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[This story contains spoilers from season two of Netflix’s The Punisher.]
Underneath all the propulsive action of The Punisher’s second season on Netflix, there’s a debate playing out: Is Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) a wounded antihero still capable of redemption and a happy ending? Or an inherently violent man whose only purpose is to dispense blunt, cold justice from the shadows? Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Netflix and Marvel’s relationship has been declining as the roster of shows from the latter producer is down to two: The Punisher and forthcoming Jessica Jones as viewers cross their fingers that the Jon Bernthal-led Daredevil spinoff can buck the cancellation trend for the comic book powerhouse.
“The show has to have that debate,” showrunner Steven Lightfoot tells The Hollywood Reporter of the onscreen drama. “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 a villain of the week and Frank takes them out, I think it’s a very different show.” The final moments of the season, which see Frank coldly open fire on a warehouse full of unidentified gangsters, represents the evolution of Bernthal’s Frank into the hardcore Punisher familiar to comic book fans. “If he started season one as the Punisher, fully matured, there’s nowhere to go,” Lightfoot continues. “In season three, that is where we would now find him, but as an audience we’ve been party to the journey.”
Below, Lightfoot discusses Frank Castle’s emotional connections and moral conflict, how season two pays homage to classic movies and his hopes for season three.
Netflix has canceled Daredevil, Iron Fist and Luke Cage. What are you hearing about The Punisher’s odds at a third season?
I’m very much in the bubble of my own show, and we wrapped in August so we’d pretty much finished the season when that stuff started happening. As a fan, I was sad to see those shows go, and I don’t know anything about the bigger picture. My situation in a way hasn’t changed so much, in that when we finished season one, it went out, Netflix saw how it performed, and then they picked us up. I’m hoping for the same this time, and I don’t know anything beyond that. My hope is that the show does well enough that they want to pick it up. The hope is that they give us the thumbs-up and we jump straight back into season three. I’m sure there are a whole bunch of conversations that are happening or have happened between Marvel and Netflix that I know nothing about. No one has said to me we’re cancelled, and so I live in hope, and we’ll see what happens.
Where did you want to take Frank in season two?
Season one was all about his family and very much a revenge story, and about a man dealing with grief. It also became a story about giving Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) back what Frank could never have. It’s nice to always find something positive for the character to be fighting for, so it’s not just revenge, it’s “I’m going to give this guy his family back.” So season two can’t just be, “Oh, there was another guy hiding in the bushes when my wife and children died, I forgot about him.” I wanted him to have moved on, and I liked the idea that he’s been hiding out, seeing America, but the violence is always there in him. Losing his family excused his behavior in season one because it was specific, but season two for me is about Frank saying, “This is just my nature.” Hence the final frame of the show.
When Frank says, “My wife knew who I was,” it’s the first time he’s acknowledged that losing his family didn’t necessarily make him this way.
Yeah, season two is about his fundamental nature and coming to terms with that. Even what happened to his family, that happened because of choices he made because of his nature. Right from when I first met Jeph Loeb to talk about the show, he and I were on very much the same page about the idea at the heart of Frank: Once you’re involved with violence, once that’s part of your life, you can never wind back from that. So the key for me is, who are the characters you put around him that he’s fighting for?
How did you settle on Amy Bendix (Giorgia Whigham) as a new foil for Frank?
I’m a huge fan of Léon: The Professional, the Luc Besson movie, and also Westerns like The Searchers. Westerns have always been a big influence on the show, that idea of, this is a guy you need to save the day, but in saving society there’s no place for him in it, because of his very nature. Giving Frank this girl to look after gave him something positive to fight for, and also we could play into fatherhood as a theme, because obviously she’s a surrogate for his own lost daughter. It also just gave us a lot of fun; this season is a little funnier than season one and I really liked putting him in this awkward situation. If Frank got really annoyed with Micro last season, he could punch the guy, but he’s not gonna punch a 16-year-old girl.
Frank’s lowest point in the season is when he’s led to believe he’s killed innocent people. It’s a ruse, but it felt like a realistic possibility.
That’s actually based on an arc from one of the comic books, and I was really taken with it, because yes, he might not have been guilty in this case, but the idea that Frank is some kind of monster is important for the show to say. On the one hand, you need the audience to root for him, but on the other, we shouldn’t really be condoning the way he goes about things, so that was an episode where we held that up and Frank had to acknowledge it. Even once he knows it wasn’t him, those women were still killed. He didn’t pull the trigger, but they were killed because of him; they are absolutely collateral damage from his fight with Billy (Ben Barnes), and I think that’s the darkest part of that story.
Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) returns in the same episode. How did you figure out the best way to use her this season?
Deborah is such an amazing actress, and she gave us so much in season one, and the relationship with Frank is super strong. I would have as much of her in the show as I can. It was clear there was a practical issue in that they were shooting Daredevil [season three] at the same time as we were shooting, so I didn’t know how much I could have of Deborah’s time, but everyone was very keen to get her in there. In the end we decided, let’s just find one episode where she can come in and play a really strong part.
Karen is making the argument that Frank can still choose the light, and he’s saying he can’t. That ends up being the core question of the season.
When Karen is saying to him, “You could have a life that isn’t this,” I love his line when he says, “I don’t want to.” It’s him admitting, “I tried that for a year, and the first chance I got, I beat some guys up in a bar and found myself a fight.” I think that line to Karen is kind of devastating. She’s saying to him, “You can have this,” and he’s saying, “I don’t want it. Less people will get hurt if I just admit this is who I am.” I sort of feel like that’s the moment when he becomes something new, and it should feel a little tragic. I don’t think we should just be cheering unreservedly, we should be going, “That’s it. He’s finally stepped down a path there’s no return from.”
Which leads into the final scene.
Yeah, he has now become The Punisher. When he says to Madani, “I’ve already got a job,” it’s doing what he does. He has fully adopted the mantle. He had a shot at maybe not living that life and realized he couldn’t, and now he’s fully embraced it, and the hope of that scene was very much to have people end season two and go, “Holy shit, I can’t wait for season three!” The idea would be that we come into season three and that is who he is now full-time.
We aren’t supposed to know who the gangsters are or what they’ve done — just that they deserve to die by the Punisher code?
Yeah, the idea is that they’ve definitely been up to bad things. They’re nasty and they’re swinging guns around, so the assumption is that they’re bad boys and Frank’s deemed them worthy of comeuppance. I think half the audience will be going, ‘Finally! Great! Not before time!’ And I hope half the audience are sort of sad that that’s where he’s gone, and think that maybe there was another route for him. If we split the audience on that, we’ve done our job well.
Why does Frank turn down Madani’s job offer?
He wants to deal with people he decides need it, rather than someone else painting a target on their back. I think with everything that happened to him last time he worked for the government and the CIA, even though he trusts Madani, I’m not sure he trusts authority for one second. The last thing he wants to do is get back in bed with the same sort of people that got his family killed. He’s a loner now, and he’s gonna do it his own way.
How did you conceive of episode three, which is set almost entirely inside the sheriff’s station as it is under siege?
What was nice about Frank being out in America rather than in New York at the start was that I always felt the first three episodes were almost like a Western movie. Episode one is the saloon, and then we end up in the sheriff’s station in episode three. That episode was an homage to a lot of things — Rio Bravo and Fort Apache and Assault on Precinct 13 — and super fun to write and construct. Any time you have a very specific situation and timeline and you jam characters into a space and won’t let them out always makes for really interesting stories.
New villain John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart) is a conservative Christian fundamentalist. What inspired that choice?
There’s a character I loved called The Mennonite in the comics, this guy who had been a criminal gangster in New York and had found this new, very peaceful life and had made himself a better man, and then he gets dragged back in by powers that he owes a debt to. They send him to New York after Frank, so in some ways you’re sending Frank after Frank. I also wanted to play with a version of Robert Mitchum’s character from Night of the Hunter, and I saw this merging of the two [in Pilgrim]. We didn’t want to call him The Mennonite, because we didn’t want to point out a specific faith or church or creed. The idea was to create a very mythic character who was an alter ego for Frank. It wasn’t so much about whether he was conservative or Christian and more about the general problem with fanaticism of any sort. It’s a problem generally in the world right now: If someone believes in anything to the extent that anyone who disagrees is less than human, or not worthy of consideration, that’s bad. That’s what Pilgrim represents.
Why not bring back Micro this season?
When I started getting into season two, I realized that the way you give Frank a different story — because his essence doesn’t change that much — is to put different people around him. If Micro was back there, it was hard to change Frank as much as we wanted to. Ebon was amazing in the show, but we had told his story, and I didn’t want Micro to just be a guy who sat at a computer and tapped buttons and gave Frank the address. But if the show goes again, there’s every chance we would bring him back. He’s alive and well in our world, and I’d be excited to see what we could do with him.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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