Saturday, November 25, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Punisher' - Lewis Attacks a Hotel and Forces Frank to Come After Him in 'Virtue of the Vicious'

Netflix's The Punisher - Episode 1.10 "Virtue of the Vicious"

An attack on a high-profile politician is examined (and reexamined) through different perspectives. Madani faces a painful truth.

"Virtue of the Vicious" is a bold and experimental episode of The Punisher. It's an hour that messes around with its format and structure. It tells the same event over and over again from different perspectives as the various characters are interviewed about what happened in the aftermath. It can be a very confusing hour. Things are told from different perspectives. It's the first time a Marvel property has really done that. It doesn't outline things with a definitive proof. And yet, that dueling narrative only really comes into play with the different stories that Karen and Senator Ori are telling the detective from Daredevil. That's the only time were the show is purposefully misleading the audience over what happened. It's highlighted with Ori believing he told Karen he wants to take certain guns away from all people while Karen says he told her he wants to take all guns away from certain people. It's just such a minor moment. But it proves that the show really is aiming for chaos and confusion during this uncertain time. And then, it basically just comes out and says that Karen's story is the truth with the Senator's just being an elaborate story that makes him seem better in the official report. In truth, he was a coward who punished Karen out of the way so that she would fall into the gunman's lap while the Senator fled to safety. But there just isn't a whole lot of excitement to that moment. It once again basically confirms that the show doesn't really want to have a serious discussion about guns and gun control. That's disappointing considering how much this show should offer a strong stance on one side of the issue.

Moreover, it just feels like this experimental change to the way the story is told is just a device to make this hour stand out with a bit more style. It doesn't change the substance of the story at all. It's just a device to separate "Virtue of the Vicious" out from the rest of this monotonous season. That's not inherently bad. Again, I'm a fan of the episodic format and the need for more streaming shows to have better defined episodes. This one is basically a continuation of what happened in "Front Toward Enemy." Lewis is still terrorizing the city and everyone believes that he is working with The Punisher. The world knows that Frank Castle is still alive. They believe him to be a madman with no morals. The people who know the truth are trying to debunk that narrative even though they can't come out and say how they know differently. This is an episode where so many of the characters come crashing together in the same location - Frank, Lewis, Madani, Billy and Karen. That's important for the overall narrative of the season. But it's also probably convenient that Frank gets banged up a little bit before his final showdown with Billy and Rawlins. These injuries are bound to have an effect that may force him to team up with Madani. But all of that is speculative at this point. In this specific episode, it's just important that Frank choses to work alone despite the ever-increasing tension in this mission.

Plus, it seems like the ramifications of this break from the storytelling format will be very lackluster. It's just such a weird decision to include Sergeant Brett Mahoney from Daredevil in this story. Yes, it makes sense that the NYPD would be in control of this crime scene and want to interview the various people involved in this attack. But it seems very unlikely that the NYPD is going to be heavily involved in the conclusion of this story. This is the first inclusion of the NYPD this season. The government investigation angle has always been provided by Madani. Sure, she may ultimately team up with Brett. But that seems incredibly unlikely based on the way he conducts himself here and her suspicions about his motives against Frank Castle. Brett is included seemingly to make things a bit more personal and complicated. He worked the Frank Castle case the first time around. And now, he may be pushing a false narrative in order to arrest him despite contradictory information that Karen and Madani know that he knows. It all just seems way too complicated without feeling all that complex. It may mean something if Brett is a last-minute introduction to this story. But if it's just a one-off appearance, then it mostly just feels like a waste of time. He was included because the show fell in love with the structure for this episode. And that's a pretty lame reason that doesn't ultimately carry the justification for it.

