“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Fathers & Sons”

[Circumstances bring] Sheriff Bill within striking distance of Frank for the first time…which the bandit sees coming, presumably thanks to his own scouts and trackers, and responds to by lying in wait. A tense conversation ensues, in which Bill first dissembles about his business, then comes clean when it’s clear the jig is up. Bill talks a tough enough game, but Frank nevertheless senses that something’s wrong with him on a spirit-deep level. Echoing the Native American characters who’ve told the Sheriff he’s lost his shadow, Griffin says “the life has gone out of your face,” and speculates that the true goal of his hunt is to get himself gunned down at Griffin’s hands (er, hand), so he “can die attached to a purpose.” Bill denies this, and Frank seems disinclined to offer him that dark deliverance no matter what.

So Frank and company ride on, sparing Sheriff Bill’s life…because it’s the dramatic thing to do, I guess. Honestly, I can’t think of any other reason a mass murderer who presided over the execution of an even more senior lawman several days prior would let a cop who’d just announced plans to kill him a chance to continue his quest. You could say it’s Frank’s vision of his own death that does it, giving him confidence that no one with a badge will be the one to do him in. Or you could say it has to do with his screwy moral code: tending to smallpox victims and quoting the Bible one moment, massacring entire towns and proclaiming the supremacy of “the god of the locust” the next. But both of these factors are just different ways of saying the same thing. Frank spares Bill, because he’s written that way, because it makes him a cooler villain and gives the story more (horse-)operatic stakes.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Most of the time, even the best genre works come with a side of corn. But nothing we’ve seen on the show so far has added anything of real sustenance to this particular meal. Godless boasts solid, if not spectacular, performances from a suite of likeable TV veterans — Merritt Wever, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Jeff Daniels, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster most notably. They speak clever but not particularly quotable dialogue. Their story is overburdened with B-plots, but it’s still heading toward an inevitable, and I’m guessing entertaining, climactic confrontation. This happens against a backdrop of beautiful Western scenery, shot with an eye for light that’s most welcome when contrasted with your typical murky green prestige-TV palette. All of that is what keeps the show from ever sinking below that little B- grade you see above. But it has yet to reveal any signs that it will get substantially higher, either. Frank’s comic-book behavior and all the show’s other tics and flaws would be easier to accept if it had.

I reviewed episode four of Godless, the very definition of a B- show, for the A.V. Club. 

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Wisdom of the Horse”

From its title (“Wisdom of the Horse”) on down, Godless’s third episode is full of horse shit. I don’t mean that it’s bad! I just mean that in terms of story and screentime, it is simply consumed by shit about horses. Roping horses. Breaking horses. Riding horses. Falling off horses. Getting back on horses. Searching for missing horses. Worrying about abused horses. If you’re a Dothraki screamer or a Rider of Rohan, then boy oh boy have I got the episode for you. The rest of us? I dunno, pardner.

I reviewed episode three of Godless for the A.V. Club. I want to apologize to all the horse-loving members of ASoIaF/GoT fandom in advance. Read it and you’ll see where I’m coming from no matter how much of an equestrian you are, I promise!

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “The Ladies of La Belle”

Truth be told, you could maybe get a good show out of Frank’s hunt for Roy, and Marshall Cooke’s hunt for Frank, and maybe Alice’s decision to take in and fight for Roy when push comes to shove. Or you could get a good show out of Bill, a sheriff who’s slowly going blind, and Maggie, his queer widowed sister, and the complicated family dynamic they have, with either a mass murderer or an unscrupulous mining company providing an antagonistic spark. Or you could get a good show out of a town full of widows coming together to fend off either the killer or the capitalists, and requiring the talents of women they’ve looked down on because of the race or gender of the people they love, i.e. Alice and Maggie respectively.

