The first season of The Punisher was infinitely better than I’d dared to hope for. Instead of the chest pounding gun toting hoo-ra fest it could so easily have become it ended up being a 13 Episode descent into both one man’s very particular Hell and the horrors of being a soldier without a war. In the current climate especially, when this could so easily have skewed into something truly nightmarish that’s an astonishing achievement.
It’s also one that means the show continually keeps things small and intimate. There’s a moment in the final episode where Frank is facing off with the ultimate villain of the piece at a fairground. A fairground that Frank has very good reason to never want to go anywhere near again. The two men stalk one another across a carousel and the visuals are startling. Two soldiers made of sleek lines and death, cutting direct paths through the curves and bright colors of normal life. They look inhuman, not superhuman. That moment goes a long way into why the show works as well as it does. It centers the narrative of the known soldier, back from the war but always trapped there, over and over again. Frank’s emotional arc through the series is driven by that, culminating in a grueling sequence when his life and death collide. Beaten into an abstraction of blood and pain by his former CIA handler, Frank flashes between dancing, and having sex with his wife, and the violence. He’s ultimately given a choice; die and move on into peace and rest, or live and get his revenge.
He chooses life. And violence.
That by itself would be good but pretty much off the peg bloody knuckled spirituality. For all the show’s effectiveness, it’s inescapable that Frank Castle’s family are fridged so he can become the avatar of violent manpain. That’s why the character is embraced by the far right as much as he is; when the only emotion you feel comfortable expressing is righteous anger, Frank Castle looks like a paragon of virtue.
In reality he’s anything but and the show works precisely because it spends so much time exploring that. Time and again, Jon Bernthal shows us a man who is painfully aware of what happens when he lets himself off the chain and how, worse, how comfortable he feels with that. At times Bernthal almost seems to be channelling the pitbulls he loves so much; playing Castle as a man acutely aware of how terrifying he is and all the gentler for it. Captain America with all of the decency and none of the luck.
That performance is the dark heart of a show that, one sidestep into massively ill-advised ‘cowardly gun control advocate’ tropes aside, navigates an impossible course. Fundamentally compassionate, clear eyed and pulling no punches it means Netflix are now 4 for 5 out of their Marvel character shows. If you were considering shying away, especially after Iron Fist, now is the time to come back.
The Punisher season 1 is streaming now on Netflix and will be released to own later this year. Season 2 is currently filming.
(This piece originally appeared in my newsletter, The Full Lid. Check out the archive over here, and subscribe for a weekly dose of pop culture, enthusiasm and my work)