There is something dark and malicious within the concept of duty for at its root, duty is a well-told lie. Lies themselves are always betrayals for in the liar’s mind you the receiver of a lie are either too ignorant, too weak or too untrustworthy to be trusted with the truth. And then, when the lie is uncovered, the reaction can run the gamut from momentary unease forgiven in good grace through to a permanent deep break ending in violence. Duty and lies, and our reaction to them live at the heart of Netflix and Marvel Studios incredible, horrifying, relentlessly dramatic new limited series The Punisher.
Once upon a chasm of events, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) was just a guy. He had a family, or rather two families; one was a wife and two children, a boy and a girl who all lived together with Frank in a comfortable home. The other family was composed of Frank’s brothers, Marines, who slept in foxholes or tents on the plains of Iraq or the steppes beneath the mountains of Afghanistan.
Why did Frank become a Marine? The series episodes I have screened thus far do not overtly clarify his reasons for joining the Corps, but it doesn’t really matter. Millions upon millions of us, probably a majority to be honest, literally or figuratively sign up as patriots to offer up a portion of our lives to our respective nations. Wear a uniform, fight a war, pledge allegiance, sing an anthem, hang a flag on a telephone pole outside the house; all are our tithe, our recognition, our deepest thanks to the country that – yes! – loves us!
Oh it is such a beautiful thing, this patriotism, this loyalty to flag and government, history and tradition, ancestors and generations yet to be born. And if it is sometimes difficult or even life-threatening, we keep up with those sacrifices year in and year out for as Frank Castle puts it, ‘people can adjust to anything if there’s a routine.’ Think about that line for awhile. It’s worthy of the time taken. But do be careful, as the thoughts will lead you to a place of questions and that may not be very comfortable.
Indoctrination into national duty begins within moments after birth and if you think that is wild hyerbole get your Mum or your Nan to open up the family photo album. There’s you in those nappies or t-shirt with an applique stating ‘The Next President of the United States!’ or the sunhat styled from a Union Flag, or there’s you holding a little flag with a bonfire or fireworks lighting up the background. If your national anthem wasn’t one of the first four songs you learned off by heart I’ll be a monkey’s uncle, and my sister has better taste in men than that.
But it is all just a lie. Not to go all godless communist on you, for they aren’t much better, but the nation-state doesn’t give a good goddamn about you, not you as an individual. How could it? How could you? When you see a cloud of midges or blackflies before you, or a formation of ducks if you are a hunter in a blind, you just fire your bug spray or shotgun at it without consideration as to which will die and what it might mean to an untended nest somewhere. If you scatter bread crumbs to pigeons, do you really care which pigeon gets to the bread crumbs first? No. You’ve received your enjoyment of the moment and that is what is important to you. Just as people create God in our own image so do we create our nations so let’s not take too high a moral ground. One may as well argue against mirrors.
Nonetheless, Frank Castle discovers that the orders he was given, the orders he followed without question, were corrupt, rotten and uncaring. Soldiers killed in action had their body cavities stuffed with heroin to be sent back to the addicted in the US; for profit of course, always for profit. And, because Frank knew about this, or more accurately was witness to this, both his family of wife and children along with his family of Marine brothers start to be dropped one by one.
A dirty little secret: It is just as possible to live within a state of ‘functioning PTSD’ as it is to be a functioning alcoholic and don’t we know enough of the latter every day in every situation? Frank is urged by Daredevil’s Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and group therapy leader Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) to seek therapy, let go of the murders, find some peace for himself. But of course, that’s just not going to happen, not until every last one of the betrayers, the ones who took the notion of a patriotic call of duty and perverted into naked profit and murder, continue to live.
At a deep and (occasional, if I’m on my game) profound level I abhor violence on television or in cinema. My fear is always that someone might, well, just might like it enough to try it out for themselves. And yet, I not only give The Punisher a pass on this I wholeheartedly recommend it. Necks broken, throats slashed, entrails ripped apart with knives … The Punisher is honourable not because it extols violence bit because it states it clearly. With the rarest of exceptions, Frank’s victims as he works his way towards the mastermind of the scheme that killed his families are all given human moments. They have faces and voices. We, in turn, feel. They are not the anonymous Red Shirts of Star Trek or the faceless ninjas of Iron Fist. These people had lives, they are not blackflies.
On a soul level, The Punisher is carried towards excellence by its dialogue and its lead performance. Nothing will make me hate a series quicker than clunky dialogue; nothing will make me love a series more than exposition-free, human conversation. The Punisher under its showrunner Gail Barringer (ex of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) is not afraid of taking some time over the course of thirteen episodes/nearly six hours of airtime) to allow Frank and the ex-NSA analyst Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) or Frank and Micro’s wife Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman) to have extended lingering scenes where they just, basically, talk about life. There’s a beat in one of the episodes where a quite drunk Micro, on the run from the Bad People in order to protect his family, starts rambling on to Frank about the size of his, um, dick. Were The Punisher a two hour movie this scene hits the cutting room floor if it even gets shot in the first place. Here though, it is alive; with Frank trying to deflect this uncomfortable, embarrassing topic exactly, precisely, truly as one would do when a friend starts to make an ass of himself.
Jon Bernthal proves himself as one of the great living actors in his portrayal of Frank. There is more than a whiff of Peak Al Pacino, or Give a Shit Robert De Niro about him. As the late Jack Lemmon once said, the secret of great TV acting is in the art of doing less. Bernthal never chews the scenery, as a mediocrity like Sylvester Stallone or (shudder) Jean-Claude Van Damme might. Amidst all the killing, Frank has a gentleness about him, like Brando cradling his pigeons in On the Waterfront. I absolutely bow down to his skills.
In summation, the Netflix/Marvel series have been a mixed lot thus far, coming closest to excellence with Jessica Jones and the first series of Daredevil. With The Punisher, the producers have got it right. No superheroes, no supervillains, just the evil of lies … the ones we are taught to receive as truth.
Be seeing you.