Sunday, November 19, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Punisher' - A New Threat Comes for Frank as He Tries to Get Information in 'Two Dead Men'

Netflix's The Punisher - Episode 1.02 "Two Dead Men"

A mysterious phone call forces Frank's hand. Meanwhile, Madani goes digging for suspects and Curtis delivers a message.

"Two Dead Men" gets its title from the game that Frank Castle and David Lieberman are playing with each other. Both men are believed to be dead. They are ghosts who are still alive trying to continue living. Frank is haunted by the memories of his family. He seemingly found closure by killing the men responsible for their deaths. He quickly assumed an average life as an ordinary civilian. Him choosing to embrace his violent impulses once more is what led to him being discovered by Micro. Meanwhile, David's family is still alive. He's just monitoring their lives from afar. He can see and experience life alongside them all while knowing that they believe him to be dead. It's tragic. He's powerless to stop Frank from threatening that part of his life that he cares so much about. This is a conflict that largely comes to a head by the conclusion of this episode. It's never abundantly clear if Micro is going to be the season-long villain for The Punisher. As such, this season hasn't really done a great job in establishing the core arc of the story and the propulsive desire for the audience to move to the next episode to see what happens next. It doesn't have a clear cut story of a protagonist battling with an antagonist. It doesn't have its own Wilson Fisk, Cottonmouth or Kilgrave yet. That is probably still coming. Right now, Frank is motivated into action because of this threat to his identity. He needs to find answers but largely just gets more questions about what has really been going on.

As such, it's clear that The Punisher is embracing its overarching conspiracy. This government conspiracy angle was already apparent with Frank Castle when he appeared on Daredevil. It was there where he seemingly unraveled the mystery of his family's tragic deaths. He learned that the cartel was responsible. And so, he hunted everyone associated with that cartel down and executed them. He succeeded in that mission at the start of this season. And now, the show is basically saying there is more to that story. It just seems like a lot of complications being thrown on top of the story in order to generate some sort of narrative for this new show. So, the audience should already know that Frank's commanding officer in Afghanistan, Major Schoonover, was running an illegal drug operation. Ahmad Zubair apparently became aware of that and was killed by this group that may or may not have included Frank. His execution was recorded via a video. It's a video that was on the Micro C-D that was left behind for Frank at the end of Daredevil Season 2. It's also a video that Madani has seen but doesn't currently have a copy of. Micro had this copy but was targeted by his own agency after trying to release it to the public. He was killed and quickly labeled a traitor with station chief Carson Wolf being able to kill the story at the New York Bulletin. All of this is very overly complicated. Plus, it doesn't really mean much of anything. It's all just generic plot conspiracy that has no bearing on the actual characters so far. Frank is still the only character of actual depth.

All of this makes it clear how Madani is connected to the main story of the season. But this episode disappointingly treats her as another cog in the wheel of this grand conspiracy. In the premiere, she was allowed a sense of humanity through that scene with her mother. But now, she's investigating Zubair's death despite Wolf's objections. He's still trying to silence this story. Madani is still personally motivated. Her investigation just mostly seems very formulaic. It introduces the latest character of importance in Ben Barnes' Billy Russo. He runs a private military corporation. Madani flirts with him a little bit to seem like she is genuinely interested in his story. She does that mostly just to get information out of him as it pertains to her case. It's all a show for Wolf and Billy is able to quickly see through it. But again, it's mostly just boring and laying up the foundation for whatever happens next. The big climatic moment of this episode is Frank breaking into Wolf's house and beating him up for information. That basically just confirms that the conspiracy behind the deaths of Frank's wife and children is far from over. It's only just getting started. As such, it feels like familiar terrain for the character and the story. There just isn't enough new right now to distinguish why this show is all that important.

