Photo: Cara Howe (Netflix)
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Hey, remember when Frank Castle experienced a morality shifting existential crisis when he thought he’d accidentally murdered three innocent people in a manic shootout? No? Well, good because neither does The Punisher! That hugely dramatic scene from the end of “The Dark Hearts Of Men” has literally no bearing on the climax of the season because, as I discussed in my review of that episode, at the end of the day, there’s a limit to how much The Punisher actually wants to explore the emotional reality of its main character. Maybe it’s my fault for expecting more from a series that has kind of always been a dumb show about a cool dude who shoots people. But in its best moments, I do think The Punisher has been more than that too. It’s been a compelling, heightened exploration of masculinity, PTSD, and fatherhood. And it’s locked into something really incredible in Jon Bernthal’s nuanced portrayal of Frank Castle. At its best, I’ve gotten a lot out of The Punisher. That’s why it’s so frustrating to watch this season finale (and likely the series finale too) settle for being dumb schlock.

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My biggest qualm with this episode is tied to its final image, but before we get to that, let’s talk about the episode as a whole. For the most part, “The Whirlwind” kind of feels like a one-off wrap-up episode that was produced after a show was unexpectedly cancelled—one that has to tie up the season’s cliffhangers and quickly put a bow on the larger storylines the show had laid out for the future too. And maybe it was. Maybe showrunner Steve Lightfoot got wind that this would likely be The Punisher’s final season and scrambled to rearrange his initial plans. I’d be really fascinated to read about the production of this season and how much of it did or didn’t change at the last minute. Because, whether it was the original plan or not, this season’s double antagonist structure has unfolded in a really bizarre, disjointed way.

After structuring this season around Billy Russo as its main antagonist and John Pilgrim/the Schultzs as a secondary threat, this finale reverses that so Billy is the more minor figure while John and the Schultzs take center stage. Weirdest of all, the Schutlzs getting their comeuppance is positioned as the big emotional catharsis of the season. Which—what? The most tangible connection they’ve had to Frank this season is the dramatic FaceTime confrontation they have at the start of this episode. It’s a plot device so that Frank can have video proof of their evil-doing, but it also kind of feels like a scene from a reunion special where production couldn’t find time to get the main cast together.

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Screenshot: The Punisher (Netlix)

Thankfully, the John Pilgrim stuff works a little bit better than the Schultz stuff. Frank gets two big showdowns with John—one in a destructive hotel room shootout and the other in a junkyard showdown. Both are strong action sequences, although it’s bizarre that after Frank learned a dramatic lesson about the dangers of blindly shooting through walls, his big showdown centers on him… blindly shooting through walls. Still, it’s an engagingly brutal battle that feels distinct from the show’s other action sequences, especially thanks to its elevator fight coda. The same goes for the junkyard battle, which is a little inelegant in how it removes guns from the equation, but gets major points for The Princess Bride-esque moment where Frank checks in on John mid-fight to see if he needs to catch his breath.

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To give credit where credit is do, having Billy take a back seat is maybe the single smartest choice this episode makes. Rather than give him another big operatic showdown like the ones he’s had all season, “The Whirlwind” offers Billy a boldly anticlimactic ending instead. Madani shoots him in their opening brawl and he spends the rest of the episode slowly dying of his bullet wounds. I thought for sure this episode would feature the return of Billy’s Boys and I still find their departure in the previous episode to be weirdly abrupt (after building their whole identities around violent brotherhood, they’re just happy to go their separate ways?). But I love the way this episode robs Billy of his melodramatic power and just turns him into a sad, lonely, dying man.

It’s hard not to feel at least a little bit of empathy for Billy as he makes a pitiful attempt to reach out to Curtis so he doesn’t die alone. And technically, Billy gets his wish. He doesn’t die alone because Frank shows up to kill him. The scene where Frank shoots Billy mid-monologue is truly the most perfect ending I could’ve imagined for their story of brotherhood and betrayal. It’s both shocking and satisfying. That Frank doesn’t say a single word and just lets his gun do the talking feels like the perfect distillation of who he is as a character.

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Screenshot: The Punisher (Netflix)

In terms of wrapping up Frank’s season-long arc, this finale has two examples to pull from. The end of Daredevil’s second season saw Frank wholeheartedly embrace his mantle as the Punisher. Meanwhile, the end of The Punisher’s first season saw Frank retire his brutal ways and try to forge a different path. This time around, The Punisher goes with the former rather than the latter, and I personally found that to be a little bit of a bummer. As I wrote in my review of the first season finale, I absolutely adored the unexpected final scene where Frank joins Curtis’ support group and admits, “First time in as long as I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight. And I guess if I’m gonna be honest… I’m scared.” That ending was probably the best thing about the whole first season, and while I understand why the show didn’t want to repeat it, I found it pretty depressing to watch Frank just give up on normalcy and turn to a life of non-stop murder. (R.I.P. to the life with Beth and Rex that might’ve been!) Even more so, however, I found the way the show chose to frame Frank’s ending to be wildly disappointing.

