Tuesday 23 February 2021

The Punisher: Season 2

Frank Castle has left his old life as the Punisher behind him and has hit the road, travelling across America in search of something else. A pitstop at a bar leads to mayhem and a bloodbath, as hired assassins try to take down a teenage girl for reasons even she doesn't understand. Castle becomes her reluctant protector, at the same time his old nemesis, Billy Russo, escapes from custody back in New York and goes on a new rampage.

The first season of The Punisher wasn't part of The Plan that Netflix had originally developed with Marvel, but emerged due to the overwhelmingly positive reception to Jon Bernthal's portrayal of the character in a guest spot on the second season of Daredevil. The result was a very strong season of television (and a notable improvement in the Netflix-MCU's form at a time when the franchise seemed to be declining hard), although also one that seemed to leave it in up in the air where a second season could have gone.

The second season, intriguingly tries to do two things simultaneously. The first is tell a completely new story totally divorced from any previous events. In this storyline, a bunch of killers are on the trail of Amy (Giorgia Whigham), a petty young criminal who has stumbled across a secret which...isn't that big a deal, actually, but by the time that comes out the mayhem has escalated out of control (an interesting take the show doesn't really explore much). Frank's latent paternal instincts kick in and he ends up agreeing to protect Amy from her pursuers, though he grumpily insists throughout the season this is because they're now on his trail and his code requires him to kill them all before they can kill him. This storyline sees the pair targeted by born-again hitman John Pilgrim (a superb performance by Josh Stewart). It's a relatively strong story, although a bit overfamiliar: we're firmly in Logan/The Mandalorian/The Last of Us/God of War/BioShock/Terminator 2/Aliens territory here, complete with the kid breaking down the taciturn badass's barriers and him reluctantly tutoring her in weapons use and self-defence. But hey, the actors sell it really well.

The second storyline is a straight-up continuation of Season 1. Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is in hospital, "hideously disfigured"* by Castle in the Season 1 finale, and suffering from memory loss and nightmares. Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), still recovering herself after Russo shot her in the head, thinks he's lying and biding his time for a chance to escape, an obsession that endangers her career. Russo - spoilers! - escapes and goes on a rampage, abusing the goodwill of fellow US military vets and a sympathetic psychiatrist (Krista Dumont, played by Floriana Lima), and a number of competing interests attempt to track him down, with Madani eventually dragging in Castle to help out.

Having two storylines unfolding in tandem which have absolutely nothing to do with one another is a odd take, but a strangely effective one. The Netflix Curse - the urgent desire to stretch a story out to thirteen episodes completely regardless of how much story you have - has laid low several of the Netflix-MCU shows but intercutting between two strong narratives means this problem is minimised, with some episodes developing both storylines and some focusing on one to the exclusion of the other. The problem of the season feeling a bit on the long side for the story it's telling is certainly still there (at ten episodes this would have been pacier and punchier), but at least they try to overcome it.

The season features great performances - Bernthal is stellar as usual, and Revah, Barnes and Whigham are outstanding - and pretty good writing, as well as effective stunt work. There's a few gunfights and action sequences that rank almost among the best in the Netflix-MCU (not quite up there with Daredevil's best fights, but not far off), and the visceral nature of the violence is at times uncomfortable, which for the Punisher is as it should be. The show continues to ask hard questions of government and military accountability - the plight of veterans left to fend for themselves is another story continued from the first season - and also continues to avoid giving pat answers.

The main weakness is perhaps a feeling of redundancy: the season spends a lot of time mopping up dangling loose ends from Season 1, which sometimes lead to repetitive scenes (Frank gets beaten up and shot - again - but ultimately triumphs; Madani gets in over her head; Russo goes nuts). The season also peaks early: the best episodes are the first three, with Frank on a road trip through Michigan and Ohio culminating in an Assault on Precinct 13-aping shootout at a police station. The rest of the season is still good, but more predictable.

The second season of The Punisher (****) is entertaining, though also brutal and hard-going at times. It is driven by excellent performances and better pacing than most of the Netflix-MCU shows, but sometimes repeats some motifs and ideas from the first season a bit too readily. The show is available to watch worldwide on Netflix now.

* He has, like, two shaving scars and a slight gash in his forehead which is barely noticeable.

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