Of course, the personal struggle of Frank Castle in this new world is a compelling plot thread that should get more attention in the future. In his previous appearances, he had a clear motivation in being completely fine with killing anyone who got in his way regarding the vengeance for his family. But now, he has to decide what kind of man he wants to be. It's clear that he is putting on a bunch of different performances for people. Every single one of them is true to some aspect of his identity. But he's still struggling to figure out who he is now that he is no longer The Punisher. Of course, his secret identity is out there. He needs to track down who Micro is. He enlists the help of Curtis and Karen Page to do so. That quickly establishes the camaraderie between Frank and Curtis. Curtis would never betray Frank's confidence and even helps him with tactical support when he needs it. And yet, they aren't close enough for Frank to tell Curtis every detail about his plan. Meanwhile, the Frank-Karen relationship was so meaningful on Daredevil. It's fascinating to see it return here and how effective Karen is in retrieving this information for Frank. And yet, she wonders what he plans on doing with it. She doesn't want to be handing over information that will lead to someone's death. She cares about Frank. Frank is allowed to be the closest thing resembling himself when he is with Karen. But that man is awkward and unsure of himself. That's a focus he doesn't need right now as he prepares for a battle. He needs information. He's not afraid to do whatever it takes to get it.

And in the end, Frank does kill again. He kills Wolf. That's an action that is bound to have consequences moving forward. Madani doesn't know that Frank is still alive. She's operating under the belief that The Punisher broke because of how the government failed him and quickly turned up dead a few months later. It's the tragic end to a tragic story. But it's not the end for Frank Castle. He's behind the death of her superior. Madani didn't like Wolf because of how obstructive he was to her investigation. But now, he's dead. She's affected by that because it seems like death is now following her around the more she digs into this case. That has the potential to be a fascinating story for her. Instead, it's much more compelling to see Frank be able to turn the tables on Micro. The premiere ended on Micro making his presence known to the audience. He quickly makes Frank aware of his presence as well. And then, Frank shows just how efficient he is in finding out this new threat to his identity and just what Micro wants from him. Yes, it's a case of the show doing a lot of telling instead of showing when it comes to establishing the history for this new character. But it's a character who has importance to Frank's own backstory. It's just unclear what Micro's motivations currently are. Is he going to be a friend or foe? Or will he be a reluctant ally? Frank works best alone but he does have people who truly care about him. He has people who want to be more prominent in his life. He instead pushes them away only to call on them when he needs their help. He gets that from Curtis and Karen. He is able to track down Micro and infiltrate his secret lair. That's a very cool final image for the hour. It's an enticing note to end on. Now, the show just needs to start getting more personal with the characters and less focus on the grand, complicated conspiracy of it all.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Two Dead Men" was written by Steve Lightfoot and directed by Tom Shankland.
  • Deborah Ann Woll will probably be to The Punisher what Rosario Dawson is to the other Netflix-Marvel shows. She's the connective tissue that helps build a sense of familiarity within the worlds of these shows. She's a reminder of the past for Frank who still has a role in his life even when she has a life outside of Frank Castle as well.
  • Of course with Karen Page being a main character here, there's the hope that the show will treat her better than Daredevil typically does. As such, she shouldn't be put in perilous situations every other episode. She shouldn't be kidnapped or narrowly escape death. She has purpose outside of those basic plot functions. But her becoming more entangled in this story could motivate Frank into action as well.
  • It's a little startling to see just how charming Frank Castle can be when he really wants to be. He ramps up the charm when it comes to embedding himself into Sarah's life. He's only doing that to send a message to Micro that he can invade his life just as easily as he can. In fact, it's impressive how quickly he has uncovered this information. Of course, it's really lucky and convenient as well that this is a story that was suppressed by Karen's employer.
  • There's definitely more to the story of Sam Stein as well. He's another agent whom Wolf doesn't like very much because of past behavior on a case. Stein knows his place in this department and what being partnered with him means. He's trying to endear himself to Madani in this case. But that makes me a little suspicious about where his true allegation lies as well.
  • Apparently, Frank could only handle being called a hipster for so long. That's how the world seemingly defines him throughout this episode. And so, he decides to shave the beard in order to make his escape from the world of his that Micro is monitoring. He has to throw the surveillance program off in order to sneak up on his new foe. It's very effective. 

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.