After doing so well in the second season of Daredevil, Punisher became the first Marvel hero to get his own Netfilx series after the original four. Jon Bernthal does a fantastic job playing him. While none of the Netflix/Marvel characters are exactly light and bright, Punisher goes to some darker places, as is fitting for that particular character. The Punisher has no powers, unlike the four Defenders, just a lot of weapons skill and both the will and motivation to use it.
The first episode, 3 AM, starts off with a few closely cut scenes. Between flashbacks of life with his long-gone family, the Punisher completes his grim mission of vengeance. He travels around North America and goes after everyone left who had anything to do with the deaths of his wife and children. The criminals’ violent ends are brutal and even more jarring set against Frank’s happy family flashbacks. Also true to form, Punisher has virtually no lines, only talking with his final victim enough to establish what’s been happening. At the end of this, Frank Castle is clearly ready for a change, as he burns his Punisher gear.
The title sequence is grainy and jumpy, a bit like raw intelligence footage, coupled with close up shots of various types of weaponry. It’s stark and bare and works for the character. Six months later, we see a very changed Castle doing construction work with a heavy beard, knocking down walls with a large sledgehammer. I suppose that’s one way to stay in shape and still work on exorcizing your demons.
We get something of an idea of Castle’s days, such as they are. He pounds at the wall, ignores his coworkers, and suffers flashbacks of his family, which recur throughout most of the episode. When new guy Donny Chavez shows up, and some of the other workers are abusive towards him, you know what’s going to be coming sooner or later. Those same workers refer to Castle as “the gimp,” which you know is just another nail in their collective coffin. He eats his lunch alone on the roof of the building, then goes back to work in isolation, and eventually goes home to a very small, spare apartment. I think you could argue that Frank Castle survived, but he’s not really living. He reads, sleeps, has more flashbacks, then gets up and does it all over again.
The idiot bully crew give Frank, working under the name Pete, a hard time, including destroying his lunch. Donny joins him later, and sort of friendly-harasses “Pete” into taking one of his sandwiches. Frank finally speaks: “I’ll take one if you’ll stop talking.” Donny sees some of Frank’s scars, and Frank says he was in the Marines. Donny talks about his father being in the Corps before dying tragically. At the end of the shared meal, Castle warns him that he’s not going to be Donny’s pal, and whatever he’s looking for, Frank’s not it.
At home again, Castle alternates between reading and flashbacks. This time, it seems to be about time in the service, but it gradually resolves into the voices at a Veterans’ meeting. The vets are all having problems, some more than others. Curt is the leader of the group, managing to keep things calm when one white man goes on some odd, conservative-paranoid rant. After the meeting eventually breaks up, Frank comes in. Curt not only knows him, but knows his real name. They’re clearly close, and Curt is the one who lent Frank the book he’s been working through. He urges Frank, fake name Peter Castiglone, to go out and live. They banter a bit, and Frank leaves. So at least he has one friend. Two, if you count Donny.
The next scene introduces Dinah Madani, who it seems is going to be the other big character of the season. She’s a Homeland Security agent, and, as we gradually learn, obsessed with a case from Afghanistan, which she was forced to drop. Sam Stein is her partner, a junior agent, who is trying to help her and being pushed aside. She has a meeting with her boss, Carson Wolf, who is very definitely in charge and not happy with her for persisting with her case about the death of a man named Zubair, someone she worked with in Afghanistan.
Castle is back at work, knocking down another wall. The bully crew leaves, and Donny pesters his way into joining them. You just know this is going to go badly. As all this goes on, Stein asks Madani how her meeting went with Wolf. We learn that Stein is on the boss’ shit-list, and he knows Madani is in trouble because she’s partnered with him. Finally, she asks for his help: everything he can get on Colonel Ray Schoonover and a Lt. Frank Castle. Stein knows Castle is the Punisher, or was, since everyone thinks he’s dead. Clearly, Madani’s and Castle’s paths are going to intersect.
At the bar, we learn the bully crew is up to more than just construction and abusing coworkers. To no surprise, they have some illegal activity going on the side, and one of them, Lance, is having money problems. He pushes his contact for another “job.” Donny gets pushed into paying for all their drinks for the night, not at all what he offered at first, and it’s a hefty tab.
After more flashbacks, Castle goes back to work. He’s taking a break at one point, sitting against a half-wall, while two of the crew plan out their score: hitting a high-stakes mob poker game. How stupid do you have to be for that to seem like a good idea? They realize “Pete” heard them, and try to intimidate him. He ignores them and walks off. As this happens, a man gets badly hurt on the site. Donny asks Castle for help, saying he must know first aid from the Marines. Castle walks away. The man, of course, was one of the criminal crew, and, equally of course, they decide to recruit Donny to take his place.
Later that night, we see Dinah at home. Her mother, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, an actress with a wonderful voice recently seen on The Expanse, talks to Dinah about her obsession with this case. Mom is worried, and also a psychiatrist, which combine to drive Dinah crazy. She’s living with her mother until she finds her own place, having recently been brought back to New York.
As Frank reads his new book from Curt, the ill-advised heist goes down. I think my favorite part of this scene is one of the gangsters being robbed being so utterly unimpressed, verging on bored, by the whole affair. Even his threats come off as low-key, although I don’t doubt he means them. Near the end of this chaos, aside from dropping some of the money, Donny manages to screw up even worse.
Frank has more flashbacks, waking up at the title time of 3 AM, and goes in to work early. Clearly, he’s not so much working for the pay as trying to keep himself under some semblance of control. To no surprise at all, Castle runs into the criminals, who are in the process of getting rid of Donny for his screw up. The inevitable payback comes around. Castle gets rid of the thugs with a brutal efficiency. One of the things they’ve done so well with the Netflix characters is give them each a fighting style that makes sense for the character and is different from the other heroes. Castle crushes the bad guys, gives Donny some advice, and then goes to where the robbery happened. The mobsters inside are gunning up to go hunt down Donny. Instead, the light goes out, and, in a scene lit mostly by muzzle-flare, Castle takes them all down. When he leaves, he’s observed on camera, and someone, presumably Punisher’s only regular confidant in the comics Microchip, mutters, “Welcome back, Frank.”
What I liked: The flashbacks, while they could be cut down a bit, show what Castle lost and what keeps him going. The domestic happiness in them contrasts sharply with his current Spartan living conditions. The fight with the construction thugs was executed well and showed how brutal the Punisher is. Donny was likeable, and many could identify with his situation, even if he made some truly dumb decisions. Dinah seems like she’s going to be an interesting foil for Castle, and Shohreh Aghdashloo is always great to just listen to in addition to being a skilled actress. Castle’s habitual silence fits him perfectly. I’m not sure what to make of Curt yet, but he seems to be on Frank’s side.
What I didn’t: Not much. As I said above, I’m hoping the flashbacks tone down as the show goes one (interesting he didn’t have a single one after he went back into action). While it makes sense for a grittier, more realistic show, there were no references at all to anything else in the Netflix, or wider, Marvel Universe, which I think enriches them all. And really, that’s not a lot to complain about.
I’m giving this a 4.5 out of 5. The Punisher has been screwed up before, most notably in the horrid 90’s movie starring Dolph Lungren. This, fortunately, is a much better show that fits in with the quality of the other Netflix shows and continues Castle’s arc from his time on Daredevil.