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Why the second season of Punisher feels like such a drag

Bernthal is great, as are the fight scenes. But the writing this season was really shoddy.

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle in The Punisher.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Netflix and Marvel’s The Punisher is back for its second season, but perhaps the biggest currently surrounding the series is the question of whether season two will also be the show’s last.

Over the past year, many of Netflix’s Marvel series — namely Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and most recently Daredevil — have been canceled. That’s despite the fact that Luke Cage’s last season was pretty good, and Daredevil’s was enjoyable. (Iron Fist’s was an improvement on its dismal first season, but the show ultimately didn’t last long enough to ever really turn things around.)

The presumed reason for the cancelations isn’t quality or lack of interest (Netflix is famously very stingy with its viewing data, but Marvel’s Netflix shows have always had a vocal core fanbase). Rather, Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is planning to launch a streaming service of its own later this year — where it is expected to host its own original Marvel shows. Many people believe Netflix is jettisoning its Marvel catalog because the shows, which are produced by Marvel TV and ABC Studios, will be moving to Disney’s service in the future. This is also in keeping with Netflix’s recent moves to focus more on creating original programming whose rights it controls 100 percent.

Thus, The Punisher season two might very well the last we see of the series, at least until Disney’s streaming service is online. So is it any good?

In short, it’s a mixed bag. The show’s signature fight scenes are still fantastic, as is the Punisher himself, Jon Bernthal. But something seemed to go wrong in the writers’ room this go-round, and even with a new dynamic that changes Frank’s life, there are still some stories in play that might have been better wrapped up in season one. If this really is the end of The Punisher — at least for now — watching season two, for me, gave a feeling more like relief than sadness over something I’m going to miss.

Here are five things to know about the new episodes.

1) If you like The Last of Us or Logan, you might like The Punisher season two

The Punisher’s second season relies on an age-old storyline about a tough, cold hero who, through some turn of events, takes a vulnerable youngster under his wing and vows to protect them at all costs.

In this case, Frank Castle (Bernthal), for one reason or another, feels compelled to protect a young girl named Amy (Giorgia Whigham) who, for one reason or another, is in desperate need for protection. He’s supposed to be gruff and soulless, and yet she brings out the softness and vulnerability in him. She’s supposed to be sweet and relatively innocent (well, at least not as grizzled as Frank), but he brings out the toughness in her.

Marvel’s comic books have played with this dynamic in stories featuring X-Men’s Wolverine and his “tough dad” relationship to Jubilee and Kitty Pryde, as well in stories featuring Cable and Hope Summers. Fox’s 2017 film Logan was an adaptation of those types of Wolverine stories. Other examples include Iron Man and Spider-Man’s relationship in recent Marvel movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Infinity War, and the central relationship of 2013’s award-winning video game The Last of Us.

Being familiar with those works made me appreciate what The Punisher is going for in season two, and initially got me interested in Frank and Amy’s partnership. But as the episodes unfolded, I found myself thinking that the works I mentioned above all did a better job of establishing a relationship that I wanted to see through to the end, via their writing and execution of their characters’ interactions with one another.

With that said, there is a moment in The Punisher season two in which Amy pulls bullets out of Frank’s butt, and I don’t think I’ve seen that done in any television show in recent memory (though I’m more than willing to be proven wrong).

2) Frank Castle is a father again

In the first season of The Punisher, we witnessed everything that Frank lost. We saw his prewar life, and what a nice man he used to be. The difference became even more stark when we saw what a cold man he became after losing everything. But by the end of that season, it felt like Frank had hit rock bottom, and was on his way back to being human again.

Season two sees Frank in a better mental state, and picks up in a somewhat more pleasant place (precisely how pleasant depends on your feelings toward Michigan). In doing so, it adds a new layer of tension to the show, as it makes the audience hold their breath to see if some new event will plunge Frank back into darkness. Amy’s presence also factors in, as she essentially becomes his new child and his new family of sorts, and he doesn’t want to lose her like the family he’s already loved and lost.

