The second season of The Punisher is another show that has fallen into the dark pit that is a TV show’s worst nightmare: the sophomore slump. As a fan of “The Punisher,” who has watched the first season three times (at least), the second was incredibly disappointing. One of the last remaining Marvel shows on Netflix, “The Punisher’s” protagonist is a dark excessively violent anti-hero, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal). In a nutshell, the second season is packed with cliches, missed opportunities, repetitive storytelling and stagnant writing.
After avenging the death of his wife and kids, uncovering a government conspiracy and saving New York from corruption, Frank Castle is given a clean slate with a shiny new identity. All Castle has to do is stay out of trouble, however, if he did, we wouldn’t have a new season to criticize. Of course, he is pulled into the shady life of this season’s damsel in distress, Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham). He decides to save her from a new, rather interesting antagonist found in Josh Stewart’s character, John Pilgrim, who is hunting the teenager in a dive bar in Michigan, of all places. While “saving” her in the way only The Punisher can, Billy Russo, his former best friend, the man responsible for the death of his family, escapes from the hospital. Homeland Security Agent Dinah Midani calls on Castle to find him, bringing Castle back to New York. Conveniently enough, New York also happens to be where Pilgrim’s original conflict with Amy began. One can enjoy this season if they’re not looking for or expecting much from it. The spark, the excitement, the intrigue that came with the first season is missing.
The most disheartening problem is the lack of character development that cripples the progression of the show. This season had too many villains: Billy Russo and John Pilgrim. Having too many villains takes away from the development of both characters. This isn’t a new mistake for Marvel—The Amazing Spiderman 2, for example—it has caused maddening missed opportunities. Too much of the season is focused on Billy Russo and his shenanigans, making the conflict with Pilgrim feel secondary despite the fact that Billy Russo’s story wasn’t that compelling. The relationship that he develops during the season is one of the most hated television tropes and cliches of all time. It also does nothing for his character. During the season Russo engages in a romantic relationship with his therapist, a woman that was meant to help him deal with his trauma and hold him accountable for his actions in the previous season. At the very least, her role would have better served as his moral compass. Instead she was relegated to eye-candy, to a woman who speaks of healing broken people while being too broken to actually heal anyone. This kind of storytelling is just a lazy and convoluted way to try and squeeze out as much sympathy for Russo as possible when there really shouldn’t be any. Whenever therapist-client relationships develop, viewers groan because those relationships do a disservice to the characters that engage in them.
This stole from the possible brilliance that could have been found in Pilgrim. Pilgrim is a character that was complex and simple at the same time, a character that could have been taken in multiple different directions, a character that wasn’t explored enough. John Pilgrim was a White Supremacist, turned religious devotee, turned family-oriented hitman. The possibilities for him are endless. His back story is rushed—no flashbacks—and details are given way too late in the season to care. We never truly learn who he is or how he justifies his actions. When an interesting character is created but treated as filler it feels like a waste: it feels like chewing gum that loses flavor way too quickly. Pilgrim is the kind of antagonist you can focus an entire season on; he would have been enough.
Not only is this a missed opportunity for compelling storytelling, there is no meaningful character development. Not for Russo, not for Pilgrim and definitely not for Frank Castle. He is still the same person he was in the beginning of the show, but now he’s sadder and lonelier. The only change that occurs in our protagonist is his acceptance of a life without light, a life where he isn’t willing to suffer the pain of trying to find and keep it. This is the kind of character “development” that gives Netflix the opportunity to give us another season of subpar television. The show had the opportunity to take Castle’s character into either a darker or lighter direction, instead it decided to take him nowhere. For all intents and purposes, if it walks like a cop-out and talks like a cop-out, it’s probably a cop-out. Maybe the point or the message is that Castle isn’t meant to be happy, he is meant to be stuck in this terrifyingly painful emotional limbo that allows him to kill people almost to a sociopathic degree. This is a completely valid premise. The Punisher is a killer with a code who doles out his own justice. He is a tragic character that is content with his own emptiness.
But if this is the case, there is nowhere to go from here. If this is the point then every season from here on out will consist of Frank Castle killing “bad guys” and somehow uncovering government conspiracies and maybe saving some folks. If no development is to be made in his character then it’s time to call it quits. Let ‘The Punisher’ join ‘Daredevil’, ‘Luke Cage’ and ‘The Iron Fist’. I’d rather watch ‘Jessica Jones’ anyway.