At this point, however, I’m not convinced you can get a good show out of all of those things at once. Despite the hour-plus running time of both episodes so far, it still feels like Godless is in a necessarily big hurry to whip from one storyline to the next, which in turn necessitates a shallow reading of each set of characters. The dinner scene in which Merritt Wever’s Maggie tries and fails to singlehandedly prevent her town from getting swindled by a sweet-talking mining company is a highlight of the hour, but I’d happily have followed her for an entire episode to see how she’s maintained a leadership position among her fellow widows despite her unorthodox, masculine style of dress and her relationship with local schoolteacher Callie Dunne, I also could have stood to spend more time in the company of Alice, and to learn the story of her lethal land feud from something other than an expository infodump between young hotshot deputy Whitey Winn and the incarcerated Roy Goode. I could have settled for either a look at life in a frontier town without men surrounded by a hostile world full of them — the kind of story promised by the episode’s title, “The Ladies of La Belle” — or a more straightforward Western thriller centered on the Frank/Roy business. As it stands, I got just enough of each to tantalize, and not enough of any to satisfy.

I reviewed episode two of Godless for the A.V. Club. Looking over this piece, I’m pretty pleased with all the different things I was able to say about the show, good and bad. Please do give it a full read.

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Eight: “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko”

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Mr. Robot may have bobbled the immediate aftermath of Stage 2, the mass murder at the center of its Season 3 storyline. But in its own melancholy way, the follow-up feels like the show has found itself again.

Entitled “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko,” this week’s episode avoids the pitfalls of the previous installment. Last week, most of the characters were too blasé about the terrorist attacks they’d either unwittingly helped unleash or failed to prevent, with the exception of Angela, whose regression into childlike magical thinking felt cartoonishly severe. This time around, characters do what people really do, a couple of weeks into the new normal following a catastrophe. They drift apart, or drift together; they settle on self-destruction, or rebound to self-improvement; they watch movies they love, from The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie to Back to the Future. They act like we’ve all been acting for a year now.

I reviewed this week’s episode of Mr. Robot for Decider. Man, look at that fuckin’ shot.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Thirteen: “Memento Mori”

There’s really only one thing I want to talk about where the season finale of The Punisher is concerned:

“You know, long as I was at war, y’know, I never thought about, uh, what would happen next, what I was gonna do when it was over. But I guess that’s it, y’know. I think that might be the hardest part: the silence. The silence when the gunfire ends. How do…how do you live in that? I guess…I guess that’s what you’re trying to figure out, huh? It’s what you guys are doing. You’re working on it. I respect that. I just…Um, if you’re gonna look at yourself, really look in the mirror, you gotta…yeah, you gotta admit who you are. But not just to yourself — you gotta admit it to everybody else. First time, as long as I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight. And I guess if I’m gonna be honest, I just…I’m scared.”

These remarkable words end the onscreen saga of Marvel’s most brutal antihero, a cold-blooded killer of Bad Guys whose logo has become literally emblematic of men, many of whom have been trained and authorized by the state to pursue a career in fully sanctioned bad-guy killing at home or abroad. They cut that whole dark myth off at the knees. More than that, they stand as a rebuke to the whole superhero genre, which as inspiring and uplifting as it can be nevertheless boils down to the idea that extrajudicial violence can put the world to rights. Here’s a superhero who wields that violence more effectively and remorselessly than any other — indeed, his proficiency in that violence is his sole superpower. And the message his show wants to leave us with about him? The note it chooses to end on? He kills because he’s scared not to.

I really can’t say enough about how stunning the final words of “Memento Mori,” The Punisher’s Season One finale, were to me when they slipped out of Frank’s mouth just before that last cut to black. There’s not a single live-action superhero adaptation I can think of that comes anywhere near that level of self-critique, or has anything approaching its courage to question the very wish-fulfillment elements its audience has come to see.

[…]

But that’s the story of The Punisher’s Netflix incarnation: A series that’s much better than it needed to be, could have been, and quite possibly even should have been when you consider the character’s pop culture profile. Its thoughtful approach to potentially fascistic subject matter, its suite of quietly powerful performances, its undercurrent of sexual and romantic tension, and its willingness to hold its protagonist’s feet of clay to the fire make it one of the best superhero adaptations of all time.

I reviewed the season finale of The Punisher for Decider. What a pleasant surprise this show turned out to be.

Programming note

Due to illness on Sean’s part (yes, again 🙁 ), the next episode of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour has been postponed from our usual launch time around the end of the month until, most likely, some time in the next couple of days. But we plan to crank out the content throughout December to make up for this delay. Thank you for your patience!

