Sunday, November 26, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Punisher' - Frank Carries Out the Final Mission to Avenge His Family in 'Memento Mori'

Netflix's The Punisher - Episode 1.13 "Memento Mori"

As the authorities close in, an exhausted but unbroken Frank vows to put an end to the war that has consumed his life.

When it comes to the tragic deaths of Frank's wife and children, the betrayal from Billy should be the most personal and resonant in the narrative. It is that in theory. It was still an effective and destructive twist when Frank learned just how complicit Billy was in this entire conspiracy. But it also feels like a missed opportunity for the show to incorporate flashbacks to Billy hanging out with Frank's family only in the season finale. This season has featured a lot of agonizing thoughts Frank has had about his family. He has replayed that fateful day over and over in his head. He's been traumatized by memories of his family. All of those scenes were insightful but grew incredibly repetitive as well. So, it feels like the show could have done more to prop up this friendship between Frank and Billy. Again, it's still very effective in the end. This narrative was building to a complex confrontation between Frank and Billy. It delivers on that and proves that Frank is trying to figure out the best way to move forward with his life and what these actions mean for him. In the end, it's a very important story about personal growth and needing to reckon with one's past in order to continue living. But it's all wrapped up in a story that is building to an exciting action climax that features a shootout on a carousel ride. That's unique to this show while still being a fairly interesting setting for such a momentous moment.

Of course, it takes a lot of contorting in the plot in order to get to that fateful confrontation between Frank and Billy at night at the scene of the greatest tragedy in Frank's life. The narrative first has to explain how the two of them are treating their injuries from the previous episode. Frank is in much worse shape. He also can't trust the hospitals or the police because he is still technically a fugitive. So instead, Madani takes him home to her parents where her surgeon father is able to treat his wounds. That's a strange sequence that mostly just explains how Frank is reasonably stitched up after such a climatic moment in his mission. Madani's father has never been seen until this point. His profession has never been an important part of the story. That basically just confirms that Madani is less of an effective character and more of a plot device who can conveniently complicate the story in multiple instances. Elsewhere, Billy's story of survival is much more conventional and cliche. He's removing the bullet from his arm by himself. He's killing all of the Homeland Security agents who storm Anvil. And then, he just blows up the building while coolly walking away from the blast. It's meant to show him as a devious badass. But it's also such a familiar sequence that doesn't make it specific to Billy in the slightest.

After their wounds are treated, Frank and Billy decide to visit the one last connection they have in this world: Curtis. Curtis really does get screwed for a lot of this season. All he wants to do is help his fellow veterans. He's ensuring that the mentally wounded get the help that they deserve even when the government is doing nothing to help them. That's a noble cause that has value in the life Frank pursues after all of this is over. But the plot basically just needs to put Curtis in danger once more. All of his righteous actions go away so that he can be a pawn in this war between his fellow soldiers. Billy shows up in his apartment looking for confirmation that Curtis has always been lying to him and plans on torturing him to find out where Frank is now. That's particularly devious because Billy threatens to shoot off Curtis' other leg. That ultimately doesn't happen because Frank is perched in a sniper position on the nearby building. He can shoot at Billy before he can do anymore harm. Of course, a bullet still wounds Curtis further. He gets injured a lot simply by knowing Frank Castle. Billy wants to inflict more pain. But he also agrees to the terms of a deal to make this a one-on-one fight between him and Frank. It's the battle that will put an end to this conflict. And Billy decides to stage it at the carousel where Frank's family was killed.

All of this serves thematic purpose. Frank and Billy return to the scene of the crime that set Frank on his current path. He's full of anguish because of what Billy supported during that fateful day. Again, Billy didn't pull the trigger. But he supported the action. And now, he chooses that location because he's hopeful that it will cause Frank to experience more PTSD. Yes, that is ultimately the case as well. All of the lights as well as two new hostages Billy has tied up are enough to distract Frank from his mission. It's very precarious for him to be back here. Billy hopes to use that to his advantage. It's an elongated action sequence that is very effectively told as well. It's important for the action to disarm these two quickly. It's a much more engaging fight once the guns are taken away. It makes it hand-to-hand combat. Billy has the upper hand because of the hostages. But then, Madani randomly shows up and promptly gets shot in the head. That's such a weird moment. It's played as Madani swinging in for her chance to exact her own kind of vengeance on Billy for what he did to her. And then, the story promptly silences her as soon as she arrives. It would be a lame way for that character to die. She doesn't in the end. But it serves as further proof that that character isn't multi-dimensional in a way that is completely necessary. She mostly is just an explanation for how the government can forget all of Frank's past crimes.

