Photo: The Punisher (Netflix)

When I say The Punisher is a slow show, I don’t mean it doesn’t have a lot going on. Without a main villain to focus on (at least not yet, although that might change after this episode), the series fills that space with complex subplots that intersect in unexpected ways. In fact, it arguably has more going on than any of the other Marvel Netflix series. But despite that, the show still feels like it’s moving each of those subplots along at a snails pace. Part of that has to do with the structural problems I mentioned in my last review. I have no real sense of what Frank and Micro were going to do if Billy didn’t happen to start randomly trying to connect with Frank via the radio. There’s not a lot of forward momentum to the series, so when unexpected things happen they don’t feel like they’re interrupting the main action, they feel like they’re creating it wholesale.

But at least “The Judas Goat” feels more intentional with its slowness (except for Madani’s investigation, which is almost always a drag even though she herself is an interesting character). This is a bit of a cool down episode after the intense forest battle of “Gunner.” There are no conventional action scenes, although there is one gruesome death. But despite its slow pacing, by the end of the episode it feels like there have been some major shifts in terms of moving the season’s storytelling forward. And the two biggest of those happen with Lewis and Billy.

Lt. Wilson’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

After teetering on the edge all season, Lewis is finally pushed over it when he discovers that O’Connor lied about serving in Vietnam. Frank describes to Micro how much his unit felt like a family, and Lewis has spent most of this season struggling to find a replacement for that familial feeling he left behind when he discharged from the military. He doesn’t find it in Curtis’ talk-centric support group, he’s denied the chance to recreate that military bond at Anvil, and his last hope of developing a brotherhood is dashed when he learns the truth about O’Connor’s service record. So Lewis snaps, attacks O’Connor, and brutally murders him with a knife. It’s a harrowing, although not entirely unexpected, scene, but to be honest I’m having a hard time figuring out how I feel about Lewis’ storyline. I imagine a lot of my feelings towards his relatively disconnected arc will be shaped by both how it eventually intersects with Frank’s story and how it resolves, so right now it’s just a big floating question mark.

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Another big floating question mark is Billy Russo, who is revealed to be working with William “Agent Orange” Rawlins. We don’t know exactly what that means in terms of just how corrupt Billy actually is, but given that Ben Barnes has been playing Billy as a relatively smarmy dude, the twist doesn’t come as a complete shock. But before the reveal, the episode smartly takes time to remind us of the one relationship in which Billy does actually feel like a real person: his friendship with Frank.

“Want a beer?”

Frank and Billy’s dynamic was one of my favorite parts of “Kandahar,” and they’re equally great together during their waterfront meeting in this episode. There’s no animosity between them over anything that’s happened in their past. Billy expresses genuine remorse at how much Frank has had to go through. Frank expresses genuine pride over how much Billy has accomplished as a business owner. It remains to be seen how much of that warmth is an act on Billy’s part (I suspect not all of it is), but the best thing about the scene is that it allows us to see another side of Frank. A lot of the credit for that goes to Christine Boylan’s script, but a good chunk of it is also down to Jon Bernthal.

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Bernthal is excellent at modulating his performance so that Frank has a slightly different demeanor with every person he interacts with. It’s the sort of thing that seems like an obvious aspect of acting, but which not all actors are skilled enough to do. There’s a warmth and trust Frank feels for Billy that’s entirely different than the warmth and trust he feels for his other allies, even the ones he genuinely likes like Karen and Curtis. Of all the characters Frank has interacted with so far, Billy is pretty much the only he actually listens to without pushing back. More so than a dozen monologues about the fact that he saw Billy as a brother, the way Frank acts during that waterfront meeting tells us everything we need to know about how much he cares for Billy. And for his part, Ben Barnes makes the relationship feel real on Billy’s end too, which makes the episode’s final twist sting all the more.

“Hells yeah.”

That twist provides this episode’s title. A “Judas goat” (which is different from Curtis’ medic training goat/Frank parallel, Cassius) is a goat that’s used to lead sheep or cattle to slaughter but isn’t killed itself. And it turns out that’s just what Billy does as he attempts to lure Frank right into Rawlins’ trap. Only Frank doesn’t take the bait. He isn’t dissuade from his revenge mission (at least I think that’s what we’re supposed to take from Frank’s assurances that the Liebermans lives are about to get better), but after his conversation with Billy, Frank does seem more open than ever to the idea of actually having a future once its done. Between Frank’s resolve, Lewis’ turn to the dark side, and the reveal of Billy’s true allegiance, it feels like The Punisher is finally starting to pick up the pace. It’s about time.

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Stray observations

  • Handshake update: Billy and Curtis do much better with their greeting this time. Well done, guys
  • So Rawlins sent in a clean-up crew to remove the bodies of his assault squad, but left Gunner’s body behind for the police to find?
  • Madani perfectly recreating Frank and Gunner’s fight based on bloodstains reminded me of that goofy scene in The Princess Bride where Prince Humperdinck does the same with footprints.
  • I have a hard time believing a cop would hassle a white veteran supporting the Second Amendment. Also where did Lewis get such a detailed knowledge of protest law?
  • This episode aims to be shockingly graphic with its depiction of Curtis’ makeshift surgery, but that’s truly nothing compared to the stuff Grey’s Anatomy does every week.
  • Because I have a feeling it was intentionally done to “even the scales” when it comes to nudity, I have to point out that showing Ben Barnes’ butt in a non-sexual context is not the same thing as deeply sexualizing Amber Rose Revah’s body.
  • The episode opens with an effectively creepy nightmare in which Frank is tied to his chair as his family and Micro’s are massacred at the Thanksgiving table. Later, Frank and Micro also sweetly reminisce about their holiday traditions. Consider that a timely “Happy Thanksgiving!” from The Punisher, I guess.

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