This review contains spoilers for seasons one and two of The Punisher
Season two of The Punisher starts off with an engaging and refreshing first episode. Many of the players, circumstances, and mysteries are set up and alluded to, and we get to see the titular character, played brilliantly by John Bernthal, settle into a different role than we usually see him in. Rather than yelling loudly and murdering people, Frank Castle, AKA the Punisher, is just drifting through life and hanging out at a bar. Of course, this doesn’t last too long, and we soon get to witness Frank yell loudly and murder people, but yell loudly in my face and murder me if that isn’t immensely satisfying to watch. The first episode ends on this bonkers bar fight with some outstanding choreography, and with such an explosive finale leaving many lingering questions in its wake, season two promises much more intrigue, action, and excitement to come.
Unfortunately, season two of The Punisher largely fails to capitalize on its enormous potential, and this is mostly due to one of its villains, Billy Russo. After last season concluded with Frank Castle beating Billy near to death and permanently scarring his face, Billy wakes up in the hospital with amnesia. He has completely forgotten that he and Frank were enemies and only remembers their time together as army buddies. While I wouldn’t blame you for pointing out that this twist is straight out of a soap opera, its execution and its placement in this season are where it actually fails. Simply put, Billy Russo is overused and distracts heavily from the rest of the narrative.
Given that Billy was the first season’s main antagonist, it seems odd that he plays such a prominent role here. Obviously, the heroes are still affected by Billy’s actions from season one, which makes sense; ignoring the fallout of its past would have made season two of The Punisher feel very disconnected from itself, but I think the opposite problem occurs with Billy’s inclusion here. Season two is too eager to reference and dredge up its past, and as a result, Billy Russo shows up during the middle of the season and steals the focus away from almost everything else that is going on. Since the show reiterates Billy’s presence so much, I’ll reiterate the fact that Billy has already been dealt with. Season one explored his character and relationship to other characters like Frank Castle and Dinah Madani extensively, so it’s very odd that his character has essentially been rebooted in an attempt to create a compelling conflict. And frankly, it’s hard to feel invested in that conflict when we’re watching Billy Russo get shot, stabbed, or beaten up for the umpteenth time and he still manages to get away. Billy is not the only character who takes an unbelievable amount of physical punishment that he probably wouldn’t be able to survive, but I won’t hold this against season two of The Punisher too much; this is, after all, a superhero show about human killing machines kicking the living snot out of each other.
While Billy Russo largely flops, this season’s other primary antagonist, John Pilgrim, is far more compelling. A former criminal with substance abuse problems, John thoroughly changed himself by finding religion, getting clean, marrying a woman, and having two children with her. Unfortunately, John became a little too convinced that this new path was wholly righteous. You see, this season’s “true” villains are the wealthy parents of a U.S. senator who are seeking to install their son as the president of the United States—as their political puppet, of course. I would talk more about them, but truth be told, they’re not all that complex or interesting, being run-of-the-mill greedy puppet masters similar to last season’s Agent Orange.
They serve their purpose for the plot, however, enlisting John Pilgrim as their hand of justice and using him as a means to kill anybody who threatens to expose their secrets. One of these secrets is that their son, the U.S. senator, is gay, and they believe that this information being revealed to the public would kill their son’s chances of winning a national election. Because of this, they send John to hunt down the individual who holds photographs of their son kissing another man. Tragically, however, John’s wife is dying of cancer, leaving him with a strict timeline to retrieve the photographs and return to his wife to be with her in her final moments.
The stakes are high for John, then, as they are for Frank Castle: the person that John is hunting down is a young woman named Amy, who due to her involvement in a blackmail scheme, is the one actually holding the photos in question. After Frank rescues her from a group of assassins in the bar from the first episode, Amy becomes his surrogate daughter of sorts. Both Frank and John have something, and someone, to lose, making John Pilgrim an excellent foil to Frank Castle. Both are hardened killers, and both have remade themselves in one way or another: Frank Castle remakes himself into the vigilante known as the Punisher after losing his family, and John Pilgrim remakes himself into a born-again Christian after gaining a family, even changing his name from Robert to John. John still has his wife and children to lose, and there is an empathy that Frank shows John in the season two finale because of this, which results in perhaps the most interesting conflict in the whole show.
