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[This story contains major spoilers from Netflix’s The Punisher season two, including the finale.]
On the basis of his crimes, there’s no way Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) should have made it out of The Punisher’s first season alive. Jon Bernthal’s vigilante Frank Castle has more reason to kill Billy than just about anyone else in the world, having discovered that his former best friend and brother-in-arms sanctioned the slaying of Frank’s family. But after a brutal final confrontation that ended with Frank mutilating Billy’s face with a fairground mirror, he leaves Billy alive — not out of mercy, but because being forced to live with brain damage and facial disfigurement is a punishment worse than death for a narcissist like Billy.
Season two picks up with Billy recuperating in hospital with no memory of his own villainous actions, his face hidden behind a black-and-white mask that represents his transformation into the iconic comic book villain Jigsaw. His facial scars are less extreme than fans of the comics or the Punisher: War Zone movie might expect; the Netflix drama’s focus is on the psychological “jigsaw” inside Billy’s head.
“He thinks he’s got a traumatic brain injury from his time in the forces, so he remembers Frank being his best friend, and then nothing,” star Barnes tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He still believes there’s a heroic element to his story.” But despite his amnesia, Billy soon ends up back on the same path of ruthless destruction and violence, aided and abetted by his manipulative therapist Krista (Floriana Lima).
Below, Barnes speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about the show’s psychological approach to Jigsaw, how the child abuse in Billy’s past shaped him and — major spoiler alert! — why he had to die in the season finale.
Did you know from the beginning of playing Billy what his second-season progression into Jigsaw would look like?
I knew that the first season would be a lot of Burberry suits and hair gel and keeping smirks to a minimum, trying to keep some ambiguity in terms of his villainous intent. In the second season, I had much more free rein in every direction, and the self-loathing and psychopathy was the thing that really interested me. His mini-arc is about losing his sense of self, not recognizing himself when he looks in the mirror and kind of loathing what he sees — the fall of narcissism. And then, does the character just seep back into his narcissistic ways regardless? Are we who we are regardless of experience, regardless of memory? My pitch for season two was: can we have a Memento quality to this character, but if Guy Pearce had a machine gun? We ended up with something quite close to that in terms of Billy’s partial amnesia and the way it allows him to almost play the hero again in his own mind.
The biggest thing Billy has forgotten is his role in the deaths of Frank’s family. I still don’t feel like I have a good understanding of his motivations for that — it’s such an insane betrayal.
It is, but it’s also a gray area. He wasn’t there, he didn’t pull the trigger, he just knew about it and didn’t say anything. In the current climate, that to me is interesting: is not saying something as bad as being a perpetrator? In our show, it kind of is, and from Frank’s perspective it is. You might as well have pulled the trigger, because your looking out for yourself prevented you from doing the right thing, and that feels like a very contemporary issue.
The “Jigsaw” mask Billy wears in the early episodes is a part of his therapy. Where did that idea come from?
There’s an article in National Geographic [about these masks] which was the most interesting thing I read in preparation for this season, and I wanted there to be more talk about it in the show, but of course you’ve got to also have time for Jon kicking people in the head! It talks about these masks as a new therapy for war veterans, and the idea that you could artistically make something that would be a representation of how you feel on the inside, and that would allow you to open up a bit more and move toward talking about your experiences. I know there will be people who are disappointed with how Billy’s face looks after the finale of the first season, but I think it makes for a much more watchable show and makes you work a bit harder to work out what’s going on in his head. I’ve seen people talking about the way Jigsaw looks compared to the War Zone comics, because it’s not as gruesome. I did kind of want to make that version, so that he could be really gnarly in the face and really angry and all spit and bile and gunpowder. But the truth is, given the way we do plastic surgery these days — and it’s a very grounded show you don’t want a character who can’t walk down the street without people screaming, so this mask was a way of balancing it out.
Early in the season, Billy visits and kills a man who abused him as a child. How important was that scene in shaping his arc?
That scene in season one where Billy mentions [the abuse] is probably the only scene where he’s not lying. And when he wakes up, that’s his abiding memory. He remembers everything up until his time in the service with Frank, which of course means he doesn’t know that he betrayed anybody, but he does have this memory of something that shaped him, which is the abuse. And when he gets there he’s confused, and this guy is being a certain kind of sickly with him, and it’s flooding back these memories of something awful, which is making him feel very vulnerable. In the first season, he wouldn’t have allowed that in, but now he doesn’t know where to stem it, and then obviously it gets the better of him. I think that was the most powerful scene for me to shoot. When you’re a young guy, there are sometimes people who you’re uncomfortable in your dealings with, so to extrapolate that, for me, to a child abuse situation was quite powerful.
The relationship between Billy and Krista goes to some really unhinged, unexpected places. What was that like to play?
It was lovely to start with Floriana in the hospital room, while Jon and the others were off shooting all the big bar fights in the first two or three weeks. I was in the mask, so it was a very odd way to start off the relationship, but I found it really freeing. As an actor, you’re constantly worrying about how you look, and people are coming up and worrying about your costume continuity, your hair being right, and it’s something you have to work at forgetting about. But when I’d shaved my head and had the mask, it was quite emotionally powerful, just feeling like I can express myself in any way I like and no one will see me or judge me, which is what you sometimes get into your head about as an actor. With Krista, I was really rooting for them to genuinely fall for each other in a way that he never falls for Dinah, because he’s always manipulating her. He doesn’t garner anything from having a relationship with Krista, it doesn’t actually help him, and he tries to leave a couple of times, and I did get excited when the Lady Macbeth thing started creeping out in her. They really fall for each other in a way that pushes them both to awful places.
How did you feel about Billy’s death in the finale?
That wasn’t something I was let in on before we started shooting, but it felt a little bit inevitable. When the phone call came from the guys at Marvel about it, they were like, look, it’s a disservice not to kill him. Our show is about life and death and those choices, and it also wouldn’t be fair to Frank to make him the person who leaves Billy alive again. That’s not who he is, that’s not honest to his ethos about deserving to live. I think [had Billy not died], we would have had the same ending as the first season. There was some talk about having a big fight between us in the finale and something happening to preserve Billy, but actually I’m really proud that they chose that route [to kill him]. Hopefully there’s an element where you’re a little bit torn as to whether you want Frank to pull the trigger in that moment. It was interesting to have Frank be kind of merciless and a loving brother putting someone out of his misery at the same time, which is I think exactly how Jon played it.
When Billy calls Curtis and asks him to come because he doesn’t want to die alone, is that genuine or another narcissistic moment? I wondered if he just wanted the chance to give one last speech.
I like to think by that point he’s kind of resolved, and he’s given up, and he would like to see Curtis one more time, and also he hopes that Curtis might call Frank and he might get to see him one more time. He knows he’s lost, and you don’t often see that — you normally see the villain kind of fighting to the end and screaming about world domination, and I thought it would be nice to see somebody who’s resolved to losing and just wants to look someone in the eye one last time in an honest way. There is a bit of narcissism about that, but I understand not wanting to die alone. I worked quite hard on the last half line that Billy says, because I wanted it to sound like he was potentially going to apologize to Frank and talk about seeing the error of his ways, but he’s not given that opportunity, because he doesn’t deserve it.
The Punisher season two is now streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.