CAUTION: I’m going to get into some spoilery territory in this review, so if you don’t want to know anything that happens, just skip to the last paragraph.
The Punisher wasn’t one of the original properties Netflix signed up to make with Marvel, but there was such a clamor from fans after season 2 of Daredevil that they wanted to see more of the character. The character has notoriously never been a hit with general audiences when it came to film adaptations, but this version of the anti-hero was different. He seemed to have a moral complexity which made him more relatable and entertaining than past incarnations. We could sympathize with his struggles even though we didn’t support his methods. In response, the streaming service decided to take and a chance with the character and develop his series as a spinoff.
Season 1 was a success. Though it didn’t reach the highs achieved by the first seasons of contemporaries Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Frank Castle’s (Jon Bernthal) particular intricacies and backstory took to the forefront. The character ended up being more of a reluctant hero than the villain he was made out to be initially. As such, even though law enforcement didn’t approve of his ways, they let him walk free as a sort of necessary evil. The acting and character development were strong points, as was the action choreography, but the season suffered mostly from its grim atmosphere, length, and drawn out plot.
Season 2 picks up where the first left off, with Frank attempting to move on with his life after putting the past behind him. To that end, he stops off in a random backwater town and has a chance encounter with a teenager by the name of Rachel/Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham). Though she seems anxious about something, she saunters off alone. After an attempted abduction by and shootout with an as-yet-unknown group of nefarious people, Frank takes an unwilling Amy under his protective wing. Simultaneously, a mask-wearing Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) has awoken from his comatose state and is being stalked by distrustful Special Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) while Dr. Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima) tries to heal his broken psyche.
I have a lot to say about this season and not much of it good, so let’s get that out of the way first. The action is still as great here as it was in season 1, so there’s no worry there. It really feels like I’m experiencing every punch and gunshot as they’re inflicted on their victims. Bernthal still embodies the Punisher just as well as he ever did even if he seems to yell “RUSSO!” twice every episode. In fact, most of the acting is pretty spot on for a low-budget TV show, including a great performance by Josh Stewart as John Pilgrim. I really like how the season starts out with a small-scale conflict that wouldn’t be out of place in the Punisher comic–the man just happens into a gunfight while trying to live his life as a drifter and wants to protect the innocent by any means necessary.
This one conflict, and everything that goes along with it, would have made for a decent movie in a series of Punisher flicks. Hell, so would the conflict with Russo, aka Jigsaw, if the screenwriters would have played that story properly. Instead, we get two completely different stories told concurrently which each would have comprised 2-3 hours’ worth of content but are stretched out over 13 hours. Though there are breadcrumbs of Amy and Pilgrim’s low-key story scattered about, Russo’s story is portrayed as the main conflict until the very end of the season, when Pilgrim takes center stage and becomes more fleshed out. The whole narrative is so boring and slow, with characters either complaining about things already covered in season 1 or repeatedly fighting after resolving disputes in the previous scene, that I was able to do other things on the side while mostly following the show. I needed something else to pass the time. Even the end to Russo is anti-climactic.
Maybe this narrative style would have worked if either of the stories would have been fully compelling. Amy’s story is interesting until we find out that the reason she is being desperately hunted, which doesn’t get revealed until 6 hours into the season, is because she has photographic evidence that a Senator is secretly gay. (The SCANDAL!) I understand the Schultzes are super religious and power-hungry and have groomed David since birth, but in the real world, we now have an openly gay mayor, Pete Buttigieg, who is running for president. Not to mention the fact that other industrialized nations have already elected openly gay heads of state. It strikes me as especially absurd because exactly 500 people were killed in the show in order to keep the information from getting out. Seems extreme. Apparently, there’s a theory that this plotline was supposed to be an allegory for the Trump Administration, with the Russians having dirt on the future presidential candidate mirroring real life, but even that line of thinking comes off as sort of half-assed because I didn’t get that impression on my own.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Jigsaw plot is similarly out of touch. In the beginning, Russo is unhinged and kills a few people breaking out of police custody. Yeah, that’s bad. But after that, he unwittingly adopts a style similar to the Punisher. First, he kills a pedophile who abused him when he was young. Then, he and his buddies beat a tow-truck guy. Again, that’s bad, but if he has health insurance, he’s fine. After that, they rob a payday lender. This seems bad at first, but in the real world, these businesses are so flagrantly predatory that there was recent legislation to curb their practices. (Of course, the Trump Administration subsequently hindered those efforts to protect consumers, but that’s another story.) It’s worth noting that no one was killed or injured during the robbery. So Russo actually comes off as a modern-day Robin Hood on closer inspection until Frank shows up, guns blazing, and starts shooting people, as he does. PTSD-sufferer Russo then flips out when he sees the skull vest and starts a gang, which by the way only seems to target other gangs.
So the concurrent stories are largely boring and not well thought out by the screenwriters. The action, set design, and character portrayals are all decent, but if there’s nothing compelling or realistic to tie those things together, what’s the point of even watching? As such, this season is right down there with the Defenders and Iron Fist’s first season. Your valuable time would be better spent watching something else.