[This story contains spoilers from season two, including the finale, of Netflix's The Punisher.]
The second season of The Punisher — now streaming on Netflix — takes Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle on a new journey, one that's a 180-degree turn from his time as a reformed everyman in season one to the most violent and nihilistic version of a vigilante.
Having finally laid the ghosts of his slain family to rest by taking down those responsible for their deaths, Frank opens season two having spent a year on the road rolling from town to town enjoying music, beer and a break from violence. The season premiere even sees the character make a genuine connection with a single mother (Alexa Davalos) and her son — as he sees, for the first time, a real future for himself.
But of course, the peace can’t last. After Frank steps in to protect a teenage girl (Giorgia Whigham) from mysterious assassins, his quiet life is quickly shattered. He's soon drawn back to New York and into a brutal standoff with a pair of villains: a Christian fundamentalist hitman (Josh Stewart) and Frank's deranged former best friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). By the end of the grueling season, Frank has definitively chosen to embrace his darkest impulses, and he commits himself to a life as The Punisher, much to the chagrin of those close to him.
Below, leading man Bernthal speaks with The Hollywood Reporter
about season two’s bleak final scene, Frank’s choice to embrace his violent mission at the expense of human connection, and The Punisher
’s uncertain future amid Netflix's wave of Marvel cancellations (RIP Iron Fist, Daredevil
and Luke Cage
Coming into season two, where did you want to take Frank?
It's always interesting to see him uncomfortable. What’s more interesting to me than putting him in a situation that he can fight his way out of is a situation where he can't — not because the odds are against him, but because that's just not an option. So putting him together with a 16-year-old girl [Giorgia Whigham’s Amy Bendix] is precisely that. These people are forced together in a way that echoes the relationship with Micro and Frank in season one, but matching him up against a teenager puts him in a more uncomfortable situation in many ways, and I think eventually a real bond is made, a real love is formed, and it really reminds him of his daughter and everything he’s lost.
Midway through the season, Frank says violence has always been in his nature, and that his wife knew it when she was alive. So maybe it wasn’t losing his family that turned him into the Punisher?
That was a line that I came up with and I've always been pushing that with Frank. The kernel of that is very much in the comics, and it's this idea of: Who is this guy really? Is he the guy who lives in the suburbs with his wife and kids? Or is he the guy overseas, standing neck deep in blood and mud? What is his purpose, and where is he most comfortable? It’s something that plagues him, the sense that he brought this on himself, and this is truly who he is, and no matter where he goes or who comes into his life, danger, death, despair, destruction, violence is always around the corner. It’s always been that way, and that’s where he feels most comfortable, and everyone around him suffers for that. That’s always been fascinating to me.
His motivations in the first season were a lot more about the loss he’d suffered, but now he’s removed from that, and still gets pulled into violence.
That's it, and that's what's interesting about starting the season with him dipping his toe in the waters of peace and human contact. He’s going down that road a bit, and then all of a sudden, boom, people are getting killed, and the person that he connected with gets shot, and he takes responsibility for that. It’s these feelings of: My God, again, I started to potentially get close with somebody and look at what happened. And is this going to be with me forever? Has it been with me forever? Have I always been this person? What is my purpose? Do I deserve to even be here? And if I am gonna be here, how do I cope with that fact? And that’s where you get into the world of real darkness that I think the character's gotta live in.
Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) returns briefly to make the opposite argument, trying to persuade Frank that he can still choose the light and have a real life. But it doesn’t seem like he can, right?
Certainly not now. I wish there could have been more of Karen and those two together. If there's one person in this world that I think that has the fortitude to handle anything Frank's got to give, and vice versa — I mean, they've both been to some dark and ugly places, but it's nothing either one of them can't handle, and they truly accept each other for who they are. I think if there's one person he could really connect with, it would be her. And that she could sort of get him out of it, if there is any getting out of it. But you have to pay homage, at the end of the day, to the source material, and to me, the Frank Castle that's always resonated with me from the comics is the guy who's not looking for any light. He's not looking for any light or happiness or peace, he's accepted this world of darkness and he feels like he's got a purpose, and that's what keeps him on mission. That’s what keeps him sane.
