[This story contains spoilers from the season two finale of Netflix's The Punisher.]
Given the deeply uncertain future of Netflix’s Marvel slate, the brutal ending of The Punisher’s second season is likely to prove divisive among viewers, who will see it either as a long-awaited concession to comic book canon, or a cliff-hanger that may never be resolved.
Picking up a few months on from the main events of the finale, the epilogue of sorts finds Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle taking a call from Madani (Amber Rose Revah), who’s offering him a job as a hired gun for the CIA. “I already have a job,” he tells her, before hanging up and opening fire on a warehouse full of nameless gangsters.
It’s a bleak scene that represents a full 180 from the season premiere, in which Frank has spent a year on the road enjoying a quiet and relatively normal life, and is beginning to make new connections before getting drawn back into violence. Showrunner Steven Lightfoot tells The Hollywood Reporter that the scene was designed to tee up a season three in which Frank has fully embraced his Punisher mantle for the first time. “The idea would be that we come into season three and that is who he is now, full-time. When he says to Madani, ‘I’ve already got a job,’ it’s doing what he does. He had a shot at maybe not living that life, and realized he couldn’t, and now he’s fully embraced it. The hope of that scene was very much to have people end the season and go, ‘Holy shit, I can’t wait for season three.'”
It’s made clear in season two that Frank has real connections in his life: a ride-or-die best friend in Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), a surrogate daughter in Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham), a love interest in Beth (Alexa Davalos) and later Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). But despite their various efforts, Frank comes to the conclusion through the season that violence is in his nature, and that the only way forward is to admit who he is.
“It’s a pretty tragic statement,” Bernthal tells THR of the final scene. “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.”
Season two’s final moments certainly offer the purest and most unmitigated version of The Punisher that the show has yet depicted, close in tone to Bernthal’s very first episodes as a ferocious antagonist in Daredevil, before the character evolved into a more soulful antihero. But there’s a reason why that evolution happened, and Lightfoot acknowledges that the nihilistic tone of the finale would be unsustainable for a whole season: “I don’t think the show can just, in an unmitigated way, say, ‘Frank’s gonna kill everyone and that’s fine,’ and the truth is that would also get procedural. If it was just villain of the week and Frank takes them out, I think it’s a very different show.”
So while season two seems to leave Frank past the point of no return, season three would necessarily have to bring him back toward the light at some point, perhaps by having him cross a moral line even he can’t tolerate. The groundwork for this is laid in season two’s 11th episode, in which Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) manipulates Frank into believing that he has accidentally killed three innocent people, which shatters him so thoroughly that it falls to other characters to figure out he’s been framed. One of the Punisher’s suspension-of-disbelief tenets is that Frank is such a good shot that he never misses a target, but if an innocent really were to get caught in his crossfire, it would likely end his vigilante days for good.
Beyond Frank’s moral journey, season two doesn’t leave a lot of loose ends. Both its major villains are neutralized: Frank has finally killed his sociopathic friend-turned-nemesis Billy, and allowed John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart) to live after finding some unexpected common ground with the deeply religious hitman. A theoretical season three would likely introduce an entirely new adversary, although Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) is one established fan-favorite villain who has unfinished business with Frank.
Many Marvel diehards are holding their breath to see if The Punisher can buck Netflix's wave of Marvel cancellations. Marvel and Netflix's relationship has become sour in recent months as Marvel parent company Disney has been pulling MCU titles from the streamer. Netflix, meanwhile, had wanted to bring back Luke Cage but the two companies could not come to an agreement and the series was ultimately canceled, joining Iron Fist and, most recently, Daredevil. Many of those could be revived at Disney+ should the company opt to see those series join the MCU offshoots that are already in the works for the upstart SVOD platform.
Lightfoot told THR that producers were waiting to hear how The Punisher season two performed for Netflix, which famously does not release viewership information. “My situation in a way hasn't changed, in that when we finished season one, it went out, Netflix saw how it performed, and then they picked us up or not. I’m hoping for the same this time, but I don’t know anything beyond that. The hope is that they give us the thumbs-up and we jump straight back into season three.”
But if that warehouse shooting is the last viewers ever see of Bernthal’s Frank Castle, Lightfoot is aware that the show is going out on a divisive note. If you’re the kind of fan who has been waiting to see this Punisher evolve into his most primal comic book self, season two’s finale will be a satisfying last chapter. If you were holding out hope for Frank to find redemption, it’ll leave a bitter taste in your mouth. “I think half the audience will be going, ‘Finally!’ and I hope the other half are sort of sad that this is where Frank’s gone, and feel that maybe there was another route for him,” Lightfoot concludes. “If we split the audience on that, we’ve done our job well.”