Thursday, November 23, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Punisher' - Madani Lays a Trap While Frank Tries to Help Sarah with Family Drama in 'Cold Steel'

Netflix's The Punisher - Episode 1.08 "Cold Steel"

Russo opens up to Madani about his past. Sarah shares her concerns about her son with Frank. A decoy operation takes a turn.

The Punisher really is meandering through the middle stretch of its season. That's been a constant criticism of not just the Marvel shows on Netflix but for many hourlong streaming shows with 13 episode seasons. 13 episodes used to be the industry standard for cable outlets to tell a concise story without the filler that the broadcast networks typically do. And now, the expansion of TV means there are so many different types of stories that are being told in the medium. Not all of them lend themselves to 13 episodes. It shouldn't just be a set standard. More and more, the creative team is deciding how much story there actually is for a given season. They go to the networks with a specific episode count in mind. And so, there are now shows out there that are only producing six episodes per season. That's a length that works for them. It's probably the length that would work out for the Marvel shows on Netflix as well. They all seem to suffer from the same problems. They have a story that they need to tell. They have a strong beginning and end. But the middle is full of plot contrivances in order to elongate the story to 13 episodes. It's a part of the novelization of TV as well. The era of distinctive episodes is disappearing. The hours of The Punisher just blend together with each episode setting up and paying off new aspects of this story. And yet, it has just grown very monotonous. I'm ready for the final confrontation between The Punisher and Agent Orange with Madani and Billy as compelling wild cards. But this season is still largely in delay mode with that story. And thus, it leads to yet another frustrating episode.

"Cold Steel" aims to inform the audience more about Billy's backstory. That's not an inherently bad idea. Him working with Rawlins was treated as a shocking, episode ending twist. And yet, his motivation for such a partnership is still shrouded in secrecy. Sure, the narrative has revealed just how devious and sinister Billy can be in his actions in the present day. He's killing people who represent a threat to his business interests. But it's still very unclear why Billy cares so much about maintaining the status quo with Rawlins. It all stands in stark contrast to the flashbacks of "Kandahar" that revealed the tragic nature of Billy and Frank's time overseas. That mission went horribly awry and Billy wanted to get out of the service. That was easy to understand. But his current actions are justified through the simple explanation of him just now being one of the bad guys. It's a note that Ben Barnes does play well. He is frequently asked to be villainous characters. But again, all of the depth and nuance has been ripped away from him. Billy Russo is now just another face of this conspiracy. He's the one actually on the ground leading the teams to eliminate Frank and Madani. He's the one seducing Madani for information and keeping her close as she learns more and more about this conspiracy. But again, the motivation behind all of this is severely lacking.

And so, this episode only provides more of a sense of the life that Billy grew up in. It's a lot of tragic exposition. He's sharing his story with Madani about being in a group foster home. There was an apparent good samaritan who treated the kids well until it was revealed he was actually a serial predator. All of this is so uncomfortable and chilling to listen to. But there's also the fear that it may just be a way to build sympathy with Madani instead of actually being a part of his backstory. This episode basically just confirms how good of a performance he is putting on for her. Even after everything that happens, he's the only person she can trust. That's twisted and the show is setting that up for the audience to be aware of how dangerous it all is. But it's still a bunch of cheap thrills for audience satisfaction in the moment instead of being genuine storytelling that builds based on the characters. And yet, the audience also gets a glimpse of Billy as he prepares for the day. He is his true self when he goes to see his mother in a nursing home. That comes with the chilling realization that he is intentionally paralyzing her there because of the many years of neglect she probably inflicted on him. This reveals him to be so villainous and abusive. It hints that perhaps even his relationship with Frank overseas was a performance to build trust. That's an option. And if that's true, then there doesn't really seem to be a reason to invest in anything that is really going on. There is no emotion to the various actions of the story. It's just plot for the sake of plot.