Some fans want to see Frank fully embrace the darkness, and others want to see him get some kind of happy ending. Are you conscious of that split in the fandom?
Absolutely, and at the end of the day, you have to take the material that's given to you and everything that you've learned about the character in the past, and then you have to throw it all out and make it completely your own as much as you possibly can. But it is very important to me to have this character ring true to the comic book fans, and the sort of Punisher loyalists and enthusiasts, and sometimes that's difficult.
The final scene felt like the most hardcore Punisher version of Frank we’ve seen on the show yet: just unloading a firearm on a warehouse full of gangsters. How did you feel about that ending?
It's a pretty tragic statement. It’s saying: I do serve a purpose in the world, and that’s to be a blunt, cold instrument of war. It’s saying he's tried this human connection thing, and he’s gone down this road now with this young woman that he’s come to really care about as a daughter, and he also knows that the only way forward is to keep her, and Curtis, and anybody that he cares about absolutely away from him. In a way, for the first time it's different from the Punisher you saw before because it's not self-serving. It's not that he has this unbelievable pain and anger from having his family stripped away from him. Now it’s something different, it’s about staying separate from everybody because he doesn’t want to hurt anybody good. And he’s able to serve the community, in his mind, by taking out the people that are bad. The character has evolved in that sense, and has become more true to where we find him in most iterations of the comic.
It felt like an incredibly bleak ending.
Big time. I mean, it's a mass shooting. That's how it goes out. Again, I think there's something really truthful there in regards to who he is in the comics, and it's all coming from what he feels like he deserves, and what he feels like he manifested by being who he is.
Earlier in that scene, Madani (Amber Rose Revah) calls to offer Frank a job as a hired gun for the CIA. Why is he so quick to turn her down?
It comes down to this idea of solitude, and the fact that the only institution that Frank has any trust in is himself. Between the government and the police and his friend Billy (Ben Barnes) he's been severely let down left and right, and I think that he can't be an agent for any sort of institution. He has to go off of his own sense of right and wrong, I think he’s now absolutely committed to this line of work — to vigilantism — and he's gotta be the judge, jury and executioner. He can't just be a weapon that gets pointed in a direction. He really understands how dangerous that can be.
Were you surprised when the Marvel cancellations started happening at Netflix?
I was. They happened one right after the other, and with Daredevil especially, [season three] was such a wonderful season and it was so critically hailed. [Editor's note: The Punisher started as a spinoff from Daredevil.] But look, all these decisions happen in rooms that I'm definitely not invited to. Like all things Marvel, I feel like I'm the last to find out, so I guess nothing really should surprise me. But this did. It definitely did. I came into this thing with Charlie Cox, and I loved being on Daredevil. Playing Frank as a supporting character offers you the opportunity to go the farthest with him. You can truly abandon any sense of likability or reliability and you can just let him be Frank, and I enjoyed that. I thought that was a really good fit. I'm enormously grateful to the Daredevil folks, I loved my time there, and none of this would have happened if it wasn't for that.
How do you feel about the possibility that you won’t play this character again?
There’s so much about this business that you just never know about, and I try to live my life only worrying about the things that I can control. When I have a job, I put absolutely everything that I have into making it the absolute best that I can, but in order to do that, I have to waste no energy hoping or caring or even thinking about things that I can't control. It’s a character that's existed for decades, it's a character that has touched so many people and it's a character that's resonated in the law enforcement and military community. It was an absolute honor to play him, and I know that there will be more Frank Castle one way or the other, and no matter what it is, everything that I've gotten to do so far I'm eternally grateful for. I’m honored that I got to wear the vest.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.