There’s a weird video game-like quality to how this season of The Punisher is structured. We know Frank and Micro’s overall goal is to take down Agent Orange, but the steps to actually doing so are presented like these weird, disconnected fetch quests. Case in point: After completing last episode’s mission of getting more guns, Frank and Micro just sit around bantering until it finally occurs to Micro that the footage of Ahmed Zubair’s death must have been filmed by someone in Frank’s unit who had reservations about what they were doing. Maybe if they track down that guy, he can tell them Agent Orange’s real name, giving them yet one more tiny clue.
My question is: How did it take them so long to think of that? I’ve had “Who filmed this footage?” in my notes since the first time Frank watched it. And it’s not even like they had to do intense research to lead them to Gunner Henderson. As soon as Micro brings it up, Frank immediately knows who filmed the footage—the better to get Frank and Micro off on their next episodic mission. So why hadn’t they talked about any of this before? What’s their larger plan? And why did they wait until their resupply mission was complete to figure out what to do next? Have he and Micro really been discussing nothing but firearm maintenance and guitar playing this whole time? We’ve been told they’re both talented tactical thinkers so it’s strange that Frank and Micro can’t seem to see the forest for the trees.
To a lesser degree, there’s a similar problem in Madani and Stein’s storyline too. When she handed him the list of names of soldiers who might have been in the room during Ahmed Zubair’s murder and told him to look into them, my first response was, “You haven’t done that yet?!?” I know she was warned off of pursuing the Zubair case, but she clearly did a lot of research before that. She couldn’t even Facebook those guys to see what they were up to? Even if I can accept the fact that Madani didn’t have the bandwidth to look into her potential suspects, my critique still applies to her arc as a whole. I genuinely have no idea why Madani is withholding the fact that Frank is still alive. She seems to be partially indebted to him for saving her life and partially worried about corruption within the system after Frank told her Wolf was dirty. But the show also went out of its way to show us Madani’s warm relationship with her superior and mentor Rafi. Why doesn’t she at least trust him?
The gold standard for slow-burning, detail-oriented TV is The Wire. But that series was always careful to either depict its intricate details as part of a larger plan or to let the audience know that it’s characters had a larger plan, even if we didn’t understand it yet. The Punisher doesn’t have that same narrative dexterity, so rather than feel intrigued by the idea of watching Madani’s plan come together, I feel confused and bored because I don’t know what her plan is. And even worse, I’m not convinced the show does either.
Of course, there’s another reason this episode made me think of video games and that’s because a good chunk of the final action scene is filmed like a first-person shooter game. And that’s a choice I think is really effective in one way and really lazy in another. Seated safely in his office, Agent Orange (who we learn is actually CIA agent William Rawlins) nonchalantly watches video feeds of the soldiers he sent to assassinate Frank and Gunner. He doesn’t care about his team as individuals, he just cares if they complete their mission. And when one of their feeds goes dark because they’ve been killed, he’s annoyed in the way you’d be annoyed if your internet stopped working for a minute. The sequence critiques political leaders who deal in matters of life and death while knowing they’ll never have to face those stakes personally, and on that level, it’s effectively horrific. Where it falls short is in implicating Frank in the system it’s critiquing.
This show has gone out of its way to humanize soldiers of all stripes and yet when Frank takes on Rawlins’ mercenaries in the woods, they’re basically treated like dehumanized Stormtroopers. But aren’t they just men and women following orders too? Even if they’re some sort of private hit-squad, how is that any different from what Frank was doing with Operation Cerberus? I understand why Frank believes he’s justified in killing bad guys, but how does killing soldiers to save his own life fit into his black and white moral philosophy?
Now I’m not trying to suggest the episode needed to have Frank avoid killing the mercs. It was a life or death situation and he’s allowed to be a flawed character with an imperfect philosophy. But I want the show to dig into those flaws, rather than brushing past them. And one easy way to do that would’ve been to humanize the mercenaries Frank and Gunner kill. At first, I thought that’s what the episode was going to do with its first person POV. But although it literally puts us in their shoes, the show doesn’t do much else to force us to grapple with the human cost of Frank’s violence. The one soldier who does speak simply stands and shouts, “You’re gonna die!” over and over again.
Removed from my questions about its moral implications, the forest fight is at least a pretty compelling action sequence. The fact that Micro is able to give Frank tactical advice via a drone camera sets it apart from the show’s previous fights. And a gently lit forest is an unexpected and visually compelling place for Frank to unleash his brutality. But right now it feels like The Punisher is trying to be both a thoughtful drama about the effects of violence and a cool action series about a guy who kills people. Each of those is a fine aim for a TV show, but trying to make them both work within the same story is a trick The Punisher isn’t quite pulling off. Even if the series does delve into the murky questions of Frank’s morality later in the season, I still think it missed an opportunity to do so in the moment here.
Elsewhere, “Gunner” runs into the same problem as the previous episode in that it’s really, really slow. And yet once again, there are things to enjoy within that languid pace, particularly in the show’s exploration of Frank as a father. Fatherhood was one of my favorite aspects of the character back in Daredevil and that continues here as Frank and Micro return to their bizarre setup of living through each other’s lives in an unsettling but understandable way. Frank ingratiates himself not only with Sarah but with Micro’s daughter Leo as well. And Frank also tells Karen a story about his 8-year-old son feeling the burden of being the “man” of the house while Frank was overseas, which is a fascinating examination of masculinity that passes far too quickly.
Frank has transferred a lot of his protective fatherly instincts onto Karen and the two butt heads in a tense, emotional scene that takes advantage of Jon Bernthal and Deborah Ann Woll’s fantastic chemistry. As much as Frank wants to protect Karen’s physical safety, Karen wants to protect Frank’s soul. She’s one of the only characters on this show asking the question “What comes next?” in a way that isn’t just referring to the next five minutes. And Frank could use a little more of that. By the end of the episode, he’s barely alive and still doesn’t even know Agent Orange’s name. Oh well. Onto the next mission I guess.
- The Frank/Micro sandwich gag was great. I almost always enjoy the scenes between Jon Bernthal and Ebon Moss-Bachrach, even when I have complaints about them on a plot level.
- Gunner’s monologue about Agent Orange and Schoonover using the corpse of a 19-year-old soldier to transport heroin was deeply disturbing and really effective in establishing Agent Orange as even more of a villain than we already knew he was.
- All I could think about during the Billy/Madani sex scene was the “It’s not porn, it’s HBO!” YouTube sketch.
- Also, I’m giving this show a big eye-roll for positioning Madani’s chest bandage so that it gave her maximum cleavage. I’m sure that was medically necessary.
- The Madani/Karen scene made me realize how infrequently TV shows depict tense verbal interrogations between two women.
- I get that they’re trying to be secretive, but Madani and Stein always stand uncomfortably close to one another.
- Thanks to Nashville, I always read the name Gunner in Clare Bowen’s Southern accent.