“Godless” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “An Incident at Creede”

Godless has two major factors in its favor: the sun and the stars. The former glares into the mud-caked eyes of Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy), a lawman who’s secretly going blind, then shines down on a field where he collects flowers to place on his late wife’s grave with a brightness that echoes his still-warm sentiments. (“I can see just fine,” he announces as he picks primroses and whatnot, to no one in particular except perhaps the sunlight itself.) It burns like the fire of fate itself when bandit-turned-babyface Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) exits the barn where he’s recuperating from gunshot wounds and sees the silhouetted form of Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), the outcast widow who shot and then saved him. It creates an ironic, halo-like nimbus around the head of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), the one-armed madman robbing and slaughtering his way through the mining towns of 1884 Colorado in search of loot and his one-time apprentice Roy, when he rides his horse right into a rural church and promises he’ll rain the wrath of God Himself on the parishioners should they ever lend his rogue ally their aid. It’s reduced to a dim, dun haze by the dust swirling around the site of Griffin’s latest massacre, dust from which mustachioed Marshall John Cooke (Sam Waterston) emerges to gaze in penitent horror at Frank’s grim handiwork. Finally, it reflects off the water that splashes and sprays from beneath the hooves of the horses ridden by Griffin’s and his gang as they cross a river in slow motion, dazzling and luminous and, it seems, imbued with the sheer joy of filmmaking within a beloved genre.

By now you’ve probably picked up on the “stars” side of the equation. The series premiere of writer-director-creator Scott Frank’s Godless, “An Incident at Creede” (referring to the aforementioned massacre), parades its cast of familiar and friendly faces before the camera in all their well-worn Western finery like a herd of prize cattle. One of the big under-covered pleasures of the past few years of Peak TV is getting to see its stars re-mixed and re-mingled once they’re freed from the commitments of shows that launched and ended earlier in the era. Want to watch Halt and Catch Fire’s Gordon Clark confess his love to Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary Crawley? I know I do! Want to see Sam Waterston play Old West Batman to Jeff Daniels’s horse-opera Joker, like the weirdest reboot of The Newsroom imaginable? Now’s your chance! Years of totally omnipresent TV culture have turned its actors into one giant repertory company where we viewers are concerned; it’s often delightful, as it is here, to sit down and see what this season’s production will give them to do, even if you’re not nuts about the end result.

In Godless’s case there’s not much to disappoint you just yet. The show falls very, very, very squarely within the confines of its genre; it’s an old-school oater the new-school aspect of which, namely nasty (and sometimes sexual) violence, hasn’t actually been new at least since The Wild Bunch rode into town nearly fifty years ago. Thus, while it’s hard for the show to knock your socks off, it’s equally difficult for it to shit the bed. Soup-strainer facial hair, stern-faced gunslingers filmed against big sky, metaphorically biblical imagery and literally Biblical dialogue: If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you like. And that’s exactly the experienced the algorithmed-out-the-wazoo metrics by which Netflix judges its programming are designed to deliver.

I reviewed the series premiere of Godless for the A.V. Club, where I’ll be covering the show’s first season. Yee-haw!

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eleven: “Danger Close”

When I said in my review of the previous episode that Frank’s hotel battle was the all-out action extravaganza we were waiting for, I now realize I was wrong. It’s not action that a Punisher show promises—it’s punishment. And punishment is what we get. From director Kevin Hook’s eerie establishing shots of his nearly-abandoned headquarters’ empty rooms and corridors through the moment Frank suits up in his skull-emblazoned armor and into the ensuing massacre itself, the show positions Frank as an executioner rather than a soldier.

And he’s starring not in an adventure film but a horror flick. The way Castle dispatches the first few goons one by one, emerging from behind as if he’s a part of the walls themselves that somehow came alive, evokes the slaughter of the Colonial Marines when they enter the hive in Aliens. The industrial-basement setting is obviously a favorite of any number of forgettable genre flicks and shows by now, but when you factor in the gore and sadism you’re not far removed from mid-‘00s torture porn like Saw or Hostel. Meanwhile, Frank’s imposing physical comportment and even some of the music cues (I swear I heard a few Friday the 13th-style “chh chh chh”s) are straight-up slasher stuff, even before you see him walking around with a severed head.

