Charlie Cox, Jon Bernthal (Netflix)

When new showrunners Marco Ramirez and Douglas Petrie announced that season two of Marvel’s Daredevil would bring the Punisher to the Marvel TV universe, it introduced a referendum on the ethics of superheroing. The conflict between law and vigilantism is the subtext of many modern superhero tales, and Matt Murdoch—lawyer by day, costumed, baddie-clubbing protector of Hell’s Kitchen by night—brings the inherent contradiction of violently breaking the law to stop violent law-breakers front-and-center. But the Punisher represents a whole other level of moral dilemma, since, not content with beating up bad guys, he murders them.

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It’s to the credit of all involved in this season that the inevitable ethical showdown between the two is so compelling, when the whole “to kill or not to kill” debate is built into nearly every Punisher story where he interacts with one of his comics counterparts. (Existing uneasily alongside the more upright heroes, the Punisher generally gets a scolding or a beatdown before returning to his own, more bloody—and enduringly popular—corner of the Marvel universe.) After blasting a gory path through a trio of New York crime organizations, his eventual showdown with Daredevil is a corker, and ably sets up the theme of this much-improved second season, with Matt Murdock wrestling with the implications of his choice to pursue justice through violence.

As the season begins, Matt’s more or less a happy guy. Wilson Fisk is in jail, and the office of Nelson & Murdock is full of the downtrodden seeking legal help from the men who helped bring down the Kingpin. The firm itself is still broke, as their indigent clients supply Murdock, partner Foggy Nelson, and assistant Karen Page with mountains of home-cooked food in lieu of payment. Nevertheless, when we first see Matt, in the armored red-and-black costume that replaced his original black ninja-wear, he’s foiling a nighttime jewel heist with violent confidence and a cocky smile. Charlie Cox—again looking appropriately toned and lithe rather than Captain America-jacked—gets to show some different colors than the dour, tortured neophyte hero he was last season, and they all look good on him. (He also makes more use of his signature metal billy clubs, which make a very satisfying thunk on opponents’ skulls.) So when a gathering of the Hell’s Kitchen Irish mob is massacred with ruthless, military precision, Matt sets out to stop the man responsible.

The Punisher functions as a walking indictment of Murdock’s methods, sure, but an impressively vital one, mainly because of the brilliant casting of The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal in the role of Frank Castle. (Like the names Daredevil and Kingpin, Castle has his comics nom de guerre thrust on him by the press and the police, another way the series hews to its street-level take on superheroics.) Like Murdock’s initial appearance, this Punisher eschews his gaudy but fan-familiar skull shirt costume, preferring a no-nonsense combat ensemble. While Castle’s backstory remains the same—a murdered family spurring his implacable quest for vengeance against New York’s underworld—Bernthal makes the character’s motivations devastatingly raw. When Castle finally reveals his own reasons for extra-legal justice, Bernthal is simply spellbinding, turning Frank Castle’s oft-told origin story into something uniquely, uncompromisingly human.

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Castle gets the drop on Daredevil (whom he mockingly calls “Red”) after an impressively nasty fight. He then gives the chained Murdock an ethical conundrum that’s as high-concept as it gets, intended to make Murdock admit, as Castle growls, “You’re one bad day away from being me.” That debate over the morality of going outside the law to enforce the good informs the entire season, even when Frank Castle gives way to the season’s other fan-favorite antihero: Elektra Natchios (District 13: Ultimatum’s Elodie Yung). Murdock classifies his former lover as a “bored, spoiled little rich girl” (although one with incredible fighting skills). Having become some manner of thrill-happy international criminal-assassin, Elektra’s desire to have Matt back in her life after 10 years is revealed to have something to do with her father’s investments in an evil corporation (called Roxxon—red flag for comics readers), and perhaps more to do with the pair’s shared romantic history.

Yung is another fine addition this season, as her purring, seemingly blithe indifference to anything but her own whims digs away at Matt’s confidence in his own righteousness. (In the pair’s flashback scenes, a floppy-banged Cox shows us a reckless and sexy Matt Murdock, reveling in his powers with a since-shed insouciance.) After Daredevil has, once again, essentially tortured a henchman for information, she brings him up short with, “You don’t get what you want in the day, you take it at night—by force.”

Vincent D’Onofrio’s towering menace as Wilson Fisk is definitely missed (at least so far; he didn’t appear in the seven episodes available for critics). But Bernthal and Yung make Castle and Elektra an effective season-long two-pronged assault on Matt Murdock’s heroic identity, which gives Daredevil’s supporting characters a clearer purpose as well. Elden Henson’s Foggy remains Matt’s dogged conscience (and occasional comic relief), but Murdock’s ongoing battles help focus the character, allowing Henson’s portrayal of Foggy’s unwavering belief in the essential rightness of the judicial system a more formidable voice. He stands up to the bullying D.A. Reyes (Michelle Hurd, crossing over from Jessica Jones, who also gets a mention) more than once, and Henson’s great at it. Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen has both more to do this season and more individuality doing it. Her refusal to believe that the D.A. has purely justice in mind in her persecution of costumed vigilantes allows her to take over for the departed Ben Urich as the series’ uncompromising truth-seeker. And while her part in the inevitable Matt-Elektra-Karen love triangle might be predictable, Woll’s performance is not. Although seemingly everyone involved this season has to deliver their takes on justice and morality, the actors manage to lend every position the weight of conviction. It’s impressive.

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Daredevil the character has always been a second-tier hero in the Marvel Universe—not necessarily in popularity, but in the more realistic (such as a guy with super-senses can be) take on the working-class hero. Daredevil the show sometimes struggles in balancing its hero’s vulnerability compared to the green guy, the god, the spider-guy, and the like. Apart from some eavesdropping skills and the lovely scene where Matt traces the path of a single raindrop during a walk in the rain with Karen, Murdock’s powers aren’t overdone, as non-powered foes like Castle and Elektra get the best of him more than once. The series maintains its appropriately low-rent look (a supposed heat wave is filmed on obviously windy and overcast days), making Matt Murdock’s internal struggles in the first half of this second season that much more human. Speaking with his priest (Peter McRobbie, still accepting no bullshit), Matt seeks to understand his own violent impulses, asking why he feels guilt over his failure to protect an undeniably bad person from the Punisher’s guns. “A world has been lost,” the priest replies simply, a kernel of wisdom that, like most of this season’s philosophizing, emerges as more profound than you might expect from a superhero show.