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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Punisher gets pulpy during a tense small town standoff

Illustration for article titled The Punisher gets pulpy during a tense small town standoff
Photo: David Lee (Netflix)

I spent most of my time watching “Trouble The Water” trying to figure out if this was an episode I found really dumb or really fun. And while it would naturally seem to follow that this episode is “dumb fun,” I’ve always felt The Punisher is a little too serious to be lumped into that category. It’s a show that wants to say something about violence, loss, military corruption, and, as introduced in this episode, religion. But it’s also a show that wants us to gleefully cheer when Frank shoots a Molotov cocktail in a bad guy’s face. That occasionally jarring mix of tones is really driven home in Ken Kristensen’s script, which offers easily the pulpiest material The Punisher has tackled yet.


Most of this episode centers on a tense Assault On Precinct 13-inspired standoff at a small town sheriff’s office, where Frank, Rachel (whose name is revealed to be an alias, although we don’t know her real one yet), and evil henchwomen Marlena are being held after the motel shootout from the previous episode. At first the “country cops” just want the good press of getting to the bottom of the case themselves, rather than passing it on to the state police. But once they find themselves in the middle of a full-scale military attack, they have to figure out how to survive and, crucially, how much to trust their prisoners.

Most of the stuff inside the sheriff’s office works. It’s corny as hell, wholeheartedly leaning into age-old Western and action movie tropes without even a hint of subversion. But it makes that earnestness works, mostly by making the earnestness of the local cops a plot point. Sherriff Hardin (Jo Holt) and Deputy Ken Ogden (Brandon Gill) are fundamentally decent people who are dedicated to the law, not as blind rule-followers, but as people who genuinely want to help others. That makes them interesting foils for Frank, who has his own fundamental decency, even if his moral compass is wildly different than theirs. As it’s done in the past, The Punisher argues that you need morally grey people like Frank to do the stuff that the truly good people can’t.

Again, it’s nothing earthshattering, but the standoff is fun to watch once it gets going. I found Frank and Rachel’s dynamic annoyingly one-note in the previous episode, but “Trouble The Water” adds a few welcome shades of nuance to their dynamic—particularly in the silent sequence in which Rachel steals a handcuff key in order to free Frank as soon as shit starts going south. There’s definitely a strong core premise to the push-pull of how much Frank and Rachel begrudgingly need each other. And as far as dumb fun goes, the moment Frank asks for black tape for his cast before heading out on a murder spree definitely fits the bill.

Illustration for article titled The Punisher gets pulpy during a tense small town standoff
Screenshot: The Punisher (Netflix)

The part of this episode that works less well are the villains. We don’t know enough about them for me to say that their plan is unrealistic or implausible. This episode certainly wants us to be asking questions about what’s going on, and perhaps whatever future explanation we get will retroactively make all of this make sense. But, at least right now, it mostly seems like the show just likes the image of Frank singlehandedly taking down an army of trained killers and will do anything it can to get to that type of showdown. For instance, in the premiere, why did the organization send 13 trained killers to take down Rachel, who, as far as they knew, was alone and unprotected? How do they have the resources to commit and cover up massive military-level attacks, yet somehow the photos Rachel is carrying around can singlehandedly take them down? And just where are they getting their henchmen from?


Perhaps it’s a silly complaint given how often the superhero and action genres rely on villains who have an endless supply of highly trained, wildly loyal henchmen at their disposal. Yet given the grounded, scrappy pseudo-realism of the rest of The Punisher, it sticks out to me more here than it does in, say, a Batman movie or a gangster drama. To be fair, my biggest problem in the villain department was with Marlena, who always felt far pulpier than the rest of the show, even in this very pulpy episode. Hopefully with her out of the way and the season-long narrative restructured a bit, The Punisher will be able to find a stronger tonal balance.

Stray observations

  • Elsewhere, Billy violently breaks out of hospital custody. Dr. Dumont believes it was an impulsive decision (and it seems to be one, as we see it play out), but Madani is still convinced it’s all part of Billy’s calculated plan. That leads her to seek out Frank’s help and (conveniently) show up just in time to save him from being murdered.
  • We also get a bit more insight into our Creepy Religious Big Bad. (I don’t think the show has officially said his name yet, but since it doesn’t seem to be a spoiler—he’s not a character from the comics—I’m just going to start calling him by his previously announced name, John Pilgrim.) Pilgrim’s faded tattoos suggest he’s a reformed tough guy who married into the deeply religious/deeply powerful Schultz family, run by his in-laws Eliza (Annette O’Toole) and Anderson (Corbin Bernsen). Also his wife Rebecca is severely ill.
  • I guess it’s no sillier than anything else that happens in this episode, but somehow Sheriff Hardin just handing Frank a bag full of guns was the moment that really broke me.
  • Plenty of TV shows and movies have dealt with creepy, violent religious organizations before, but this particular group really reminds me of the Proletheans from Orphan Black.
  • It’s always nice to see Brett Mahoney pop up in the Defenders universe, especially given that the universe’s days seem to be numbered.
  • I really enjoyed Sheriff Hardin double-checking to see if Frank actually wanted to go with Madani.

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.