Five episodes in, and some thoughts.
1. This show is probably the most blatant example of Truffaut Was Right I’ve ever seen. To its credit, the show at least attempts to critique the more extreme instances of toxic nationalism and masculinity, but it feels like that can’t help but be undercut by the mere fact that the audience is always going to want Frank to cut lose on some evil doers. The CIA director (or whatever he is) saying effectively that Americans deserve to be happy because they are Americans was chilling to me (and the rest of the world deserves what?), but I can’t tell how much the show wants me to question that assumption.
2. There was a thread early on that I found quite psychologically astute which seems to have fallen out of the story somewhat, which is that…often, it’s having had to DO terrible things which is the real cause of a person’s trauma. Being victimised is a terrible, unforgivable thing, but many people are eventually able to process it. But having to DO terrible things – having to kill people, having to torture them, having to leave people to die to save your own skin – often comes only at a huge psychological cost. There’s a reason soldiers have to be TRAINED to kill – humans actually have a pretty profound…handicap to enacting that kind of violence on each other, one that is socialised into us from infancy (I have a suspicion any highly social animal will have similar tendencies). Often the only reason people are able to nerve themselves to commit violence (particularly in the businesslike way that is required of soldiers – knowingly going out to kill someone who has not directly harmed you is not the same as an act of self-defence like Karen’s against Wesley) is through the belief that they are defending something, fighting for freedom or democracy or whatever high-minded ideal you feel like. To find out that that ideal is false somehow can pose a serious threat to a person’s sense of self, and the worse their actions have been, the more severe the threat is. (I am convinced that this psychological tendency played a huge part in causing the Irish Civil War, for instance – to have gone out and murdered people in the cause of the Republic was one thing…but to murder people, to have blood, often of people you knew, on your hands, all for the Republic…and then not get it, get only a miserable, dishonourable compromise, well I think that was unacceptable in way very few of the men who started the Civil War could put into words).
3. Frank is introduced reading Moby Dick. The subtlety, it slays me.
4. More to the point, Frank seems like a character who functions best when there is someone else in the story offering a…philosophical challenge. Partly because his entire character leans into a very American tendency towards suspicion of government as innately corrupted and flawed – one man against the system and so on and so forth – and, given the way those beliefs lend themselves to authoritarianism, they become very uncomfortable viewing if they aren’t challenged within the story. Note, Captain America’s political position in Civil War made me HIGHLY uncomfortable for exactly the same reason – that generalised suspicion of politics and politicians can so very easily morph into opposition to democracy itself – though I’d argue that Civil War offered at least some critique of Steve’s position, whereas the Punisher (so far, at least) hasn’t really, because if Frank’s morals/politics are subjected to sustained critique he becomes the villain and you break the show. (Daredevil was more interested in using the Punisher to point out the limits of Matt’s beliefs than the other way round, so this never really became a problem).
5. Ben Barnes is totally going to be the villain – he’s far too pretty for it to be otherwise.
6. It strikes me now that, as much as people complained about it at the time, Karen becoming a journalist makes complete sense for her arc. Because when Matt saves her in the first episode of Daredevil, he does it not by punching someone very hard (though that’s part of it), but by telling the world what was going on at Union Allied. He saved her through an act of journalism, in other words. While Karen’s past is still unclear, it seems likely that there was at least some measure of abuse in her family life – Matt saving her may well have been the first time anyone stepped in to help her since the death of her brother. Karen seems to be a deeply lonely person (something I think Matt responded to, being quite lonely himself), and it’s no wonder that it had a profound impact on her. She flat out TELLS Frank that the best way to solve his problems is to let the world know about them – she’s quoting Matt back to him, though I doubt she realises it.
7. I love that Karen still carries a gun in her handbag. She seems quite…withdrawn and subdued and…I don’t think hanging around Frank is going to help with that at all. She’s always tended to project her own psychological issues on to him (the same way Elektra did with Matt), and her need for him to move on is, at least partially, a need to know that moving on IS possible, that she won’t be stuck grieving Matt for the rest of her life. (Particularly important for Karen, I think, because it’s such a complex loss – she may have loved Matt, but he never really let her know him and then grew angry with her for failing to understand him. I would imagine there is a huge amount of anger underneath the grief that she hasn’t dealt with at all. Matt rejected her and hurt her and she can’t process any of that because of the pain of losing him).
8. More to the point, Frank’s inability to move past HIS grief seems fundamental to the character. He won’t ever get to a place where he has processed and accepted his grief, because if he did that he would cease to be the Punisher…and then the writers have broken him as a character and ended the show. So, even if Matt wasn’t going to return to the scene, I don’t think a happy romance is in Karen and Frank’s future. Which isn’t to say that there won’t be a kind of wistful ‘what might have been’ element to their relationship. (Not to mention that Frank’s feelings for Karen seem to be almost paternal from time to time, which would complicate things further).
9. The scene between Karen and Madani had some of the most ludicrously telegraphed sexual tension I’ve ever seen – who knows if it was intentional or not. It would be NICE if Marvel could remember that women can, at the least, be friends – lord knows Karen needs a girl friend, not to mention Misty. I’ve often argued that Agents of Shield is a very underrated show, and one aspect of it that beats all the Netflix shows (except Jessica Jones) is that it allows women (plural) to be important in the story, and for their relationships with EACH OTHER to drive the plot – as in, it’s IMPORTANT that Daisy loves Jemma, and May loves Daisy, because it drives their actions, whereas Karen, or Misty, or Claire are only allowed to be important in so far as their actions affect MEN. In fact, they are virtually never on screen with another woman – in that sense, even when there are multiple women in the cast, the Smurfette principle still holds, because there is rarely more than one woman in the same scene. (Again, for obvious reasons, Jessica Jones is an honourable exception to this).
10. I think Jon Bernthal is fantastic in the part, but to be entirely honest, I’m not totally sure I will keep going to the end. I feel like I can see the seams – all the ways the writers have to bend the story to keep Frank a viable hero – far too clearly. Recommendations?