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Rather than embrace the melancholy inherent in Frank becoming a full-time vigilante, “The Whirlwind” decides to make it a moment of comedic action fun. It clearly wants its audience to scream, “Fuck yeah, this is just how it is in the comics!” without really connecting that moment to the actual arc we’ve seen Frank experience through these past two seasons. In and of itself, the “fun” tone isn’t my favorite choice, but the episode makes an even more egregious mistake in who it chooses to cast as Frank’s “comedic” victims. Look, I don’t come to The Punisher for nuanced explorations of identity politics, but if the show wanted to end its series on a note of action fun, the least it could do is not center that moment on Frank Castle murdering a bunch of young gang members, many of whom are people of color.

Screenshot: The Punisher (Netflix)

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That’s one of two moments that felt jarringly off in this finale. The other is when Frank murders Eliza and then tells Anderson, “I was gonna come in here with two bullets and give you a choice, but looks like your bitch wife made hers.” The murder itself is well within Frank’s purview, but the cruelly tossed off “bitch wife” line feels like something from a MAGA-inspired version of this character, not the one we’ve been watching.

Perhaps those just seem like unfairly tiny nitpicks, but given the razor thin tightrope this show walks when it comes to defining Frank’s morality, I think it’s more than fair to hold it accountable for the small choices it makes. A lot of people spent a lot of time casting those gang members, designing their outfits, and writing their lines. That no one flagged the potentially problematic imagery (and just the general callousness of the whole thing) makes me wonder if I’ve been giving this series way too much credit for its emotional intelligence. And, hey, if the show wanted to end with some dumb fun murder featuring unquestionably evil victims, how about having Frank take out a gang of neo-Nazi white supremacists—a concept this season engaged with so superficially it might as well not have been there at all.

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The “fun” gang massacre scene sticks out even more because of the people Frank does choose to offer redemption to in this episode. Despite the fact that Anderson Schutlz is ostensibly this season’s evilest villain, Frank gives him complete agency over whether he wants to end his own life or live with what he’s done. (Maybe Frank’s single biggest flaw is his belief that you can only deal with bad guys by either murdering them or letting them go completely free. It’s okay to call the police for the ones you don’t want to kill, Frank!) More egregiously, Frank lets John Pilgrim completely off the hook for the catastrophic level of violence he’s committed, all because John is a dad. Former neo-Nazi assassins who happen to be middle-aged white fathers? Redeemable! Young gang members who willingly show up to discuss a ceasefire? Immediate execution! It’s hard not to feel like The Punisher’s biases are showing. Whether those biases belong to Frank Castle or to the show’s creators is left up for you to decide.

Maybe that final scene worked better for Punisher fans who have different investment points in the series than I do. For me, however, the version of Frank Castle I care about is the more grounded, human one—the one who stoically shoots his best-friend-turned-enemy without hesitation but also without cruelty. I don’t need Frank to be a good guy, but I do want him to feel like a human being. That final scene is one of the rare times he doesn’t.

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In the hopes of not ending this review on a total down note, I’ll wrap things up by saluting the phenomenal work of The Punisher’s cast. Amber Rose Revah and Jason R. Moore did a wonderful job bringing to life slightly re-imagined versions of their season one characters. And in an overall strong cast, Ben Barnes and especially Jon Bernthal managed to stand heads and tails above the rest. There’s a strong argument to be made that Bernthal is the best piece of superhero casting in the history of superhero casting (at the very least he’s up there with Christopher Reeve as Superman, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Melissa Benoist as Supergirl). When I think back on The Punisher as a series, I’ll hopefully remember that far more than the show’s final image.


Stray observations

  • The amount of screentime Lemuel got in this episode was a thrilling and unexpected treat.
  • I’m very curious about the choice to leave Dr. Dumont alive and still naively in love with Billy. Was the show hoping to set her up as a future villain? Or did it just feel like it would be too harsh to kill her off/have Madani kill someone?
  • I’m surprised we didn’t get either a reference to or a cameo from Micro this season. On the other hand, I’m also glad that means he’s probably off living a happy life with his family.
  • I wish this episode clarified where Frank and Curtis’ relationship stands. Curtis seems to be serious about cutting ties with Frank, but he’s presumably the one who called Frank and told him where Billy was, right?
  • Madani’s excitement about bringing Frank into the CIA is a terrifying (and likely not inaccurate) indictment of the CIA and who it’s willing to work with.
  • I still wish this season had spent more time developing the Amy/Frank relationship (or, you know, telling us even a single piece of information about her backstory), but I did find their bus goodbye to be very moving.
  • In case you couldn’t tell from this review, I’m genuinely very bummed to be leaving this season and this series on such a sour note. Feel free to cheer me up with your favorite Frank Castle moments and/or Jon Bernthal anecdotes over on Twitter!

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