[This story contains spoilers from season two of The Punisher on Netflix.]
While The Punisher takes many storyline cues from the original Marvel comics, one of Frank Castle's (Jon Bernthal) most important relationships is an entirely new creation in the Netflix universe. His dynamic with Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) developed gradually during the second season of Daredevil as Karen fought to clear Frank's name, and developed in the first season of The Punisher into a close bond that might be friendship, or might be more.
In season two, Karen returns for a single, pivotal episode to counsel Frank after a devastating fight that leaves him believing he has accidentally killed three innocent people. After the reveal that Frank has been framed by Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), the episode shifts focus to Frank and Karen's relationship and addresses the long-unacknowledged romantic subtext between the two.
"We can't even entertain the idea of being together unless he comes back from the dark side," Woll tells The Hollywood Reporter. "He has to pick: Is it going to be this vendetta, or is it going to be life? Presumably, maybe, life with me. And then when he says no, it's just doubly devastating."
Below, Woll discusses Karen and Frank's relationship, her reaction to the cancellation of Daredevil and saying goodbye to Karen Page.
Daredevil season three and The Punisher season two were shot roughly around the same time. What was it like going between the two worlds?
I did this just after I finished Daredevil. I wrapped on Daredevil and was proud of it and excited about it, and then they asked me to come and do the one episode on Punisher. I love Jon so much. I thought for sure we'd be doing another season of Daredevil, so I didn't have a nostalgic feeling about it yet. I was excited to go and tell Karen and Frank's story. It's fun because it's all ours, it's not from the comics.
And it's a very quiet episode, and a lot of one-on-ones with you and Jon in the hospital room.
Frank Castle is such an active character; it was interesting for him to be lying in bed the whole time! You need to see the softer side of Frank in order to understand what he loses every time he takes on the mantle of justice. I liked that it was a moment for us all to kind of slow down and take stock, and I liked that it was these three women teaming up to get Frank back on his feet. He was having a crisis, not only because he was caught, but because he thought he'd done something terrible, and he needed us to do some sleuthing and figure it out.
What's going through Karen's mind as she's trying to convince Frank to choose a better path, and maybe consider a life with her?
Karen is looking at someone that she cares about lying in a hospital bed, covered in bruises, and she's barely ever seen this person not covered in blood and bruises. Beyond that, he's having a crisis of faith in himself. So his face is broken and his heart is broken, and it's really hard to look at someone and then see them choose to continue down that path. Karen has been in that place herself. There were many points in time where if you gave her the opportunity, and she was alone in a room with Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) without the FBI watching, she very well might have done something very Frank Castle-ish. After the third season [of Daredevil], having revealed her own secrets to her friends and been accepted by them, and everything she went through in discovering that it was better to get Fisk the legitimate way, there's a bit of hope. When she's looking at Frank, there's a bit of, "Look, I found this and you can have it too, you just have to trust me and you have to come with me." We talked a lot about it being a fight for Frank's soul, and that if he's someone that she loves to some extent, we can't even entertain the idea of being together or being there for one another unless he comes back from the dark side. So I think it's a moment to ask him: "Hey, you're gonna have to pick. Is it going to be this vendetta, or is it going to be life?" Presumably, maybe, life with me. And then when he says no, it's just doubly devastating.
When Frank thinks that he's accidentally killed these innocent women and tells Karen he did it, she says, "It doesn't change how I feel about you." That's a pretty big statement.
Yes! I had a lot of conversations with [Punisher showrunner] Steve Lightfoot about that. He originally wrote it where Karen comes in already assuming that Frank had done it, and I said, "Karen knows Frank, and she knows this world that we live in, and as far as she's concerned, Frank is a good guy and there's corruption." I liked the idea that Karen would assume he's been framed, and then he has to tell her, "No, I did it," and then she has to say, "You know what? OK. I accept you." And [Steve] was quite keen on that, because he really liked the idea of the moment of acceptance being strong, being big, and I think it's even stronger when we see her have to accept it in the present, rather than having done it already. I'm really glad that collaboratively we were able to make that moment a really big one that says, "Hey, look, certain actions don't necessarily have to define us."
Karen's seen enough as a journalist to know there's probably more to the story.
Yeah, because every other time, he's been framed! The whole second season of Daredevil, and in the hotel in the first season of The Punisher, he's always framed. So I think Karen's thought process is: I heard he was caught, they're saying he killed these three women, but I know Frank and he would never kill anyone that wasn't explicitly involved. So he needs my help, and that's why I'm coming down there. I'm coming down there on a mission, because Karen Page is always on a mission! And then she comes down there to realize, there is no mission. There's just your friend who's at a crisis point, and you have to choose, are you going to be there for him, or walk away? And I love that she chooses him.
If this is the last viewers see of Karen, how do you feel about this as an ending for her character?
I feel great. The ending of this one, even though it's a little bittersweet — literally, I think my last line is "Goodbye!" I didn't know it at the time [that Daredevil would be canceled] so I didn't get to savor it in that way, but it is kind of fitting, whether I knew it or not. And for Frank and Karen, even though it ends with them going their separate ways and having made their choices, he did say that he loves Karen, and she was able to say that back. It felt great to do that. Am I also keeping my fingers crossed that someday, even if it's not as Frank and Karen, Jon and I will get to work together again? Absolutely.
The Daredevil cancellation surprised a lot of people. What was your reaction?
After the Iron Fist and Luke Cage cancellations, it was in the back of my mind. I knew we had a very, very strong season, and I was so proud of it. When we finished shooting and in the press leading up to it, we were all very confident that we'd do another one, because this is great and we've only just begun. But then when I heard that Luke got canceled, that was surprising to me. I really liked that show, and it obviously represents an underserved demographic, and that's an important thing. So if they were cutting that loose, then it really signaled to me that they were looking to make a change. I honestly don't have hard feelings — these are business decisions, and in a way I'm glad to know we didn't get canceled because we suck! Instead, my thought is, "OK, so we're moving on." Everyone has decided that it's time to work on other things, and put our focus and our energy on something else, and I'm sad, but I honestly don't have hard feelings about it. I have such respect and affection for both Netflix and Marvel and Disney and all of these giant players, and I'm sure there are intricacies of it all that we'll never fully understand. I just decided at a certain point it was healthier for me to be grateful, and grieve a little bit, rather than try to hold on to some hope. I feel very privileged to have gotten to tell Karen's story, and especially what I got to do this last season on Daredevil, and with The Punisher, I'm so proud of the dimension that all of that gave to her. The fact that she could be tough and play right alongside the boys and never felt like deadweight was just a real privilege.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.