Oh yeah, did I not mention the severed head? Maybe I should have led with that.

Frank Castle may draw on, and parallel, a long tradition of violent macho men famous during the character’s initial flourishing in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But neither John McClane nor John Rambo nor even the Terminator ever severed all the muscles in a man’s legs, allowing him to crawl across the floor leaving a snail trail of blood before finally plugging him in the head. The point is that while Frank’s rampage is thrilling in the sense of getting your blood up, you’ll never mistake it for anything but murder, as prolonged and ugly as it gets.

I reviewed the extremely violent eleventh episode of The Punisher for Decider.

Sean & Julia’s Cyber Monday Sale

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All of the books by my brilliant partner Julia Gfrörer are 25% off at her Etsy store, today only. This is a filthily obscene deal for incredible work. For the record, this sale includes three collaborations with me: the anthology MIRROR MIRROR II and the pornographic Edgar Allan Poe adaptations (!) IN PACE REQUIESCAT and THE HIDEOUS DROPPING OFF OF THE VEIL. If you enjoy my writing you may like them as well!

Also, everything in Julia’s Threadless store (t-shirts, hoodies, tote bags, and more) is 20-30% off today only, with free shipping on orders of $45 or more if you use code “CHEER83687d”. Again, this is an insanely good deal!

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “Virtue of the Vicious”

“Virtue of the Vicious” is the knock-down drag-out action extravaganza we’ve been waiting for all season. Almost all of our major players — Frank Castle, Billy Russo, Dinah Madani, Karen Page, Lewis Wilson — are concentrated in a high-rise hotel, fighting through explosions, tear gas, and the gunfire of half a dozen different agencies and free agents in kill-or-be-killed scenarios. Secrets are revealed. Antagonists are killed. The Punisher escapes capture using a firehose and a zipline like a homicidal Tarzan. If that’s all the episode did, it would be fun to watch. But to my continued delight, it does much, much more than it has to.

Remarkably, the episode takes a fractured approach to its narrative structure, splitting itself between mutliple, overlapping, sometimes contradictory points of view and bouncing back and forth in time to cover the periods before, during, and after the attack. The effect is part Rashomon, part Lost, and all impressive in its willingness to break the Marvel/Netflix mold by risking confusion on the part of its audience, who could otherwise assume that when the show starts talking about an attack that had already happened, we’d somehow skipped an episode. (I had to double-check myself.) Like Vincent D’Onofrio’s bizarre stop-start vocal cadence for Wilson Fisk, or Tom Hardy’s Falstaffian theatricality as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, anything a live-action superhero adaptation does that’s more than the bare necessary-and-sufficient minimum to convey ideas and images should be celebrated.

I reviewed the hotel-fight episode of The Punisher for Decider. It’s nuts how strong the Frank/Karen – Bernthal/Woll stuff is, by the way.

“Mr. Robot” thoughts, Season Three, Episode Seven: “eps3.6_fredrick+tanya.chk”

The Dark Army’s plan may have worked, but for the first time this season, Mr. Robot’s plan failed. This week’s episode, “eps3.6_fredrick+tanya.chk,” follows all of the major players — including a few we haven’t seen since last year — in the hours immediately following the 71 simultaneous bombings of E Corp storage facilities that constitute the dreaded Stage 2. Yet the soul-crushing dread and despair you’d expect, particularly if you remember weathering similar tragedies, is missing in action. Usually surefooted even when traveling the most treacherous and tricky narrative paths, Mr. Robot’s storytelling seems to have stumbled the second it got past the finish line.

Much of the problem lies with the protagonist, or more accurately the lack thereof. Mr. Robot is Elliot Alderson’s story, and the catastrophic success of Stage 2 is something he’s spent the entire season trying to prevent. The past two episodes in particular chronicled Elliot’s attempts to physically put a stop to the operation in practically real-time detail. Yet now that the trigger has been pulled, we cut away from Elliot almost immediately: No sooner does he make it to the office of his therapist, Krista, than he’s subsumed by his sardonic Mr. Robot persona before he can mutter more than a few broken sentences about his role in the attacks. The show pushes him aside at the exact moment he should be front and center.

