As a character, Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher, and the world which he inhabits can be made either simple or complicated.
Frank Castle’s journey can be either binary, basking in the ultra-violent remnants of the 80s, or be tugged and prodded at in a revisionist sort of fashion, breaking apart action-movie archetypes to either have the one-dimensional outlook of it all be the point in its raw primal emotions, or to actually explore ideas of trauma, war, conspiracy and violence within the setting of a deeper plot.
I praised the first season of Marvel’s The Punisher, back in 2017, for finding a good balance between the two. It tackled some heavy-hitting concepts that are uncharted territory for a comic book show, especially Marvel. Despite its many flaws and reliance on cop/military drama tropes, how season 1 was able to meaningfully articulate its emotional themes of PTSD and empathy is what left the biggest impression on me.
Punisher season 2, however, falls short of reaching any of that. It’s a show that probably doesn’t need to exist, and maybe on some subconscious level, the showrunners know that.
Stumbling around in paint-by-number archetypes of redemption and retribution, it would’ve been a crime enough to make an audience go through the cringe-worthiest dialogue this side of Life is Strange (usually delivered via “Amy”, Punisher’s new teenage sidekick). It hacks away at any form of subtlety as to what characters are feeling and how we, the audience, should feel about their feelings.
Character developments made in Season 1 (and by extension, Daredevil Season 2, where The Punisher’s story first began) are discarded for paper mâché versions of the characters, as they meander after the book has already spelled out “The End”.
Whether it’s the unintentional hilarity of the reconstructed Billy Russo, a.k.a. Jigsaw in his “what a 12-year-old thinks mental illness and therapy looks like” mode, and his arts-and-crafts-project mask, or how the show acts as if though NYC is a small town with just two cops and one support group for veterans, the charges go way beyond the shortcomings of dialogue and plot.
What was unique in season 1 is rehashed in season 2, such as the struggle of veterans dealing with civilian life, but in a much more simplistic and juvenile fashion. Much like a lot of this season, it feels more like a vapid retread than a reaffirmation of existing themes.
The Punisher himself feels cheaply brought back to a story that’s already over, having been given moral conflicts that he has long surpassed dealing with in this particular way. His decisions in the show come off as contradictory and confusing, not because of his mental state, but because of the showrunners’ inability to decide how to portray him. This is laughably obvious during the last few seconds of the final episode.
Perhaps the biggest blunder comes from the handling of season 2’s new antagonist, John Pilgrim, an entirely new character created for the show. With John, the show painfully fumbles in creating Christian fundamentalist character with a past as a member of an undefined white supremacist gang, only using these elements as superficial decoration that tells you very little about him a person.
Any potential of depth with John Pilgrim, of which there is a lot, is squandered when the symbolism and imagery it tries to adorn him with turns out to be meaningless. This would be fine if he was supposed to be a one-dimensional character, but clearly, he’s not, so what gives? It’s like watching a high school student give a presentation on a topic they only researched for half an hour on their phone before class started.
At one point in the show, John is shown in a throw of self-flagellation. Considering that this seems out of place with the kind of Christianity he appears to practice, why does he do this? Is there an actual meaning behind it? Nope! Just throw some darts on a board of crazy Christian tropes and see what sticks!
All of this is rather unfortunate as The Punisher, as a concept, is an awesome canvas on which to draw all sorts of imagery and ideas that can reach out in all directions outside of just being a cathartic release for violent emotions.
Punisher Season 2 doesn’t even have the latter to offer, and all you’re left with is a badly written show that feels more like the first draft of an outline for a concept that should have been heavily rewritten–if not discarded–rather than a finished product. It simply fails to justify its existence.
In my review for season 1, I had suspected that the show might be cancelled, saying that it “triumphs over anything else put out under the Disney/Marvel label, and as far as I can tell, it won’t happen again”. I guess I was right, even if we did end up getting a second season after all.