyone in between. As it quickly becomes apparent, it's the methodical and ruthless Pilgrim who may be the greatest threat the Punisher has to face.
Can Frank fight, and win, a war on two fronts? Not without taking some hits along the way.
The Punisher Season Two is, without a doubt, Marvel Netflix's best sophomore season yet, narrowly edging out the deep crime drama of Luke Cage Season Two. Showrunner Steve Lightfoot clearly heard the fan reaction to the first season and made sure to preserve and develop what worked, while cutting away or streamlining what didn't.
An overstuffed cast and set of storylines put a drag on the first season, but season two reduces things to a key circle of returning characters (Frank, Madani, Russo, Curtis), while adding a careful selection of new characters (Amy, Dr. Dumont, John Pilgrim) who each add something vital to the two-pronged seasonal narrative. The best move is no doubt partnering The Punisher with Whigham's Amy, as the teenage girl is able to both challenge Frank on a parent/child level, and function as a street-smart partner who helps The Punisher achieve objectives that his are beyond his murderous scorched-earth approach. The other good addition is Pilgrim, who comes with a somewhat convoluted backstory, but adds a "boogeyman" presence that makes it thrilling and suspenseful whenever he is on screen.
Indeed, a more concentrated focus allows The Punisher Season Two to do more with less, and fans will surely appreciate the difference. The cast digs in and utilizes their increased screen time and larger arcs, with Bernthal, Revah, Barnes, and Lima all stepping up to the challenge of some deep character work. The theme of the season is "identity," and each of the main actors effectively convey it in their respective character's struggle to first maintain an illusion of self, and then suffer the hard hit of reality about who they really are. Bernthal's performance is especially nuanced and layered in this way, making his eventual full embrace of the Punisher mantle all the more fulfilling.
What Doesn't Work
There's a lot less sappy drama in The Punisher Season Two, but that doesn't mean it's completely gone. Deborah Ann Woll's Karen Page shows up for just a brief cameo, but is still very out of place in this series, especially after having such a great arc in Daredevil Season Three. Pilgrim is a frightening villain, but Billy Russo Jigsaw's arc is somewhat murkier, and his storyline with Dr. Dumont is probably the hardest sell in the entire season.
What Marvel fans may object to the most is the fact that The Punisher Season Two is ultimately still just a stage-setting origin story. Even after all the bloody events of Daredevil Season Two and Punisher Season One, we're still watching Frank Castle's emotional turmoil about something that should've long been settled. In the end, The Punisher inevitably is who he's always been: a savage vigilante who shoots up the bad guys. All the emotional turmoil about it starts to feel circular and redundant, which would probably be the biggest storytelling challenge that The Punisher Season Three would face -- if it were to actually happen.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Punisher Season Two is available on Netflix starting January 18th.