Hell, he’s not even our gateway into the episode itself. That would be Leon, the sociopathic sitcom fan who serves as the Dark Army’s main American assassin. The hour’s cold open depicts him with Trenton and Mobley, the fsociety members last seen living under assumed names until Leon approaches them in the parking lot of the big-box electronics store where they work in the post-credits stinger for the Season 2 finale. While the country reels from what incessant news reports describe as the deadliest attack in its history, Leon does a deadpan comedy routine about how Frasier Crane’s success with women strains credulity, paling in comparison to the prophetic realism of (drumroll please) Knight Rider. Indeed, the familiar synth-pop theme song for that old-school techno-thriller about a talking car and its Hasselhoffian driver plays over the opening credits. I get the ironic effect the show is going for here, and both the theme song and Joey Bada$$’s performance as Leon are as big a hoot as ever. But with the success of Stage 2, Mr. Robot had the chance to examine the trauma, terror, and grief of its own personal 9/11. Dropping that ball feels like more than just a missed opportunity — it’s almost a dereliction of duty.

I reviewed last week’s episode of Mr. Robot, the first one this season I felt didn’t work, for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Front Toward Enemy”

“Front Toward Enemy” makes the now-standard Marvel/Netflix move of bringing a secondary antagonist to the forefront of the narrative for a while, something the shows wouldn’t need to do if they had shorter seasons. This particular baddie, wayward young Travis Bickle wannabe Lewis Wilson, is most reminiscent of Jessica Jones’ mad supersoldier Will Simpson, aka Nuke, a veteran turned cop who goes berserk when his puppetmasters pump him full of performance-enhancing drugs. That character was given short shrift by his show, though, which despite all the pains it had taken to show he was a decent person driven to violence by forces out of his control wound up treating him like just another abusive creep. By contrast, no matter how bad Lewis’s crimes get — blowing up government offices, horrifically beating Frank’s friend Curtis before turning him into a human IED, hanging out in a house with the stinking corpse of the man he stabbed to death for days at a time — and no matter how reactionary the ideas he spouts in ranting sic semper tyrannis, give me liberty or give me death letters and phone calls get, he’s always shown as a guy who was broken and thrown away before he became anything else.

I reviewed episode nine of The Punisher, still quite a show, for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Cold Steel”

I have a lot to say about “Cold Steel,” the eighth episode of The Punisher’s first season. That’s because the episode has a lot to say itself. But (deep breath) here’s how I’m going to start: As weird as this feels to write…uh, The Punisher is an incredibly sexy show? Like, it’s sexy in the way that The Americans is sexy — a complex, uncomfortable form of sexiness that’s all the hotter and harder to shake for it.

Sometimes that speaks for itself, like in the shower scene between Dinah and Billy. (I mean, come on.) And once again, there’s careful attention paid to the eroticism of aftermath and afterglow. When Dinah gets dressed out-of-focus afterwards, then leans over to kiss Billy’s battle scar? Ooftah. And before long their intensely intimate half-naked embrace by the bedside gives way, unexpectedly, to Billy’s tale of his rotten childhood in an orphanage, where a “good Samaritan” who played with the kids broke his arm in three places after Billy fought off the man’s attempt to molest him. The man called him “pretty,” a word that clearly triggers his rage when he kills Sam Stein later in the episode, after hearing Stein call him that over a listening device. All the while, of course, Billy is running game on Dinah, making an honest confession of his troubled past as a way to better preserve his cover. From the sex to the deceit to the weaponized truth, it’s straight out of the Elizabeth and Philip Jennings playbook.

