Photo: The Punisher (Netflix)

I’m a sucker for a structurally inventive episode and “Virtue Of The Vicious” is nothing if not structurally inventive. Though it pays some lip service to the questions of morality at the heart of the previous episode, its first priority is to be a high-octane thriller. And that makes it a lot easier to put aside my concerns about the show’s philosophy and just enjoy the ride instead.

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The plot is relatively simple: Continuing on his string of pro-gun, anti-government terrorist attacks, Lewis sets off a bomb in the hotel room where Karen is interviewing Senator Ori. Frank shows up in time to save Ori and Karen, but can’t stop Lewis from taking Karen hostage. After fending off Billy and Madani, Frank eventually pulls off his rescue mission and saves Karen. Lewis kills himself, Frank gets away, and soon Daredevil’s Detective Brett Mahoney is on the scene trying to figure out what the fuck actually happened.

“Why does this shit always happen to me?”

Brett’s interviews with Billy, Senator Ori, Karen, and Madani provide the episode’s flashback structure, and the details of what actually happened during Lewis’ attack unfold in scattered bits and pieces. At first the episode seems to want to tell a Rashomon-like story about the way each person remembers the events slightly differently. But there’s really only one moment in which we see the same event unfold in two different ways (Senator Ori paints himself as a hero while Karen remembers how scared he actually was). After that, the flashback structure is just a stylistic choice designed to give the episode extra mystery and import. But, again, I’m a sucker for structurally inventiveness, even when it’s mostly just style over substance. And the structure does slightly change the central tension of the episode. We know pretty much from the get-go that Billy, Ori, Karen, and Madani survive Lewis’ attack. So the question becomes less “What’s gonna happen next?” and more “How the hell did Frank do it?” And the answer, it turns out, is with a whole lot of gumption and not much else.

As during his siege in Kandahar, Frank is in full-on Terminator mode in this episode. He won’t let a little thing like shrapnel to the arm or a gunshot wound to the head stop him from rescuing Karen. And like John McClane in Die Hard, it’s fun to see Frank utilize his surroundings to outsmart far better armed enemies. Whether it’s something as simple as hiding behind a door when an Anvil guard comes to check a stairwell or something as dramatic as leaping down that stairwell while holding onto a firehouse, Frank uses every element of his environment to his advantage. I appreciate that this season of The Punisher has made a real effort to diversify its action sequences so that each one feels like a unique challenge for Frank. Here he manages to complete his mission without actually killing anyone, largely because the dead man switch on Lewis’ bomb prevents Frank from just using a gun to take him out.

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“Why does this shit always happen to me?”

My favorite moment in the entire episode is when Frank and Karen silently create a plan to defuse Lewis’ suicide vest, all while Frank is carrying on a conversation with Lewis. I’ve definitely seen iterations of this scene before, but The Punisher does it particularly well. And it helps drive home the bond that Frank and Karen share. That bond continues during another great moment in which Karen pretends to be Frank’s hostage so that he can get away. (The way Frank and Karen immediately fall away from each other once they get inside their escape elevator is hilarious.) Despite how different they are, Frank and Karen clearly operate on the same wavelength. This episode doesn’t go so far as to explicitly make their connection a romantic one—although you can certainly read it as such. But it’s clear there’s nothing Frank wouldn’t do to keep Karen safe. At one point he even offers to blow himself up alongside Lewis if that would ensure Karen’s survival. And though it could just be a ploy, it also might not be.

The weakest part of this episode is the Madani storyline, which continues to be a drag on the season, despite all of its potential. Madani figures out that the men who attacked her warehouse sting all worked for Anvil and for some ungodly reason goes to tell that information to Billy. It’s good to see her finally realize Billy is the bad guy and Frank is her ally, but it always feels like the show grinds to a halt when it checks in on Madani. Hopefully that will change now that she actually knows what’s going on.

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“Virtue Of The Vicious” also brings to an end the Lewis arc that has been threaded throughout this season and which has really taken to the forefront in these past two episodes. So far The Punisher has successfully avoided the backend slump that has plagued most of the other Marvel Netflix shows (especially Luke Cage and Daredevil season two), but that doesn’t mean the season has been structurally flawless. The Lewis stuff has always felt like a bit of a distraction from the main action, even if his hotel attack does inadvertently allow Frank to figure out that Billy is corrupt. And although the scene in which Lewis blows himself up with Frank’s encouragement is compelling in isolation (and Daniel Webber turns in a great performance), I’m not sure it justifies how much time this season has spent developing Lewis.

“Why does this shit always happen to me?”

Lewis’ arc has been almost entirely separate from Frank’s so their final confrontation isn’t paying off a major relationship dynamic. In fact, they only spoke for the first time in the previous episode. And the people who have been important to Lewis’ story this season, namely his father and Curtis, are absent from Lewis’ final outing. When it comes to telling a realistic story about the difficulties soldiers face when they return home, The Punisher did that far more effectively in the reveal that Curtis personally struggles to live the contented “second life” he encourages his support group to seek out. So in the end, Lewis feels like little more than a low-level baddie designed to delay Frank’s face-off with Rawlins and Billy. That works well enough when you look at this episode as a one-off action adventure starring Frank Castle. But it would’ve been nice if The Punisher had aimed slightly higher as it heads into the final chapter of its first season.

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Stray observations

  • The bomb going off during Karen and Ori’s interview completely caught me off guard and really made me jump.
  • I was so happy to see Brett Mahoney (Royce Johnson) pop up in this series. He’s another great recurring Marvel Netflix character.
  • I was interested in Billy’s assertion that unlike cops, soldiers view success based on whether a mission was completed, not on how many people died. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it’s a helpful insight into Billy’s frame of mind. He later adds, “The only crime in war is to lose.”
  • So did Billy intentionally avoid killing Frank or did he just miss?
  • In case you were wondering whether The Punisher had any interest in actually making an argument for gun control, Karen dismisses Ori as “a craven political animal who would say anything to improve his Q-Rating.”
  • The scene with Lewis trying to free the birds who didn’t want to leave their cage was a bit much.
  • Madani claims the reason Frank can’t clear his name is because no one will give him the chance to do so before they shoot him down. But that’s not really true. We’ve seen cops try to arrest Frank without killing him multiple times—including Madani herself in this episode.
  • Part of Frank’s rescue plan involves Karen using the gun he knows she carries in her purse. Except it’s not actually her gun. Her weapon was confiscated by Anvil and she just happened to pick up an entirely separate gun (and grab her purse) during the hotel room attack. It works, but it feels awfully coincidental.
  • Frank Castle’s calm “I will come for you” to Karen was one of the most romantic things I’ve ever seen and I don’t even particularly want them to be a couple.
  • “Didn’t your father teach you not to hurt a woman?”

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