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TV Review: The Punisher, Season 1

The Punisher
The Punisher

When Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle appeared in the second season of Marvel and Netflix's Daredevil, it's safe to say he stole the show. With his capacity for brutal violence, intense emotion, and moral provocation, The Punisher became the perfect foil for Matt Murdock's tortured Catholic vigilante. More than that, though, he is a staggeringly good version of a popular character who's never been portrayed particularly well on screen before. Thus, it was perhaps inevitable that we'd wind up here, talking about the first season of The Punisher, a spin-off show that focuses entirely on the titular antihero.

The Punisher picks up right where Castle's story ended in Daredevil, with Frank picking off the few remaining members of the biker gang, mexican cartel, and Irish mob involved in the botched drug deal-slash-sting operation that killed Castle's family and buried a bullet in his skull. After seemingly accomplishing his vengeance once and for all, he fakes his death, burns his iconic vest, and attempts to lead a quiet life as a solitary construction worker named Pete. Months later, though, he is drawn out of hiding and is found by Micro, an enigmatic government whistle-blower--also supposed to be dead--who knows things that might get Frank back on the path of punishment.

As a protagonist, The Punisher is a tricky beast, because he is not supposed to be a heroic figure like Captain America or Iron Man. He never assumes the moral high ground of Daredevil or Luke Cage, and he doesn't possess any superpowers aside from an uncanny knack for violence, exceptional training, and an inhuman drive to kill everything in his way. Though this series does make several attempts to humanize him to a certain degree, it never lets you forget that Frank Castle is a broken man, an asshole, and a psychopath. One can root for him, because the antagonists are usually much worse and because he does follow a code, regardless of how twisted and horrifying it would be if applied in the real world.

Sam and Dinah
The paranoia is palpable

This is just one example of a series that has to walk several different tightropes at once. It has to contain reasons to care for Frank, but it doesn't want anyone to forget that he's not someone to aspire to. It has to introduce clear-cut enemies for Frank to fight, but it also strives to serve up uncomfortable moral ambiguity. It has to give audiences deeply messed up scenes of violence and torture, but it also has to craft a very deliberate narrative based on intimate character relationships. It tells the tale of a man broken in large part by his military service, but it doesn't want to give audiences the impression that military service is an inherently evil thing.

While this delicate balancing act is impressive, there are a few stumbles here and there. Frank almost comes across as too sympathetic in the middle of the season; the primary villain is revealed surprisingly late (though fans of the comic should know right at the start who it is); the brutal violence and action fans expect are almost entirely missing until about nine episodes in; and some of the military stereotypes are a bit too indelicate for their own good. That said, there's a lot going on here, both on the surface and in the subtext, and it's fascinating to watch it all unravel. It's also far more coherently plotted and logically structured than the comparatively messy first season of Iron Fist.

Micro and Frank
Micro is awesome

Tonally, the series captures the overriding sense of paranoia and suspicion that defines the best Punisher comics, but it certainly doesn't shy away from unpleasant reality and timely reflection on painful subject matter. The characters, though, are what really sell it. Bernthal's Punisher is of course amazing to watch, and he has some exceptional scenes that live up to his break-out performances from Daredevil. His companion thoughout most of the season is Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who holds his own surprisingly well), and the pair of them have an amazing odd-couple chemistry that carries the show through its more plodding middle portion. I would gladly pit the Punisher-Micro dynamic against Cap-Bucky or Nelson-Murdock as the best bromantic friendship in the entire MCU.

The secondary hero of the season is Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), a Homeland Security agent who has just returned from Afghanistan after losing her partner under mysterious circumstances. She is no less driven than Castle, but she is one of the few morally uncompromised characters in the entire series. Madani is a critical component of the formula, and Revah offers a fascinating performance that goes through several iterations before the season is over. However, her story seems tangential until the last run of episodes, and it can make things feel both cluttered and boring.

The Punisher
Patience definitely pays off

Rounding out the cast are Frank's former brothers in arms, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes, in a jaw-dropping performance you wouldn't expect from Prince Caspian) and Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore, doing an excellent job giving heart and soul to the show), along with his former C.O., Agent Orange (Paul Schulze, acting somehow slimier and less likeable than he was in 24). There's also Micro's wife, Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman), who is both a problematic love interest for the Punisher but also a living reminder of what he's lost, and the returning Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), who doesn't overstay her welcome. Last but not least are a bunch of notable actors in minor roles, including the likes of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, C. Thomas Howell, and the incomparable Shohreh Aghdashloo.

The acting and writing excell, surpassing this year's other Marvel Netflix shows but not quite living up to the impossibly high standard set by Daredevil. Like most of the Marvel Netflix series, it could benefit from a tighter narrative with fewer episodes, and though the last run finds a new gear and doesn't let off the gas, the first two-thirds of The Punisher doesn't feel as intense as fans would probably expect. It deals with difficult subject matter and provocative themes quite well, and it has its fair share of surprises and interesting character turns. Frank Castle's own series is a welcome addition to the Marvel Netflix universe, and he breathes new life into a formula that was beginning to feel stale.

FINAL SCORE:

It's much better than both Iron Fist and The Defenders, but it gets a little slow in the middle.


-e. magill 11/24/2017

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