Photo: The Punisher (Netflix)

It turns out showing is more effective than telling. “Kandahar” revisits a lot of the same backstory as the previous episode, but it does so in flashback form rather than having characters just sit around and talk about what happened. That’s a far stronger choice, not only because the flashbacks are more immediately visceral, but because they also allow the show to explore character in addition to doling out plot. It’s one thing to hear that Micro had to leave his family behind when he went on the run from the government. It’s another thing to actually see the loving relationship David Lieberman had with his wife and kids before all that happened. Those moments drive home the cost of his whistleblowing far more effectively than a dozen scenes of Ebon Moss-Bachrach staring teary-eyed at a video feed.

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This episode’s structure centers on Micro and Frank getting to know each other in the way two paranoid, presumed-dead vigilantes would—with plenty of crosses and double crosses. First Frank keeps Micro naked and tied to a chair in order to intimidate him into revealing his actual plan. Then Micro uses a Lost-like button pushing exercise to get the upper hand on Frank. But instead of torturing his torturer, Micro just does what he’s wanted to do from the beginning: have an actual conversation with Frank. Jon Bernthal and Ebon Moss-Bachrach have some nice, prickly chemistry together, and I particularly enjoyed both Frank’s astonishment that Micro didn’t kill him and Micro’s bemused frustration at how hard it is to get Frank to trust him.

See you in another life, brother.

If Frank and Micro’s tête-à-tête provides the structure of this episode, then Frank’s flashbacks to his time in Kandahar provide the heart. And once again the episode takes discussions from the previous episode—in this case Billy’s assertion that the system let Frank down so he did what he was trained to do—and shows it to us rather than just telling us about it. The Punisher certainly isn’t crafting a subtle story about the horrors of war. But as someone who’s always preferred heightened storytelling to grounded realism, I don’t think that lack of subtlety harms the power of this parable about the ways in which soldiers are used and misused by a system that sees them as expendable.

The job of a solider is to follow orders not to question them, so when Frank and Billy are assigned to co-lead an elite team known as “Operation Cerberus,” they do as they’re told. They’re informed by operation leader “Agent Orange” (a smarmy, civvy-wearing leader a step above Colonel Ray Schoonover) that they’ll be capturing, torturing, and executing targets a la the Phoenix Program of the Vietnam War. And it’s not long before they’re digging bullets out of dead bodies to cover their tracks on questionable kills. During a scene in Curtis’ support group, troubled young vet Lewis explains the importance of having honor during war. To justify the brutal things you’re asked to do, you have to have respect for both your fellow soldiers, and—in a weird way—your enemies. It’s when the idea of honor and respect is taken out of the equation that things start to get messy. Lewis is haunted not by the killing that was part of his job, but by a press officer who labeled a friendly fire incident as an “enemy ambush,” thereby dishonoring the memories of the soldiers who died in it. And it quickly becomes clear that like that press officer, Operation Cerberus isn’t motivated by any sense of honor. In fact, they’re labeled the “American Taliban” because of the ruthless way they take out high-profile targets in the middle of the night.

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Frank isn’t bothered by that fact as quickly as some of his fellow soldiers, like religious Southerner Gunner Henderson (we learn it was Frank himself who shot Ahmad Zubair, on Agent Orange’s orders). But he does speak up when it comes to protecting his own unit. Frank can tell they’re being sent into an ambush and he’s forceful in his attempts to dissuade Agent Orange from going through with the mission. But ultimately Frank does what a good solider does: He goes where he’s told. And then he does what a great soldier does by putting his life on the line to ensure his men can get out safely. Along with the death of his family, this heroic but brutal massacre sits at the heart of Frank’s Punisher persona origin story. And though we’ve heard it described in both this series and in Daredevil, there’s even more power in seeing it actually play out in gruesome, unglamorous detail.

Set to The White Buffalo’s mournful patriotic critique “Wish It Was True,” the action sequence is a high-water mark for these Marvel Netflix show because it’s rooted in character and theme, not just a desire to create something that looks cool. Frank isn’t a coolly confident comic book killer, he’s a terrified human being driven by adrenaline, training, and an inherent instinct to protect. The episode doesn’t glamorize Frank’s rampage, and Bernthal is at his most animalistic as he tears through hallways alone, using whatever resources he can to complete his mission. It’s brutal, raw, inelegant, and all the more powerful for it.

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Even for those who haven’t been to war, there’s a core of injustice in Frank’s story that’s inherently relatable to anyone who’s ever had a job. Frank’s concerns were ignored, he had to do the work to fix the fuck-up he knew was coming, and he still gets treated like shit by upper management for not doing it correctly. The kicker is that it turns out Operation Cerberus was never an officially sanctioned unit. Frank was inadvertently working as a hitman in the military world long before he intentionally became one in the civilian world.

But the flashbacks don’t just emphasize Frank’s brutality, they also emphasize his humanity. Watching him banter with Billy is maybe the most charming we’ve ever seen him. And it’s interesting to get a glimpse of a far-less tortured Frank who just loved his wife, his kids, and Bruce Springsteen. It can be hard to relate to characters when their conversations center solely on plot conspiracies, but watching Billy rib Frank about reading a poem instantly helps both of them feel like actual human beings. And that makes it all the more devastating to watch Frank’s humanity stripped away from him on a mission he knew was a mistake from the beginning.

This is my cozy sweatshirt aesthetic.

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Every missile needs a guidance system, and Frank has found his “guy in the chair” in Micro. But though they wind up as allies, The Punisher smartly makes their relationship a lot more complicated than that. Micro views himself and Frank as two sides of the same coin; they’re both patriots who were mistreated by their government and separated from their families. But Frank can only see the differences between them. His wartime role involved killing people while Micro’s involved staring at a computer. Frank’s family is dead while Micro’s is still alive. And though Micro thinks that in being a whistleblower he was fulfilling the spirit of his job, Frank can only see a guy who refused to follow orders. Actually seeing their backstories in action allows us to sympathize with both of their points of view. Because Micro is right that he went through hell. But Frank is right that his hell was a whole lot worse.


Stray observations

  • Happy birthday, Frank!
  • Their goodbye handshake is fine, but Curt and Billy’s first handshake is noticeably terrible. No way do I believe two military guys shake hands like that.
  • We get another great scene between Dinah Madani and her mom. I enjoy how openly they psychoanalyze themselves and each other. It’s a unique depiction of a mother/daughter relationship and a super believable dynamic between two highly educated, self-aware women.
  • The scene where Lewis almost shoots and kills his father is a reminder that even people who are expertly trained to use guns can make deadly mistakes with them.
  • Frank’s point about people being able to adjust to anything if there’s routine is both insightful and terrifying.
  • If you’re moved by this show’s depiction of the plight of returning veterans, one charity you could consider supporting is Justice For Vets, which provides free legal advocacy for veterans. Here’s the cast of The West Wing to tell you more:

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