So, Madani shows up in this fight just to serve as a distraction to Billy so that Frank can ultimately disarm him. It makes it a close combat fight. That's something that Frank succeeds at much more than Billy does. He has proven that time and time again. Billy was counting on that when he freed Frank to kill Rawlins in the previous episode. But now, the tables have turned. Now, Frank is targeting Billy. They are both trained soldiers. They are formidable opponents. The show once again highlights the brutality and monstrosity on display in this violence. Billy bashes Frank's head into the glass mirror on the ride. Frank uses those broken shards in order to stab Billy and deliver the final blows. It's just so agonizing to watch as Frank repeatedly punches Billy's face into the broken glass. It's brutal and very uncomfortable. It's also a reminder of how much Billy values his outward appearance. To him, he's always measured his success by how well he looks on the outside and the money he has accumulated over the years. And now, both are gone from him. He sees his reflection in the mirror and wants to die. It's the same headspace Frank has been in for years. He's been eager to die after losing his family. He couldn't because they needed to be avenged. Frank has never wavered in his moral code before. Billy deserves to die for his actions. But Frank doesn't kill him. Instead, he keeps him alive to ensure that he stays in this headspace for the rest of his life. That's brutal while also seemingly providing a tense for how this conflict between them isn't over with quite yet.

But everything is as resolved as it's going to be by the end of this finale. Rawlins is dead and Billy has been hospitalized with no one knowing if or when he'll wake up and what his memory will be like. Madani survives a gunshot to the head. She manages to get her superior officers to wipe Frank's crimes from the national database and give him the opportunity to live a new life of complete anonymity. David is able to return home to his family. Everything ends up as perfect as it could be for David. But Frank can't join him in that peace. He's right back to being all alone in this world believing that he has finished the mission he set out to do a long time ago. Now, he faces the more difficult situation of trying to figure out what's next in his life. The narrative has pointed out on multiple occasions that Frank's life needed to be more than this mission. That ensured that the story needed to spend an ample amount of time showing what he does next. It feels a little too condensed in comparison to everything else going on in this finale. Most of the running time is devoted to the conclusion of the main plot. But Frank does join Curtis' support group. He does so knowing that he needs to look within to decide what kind of life he wants to be living. It's the perfect place for him to be because he still holds so much respect for his fellow soldiers. He trusts that they won't betray his confidence. That's a relationship that is earned while still living in the murky area that is Frank's life.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Memento Mori" was written by Steve Lightfoot and directed by Stephen Surjik.
  • Things got very personal for Madani this season. Frank is literally bleeding out in her parents' bed at the start of this finale. She lost so much because of this case. And yet, she is still determined to see it through to the end even if it may lead to her exit from the station. But again, the only real purpose she has in the story is ensuing that Frank can go free. A gun shot to the head is all it took to get rid of all the animosity she had towards him.
  • It's never really explained how Madani learns exactly where Frank and Billy are having this epic, final showdown. She gets an alert that something is going on at this park. She happens to remember the personal significance to Frank. So, she's determined to investigate further. But it's just incredibly convenient that she gets that commonplace alert while she's anguishing over her report of the case.
  • Everything is working out for David long before he returns home too. He and Sarah have sex in the bathroom of the safe house. That's something that could seem extraneous but it needed to be included because of him complaining about no sex for the past year earlier in the season. Plus, it's still an emotional scene when he returns home and is embraced by his family once more even though Frank doesn't join them.
  • It feels weird that Karen isn't a part of this finale at all. She's been the character most identified to the story of wondering what comes next in Frank's life after this mission. Yes, it's a fitting ending for him in that support group with Curtis. Frank will need to do a lot of soul searching by himself before he lets anyone into his life again. It's just awkward that Karen was ultimately a minor character despite having significant importance to Frank. 
  • Like with all of the Netflix-Marvel shows, there were many problematic elements to this season of The Punisher. Once again, there was no need for it to be 13 episodes long. The story probably only justified enough in the 6-8 hour range. Some of the supporting characters weren't ultimately great in the context of the overall season. And yet, everything worked because of Jon Bernthal. That was a great lead performance with a solid assist from Ebon Moss-Bachrach.
  • I'm really intrigued to see what a second season of this show would look like. This season rehashed a lot of the personal anguish of Frank Castle's story. He pursued the mission of his family's deaths once more. He got justice. But now, it will be much more compelling to see what comes next and how the show can be just as brutal and meaningful without this personal connection in Frank's life.

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.