Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Punisher heads to the gym with bloody results

Illustration for article titled The Punisher heads to the gym with bloody results
Photo: Cara Howe (Netflix)

It would be a stretch to call Frank Castle a mentally healthy character, but I’m fascinated by the way this season is built around Frank as its relatively well-adjusted center. There are no more endless flashbacks to Frank’s personality-free dead wife. He really has moved on, even as everyone around him is left dealing with a whole lot of unprocessed trauma. I already talked about this a bit in my previous review, but it’s a major theme of the season and I think it’s a really good one. It’s a smart reversal of the dynamics of last season and an interesting way to continue Frank’s story without just moving him back to square one.


And yet, for as much as I like the way this season is structured on paper, there’s something slightly off about the execution. We’re five episodes in and this is the first time the Frank/Amy relationship has had some of the engaging dynamics that should’ve been there from the beginning. As blunt as it is about the episode’s themes, the opening three-card Monte scene is a lot of fun to watch—both because it fleshes in Amy and Frank’s relationship and because it allows the show to contrast their worldviews. Amy argues that when a game is rigged, the only way to win is to walk away. Frank argues you’ve just gotta change the parameters so that you’re the one with the upper hand.

That’s what he does when he enlists Turk Barrett (more on him in the stray observations!) to get to the bottom of what’s going on with the Russian mob who hired Amy’s street urchin crew to take those photos. Plot wise, it’s mostly just wheel spinning—Frank learns that Sergei Konchevsky (Amy’s contact who was murdered by John Pilgrim in the premiere) and his crew were working for Nikolai Poloznev, a shady Russian billionaire who lives in New York. But it’s wheel spinning that comes with the reward of a big fight scene, which is an episodic structure these Marvel Netflix shows frequently employ. The problem comes if you don’t find the fight scene all that rewarding.

That’s not entirely fair. Taken in isolation, there’s a lot of goofy fun to be had in Frank’s big gym showdown, particularly when it comes to the innovative way he keeps weaponizing gym equipment. And on a slightly goofier show (like, say, Iron Fist), I could see this fight scene being a real highlight. On The Punisher, however, it just feels out of place. For as effective as this show can be with brutal gun-related action, it’s hand-to-hand stuff never quite shakes off a level of theatricality that feels at odds with The Punisher’s gritty seriousness. The way the Russian goons sort of wait to go after Frank one-by-one makes the whole thing feel like a choreographed WWE match, not like a brutal brawl where they’re genuinely trying to subdue him.

The other problem is that making Frank a (relatively) more well-adjusted character means that some of the season’s fight scenes have felt less well motivated than the ones last season. That Frank decides to go in and just directly ask the Russians what’s going on is a nice character beat that demonstrates how much he’s changed (although I’m not sure how having Turk get involved was actually all that helpful to Frank’s plan). That we get a big five-against-one fight scene anyway feels a little bit hamfisted. That being said, the image of a blood-spattered Frank giving Amy a double thumbs up is easily worth the price of a whole month’s Netflix subscription, so I guess I can’t complain too much.

Illustration for article titled The Punisher heads to the gym with bloody results
Screenshot: The Punisher (Netflix)

Elsewhere, this episode continues to explore the trauma of its supporting cast, not just Madani (constantly armed and plagued by nightmares about Billy) and Curtis (ditto), but even Dr. Dumont, who we learn used to cut herself and has some kind of debilitating fear of heights. Meanwhile, Amy recovers with a bit of retail therapy while Billy finds an ally in Dr. Dumont’s troubled patient Jake—a veteran who, like Billy, found camaraderie and stability in the military and is struggling to re-adjust to civilian life. Billy’s remark about military vets standing up and giving the world the finger seems to imply we’re in for a storyline about him amassing an army of veterans. I continue to find Billy to be this season’s most interesting thread. Dr. Dumont’s notes theorize that his issues stem from a “primal wound” that occurred before his injuries, while Curtis argues that it was greed that corrupted Billy, not his time in the service. Either way, I’m looking forward to delving further into the fractured psyche behind his (somewhat) fractured face.

Stray observations

  • After he skipped Daredevil’s third season entirely, it was even more of a joy than usual to see Rob Morgan’s Turk Barrett pop up here. I’m hoping he’ll get a final sendoff in Jessica Jones’ upcoming third season, but just in case he doesn’t let’s take a moment to salute him now! Yes, it was definitely a mistake to introduce this eventual lovable rogue as a cruel participant in a sex slavery ring, but if we retcon that Daredevil intro out of existence (which these shows have mostly done), he’s been a wonderful addition to the Marvel Netflix universe ever since. Now let’s get him his own Disney+ show!
  • It feels like Frank and Amy should at least look at the photos to see if they can deduce anything from them.
  • Other than the bloody thumbs up, my other favorite Jon Berthnal moment is the way he says “Oh hell yeah” in response to Turk’s “Oh hell no.”
  • I don’t understand the choice to have Amy spell out swear words. Is that supposed to be a relatable teen thing?
  • I assumed Homeland Security had arrested John Pilgrim at the end of “Trouble The Water,” but apparently he just escaped and went home for some self-flagellation? Anderson sends his son-in-law to New York (where John apparently used to live) to take down Frank and Amy. That takes John away from his poor, sick wife, who just wants his face to be the last thing she sees before he dies.
  • More importantly, one of John and Rebecca’s sons is named Lemuel. LEMUEL!!!

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.