3) Some of season two’s writing is lacking

In The Punisher season one, Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) might have been the worst Homeland Security officer on television. She was thoroughly duped by Billy Russo, the season’s main villain, and had something of an anti-Midas touch, as any stakeout or plan she was involved in would end in death and disarray.

Season two sees Madani continue her losing streak, which mainly consists of her not being able to control Frank even though she says he shouldn’t be allowed to run loose and impart his vigilante justice on everyone he deems unworthy. And fine, I understand that in the world of Marvel stories, law enforcement has to be somewhat shoddy, because if authorities were always excellent at their jobs, there would be no need for superheroes.

But in addition to not letting her be a very good Homeland Security officer, the writers this season have really phoned it in with Madani. Her character only exists to tell viewers everything she is feeling and everything she did or is about to do. At one point, she asks another character, “I am a smart, strong woman, why would I do something like that?”

If “a smart, strong woman” is how the writers see Madana and want to portray her, she needs better dialogue, for starters. She also needs to have moments where she acts like a “smart, strong, woman” so we’re more inclined to believe her — her season two storyline where she becomes infatuated with Billy Russo doesn’t do her any favors.

4) Billy Russo is still The Punisher’s main villain

While the first episode of The Punisher season two introduces a creepy, chilly new Christian zealot villain, Russo (Ben Barnes) is still the show’s primary baddie. That’s largely due to Russo’s emotional connection to Frank — he could have helped save Frank’s family and was Frank’s best friend at one point in their lives. The new villain, John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), doesn’t have that same deep relationship with Frank, and while frightening, becomes more of a terrifying afterthought than a compelling villain.

We catch up to Russo trying to recover his memories after the head trauma he suffered at the conclusion of season one. His face is scarred (the way he interacts with other characters on the show seems to indicate it’s horrific, but in reality the scars look like stylish and sexy), and he’s working with a therapist to stitch together everything that’s happened and explain why Frank Castle lives in his nightmares.

This season we ask: Can Billy start over again? Given his mental reset, will he return to his evil ways? Are Billy and Frank ever going to forgive one another? Does Billy? deserve another shot at redemption?

Billy, like Madani, is forced to utter some poor, heavy-handed lines to convey these thoughts. But it’s a testament to Barnes’s ability as an actor and the thoughtfulness paid to Billy and Frank’s relationship in The Punisher’s first season, that some of them actually work.

5) Once again, The Punisher doesn’t scrimp on violence. And it’s very beautiful violence.

In 2017, Marvel delayed the release of The Punisher’s first season because of the mass shooting in Las Vegas where at least 50 people were killed. And because gun violence in America is inescapable, it’s understandable that a show so heavy on gun violence, might turn some viewers off.

But with that said, shows like The Punisher and movies like John Wick (and its sequel) — which have been lauded and appreciated for their creative shootouts and fight scenes — have started a conversation about how we view gun violence in art.

At what point does gun violence in art turn into bad taste? Is it just a matter of timing? Can a viewer appreciate the art of a fight sequence or chase scene if the scene is reliant on guns? And perhaps more pertinently, what separates art from indulgence? Is there a clear line between them?

It feels strange saying this, but I think I was able to appreciate the fight sequence work in The Punisher more in season two because I knew what to expect, and because its zealot villain makes it feel more heightened than season one. Additionally, I watched it at a time when there hadn’t just been a news cycle about a major episode of gun violence in America (whereas when I screened season one, the Las Vegas shooting had just occurred).

I definitely recognize that other viewers reactions may vary.

But for as meandering the season is, for the viewers who are looking for action and who can view the show’s violence as art with more distance from reality, The Punisher’s fight scenes and gun-slinging are top-notch. The action is bloody, brutal, and beautiful its own special kind of way.

We get to see Frank hurt people in a variety of ways in a variety of settings: bars, bar bathrooms, bar dance floors, cars, gyms, trailers, and affluent white people’s homes, to name a few.

Each one of those scenes is thoughtfully choreographed with regard to space, movement, sound, and energy. The fight sequences hold your interest, surprising with something new. And none of them — even a particularly tricky one that involves people shooting at each other through a wall — disappoints.