I liked John Pilgrim as a villain more than I thought I would, as he initially comes off as somewhat cliché. Our introduction to John involves him choking someone to death while quoting the Bible, and it’s apparent to the viewer that his wholehearted faith in his manipulators is misplaced. While he appears to be entirely unaware of how misplaced his faith in them are, it is later revealed that he isn’t as dumb as he seems. The real reason that he’s working for them, as he states to Frank Castle, is that they have his children; they are essentially holding them hostage through the implied threat that if John disobeys them, bad things could happen to his two sons.
There is a huge problem with John Pilgrim, however, and that problem is the lack of interaction he has with the main characters. John doesn’t actually come face-to-face with Frank and Amy until the final two episodes of the season, which is a true shame, since these episodes offer some of the best scenes in the entire show. John spends most of the season trailing just behind the heroes, occasionally skirmishing with them here and there but never actually speaking to them. I once again have to point the finger at Billy Russo, the character who hijacks the plot and takes it out for a largely pointless joyride. The emotional core of this season’s story undoubtedly revolves around Frank, Amy, and John, and there is a genuinely engaging and heartfelt tale to be told here. Yet Billy Russo comes in again and tramples over all of that because the showrunners wanted him back for season two. If they had decided to nix Billy Russo entirely, or even grant him a more minor role, I feel like this could have been one of Marvel’s greatest seasons of television.
Despite its structural issues and some of its execution, season two of The Punisher has some excellent performances from its cast. John Bernthal as the Punisher continues to be sublimely captivating, with every action and line of dialogue from him carrying a palpable weight. Newcomer Giorgia Whigham brings significant nuance to the character of Amy, capturing both her inner darkness and childlike energy. Amber Rose Revah as Agent Dinah Madani physically moves in a different way than she did last season, subtly demonstrating the trauma and change her character has experienced over time, and Josh Stewart as John Pilgrim offers a quiet but commanding onscreen presence. Lastly, Ben Barnes as Billy Russo does a surprisingly good job at conveying the confusion and betrayal his character encounters this season, despite the fact that the writers were likely confused with what Billy was supposed to be doing in this season in the first place.
All of this isn’t to say that season two of The Punisher is bad; it’s undoubtedly entertaining, if not solely on the basis of its creative action sequences that feature some of the most unapologetically brutal choreography that I’ve seen on television. Even without its signature fight scenes, however, season two of The Punisher shines with its relationship between Frank and Amy. Amy herself is overflowing with sass, but not to the point where she functions solely as comedic relief, and this plays very nicely off of Frank’s ultra-macho persona. More importantly, both her and Frank are afraid of opening up to people, of someone truly knowing them in the wake of their trauma, and their interactions and growing trust over the course of the season is genuinely gripping.
Billy Russo’s inclusion yet again causes issues, though, as he essentially erases Amy from the narrative for nearly half the season, and this time could undoubtedly have been spent fleshing out her backstory some more. It was definitely a letdown for me when it was revealed that Amy was involved in a blackmail scheme and…that’s it. I honestly thought another reveal or twist would follow this up, but none ever came. Frank and Amy’s final scene together was heartbreaking to watch despite the fact that they didn’t get as much screen time together as they should have, and this serves as a testament to season two’s untapped potential.
This season’s conclusion is its strongest feature, and not only due to John Pilgrim There is a very tense scene between Madani and Dr. Dumont (Billy’s therapist and lover) in the penultimate episode that had me gripping the edge of my seat in terror, and the ending itself is satisfying and surprisingly cathartic. The actual final scene is pretty cheesy, its only purpose being to reaffirm that Frank Castle will continue taking out New York City’s criminals as the Punisher, but seeing as how it’s two minutes long and has no negative effects on the characters or plot, I don’t have any real issue with it.
With most of Netflix’s Marvel shows being cancelled, it’s highly likely that The Punisher will follow suit, meaning that this will probably be its final season. Maybe the showrunners knew the fate of The Punisher while they were working on it, and maybe that’s why they decided to cram as much as they possibly could into it. Regardless, season two of The Punisher has a lot of quality but far too much quantity, and I can only hope that we’ll see John Bernthal’s Punisher pop up again in live-action Marvel media—this time, in a show or movie that has learned to trim its fat.