Photo: The Punisher (Netflix)

If there’s one thing these Marvel Netflix shows love, it’s a complicated governmental and/or corporate conspiracy. And it’s easy to see why these shows choose to go that route. Slowly doling out details of a complex conspiracy is an easy way to generate season-long storytelling. And it also allows the series to include a bunch of cheap-to-shoot scenes in which characters sit around talking to one another about something mysterious that happened. Now there’s nothing wrong with scenes of characters just sitting around and talking to each other—some of the best dramas are made up of just that. But if a show is going to go the “tell don’t show” route, it needs to make those dialogue scenes compelling in their own right. And that’s where The Punisher, like so many of these Marvel Netflix shows, is stumbling a bit.

It’s not that I can’t follow the details of the Kandahar conspiracy the show is laying out. The rough sketch of what we know so far is that Frank’s commander Colonel Ray Schoonover was involved in heroin smuggling in Kandahar and likely killed Afghan National Police officer Ahmad Zubair to cover it up (the implication is that Frank was also involved in Zubair’s torture and death, although that remains to be seen). NSA analyst David Lieberman a.k.a. “Micro” (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) discovered video of Zubair’s torture and murder, but it never saw the light of day thanks to a coverup by Homeland Security’s Carson Wolf. Agent Dinah Madani, however, has seen the tape and is determined to get justice for Zubair. And although Frank was told his family was killed in a drug sting gone wrong, it turns out they were actually purposeful collateral damage in Homeland’s attempts to have Frank killed.

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Marnie’s not gonna be happy about this one.

That all tracks on paper (and I’m sure many more twists and turns await us throughout the season), but it’s hard to invest in something that feels relatively abstract and only involves one character we’ve spent enough time with to actually care about—Frank. The show is trying to use the Kandahar mystery as a lens through which to explore its characters. But the result is that characters like Dinah Madani, Carson Wolf, and Frank’s old war buddy Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) feel like they barely exist outside of it. So when Wolf is killed it just kind of feels like a thing that happens, not something that carries any real emotional weight.

Thankfully, there’s one area in which The Punisher is putting character before conspiracy and that’s with Frank Castle himself. Jon Bernthal is without a doubt the best thing about this series and the moments we spend with Frank are astronomically more compelling than the moments we don’t. Even more so than his physical prowess, Frank’s true superpower is his ability to code switch. When he’s alone, he’s a quiet shell of a man who prefers stillness and silence. But when he interacts with other people, he can turn on the charm or dial up the intimidation depending on what the situation calls for.

For instance, part of Frank’s plan to track down the mysterious hacker on his trail leads him to Micro’s wife, Sarah Lieberman. With Sarah, Frank ratchets up the charm to 11. He becomes an endearing soft-spoken teddy bear. And although there’s no doubt it’s an act, it’s an act Frank is so comfortable with that there almost certainly must be an element of truth behind it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that this is probably what Frank was like before his experience in the military and the loss of his family turned him into the stoic Punisher.

With Karen Page (Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll), however, Frank is different. He doesn’t have the artificial charm he puts on for Sarah, but Karen does bring out a certain element of softness in him too, even as he maintains a relatively gruff exterior. Karen wasn’t originally a part of showrunner Steve Lightfoot’s vision for The Punisher, but after seeing how well Frank and Karen worked together in Daredevil he decided to bring Woll onto his series as well. And that was a smart choice because their scenes remain as intriguing as ever.

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Goddamn theater majors. Always going full method.

Frank and Karen couldn’t be more different and yet there’s a base level of trust and equality between them, which makes for a fascinating dynamic. I don’t know how well their reunion plays for someone who hasn’t seen Daredevil’s second season. But for those who have, it’s a welcome return to one of the MCU’s most unexpectedly effective pairings.

But when it comes to code switching, the most dramatic shift Frank makes is when he slips into his ruthless Punisher persona, as he does when he goes to interrogate and kill Carson Wolf. His voice gets more gravel to it, his stance stiffens, and his sense of empathy goes entirely out the window. He’s brutal, animalistic, and utterly ruthless in his pursuit of his goal. But is that Terminator-like killer actually the real Frank? Or is his Punisher persona as much of an act as his warm Pete Castiglione one? Is he more himself when he’s being gruff but likable with Karen and Curt or when he’s stoically breaking down walls with a sledgehammer? Right now at least, the question of “Who is Frank?” is a far more interesting than the question of “What happened in Kandahar?”

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Billy Russo sums up the thesis of the show as he explains to Dinah, “The system let Frank down in a big way. So he did what he was trained to do.” That’s a strong idea around which to build a show about a murderous veteran vigilante. But The Punisher needs to start making the rest of its world as compelling as its leading man.


Stray observations

  • Micro is in danger of feeling just a tad too cartoony for The Punisher’s grounded world, but we’ll see where he goes from here.
  • No matter what else they go on to do, I think I’ll always mentally refer to Ben Barnes as Prince Caspian from The Chronicles Of Narnia and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Desi from Girls.
  • Deborah Ann Woll has the shiniest, bounciest hair in the world.
  • Maybe the single craziest thing about Frank is that he talks on a cellphone through both his hat and his hood. Who does that?!?
  • I mostly liked the flashback to Frank and his kids on the ferry, but the moment where Lisa starts talking about the Statue of Liberty representing everything good about America was a bit much. Frank Jr., at least, gets to be remembered warts and all, which immediately makes him seem like more of a real person than Maria or Lisa.
  • “We don’t get many hipsters around here.” “You still don’t lady.” RIP both Frank’s beard and the hipster jokes about Frank’s beard.

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