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The Punisher ends its first season on a high note

Photo: The Punisher (Netflix)
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Looking back on the season, The Punisher is most successful when it subverts expectations and least successful when it leans into them. The Punisher may have been unique among superheroes when his comic debuted in the 1970s, but Frank Castle feels far less original in a 21st century film and TV landscape filled with violent, gun-wielding anti-heroes. That means the show has a higher bar to clear when it comes to standing out in the crowd, and this season has done an uneven job of clearing it. It’s failed to truly interrogate Frank’s morality or to do anything interesting with its various government conspiracies. But it’s excelled at telling a story about soldiers returning to civilian life, examining male friendships, and—most importantly—creating a hugely compelling character in Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle. Although this first season finale isn’t perfect, it thankfully shows off more of the show’s strengths than its weaknesses.

I would say about half of “Memento Mori” is made up of really compelling, original material—including an entirely unexpected final moment that genuinely took my breath away. And the rest of the episode is made up of familiar beats that are at least mostly done well. The only major misstep here is the story of Dinah “Worst Homeland Agent Of All Time” Madani, who proves she’s still the worst Homeland Agent of all time but at least lives to tell about it. (Seriously, how do you wind up getting shot when the element of surprise is entirely on your side?!?)

Dammit Madani

After a slow start filled with stereotypical action movie beats (I can’t decide if the “most clichéd” award goes to Billy walking away from an explosion or Madani’s doctor father dramatically pulling blood out of Frank’s collapsed lung), the episode finally gets to one of my favorite scenes of the whole season: the showdown between Curtis, Billy, and Frank. And that showdown is the perfect example of what I mean about the show subverting expectations. Rather than have Billy show up at Curtis apartment and attack him, Billy engages in a far more complicated verbal exchange with his old war buddy. It’s not that I’ve never seen a scene like this before (I was specifically reminded of Westley and Inigo’s duel in The Princess Bride), it’s just that I’ve seen this kind of scene done far less frequently than I’ve seen violent surprise attacks.

Of course, what makes the scene work isn’t just that it’s unexpected. It’s also that it flows naturally from what we know about these characters and adds another facet to the show’s exploration of the brotherhood of soldiers. There’s an inherent level of respect Billy and Curtis feel for one another, even when they’re on the opposite ends of a gun. So we wind up with the most polite hostage situation of all time, one that almost feels like two old friends hanging out until Frank suddenly starts shooting at Billy through Curtis’ window. Though Frank and Billy are fully prepared to kill each another, one thing they both share is a huge amount of respect for Curtis (even if Billy does shoot him). So they negotiate a plan that keeps him out of harm’s way, but which requires Billy and Frank to trust one another, at least for a brief moment. It’s an intriguing action scene and an even better character one. Even as mortal enemies, Frank and Billy still know each other better than anyone else. And they still believe in the concept of honor—at least to some degree.

“Should I be more concerned that literally everyone in my life is a violent criminal?”

In general, my job as a critic is to comment on what a TV show is doing, rather than suggest what it should be doing. But I’m going to break that rule for a minute because, man, this season of The Punisher really needed more flashbacks. The scene with Billy and the Castles at the carousel is so incredibly compelling that I’m actively mad we didn’t get it earlier in the season. Not only was Billy Frank’s brother when they were overseas, he was literally treated as Frank’s brother by the Castles too. The flashback not only makes Frank’s family feel more like real people (Maria even gets to do something vaguely human when she kisses Billy on the cheek!), it also drives home the true depth of Billy’s betrayal. And seeing Ben Barnes and Jon Bernthal play happier versions of Billy and Frank makes their dourer present day iterations feel far more complex (Barnes in particular is terrific in the flashback). I understand the choice to place this particular carousel-related flashback just before Frank and Billy’s final showdown at the carousel. By why the series didn’t thread other flashbacks throughout the season is genuinely beyond me.


As for Billy and Frank’s showdown itself, I would lump it into the “fine” category. The deserted carousel is an appropriately eerie locale for their fight. And unlike in the last episode, where Billy foolishly tried to motivate Frank with the threat of torture, here Billy utilizes Frank’s actual weakness: his need to protect other people. The climactic battle is filled with all the requisite bloody brutality, including several hard-to-watch moments in which Billy’s face is horrifically mangled by broken glass. And while it might not be my favorite action sequence of the season, there’s no doubt it’s one of the best acted. Despite having little dialogue to work with, Bernthal and Barnes do phenomenal work when it comes to selling Frank and Billy’s emotional journeys over the course of the fight.

“Gee, I hope my pretty face isn’t damaged by anything that would make it less pretty.”

In the end, Frank decides not to kill Billy, which feels more like a choice made for narrative reasons than for character-driven ones (Frank says something about wanting Billy to suffer rather than giving him a quick death, but I’m not buying it). Though Billy is left as an open-ended question mark for a potential second season, I’m surprised by how conclusively The Punisher wraps up everything else. Frank and Micro both feel like they’ve truly reached the end of their revenge missions, and it would be kind of depressing to see either of them return to a life of non-stop brutality after this. But on the other hand, I also wouldn’t want to watch a second season that doesn’t center on their partnership, as the Frank/Micro dynamic is easily the best thing this show has going for it. We’ll just have to wait and see how The Punisher handles a second season, should it get one.

Though this season of The Punisher has been far from flawless, I’d still say it’s one of the stronger series in the Marvel Netflix universe (although like all of the Marvel Netflix shows, it really could’ve benefited from a shorter episode order). If I’ve been hard on the show, it’s only because it offered occasional hints of greatness I’d have liked to see it aim for more often. One such moment is the choice to end this season not with an action scene or a hint about future villains, but with Frank finally joining Curtis’ support group. “First time in as long as I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight,” Frank tells the group. “And I guess if I’m gonna be honest… I’m scared.” It’s hard to imagine a more unexpected, honest, moving way to end a superhero series than that one.


Stray observations

  • Seriously through, “I’m scared” is topped only by “I had a date” for the best unexpectedly melancholy MCU ending.
  • Frank sure recovered from those near-death wounds quickly, didn’t he?
  • I love that when Micro gives Frank money to start his new life, he makes sure to specify that it was all stolen “from bad guys.”
  • I know it’s a different context than the Maria/Frank dream vision from the last episode, but Micro and Sarah’s bathroom quickie is the perfect example of how to use a sex scene to actually develop characters and explore a relationship.
  • I never quite bought Madani’s sympathy towards Frank, but I do totally believe Marion and Rafi’s willingness to let Frank go solely to cover their own asses.
  • I’m pretty sure this turkey is still raw:
Better call the Butterball Hotline, Sarah
  • Thanks for following along on these Punisher reviews! If you want to talk more about how Jon Bernthal is the best actor alive, you can find me over on Twitter.
I’ll never be over the look of best friend gratefulness on Frank’s face here. I’m not sure purple is actually his color though.

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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.