Photo: Cara Howe (Netflix)
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To be fair, this season of The Punisher already warned us that it didn’t actually have the guts to meaningfully critique Frank’s violent philosophy. That’s exactly what the show did when it had Frank experience guilt over getting an innocent hostage killed even as it revealed that said hostage wasn’t actually a hostage, but a member of Billy’s Boys. And the show doubles down on that bet hedging in “The Abyss,” as Karen and Madani figure out that Frank didn’t actually kill the innocent women he thought he did. Instead, Billy pre-murdered them to set up a gruesome scene for Frank to find. Never mind that engineering a situation where Frank really would be the one to kill them would be just as easy—The Punisher needs to ensure that its exploration of morality doesn’t accidentally stumble into a situation where its heroes and villains are actually hard to tell apart.

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In my review of the season two premiere, I shared my concerns that a second season of The Punisher would only serve to dilute the power of the show’s really effective first season. Those fears prove to be founded as “The Abyss” brings back Karen Page for an episode that tries to repeat her role in the first season, but just feels like a hollow retread. Karen’s initial involvement in The Punisher was an effective continuation of the unexpectedly great Karen/Frank dynamic in Daredevil’s second season. But it’s been so long since Karen and Frank were together (not to mention the fact that Karen had her own major arc over on Daredevil’s third season) that the attempts to recapture the magic fall entirely flat. The big “will they kiss?!?!” moment was absolutely cringeworthy, a lame recreation of a genuinely very compelling moment from the first season. It’s also a bummer that after a solid sendoff in Daredevil’s series finale, Karen Page has to go out on such a lackluster note tied to some incredibly unfunny “comedy” about pawning off her shoes to a creepy morgue attendant. Ugh.

In honor of Karen’s return, “The Abyss” is an episode that puts its female ensemble front and center. Karen, Amy, and Madani all play a major role in clearing Frank’s name and trying to free him from police custody. Meanwhile, Dr. Dumont finally reveals her tragic backstory to Billy. Even Eliza Schutlz gets in on the fun as she comes to New York to tell John that Rebecca died but he needs to continue his assassination mission anyway.

If I were being charitable, I’d say that “The Abyss” is an episode about the ways shitty, destructive men are too often enabled by women who are socialized to support them no matter what. That’s explicitly the point of Dumont’s story. After her wounded Vietnam veteran father killed himself and nearly killed her in the process, Dumont dedicated her life to helping “lost causes” like Billy. That first manifested as a (seemingly health?) career as a therapist, which then transitioned into a deeply fucked up relationship/criminal partnership with Billy. I still don’t buy how quickly that shift occurred, but at least The Punisher is aware that Dumont’s desire to “save” Billy by any means necessary is incredibly warped. When it comes to its other female characters, I’m not so sure.

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Screenshot: The Punisher (Netflix)

Karen tells Frank, “It doesn’t matter what you did, it’s not gonna change the way I feel about you.” That’s a deeply unhealthy worldview! And while it’s fine to depict characters with unhealthy worldviews, the show should at least be aware of what it’s depicting. And I’m not so sure The Punisher is. Even Madani, who was once a foil for Frank, is unquestioningly Team Castle now. The reason she goes to investigate the female murder victims is because she knows Frank would never actually kill innocent people—even though the situation is explicitly set up as one where Frank’s violent nature led him to accidentally, unknowingly kill innocent people. Her “hunch” is based on a deeply irrational belief in Frank’s fundamental goodness, one he himself refutes. That Madani’s theory turns out to be right is patently absurd.

The degree to which Amy, Karen, and Madani all go to justify and enable Frank’s actions is pretty damn troubling, but the show seems to find it noble. Frank is the one who keeps telling them he’s not worth saving, but that’s more so a way to up his “bad boy with a heart of gold” antihero appeal than to actually challenge his morality. Look, I’m certainly not immune to the earnest bad boy archetype. The moment Frank just gives in to the bounty hunter who comes to kill him is devastating, and I was hugely moved by his attempts to break free from his handcuffs to save Amy. But to just present the fact that women are often drawn to broken men without exploring that idea further—especially in a series that’s (superficially at least) deeply obsessed with morality—is super lazy. I briefly tried to figure out if there’s a pointed critique in the fact that John Pilgrim imagined his wife as an endlessly patient savior pulling him back to “goodness” even as he was away from her deathbed, getting a blowjob. Again, however, I think that’s me doing way more work than the show is.

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This season has been a real roller coaster ride, both in terms of quality, but also in terms of its overall shape. There are only two episodes left in the season (and, most likely the series) and I couldn’t even begin to say what a satisfying conclusion would look like. Especially because this episode pulls a weird “Frank escaped! Wait, actually, he’s back in police custody again!” ending. Hopefully, Frank will at least spend some time grappling with the fact that while he didn’t kill the innocent women, he would have killed them if they hadn’t already been dead. (That idea comes up earlier in the episode, but it’s brushed aside once Karen and Madani find concrete proof of Frank’s innocence.) Even that would be a pretty lame cop out, but at least it would make these most recent episodes feel like they haven’t just been a gigantic waste of time.


Stray observations

  • So apparently Anderson and Eliza aren’t Rebecca’s parents, like I thought they were. I guess they just buddied up to the family to use John as their violent pawn?
  • It seems like it would be a lot easier if the Schultzs just offered to buy those photos from Amy rather than putting out a $5 million bounty on her.
  • I don’t understand why murdering the three women is such an emotional breaking point for Billy when we’ve already seen him murder a whole bunch of innocent people and also WILLING LOOK THE OTHER WAY WHILE HIS ADOPTIVE FAMILY WAS MURDERED.
  • I love that there’s a whole scene that’s just Frank explaining to Karen that she can’t come with them because she’s a guest star, not a series regular.
  • So apparently the one and only con Amy can’t pull off is that she’s an innocent college student.
  • “You know what else is strict? The Bill of Rights.” Never change, Karen, never change.
  • Please, won’t someone think of poor Lemuel?!?

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