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The Punisher gets unapologetically operatic as a brotherly betrayal takes center stage

Photo: David Giesbrecht (Netflix)
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“My Brother’s Keeper” operates in a slightly different mode than any of The Punisher’s previous episodes, either this season or last. It’s operatic in tone—shamelessly melodramatic and extremely heightened. I could imagine that over-the-top quality being divisive, but it really worked for me. I’ve previously written about how The Punisher’s attempts to be a fun action series are often at odds with its fundamental grimness. But operatic melodrama feels like the right way for The Punisher to embrace a more heightened style without losing its somber undertones. “My Brother’s Keeper” is high theater—a Shakespearean tragedy with an action epic aesthetic. And that means just one thing: A lot of angry men yelling!

Jon Bernthal and Ben Barnes both turn in fantastic performances as Frank and Billy follow parallel paths in their descent into potential madness. It’s a bigger fall for Billy, who must suddenly deal with the realization that his best friend is the one who mangled his face and left him for dead. In lesser hands, I could see Billy’s amnesia being really frustrating (and I’ll be curious to hear if other people find it that way), given that it’s leading to a season that’s largely retreading old ground rather than moving the story forward. But I’m finding it to be a really fascinating way to examine Billy’s morality. Last season never fully justified how Billy went from being an adoptive member of Frank’s family to someone willing to look the other way as Rawlins set out to murder the Castles. And in questioning how Frank could turn on him, Billy’s inadvertently questioning his own path to villainy too. Now that he can’t trust Frank, Billy wonders how he can ever trust anyone again. That’s an insight into Frank’s mindset as well.

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Indeed, Billy isn’t the only character in full-on freak-out mode in this episode. Frank also loses his cool in a major way, particularly when Amy tries to continue their training sessions with a surprise attack. The scene where Frank berates Amy is a great distillation of Frank as a character. Curtis is right that Frank’s intense reaction comes from caring about Amy and not wanting to see her get hurt. But the episode doesn’t soften Frank’s terrifying, violent reaction either. I love Frank when he’s in lovable rogue mode, but that horrifying sequence (especially holding the gun to Amy’s head and then firing it just a few inches away) doesn’t whitewash the fact that Frank’s paternal feelings can manifest in some deeply, deeply fucked up ways.

“My Brother’s Keeper” also ups Billy’s level of villainy as well. The opening scenes of him standing in the street, wildly shooting an assault rifle are absolutely terrifying, especially because they emphasize just how much unstoppable damage can be done with that kind of weapon. For the most part, I think The Punisher is more interested in glorifying violence than in commenting on guns in any kind of meaningful way (as last year’s terrible gun control-related arc proved). But, inadvertently or not, “My Brother’s Keeper” drills home the terrifying power of an assault weapon more viscerally than maybe any other piece of media I’ve ever seen.

The episode’s operatic quality continues on from that shootout sequence as Billy coldly murders two of his crewmembers and then flees to Dr. Dumont’s apartment to hide out. Dr. Dumont is by far this episode’s biggest weakness. The season hasn’t done nearly enough work to make her seem like a three-dimensional character, and while Floriana Lima does what she can with the wildly uneven role, it’s clear that the character exists solely to be a sounding board and enabler for Billy’s emotional angst. Giving her a grab bag of poorly defined personal issues doesn’t make her any more interesting, and that’s definitely a hindrance on the scenes where Billy breaks down in her apartment. But on the level of high theater, it still mostly works. If Frank is the fucked up father figure, Billy’s amnesia has contorted him into a twisted version of a violent child.

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Screenshot: The Punisher (Netflix)

Befitting its operatic tone, director Michael Offer fills this episode with heightened imagery—Frank spying on a crime scene from the rafters like Batman, Frank stalking through the rain like Batman, Frank pensively visiting a gravesite like, well, Batman. Billy unexpectedly shoots allies in the head and smashes up Dr. Dumont’s apartment in a violent rage. It’s all very over-the-top, and it’s only the conviction of Bernthal and Barnes’ performances that prevent it from crossing over into silliness, which it threatens to do at times. (Hell, even the shot of Amy burning Curtis’ SIM card feels almost preposterously ominous.) Given that Billy is now looking to amass an army of angry veterans to take over the world, it doesn’t look like The Punisher is planning to pump the breaks on melodrama anytime soon. I’m not sure that’s a tone the show can sustain for the rest of the season, but I’d be curious to see it try.

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Stray observations

  • I could buy Dr. Dumont referring to her work with Billy as “rebuilding the jigsaw” or I could buy a member of Billy’s crew referring to him as “this jigsaw-faced bastard,” but having both occur separately is really gilding the lily.
  • Frank and Curtis continue to have the best banter.
  • The Amy/Curtis/Madani dynamic is also a fun one.
  • That the bank “hostage” was secretly a member of Billy’s Boys is a clever way for the show to have Frank and Curtis feel guilty about getting a hostage killed without actually having them get a hostage killed.
  • Mahoney and Madani continue their tense tête-à-tête as they navigate their respective levels of faith in the criminal justice system and their respective levels of faith in Frank Castle. Along with the Dr. Dumont stuff, it’s the weakest part of the episode.
  • I don’t know if it’s a character choice or not, but Jon Bernthal looks really goofy when he runs.
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.