Screenshot: The Punisher (Netflix)
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If I’m being charitable, I’d say that “Fight Or Flight” is an episode with about 20 minutes of story stretched across a 55 minute runtime. It’s not that the plot and character choices the episode makes are bad, per say, it’s just that they’re way too simplistic. And once they’re established, the episode doesn’t do much to complicate them. Frank is both Rachel’s protector and her captor. Madani thinks Billy is lying. Billy is struggling with his new mental and physical condition. And Josh Stewart’s Creepy Religious Big Bad is creepy and religious. Those are all fine character setups, but rather than use them as building blocks for more complex storytelling, the episode just keeps repeating them until it can get to a big shootout action sequence.

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Part of the problem is that The Punisher is dealing with really familiar material, both for the superhero genre and for the larger action genre as well. And the series could stand to be way more genre savvy, as its audience almost certainly is. For instance, the scene where Rachel pulls a bullet from Frank’s backside and stitches him up plays out exactly like the other 1,000 times I’ve seen that scene in an action movie. The biggest subversion is that the bullet hit Frank in the butt. Other than that cheeky (pun intended) twist, the scene doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Rachel or Frank or their burgeoning dynamic. Rachel’s “You think I can sew because I’m a girl?” quip is so supremely dumb it’s barely worth mentioning. (No, he wants you to stitch him up because you’re literally the only other human being in the room, which is also why he asked you to pull the bullet out!)

The Punisher has always been a show that wholeheartedly embraces action clichés, but last season it did a much better job bringing something slightly original to the mix too, rather than just offering reheated leftovers. For instance, David “Micro” Lieberman was a familiar character archetype with far more interesting subversions than Rachel has displayed so far. Perhaps I’m just asking too much too quickly. I’m sure it took a little bit of time for the Frank/Micro dynamic to fully click into place. But considering how much there is to dig into in the weird antagonistic partnership between Rachel and Frank, it’s frustrating to spend a whole hour with them and come away learning so little. The idea of Rachel as a master manipulator could be interesting, but considering pretty much everyone (even a small town sheriff) immediately sees through her “I’m an innocent college student” act, I’m not sure her manipulation skills are actually supposed to be all that impressive.

Screenshot: The Punisher (Netflix)

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Elsewhere, this episode moves past the premiere’s opening prologue and sets up the major threads of the season. Billy Russo has suffered severe memory loss since his brutal carousel showdown with Frank. His last concrete memories are of being in the barracks in Afghanistan with his unit. It’s unclear what kind of shape his short term memory is in—he seems to remember that Madani is constantly visiting him but then forgets having taken a pain killer a few minutes before he asks for one again. On the other hand, his therapist Dr. Dumont (Supergirl’s Floriana Lima) is giving off all kinds of creepy vibes, so it’s possible his memory and anger issues are the result of some other kind of meddling.

One of the more interesting setups for the season is that Madani is obsessed with the idea that Billy is lying about his memory loss. It’s a natural response to the trauma he inflicted on her last season—both in lying to her and in literally shooting her in the head. Madani is a character I found pretty frustrating in season one, mostly because she was so incompetent at her job. She’s definitely a character in need of a slight revamp and this could be an interesting angle to explore. For now, however, it’s in the “wait and see” category because there’s so little to go off here. The same can be said for the Creepy Religious Big Bad who’s tracking down Rachel and Frank.

Maybe the most intriguing idea in “Fight Or Flight” is that this season of The Punisher is tackling violence slightly differently than the last. This episode offers plenty of exhilarating, bloody action sequences to fulfill the show’s “cool” quota. But director Jim O’Hanlon frames a lot of that action through Rachel’s point of view, emphasizing just how terrifying it would be to experience Frank’s brutality in person—even when you’re the one he’s defending. Again, however, it feels like this episode is hinting at a cool concept to explore down the line, rather than using that idea to its full potential here.

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Stray observations

  • I got some real No Country For Old Men vibes from all the motel room stuff.
  • I think the surly motel clerk was supposed to provide comic relief, but none of that worked for me.
  • Dr. Dumont refers to her work with Billy as a way to “build the jigsaw puzzle” of his memory, an allusion to the character’s comic book moniker.
  • I kind of thought The Punisher/Frank Castle was a pretty famous national figure at this point, but considering the Creepy Religious Big Bad and his henchmen don’t recognize Frank in the bar brawl footage, I guess his reputation was limited to New York.

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