Spoilers, of course.
Frank Castle is a character that is almost the very definition of problematic. He is a one-man army, an ultimate vengeance fantasy, and could very easily be portrayed in a way that condones murderous vigilantism. When Castle was introduced in the second season of Daredevil, that show smartly introduced him as a foil to Matt Murdock, comparing both characters’ approaches to their pursuits of perceived justice. Unfortunately, that show eventually shifted its focus away from this surprisingly frank (I’m so sorry) discussion on the contradictions and dangers of taking the law into your own hands. Thankfully, this first season of The Punisher does not make the same mistake.
The first three episodes of the show are difficult to get through, not due to the quality of the show, or even because of the violence, but because it is slow. All of the Marvel Netflix shows have this pacing problem; episodes where little happens from a plot or character perspective because of the need to fill that 13 episode order. What’s interesting about how The Punisher approaches this issue is that the first three episodes serve as an extended pilot. An overextended pilot. There are plenty of great parts throughout these three episodes, but it delays any narrative momentum. It is definitely one of those shows that requires the viewer to trust that this is all building to something.
The show begins to find a rhythm around the time that Frank and David join forces. David Lieberman, also known as Micro, is a former NSA analyst who leaked footage of a cold-blooded murder by U.S. military to the victim’s partner, Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani. The leak led to David being framed for a crime and nearly killed by government officials seeking to cover up the murder. Presumed dead, David has remained hidden and recruits Frank to help him take down the parties behind this conspiracy. The fact that Frank was part of that conspiracy, specifically the murder footage that David leaks, complicates matters.
The Punisher‘s first season has a few primary narrative threads: there is the conspiracy being investigated by Frank and David, agent Dinah Madani’s similar investigation, and a young veteran named Lewis’ struggle adjusting to civilian life. Like the show itself, each of these threads start very slow, but gradually build up in tension and intertwine in ways that are surprising and brutal.
I was particularly impressed with how the show managed to contrast Lewis’ eventual turn to vigilantism with Frank’s approach to vigilantism. Lewis’ difficulty dealing with the trauma of his time overseas, and no longer having a war to fight, is depicted with care despite the misguided and murderous turn that he ultimately takes. It’s a tragic and chilling arc.
Another highlight is the partnership and friendship that grows between Frank and David. David initially attempts to recruit Frank through some manipulative methods. Frank responds by figuring out his identity, tracking him down, and torturing him. It’s not a traditional start to a friendship. This introduction happens during the first three episodes, so Frank’s denial that David actually wants Frank’s help to do something good is dragged out a lot.
The biggest surprise to me, and one of the absolute best parts of this show, is agent Dinah Madani. From a plot perspective, the journey that her character goes through could have felt boring or predictable. Madani is a character constantly having to circumnavigate the limitations of her department, and in the first few episodes, the condescension of her new boss. However, unlike another law enforcement character in the Marvel Netflix ‘verse, Madani is written with intelligence and respect, and never used as an obstacle to further the plot or another character’s development.
This take on Frank Castle continues to be given the right balance of anger, sadness, and trauma. The scenes that he shares with David, especially the scene where they drink together and reminisce on how they met their respective wives, allow us to not only see more of Frank’s humanity, but also be effectively reminded of how much the character has lost.
David is also a gem. A fugitive that spends most of his days in a derelict building, watching his family on security cameras because they think he’s dead, is a very tricky sell for a main character. But The Punisher successfully shows the constant pain of what this scenario would actually do to someone. The eventual reunion with his family is given the right amount of time to breathe, and culminates in a sex scene between David and Sarah, his wife, that is one of the most surprisingly heartwarming moments in this show.
The violence throughout the season strikes an impressive balance of brutal without feeling too showy. Blood is spilled, bones are broken, faces are smashed into broken glass. None of it is glamorized or pretty, which helps this show’s portrayal of Castle’s vigilantism a lot. Even the first episode’s opening montage of Castle killing all the gang members involved in his family’s murder is devoid of glorification.
The Punisher successfully continues to ask the questions about morality and vigilantism that Frank Castle’s introduction in Daredevil provided. And thankfully, the show depicts these issues with the appropriate amounts of respect, violence, and horror. Make it through those first few episodes, the show is very much worth it.