Marvel’s The Punisher: Season 2 (and last?) — a review

PunisherS2

On the same day I finished watching the second season of Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix, I also read the (expected) announcement that both this series and Jessica Jones have been cancelled by the streamer.

There is already a third season of everyone’s favorite powered alcoholic private eye in the can, to be dropped later this year, but, according to sources, Jessica was officially cancelled in advance to allow the actors to find other work instead of waiting around for a fourth season. Mighty nice of ’em.

Disney is starting its own streaming service, in direct competition with Netflix, later this year. Since Mickey & Co. also own Marvel, it’s not a real shock that the Marvel shows are leaving their current platform. The question is whether or not any of the four series which have been cancelled will continue in some form on the Disney streaming service. And, now that I mention it, whether or not the same casts will be used. The comment about the cast of Jessica Jones finding other work suggests that these shows are really ending.

While that disappoints me, I know I’ll get over it. Plus, it allows these series to end before they get old and tired (I’m looking at you, Arrowverse). Netflix will retain the rights to all of the shows that have aired on their platform, so new viewers will be able to discover them there for years to come. My memories of the shows (assuming that Season 3 of Jessica Jones is at least okay) will remain good ones. Much like my memories of the series Firefly and Freaks and Geeks.

Enough about the Marvel exodus from Netflix. This is a review of The Punisher. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

This season has a different feel than the first season. Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), at the conclusion of Season 1, had managed to “punish” everyone who had a hand in the deaths of his wife and children. This included his best friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), whom Frank beat to the point of death, even though he couldn’t bring himself to kill him outright.

As this season begins, it seems that Frank has retired, and now goes by the name Pete. He’s hanging out in a roadhouse watching Shooter Jennings’ band perform and starting a relationship with a pretty bartender. Pete seems to be living a life that passes for normal compared to Frank’s life prior to this. But, then teenaged grifter Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham) enters his life, and Frank feels obligated to protect her from the people who are trying to kill her. And, just like that, Frank’s new girlfriend is wounded (but not killed) and The Punisher is immediately up to his neck again in bullets, knives, and hand-to-hand combat. The Amy storyline quickly escalates into a major event involving blackmailing Russians, a gay politician with ruthless Bible-thumping billionaire parents, and a reformed skinhead assassin named John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), who buys his wardrobe at Forever Amish.

This story is interesting, even though the villains’ motivations are never convincing to me.

At first, John Pilgrim seems to be doing the bidding of right-wing billionaires Anderson and Eliza Schultz (Corbin Bernsen and Annette O’Toole) out of a sense of loyalty and obligation. The Schultzes saved him from his former life and mold him into a God-fearing Christian man with a wife and two sons. Then, we find out that Pilgrim’s wife is sick, dying. In fact, Pilgrim is away from home on his “mission” to New York when his wife passes away. Later, it seems that the Schultzes (particularly Eliza Schultz) is threatening Pilgrim’s sons if he doesn’t do as he’s instructed. Considering that Pilgrim seems to be very good at killing and committing all sorts of violence upon others, these mixed motivations (which may also include just a smidgen of brainwashing) become hard to reconcile with the assassin’s supposedly devout Christian beliefs. Plus, in the year 2019, it’s difficult to believe that the Schultzes could justify killing dozens of people just to keep photos of their only child kissing another dude from going public. Their responses just don’t seem proportionate, let alone Christian.

I liked Josh Stewart’s portrayal of John Pilgrim. His character comes off as genuinely threatening and effective, and, at the end, even sympathetic. Corbin Bersen and Annette O’Toole, as the Schultzes, are extremely underutilized, and probably should have been given more screen time. These two are acting their asses off, but their limited time on-camera makes their layered performances seem more artificial than sincere.

If the story of Amy, Pilgrim and the Schultzes was all we were dealing with this season, that may have been enough to keep the story momentum in check. But, we can’t leave the story of Season 1 alone. Billy Russo is still alive, after all. So, cue up Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), who fell in love with Billy in the first season before they both tried—and failed—to kill each other. She’s obsessed with Russo, even while he lies in a hospital bed. We find out that she visits him morning and night. It’s like she’s obsessed with him or something. Curtis Holt (Jason R. Moore), the one-legged former war brother to both Frank Castle and Billy Russo, also makes his return. Curtis is a good man trying to make the right choices throughout the story, and his actions take the plot in a few unexpected, but satisfying, directions. Micro’s story was wrapped up in the first season, so he doesn’t appear in this one.

New character Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima) appears as a new love interest and enabler for the brain-damaged Billy Russo. In spite of her childhood trauma (which we revisit one time too many for my tastes), she manages to come off as less sympathetic even than Russo, who at least doesn’t remember being the Big Bad from Season 1. I remember Ms. Lima from her stint on Supergirl as Sam’s girlfriend Maggie. She always seemed to have a dangerous edge, and I knew she would be a villain (at least villain-adjacent) on this show as well. There was very little suspense here. Her ultimate fate in this season (which should have been her death scene—my opinion) was telegraphed so clumsily that it’s humorous.

At least Dinah and Curtis (and, to a certain degree, Frank himself) are given a bit more closure than the first season offered. But, this entire story arc would have made a better season of its own. As it stands, it is a story line running parallel to the Amy/Pilgrim/Schultzes story line. Its only intersecting points are Frank and Curtis. Of course, we’re not getting a third season, and maybe the showrunners understood that earlier than the rest of us did. It would explain why many elements of the Billy Russo plot seem shoehorned into this season.

Even with two separate plot lines, this season still managed to feel bloated at thirteen episodes. Episodes 10 through 12 seemed way too “talky” and uneventful to me. Episode 13 “The Whirlwind” is action-packed enough to pay for everything that came before. The resolution of Amy’s story line, however, doesn’t seem as satisfying as the Billy Russo one. It’s almost if plans were already being made to bring certain characters back.

The choreographed gunplay and hand-to-hand combat was over-the-top great this season. Darn near—dare I say it?—cinematic. The violence is cartoonishly excessive, and gloriously so. In fact, I may have become desensitized to violence while watching this show. Because of this fact, and some strong language, I wouldn’t recommend this for the kiddies, or even for overly-sensitive adults. If nudity is what worries you: nothing to fear here. I don’t recall any. Just unapologetic death and mayhem.

This final season of Marvel’s The Punisher (on Netflix, at least) was still fun for me. Jon Bernthal is now my favorite Frank Castle, hands down. It will be a shame if this was his last hoorah.

The story has its flaws, as most action movies do, but these are spackled over somewhat by the violent set pieces. In all, I would still consider this to be above-average television.

Season 2 Report Card: B-Plus

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