Reviewing 13 episodes of The Punisher is a gargantuan task, especially considering how many elements are at play in the Netflix series’ second season. The Punisher season two doesn’t just continue the conflict between Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). It also introduces new characters, including terrified teen Amy (Giorgia Whigham), and unites familiar ones. Finally, this season pushes Frank to reconcile who he is with who he becomes when he adopts the mantle of the Punisher.
The Punisher may be an antihero whose work often positions him in isolation, but as we saw in The Punisher season one, it’s his relationships that keep Frank Castle going, that keep his story grounded. Although those relationships are still present in season two, they unfortunately fall by the wayside. Instead, the villains take an unnecessary amount of focus, which makes this season significantly less impactful than its predecessor.
As promotional material has shown, The Punisher season two starts with Frank traveling the U.S. — though it doesn’t take long for him to return to New York City, at the behest of Special Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). Frank brings Amy with him, thereby entangling her with the worst parts of his past: namely, Billy Russo. Frank maintains a fiercely protective attitude toward Amy throughout the season and they establish a makeshift father-daughter relationship, which is clearly meant to mirror his relationship to his late daughter Lisa, though it definitely falls short.
Much of that is because Amy lacks any coherent character development. This is not only a waste of Whigham’s talent, but a frustrating step backward for the series as a whole. We’ve seen Frank develop meaningful relationships with women and children before — anyone remember the Lieberman family in season one? — which is an integral part of his character arc. That doesn’t happen here, even though Amy sticks around for all 13 episodes. We learn less about Amy and her relationship to Frank than we do about Billy and his relationship to his therapist, Krista (Floriana Lima).
There is a growing trend in comics-adjacent media that reshapes villains to be as sympathetic as possible to attract fans to their “tragic stories.” Unfortunately, this is what happens with Billy in The Punisher season two, whose storyline dominates everything. Given his relationship with Frank, that would make sense, but most of his screentime is spent exploring his Jigsaw origin story and his attempts to regain the upper hand. All the while, he is framed as the victim.
Barnes handles Billy really well this season, but no amount of good acting can make up for this unnecessary attention. While it is interesting to see The Punisher explore multiple types of trauma, it’s exhausting to see Billy Russo’s cruelty justified, over and over, through excuses made by both him and Krista. This circular woobification is deeply frustrating, given Billy’s actions prior to this season.
Sometimes, it’s better to let villains just be villains.
Thus, it’s equally frustrating to see The Punisher season two’s other villain, John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), a Christian fundamentalist Neo-Nazi, given screentime that seemingly seeks to justify his behavior. His storyline meanders and has a deeply unsatisfying conclusion, which — no spoilers — doesn’t match the hype that’s been built around his character.
Neo-Nazis and gun-toting conservatives have co-opted the Punisher logo for years and The Punisher showrunner Steve Lightfoot is clearly attempting to comment on that misappropriation through Pilgrim. However, the execution of his plot ultimately fails to make any kind of statement. The Punisher’s values do not align with fascism, but The Punisher season two fails to draw a hard line on that front, which is honestly enraging.
Focusing so much time on Billy and Pilgrim makes The Punisher season two drag noticeably. Netflix/Marvel shows often suffer from pacing issues, especially in their sophomore seasons, so while this isn’t necessarily a surprise, it is disappointing. A shorter season may have worked better; ultimately, though, the reigning issue is the focus on villains. We lose a lot of Frank’s connections to others this season, despite Bernthal, Revah and Jason R. Moore bringing new life to their characters. As the separate parts of Frank’s world come together, magic happens, but not nearly often enough. Even with Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) eventually making a timely and plot-imperative appearance, the writing is so focused on getting Frank from point A to point B that it skips important character moments that matter for making this progression flow.
Furthermore, season two jumps ahead in time, landing viewers about a year after the season one finale. Like any time jump, that leaves certain questions unanswered: how has Frank been coping with his trauma? When did he go on the road? What happened to Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his family? After the careful attention to detail in season one, which handles Frank’s trauma with such incredible care, this casual skip into the future is jarring and the writing doesn’t give the characters any time to deal with any of what we missed as an audience, which makes it even harder to parse their more baffling decisions.
Despite these writing flaws, Bernthal’s performance holds up; he plays Frank with the same nuance that made him so captivating in season one. Revah’s and Moore’s increased screentime is a serious blessing and seeing them act opposite each other feels organic to the plot in a way that little else does. One of the strongest aspects of The Punisher as a TV series is seeing how Bernthal and his costars deal with the tension between who Frank Castle is as a person versus who he becomes as the Punisher. Unfortunately, we see less of that this season than we do the villains, which ultimately makes season two fail to uphold the beauty of The Punisher series as a whole.