Photo: The Punisher (Netflix)

Now that’s more like it. “Crosshairs” takes some decisive steps forward while (finally) providing a better sense of Frank and Micro’s overall plan. It gives Madani and Stein a concrete challenge to take on and offers a clearer sense of who our villains are and what they want. It’s got dark comedy, a great action setpiece, and an unexpected ending. Plus it takes time to ask questions about Frank’s morality that I’ve long wanted the series to ask. And it does all that without sacrificing the quieter, character-based dialogue scenes the show does so well. “Crosshairs” doesn’t feel drastically different than the episodes that came before it, but small shifts make a big impact on its overall feel and tone.

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This episode also deals directly with some of the criticisms I’ve raised in these reviews. For one thing, Micro is suddenly empathetic about the importance of having a bigger plan when it comes to taking down their enemies. Although Frank’s instinct is to kill Morty Bennett—the mortician who was in on the heroin smuggling with Rawlins and Schoonover—Micro reminds Frank that it makes far more sense to keep Bennett alive and use him to track down Rawlins (whose real name they still don’t know). Frank and Micro’s tactical meeting also leads to another conversation that’s been a long time coming: Where does Frank draw the line at killing, if at all?

“I wanna be the pepper.”

Bennett lives on a military base, which forces Frank to contemplate whether he’s willing to kill the U.S. soldiers assigned to protect him. He decides he’s not comfortable taking out men who are just doing their jobs and therefore sets himself the additional challenge of making this a non-lethal mission. I’m glad to see this conversation happen here, even if I maintain that The Punisher should’ve had it about the forest battle back in “Gunner” (I get that a death squad merc is different than a U.S. soldier, but as someone who once accidentally wound up on an illegal death squad, I feel like Frank could be a little more understanding about the nuances of the situation). And Frank’s one-time no-kill policy helps “Crosshairs” craft a suspenseful action sequence that’s unlike anything the show has done before.

After interrupting Bennett mid-BDSM session, Frank has to contend with the group of Rawlins’ men who are sent to take him out (including Billy, although Frank doesn’t know that). So he deploys a smoke bomb and sets about neutralizing them one by one. I’ve seen variations of this kind of smoke and laser-filled action scene before, but The Punisher does it well. The way the scene plays out in silence is both eerie and tense. And although Frank fulfills his mission, he isn’t exactly thrilled with the way it plays out. “It’s a lot easier when you can kill people,” he hilariously deadpans to Micro.

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Elsewhere, this episode helps Madani’s storyline snap into focus as she starts to piece together the fact that her office is bugged. I still don’t quite understand why Madani was initially so hesitant to tell her superiors that Frank was alive, but she’s now forced to contend with the idea that the organization she works for is even more corrupt than she feared. More so than her Kandahar investigation, which has always felt rather nebulous, this storyline gives Madani something concrete to fight against. And it allows us to see that she’s good at her job: She’s smart enough to figure out her office is bugged and resourceful enough to find the bug without letting whoever’s listening know she’s on to them. Plus her new “us against the world” dynamic with Stein gives their relationship a little more room to breath, even if he does have to deliver the clichéd “You two aren’t so different” line about Frank and Madani.

“Prince Caspian? I haven’t heard that name in years.”

“Crosshairs” also provides a clearer sense of this season’s villains. Ben Barnes lets more of his sneering side out now that he’s a full-on baddie. He seems to be in it mostly for the money—Rawlins keeps Anvil afloat with its military contracts, thereby allowing Billy to live the life of luxury he’s always wanted. And while it’s a rather simplistic motivation, I’m hoping it’ll get some more nuance later in the season given how much the series has already invested in Billy as a character. Rawlins, meanwhile, is motivated by something far pettier than money. Billy speculates that the real reason Rawlins originally wanted Frank dead is because Frank emasculated him back in Kandahar; Rawlins can’t stand the fact that Frank once made him experience the mortal fear he was used to inflicting on his torture victims. This season of The Punisher is interested in both celebrating and critiquing masculinity, and Rawlins’ motivation adds another wrinkle to that theme.

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In its final moments, “Crosshairs” manages to keep Rawlins around as a villain without creating some sort of unbelievable scenario in which Frank has a change of heart or Rawlins overpowers him. You could argue Frank should’ve known a CIA safe house would have bulletproof glass, but the moment his bullet shatters Rawlins’ window but not his skull is such a confusing, surprising visual that it’s hard to care too much. The end of the episode seems to set up the plot threads for the rest of the season: Frank and Micro are chasing Rawlins, Rawlins and Billy are chasing Frank, and Madani is chasing everyone. And then there’s Lewis, whose downward spiral could be the explosive wrench in the works no one expects.


Stray observations

  • Micro didn’t know that Frank knew about the cameras in the Lieberman house? That entirely recontextualizes the way I watched those scenes.
  • I really liked the scene between Lewis and his dad, which seemed to capture some truths about the way men use sports (and the act of watching sports) as a prism through which to talk about the emotions they aren’t otherwise socially encouraged to discuss.
  • I’m confused as to why Micro thinks that Rawlins’ death will suddenly allow him to come out of hiding and return to his family. I feel like he’d have a whole lot of legal issues to deal with first.
  • Relatedly, is it weird that I’m still calling him Micro in these reviews when most people on the show refer to him as David?
  • Madani swerving Billy’s kiss was a great bit of physical comedy from Amber Rose Revah.
  • I don’t think Michael Nathanson is a bad actor, but his performance as Stein feels like it belongs on a different, slightly more heightened series.
  • I’ve long maintained that props are the key to good acting and I really enjoyed the scene in which Frank is eating while Micro cooks dinner. It’s impossible to overemphasis what a great odd couple Jon Bernthal and Ebon Moss-Bachrach are.

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