Photo: The Punisher (Netflix)

The most frustrating thing about “Home” is that it’s built around a question I already know the answer to: Would Frank prefer to die rather than continue living his life of endless brutality? Well... no. And not just because The Punisher obviously isn’t going to kill off its leading man in its second-to-last episode. If there’s one trait this show has drilled home, it’s that Frank will stop at nothing to get revenge on the people who killed his family. Why would he suddenly give up on that mission now just because of a little torture? This just seems like the wrong point in the season to be asking this question. Of course Frank wants to live long enough to kill Rawlins and Billy. The real question is whether he wants to keep living after that.

All season long, The Punisher keeps creating these meaningful moments where Frank accepts his violent nature. It happened in the Kandahar flashback (where it was done very effectively), it happened when Frank took on those construction workers in the first episode, it happened when he put his skull costume back on in the previous episode, and it happens here as Frank tells Dream Maria that his “home” is violence. But while each of those moments could be compelling in isolation, they lose their power when lumped together. If the answer is always “yes I want to kill people,” then asking the question becomes pointless. This episode isn’t anywhere near as emotionally complex as it thinks it is and that isn’t helped by its languid pacing.

On The Waterfront (also someone please cast Jon Bernthal in a remake of On The Waterfront)

The first sign of this episode’s pacing problem is that it opens on a six-and-a-half minute prologue of Frank and Micro recapping this season of The Punisher for Madani’s camera. Which begs the question: Who is this for? Why do we need a recap of the show we’re binge-watching? The only interesting thing about the scene is the moment Frank tells Madani that he’s the one who actually shot Zubair. But given that Frank and Madani barely have any kind of relationship, it’s not nearly as big of a moment as it could’ve been.

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The most genuinely intriguing part of “Home” is the rescue of Micro’s family, which happens surprisingly early in the episode. Frank, Micro, and Madani come up with a plan to save Sarah and Zach, fake Micro’s death so he isn’t put in harm’s way, and then allow Frank to be kidnapped so that the tracking device he’s wearing can lead Homeland to Billy and Rawlins’ hideout. Unbeknownst to Madani, however, Frank and Micro secretly modify the plan. They already know Billy and Rawlins are trying to hack into Micro’s computer system in his lair. So Frank throws away his tracker and heads into what he thinks could very well be his final battle: Either he’ll kill Billy and Rawlins and get justice that way or they’ll kill him but Micro’s secret cameras will record enough damning footage to send them to jail for life. It’s not a plan Micro particularly approves of, but given that Frank is putting his life on the line to save Micro’s family, it’s not one he feels he can say no to either.

“Don’t talk to me or my son Micro ever again.”

But it’s here that I start having major questions about the episode. For one thing, why are Billy and Rawlins so convinced that Micro’s computers contain the only copies of the dirt he gathered on them? Micro and Frank clearly had enough time to lay a trap for Billy’s men last episode. Why wouldn’t they have made backup copies of the Zubair assassination video? I also have a lot of questions about the plan Billy and Rawlins come up with to force Frank to give them the computer access codes. They claim they’ll reward Frank with a quick death if he tells them the login info or torture him with a slow one until he does. But have they met Frank Castle? I can’t imagine a man who would be less motivated by the threat of torture or death. And as his best friend in the whole wide world, Billy should probably know that about him.

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But here’s perhaps the biggest challenge facing this episode: Scenes of a hero being strapped to a chair and tortured by his monologuing enemies are a dime of dozen. If The Punisher wants to revisit such well-trod territory, it needs to either bring something new to the table or execute its familiar premise flawlessly. And The Punisher doesn’t do either. It aims for something artistic with Frank’s dreamy visions of Maria, but it just winds up missing the mark.

