At the end of the first season of Netflix’s The Punisher, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead) is worn-down, bloody and wounded, but unbeaten by his friend-turned-nemesis Billy Russo (Ben Barnes, Westworld). As the second (and final?) season of the bloody vigilante series unfolds, we recognize that Castle has bounced back physically, but that he wrestles with the emotional scars internally.
Russo, later known as Jigsaw, wrestles with both.
The two of them are drawn back into conflict in New York City, when FBI agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) rescues Castle and a young runaway named Amy (Giorgia Whigham) from the pursuit of sadistic religious zealot John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), while Russo’s therapist-turned-number one fan Krista Dumont (Floriana Lima) believes everyone has misdiagnosed Russo as being more dangerous than he is. The truth is that both of them are fundamentally more dangerous than anyone can see – but possibly not as dangerous as Pilgrim or his overseers, The Testament’s Anderson and Eliza Schultz (Corbin Bernsen and Annette O’Toole).
Before diving into the power of the show – and it’s additional viewpoints wrapped into a conflicted plot – let’s be clear: the show is exciting, and thanks to Amy’s streetwise flippancy even funny. Unlike some shows that seem bent only on entertaining, never quite sure of any deeper message to tell, the Marvel Netflix run balances fun with actual heart and morality. Whether it’s a car chase or an AA meeting, a hand-to-hand brawl or funny banter between characters, the writing by Steve Lightfoot and Ken Kristensen seems to blend a bit of everything together. Nevermind that there’s the most creative use of weights in a film, maybe ever, or a Punisher-inflected send-up on Assault on Precinct 13.
While Castle and Russo clearly have issues – whether it’s the abuse they suffered in the foster system or their time spent fighting dirty wars abroad – that tear their souls apart and leave them suffering, there’s nothing quite like the misbegotten drive of religious zealots of any kind. Pilgrim is the hands, the fist really, of the Schultzes, but all of the religious mumbo-jumbo, the twisting of the scripture, makes their violence sicker. They know what they’re selling is faulty, but it’s an intentional misuse to delude and abuse those susceptible to what they’re doing. [Some feel this way about religion in general, but clearly, I don’t. Still, there are way too many times we see people use scripture and emotional violence to get what they want from those who are weaker.]
I can’t say I feel sorry for Russo but there’s definitely a different approach to his character than the first season. One might be inclined to say that the view we get of his character make it more compelling than Castle’s because Castle’s lack of vulnerability is worn on his sleeve like a shield. Instead, the focus of the second season is on the hurt we feel and the way that those previous scars determine our current decisions, presenting Russo and Castle as two options moving forward from the same situation.
Castle has lost his family and his respectability, and even a second chance at love; Russo doesn’t remember his recent past and can’t wrap his mind around the pain he knows in the present; Amy has seen all of her friends die and doesn’t know why; Madani can’t get anyone to believe her about the dangers of Russo, or what she’s lost due to being shot in the head; Pilgrim’s pain seems tied to his wife’s bedridden illness and his return to the violent life he left behind; Dumont won’t get into her pain. None of them are perfect, and some of them have even brought on their own pain, but they each get to choose whether to rise and fight, or give into the pain.
One of the more interesting elements of the second season is the way that Madani and Amy each try to influence Castle, and are influenced by him. While Russo draws others to him, Madani and Amy recognize the importance of what Castle is doing – fighting Russo and Pilgrim – but they disagree with his methods. Madani is still held back by her law code; Amy believes that people shouldn’t be executed for varying degrees of evil. [Through in Russo’s “good” doctor, Dumont, and you have three women who present a more optimistic understanding of evil and redemption.] But all of them — struggle.
So Russo wears his scars on his face, causing people to turn aside, until he puts on his mask – displaying to the world how he sees himself. Is it bravado, a mask? Or his mask the image of his inner soul? Carrying on the vibe of the first season, the audience may walk away entertained, but they’re also challenged in the way that the think about pain, hurt, and the return of our native sons from war. No one comes back unscarred, no one misses out on the hurt. But some of us choose to carry the pain differently.