[Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers for “The Punisher” Season 2, including the ending.]
One of the most remarkable things about “The Punisher” is the way in which it doesn’t hold in its rage. This is a show that feels fundamentally angry about the world — the criminals working within the system, the systems which oppress good people, the good people who get chewed up through no fault of their own. And it doesn’t hold back, thanks to good ol’ Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), rampaging his way through the world, dealing out his own brand of justice.
The most violent of the “Defenders” universe series, Bernthal’s take on the Punisher was first introduced in “Daredevil” Season 2, but barring a cameo or two his spin-off is easily the most disconnected from the rest of the franchise, one which can easily be enjoyed without catching up on “Iron Fist” or “Luke Cage.” Season 2, after an en media res hyper-violent opener, is followed by a “Two Days Earlier…” that reveals Frank’s post-Season 1 path: easing us back in by showing us the former Marine-turned-vigilante at perhaps his most relaxed.
Frank’s just bopping around America, enjoying the sights in a vagabond way, but just at a moment when he seems like he’s found real peace, trouble ends up finding him. The premiere introduces Amy (Giorgia Whigham), a young girl chock full of moxy, but not enough moxy to keep her from danger. Protecting her eventually becomes Frank’s sole focus — very scary news for those who are trying to track her down.
What makes this season of “The Punisher” work so well is that it feels less like a Season 2 and more like a Season 5, a standalone story in the established adventures of Frank Castle. The core of the season is the bond that develops between Frank and his new young friend, a surrogate daughter who’s his match in terms of stubbornness and spine. The forces chasing her, led by the fanatical and lethal Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), are funded by evil billionaires with Russian ties, making this season’s bad guys very interesting in the current political climate.
Pilgrim, as villains go, proves terrifying thanks to his Old Testament-esque ruthlessness — religious groups probably won’t be too happy about the character, especially his faded Iron Cross tattoo indicating his Nazi leanings, but the show makes a point of establishing just why he’s so devoted to his cause. Nearly everyone on this show seems to agree on one fact: protecting your family is worth killing for. (Even if it means threatening someone else’s family along the way.)
As for returning characters from Season 1, they vary in what they add to the series. Marvel series have an established pattern of relying on two villains to sustain 13 episodes worth of plot, and thus welcome back Billy Russo, now transformed into this show’s take on classic “Punisher” nemesis Jigsaw. However, Billy’s crime rampage is given less narrative weight than his relationship with Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima), the psychologist assigned to work with him after the extreme trauma Billy sustained at the hands of Frank in Season 1.
It doesn’t take too long for it to be clear that Krista has secrets of her own, and it also doesn’t take too long for it to be clear that things between her and Billy are heading in a Harley Quinn/Joker direction. It’s a more sensitive and nuanced depiction of that sort of bond than, say, whatever was happening in David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad.” But it also falls into the category of “feels awfully familiar…”
Meanwhile, it’s a pleasure to see Amber Rose Revah back as Madoni, who continues to be an ever-intriguing bridge between the world of law and order and the pitch-black space in which Frank operates. In “Punisher’s” world, learning to let Frank do his thing is the smartest way to avoid getting hurt, but it’s not a lesson many pick up easily (as witnessed by how beat-up and broken this entire cast is looking by the end of the season).
Cast-wise, it remains impressive to see how well Bernthal carries this show: In any other actor’s hands, Frank as a character could easily fall apart, but Bernthal’s innate charisma is always lurking beneath his bulldog exterior, even when he’s literally grunting like an animal mid-attack.
In addition, Whigham (the daughter of Shea Whigham, whose previous screen work includes “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser” and “13 Reasons Why”) has real scene-stealing potential in this and future projects, and brings real fun and life to a series that, in its first season, leaned too hard on the darkness of the premise. This show desperately needed a character like her, to add some light to the darkness, and while the end of Season 2 witnesses her hop a bus to a happier life, hopefully the dynamic she brought to the screen is something a Season 3 would find a way to echo.
Of course, Season 3 is not a given. “Punisher” Season 2 launches under a bit of a dark cloud, as it could be the second-to-last new season of Marvel television on Netflix, following the cancellation of “Iron Fist,” “Daredevil,” and “Luke Cage,” with only “Jessica Jones” set to return for another season at this point. Theoretically, then, the last image we get of Bernthal as the Punisher could be the final moments of the Season 2 finale: skull t-shirt exposed, guns ablaze, Frank screaming like he’s the only one who sees how mad the world really is.
For this show, there are far worse ways to go.
“Marvel’s The Punisher” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.