It's all still building to yet another elaborate set piece that includes a gunfight between two sides. Billy has his unit of former military operatives who are desperate to get out of the country. Madani has several Homeland Security agents. But this story once again plays into a consistent plot point and criticism of the Netflix-Marvel shows as well. At around the two-thirds point of every season, the supporting characters start getting killed off. It's still an effective way to raise the tension heading into the home stretch of the season. The life-and-death stakes of the narrative need to be stated. Those deaths need to him an impact in the main characters' actions in the endgame of the story. But it's also incredibly formulaic because it's killing off characters that were always marked for death. That inevitability makes it really difficult to connect with the tragedy in the same way that the characters d0. So yes, it's very important to see the reaction that Madani has to Sam being killed by Billy. She doesn't know that Billy is the culprit. That allows the chilling tragedy of Billy being the one to care for Madani in the aftermath when she's completely helpless. And yes, the Madani-Sam relationship has meant something this season. But it mostly just proves that Madani and Frank need to work together because their enemies are unstoppable if they continue to go about taking them down alone.

David is coming to that realization as well. He notes to Frank that they all want the same outcome. Frank is just completely against the idea of bringing Madani into the fold because he needs to kill Rawlins while she wants to bring him to justice. That's the core difference between the characters. The narrative has been highlighting their similarities as of late. They are both personally connected to this case. They feel the need to take action because no one else is going to. They are fighting against a corrupt system that the rest of the world doesn't even know about. They are loners who are also very skilled at what they do. But again, Madani stages this ambush and all of her targets die except for Billy who manages to escape unharmed. Meanwhile, Frank and David are able to identify Rawlins as Agent Orange. That's a huge discovery. And yet, they do absolutely nothing with that information. It once again feels like the creative team has decided that they've made too much progress with their investigation. And thus, they need to slow them down. They know who Rawlins is. But instead, Frank is helping Sarah with her latest domestic issue. It's building to the moment where she kisses Frank. That was inevitably going to happen. And yes, it predictably creates tension between him and David. But it's much more personally destructive that David knows that his son is spiraling without him and there's nothing he can do. Frank really has replaced David in the lives of this family. He's stepping up for them. That is an engaging story. It highlights the personal motivation for the mission that Frank and David are carrying out. It just wouldn't be surprising if the narrative gets back to the action with Frank in the next episode followed by an hour where Frank has to help David's daughter with her homework.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Cold Steel" was written by Felicia D. Henderson and directed by Antonio Campos.
  • Again, everything with David's family only gets started in this episode because the camera feeds go down. David immediately believes that his family is being targeted because the CIA has discovered he's still alive. That's not the case though. Instead, it's a big deal about nothing because Sarah just turned off the wi-fi for the day as a way to punish her son.
  • David has agonized about the horrible situation he has put his family in. They are grieving his loss even though he is still alive and spying on them. He wants to reach out and help them but can't. And yet, the show doesn't really seem to be highlighting how Frank is manipulating the family too. He is physically with them. But he's lying to them just as much as Davis is. That better have consequences.
  • It's suppose to be sweet listening to Frank and David talk about the first time they met their respective wives. It is a fascinating scene that is incredibly well acted by Jon Bernthal and Ebon Moss-Bachrach. However, it's a little creepy as well. It strengthens their bond while also highlighting how awful both of them can be. The later doesn't really seem to be the point though.
  • On one hand, all of the problems David's son is having right now simply shouldn't be fixed by Frank listening to them and playing catch with a football. On the other hand though, the show really shouldn't linger on this family drama for too much longer. It's become very extraneous with no one in the family becoming any wiser to David still being alive.
  • Sam's death is even more lame because it doesn't even seem like he is able to tell Madani that Billy was his killer and the one listening in on their office conversation. This is an hour that highlights how smart and capable Madani and Sam are as agents. But it then builds to this massive plot contrivance in order to keep Madani in this twisted story with Billy for a little while longer.
  • Lewis is the leading candidate for the next supporting character to die this season. That has always seemed like his position and purpose in this narrative. His death will be tragic just like Sam's is meant to be here. It's just formulaic and falling into a pattern that is created by the length of the season and not really having the story to justify all of it. Of course, Lewis doesn't appear in this hour at all.

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.