The first vision of the dance at Frank and Maria’s wedding works well enough because it’s both surprising and eerily beautiful. But after that the episode quickly devolves into Dead Wife 101 (did Christopher Nolan ghostwrite this script?). Despite Maria being one of the defining figures in Frank’s life, we know virtually nothing about her other than some basic biographical details. The show hasn’t done anything to make her feel like a human being with an actual personality. So while Frank may use visions of sex with Maria to escape the pain of torture (at least I think that’s what we’re supposed to take away from that bizarre, off-putting sequence), her attempts to lure him “home” just fall flat. She’s a concept, not a person, so while I can intellectually understand that Frank feels pulled to reunite with his family in the afterlife, the episode doesn’t make me feel that longing in a visceral way, which is what these flashbacks should achieve. And it doesn’t help that their dialogue is as subtle as Frank’s skull costume.

“Maria, the thing I miss most about you is your lack of a personality.”

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There are at least a couple interesting relationship dynamics within this episode. It’s sweet to see Micro reunite with his family and Sarah’s mixture of anger and relief at learning he’s alive feels right. And the most interesting relationship dynamic of all is between Frank and Billy, who come face to face for the first time since Frank learned about Billy’s corruption. Yet I also can’t help but think how much more powerful their reunion might have been if this season had shown us more of their friendship in action.

This episode does offer some more insights into Billy. Though he presents himself as a calm, cool, and collected businessman, there’s also a sense that Billy has gotten in way, way over his head. He first got into this life of crime as a way to permanently lift himself out of poverty. And it’s easy to see how he could justify something like drug smuggling and then spiral further and further out from there. Because Billy clearly has a problem letting go. He tells Rawlins that he got out of Afghanistan clean and only got pulled back into the mud by Rawlins’ desire to kill Frank. And things have escalated from there. Billy is capable of acts of horrendous violence, but he doesn’t quite seem to love it the way Rawlins does. He knew that Frank’s family was going to be killed but he wasn’t there for the murder. And in this episode he simply blows out the tires on Madani’s car rather than killing her. Those nuances make Billy an effective villain, and Ben Barnes turns in his best, most subtle performance yet in this episode.

While Billy gains some more nuance, Rawlins loses most of his. That Rawlins becomes unhinged while torturing Frank definitely fits with what we know about him. And the way he switches from nebbishy office worker to brutal torturer is genuinely terrifying. But I found his monologue to Billy to be way too on-the-nose. It takes the threads the show laid last episode and spells them out far explicitly. “YOU serve ME,” he yells at Billy before literally calling him a gutter rat. He then adds, “You’re only as clean as I let you be because when it’s all said and done you’re just a stupid grunt too.” Perhaps we’re meant to take it as a sign of Rawlins’ hubris that he openly admits all of that to Billy. But it mostly just makes him seem really, really stupid.

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Thankfully, it at least leads to the great moment in which Billy snips Frank’s handcuffs and lets Rawlins get his just desserts. The episode’s climax is as brutal as they come, but it uses its violence for a specific storytelling purpose. Frank doesn’t just murder Rawlins, he makes him suffer in every way he can—first with multiple stab wounds and then by gouging out his eyes Game Of Thrones-style. The Punisher has certainly earned the right to give Rawlins a gruesome death, and it’s smart to get him out of the way now and leave the final showdown to Frank and Billy. Of course, Frank doesn’t really seem to be in a condition to take on anybody at the moment. But when he is, I hope The Punisher lets him get on with it without asking questions we already know the answers to.


Stray observations

  • Up until he started threatening Frank’s eye, I actually thought Rawlins’ torture tactics were surprisingly tame. Back in Daredevil, Frank took an electric drill to the foot, which seems far worse than anything he experiences here.
  • I don’t understand Micro’s argument that they can’t take Frank to the hospital because “hospitals are cops.” Is he expecting Madani to just let Frank go now that they’ve caught Billy?
  • It seems pretty obvious that the last thing in the world you’d want to do is inject the Punisher with adrenaline.
  • Hopefully Sarah finds a good therapist to help her process everything she’s been through, including watching her husband die and come back from the dead… twice.
  • The episode spends a surprising amount of time on Billy’s hacker. Not sure if that will be relevant somehow or not.
  • Frank in his dress blues at his wedding was everything I never knew I needed.
  • I remain convinced that the real reason this episode spent so long on the Frank/Maria sex scene is because the show wanted to undercut the insane sexual tension between Frank and Billy. I mean just look at this face!

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“Goddamn Frankie, I love to watch you work.”