And yet, this is still a big and explosive episode of the show. Yes, it's way too interested in the plot and not on the characters. That's been a consistent criticism throughout this season. Whenever the show has focused on character beats, it's felt more like stalling techniques instead of a way to gain valuable insight into the main players in this story. That's been problematic. That continues here. Lewis finally serves his ultimate purpose of being a thrilling distraction for Frank that keeps him from targeting Rawlins and Billy too quickly in the story. It all builds to a tragic conclusion here just like it was always going to do. There is the added complication of the city believing that Frank and Lewis are working together. They are plastered together on every newspaper in the city. Brett believes they made the approach to the hotel room using a military pattern that they were both trained to do. But the story has much more sympathy for Frank and understands just how confusing all of this can be. Those confusions just don't ultimately add up to more than a couple of cheap thrills. Lewis takes Karen hostage because she seemingly always needs to end up a prisoner of someone with villainous intentions. Frank chases the two of them down into the basement. And then, he is able to tell Karen which wire in the bomb to disconnect in order to render it powerless. It's great to see Karen be her own savior here - even though the show is still building to an expected romantic climax between her and Frank as he fights to escape the building without being captured.

It's a little unclear if the show genuinely believes in Frank and Karen as a feasible romantic couple. They don't ultimately kiss. But Frank wants David to view Karen as his Sarah. She's the woman in his life that he cares about protecting more than anything else in the world. But there are some pretty legitimate reasons for the two of them not to be together as well. Frank is still too determined to avenge his family's deaths by killing people. He hasn't really mourned those tragic circumstances and figured out how to life after all of that. Plus, there's the whole morality of killing that Karen just can't deal with. She's connected to Frank and understands him. But that's not enough for her to overlook these personal issues in order to pursue romance. So in the end, she just needs to be an ally. The story works better that way. It's a good thing they don't kiss. Of course, it's also a little frustrating to see Frank push other people away even though they could help him. Madani wants the same things as he does but doesn't want to kill. Right now, that's a huge deal breaker for him because his targets need to suffer for what they did. He doesn't believe the system can deliver the justice and punishment they deserve. That's the only thing keeping him from working with Madani. That plot point is just starting to get very repetitive and boring. Yes, it's thrilling to watch as Madani and Billy hold each other at gunpoint while they argue about the fate of Frank. That proves to both Madani and Frank that Billy is not to be trusted. But convenient plot complications occur that allow the trio to escape without doing any further harm. It's a revealing moment that paints a pretty clear picture of which side everyone is on. But it's also just such a tease while continuing to delay the inevitable confrontation between all three as well.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Virtue of the Vicious" was written by Ken Kristensen and directed by Jim O'Hanlon.
  • Madani returns to work and is now willing to tell Rafi everything about what she has doing in this office lately. She can now confidently tell him about her pursuit of Frank Castle and how it connects back to Kandahar. She also has a solid lead in going after William Rawlins despite how prominent he is in the CIA. It's enough to get him to reinstate her to the office with confidence that she can continue this investigation.
  • Of course, Madani also has to tell Rafi about the bug that is in her office. Sure, the show could really only play the trick of Madani feeding false information to whomever is listening once. She and Sam did that and it went horribly awry. So now, she needs a new plan of attack that doesn't include this bug. But removing it does send a message to Rawlins that she knows much more than it initially seemed.
  • A lot of attention is called to the fact that Karen has a concealed weapon permit. Billy takes away her gun before she enters the hotel room. And yet, part of the big climax against Lewis features her using the gun in her purse to shoot Lewis in the foot. It all hinges around the brief cutaway shot to her picking up a gun from one of the dead bodies in the hotel room before she is taken hostage by Lewis.
  • Billy can really be a smooth operator sometimes. Madani confronts him about the four dead soldiers in the raid that killed Stein. They all happened to work previously at Anvil. That's a huge coincidence. He didn't want that raid to trace back to him but it did. It did very easily too. Billy can play it cool. But what later happens in this hotel forces him to reveal his true self to everyone. That should get a big reaction out of Madani.
  • The show probably lingers for a bit too long on the birds in the cold open. Lewis kills a man just to assume his identity as an Anvil employee. It then serves as a metaphor that he is trying to set these birds from their cage but they don't want to go. It highlights his own personal struggle to find purpose in this world. He feels trapped and incapable of escaping without producing all of this violence.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.