Then there’s Frank’s dangerous liaison with Sarah Lieberman, his partner Micro’s “widow.” When he arrives at her house with flowers as a pretext to check up on the malfunctioning camera feed to Micro’s headquarters, it sparks long-dormant feelings of emotional and physical closeness in Sarah. Actor Jaime Ray Newman is every bit as gorgeous as Jon BernthalBen Barnes, and Amber Ray Revah, so yeah, there’s that. But the real heat in her scene with Frank comes not from her looks, or his, but from the sense of growing desire — their inhibitions slipping away with wine, their body language slowly leaning into one another, the way the conversation dances around the issue at hand, the way her ostensibly platonic hug is an obvious pretext for her to work up the nerve to make the first move. When they finally kiss I was fanning myself, folks, not gonna lie. Wooooo, Lord.

There winds up being just as much to say about The Punisher Episode 8′s handling of abuse and trauma as there is about its handling of sex — you can see some of it above already — but sex sells so that’s what I’m using to link you to my review for Decider. As I say in the review, man, what an episode.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Crosshairs”

This is frequently the point where Marvel/Netflix shows run out of both story and steam. Both the woefully overrated Jessica Jones and the enjoyable but bloated Luke Cage made the mistake of dispatching their antagonists early (successfully imprisoning the telepathic rapist Kilgrave in episode 9 of the former, killing off the charismatic ganglord Cottonmouth in episode 7 of the latter), forcing them to generate preposterous plot twists (prison breaks, long-lost brothers, etc.) to run out the time for the rest of the season. Daredevil Season 2 did something similar by wrapping up its initial Punisher storyline by episode 4 before introducing secondary antagonist/love interest Elektra and eventually making the inert ninja master Nobu the season’s big bad, but since Castle never fully went away and Elektra was an entertaining substitute in her own right, it weathered things well enough. Of the shows from this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I’ve seen (life’s too short for Iron Fist and The Defenders), only the first season of Daredevil felt like it had a beginning, middle, and end that justified its length, rather than the other way around, and honestly even that could have been tightened up.

So I’m pleasantly surprised to see how engaged I remain in the questions and storylines remaining at this point in The Punisher. I fully expected Frank to successfully plug Agent Orange, a la Jessica locking up Kilgrave or Cottonmouth getting beaten to death by his cousin Mariah. But thanks to bulletproof glass, Frank blew it, and now I’m intrigued to see how he and Micro can overcome the obstacle of a target who sees them coming.

My review of The Punisher Episode 7 contains a brief Comparative Marvel/Netflix Studies lesson.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “The Judas Goat”

Frankly depicted basic-cable-explicit sex scenes have been a staple of the Marvel/Netflix shows since Jessica Jones, but I’ll admit to being shocked that this one got through. Aside from nudity on Dinah’s part (you see Billy’s butt later in the scene), there’s basically nothing left to the imagination here, from the movement of their bodies while they have sex and as they de-couple to Russo’s audible post-coital pee in the adjoining bathroom. I appreciate the candor, and the fact that the sex is the start, not the point, of the scene, which is really about the two characters arguing about trust. Sex frequently isn’t the point, but a way for people to get to, or away from, the point. I wish more shows saw it that way.

As for the trust issue, Billy is a pretty convincing liar on that front, waxing outraged that Dinah is investigating his late friend Frank Castle when he knows all along the guy’s alive and is trying to help his master Agent Orange bring him down. As he broaches the topic of Frank first with Dinah, then with his and Frank’s mutual friend Curtis, and finally with Frank himself — who comes out of hiding to meet him — I was actually becoming convinced that I’d read the guy wrong, that he wasn’t an obvious heel turn waiting to happen. That speaks to the strength of the writing and Ben Barnes’s performance (he does a lot with just his eyes and the timbre of his voice) at least as much as to my gullibility, I like to think.

But more so than on many other series, this double-cross makes thematic sense. So much of The Punisher is about catastrophic disillusionment — with the military, the country, life itself. It all feels like one big web of trauma connecting everyone in ways great and small. The episode begins, for example, with Frank’s most horrifying nightmare yet, in which both his family and Micro’s throw a welcome-home dinner party for him, only for masked special-forces goons to burst in, blow David’s brains out, then open fire on the children at point-blank range. Actor Jon Bernthal’s raw terror during this scene, in which he also dreams he’s tied immobile to a chair and can only watch, is reminiscent of Marilyn Burns’s tormented “final girl” Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is a high compliment indeed coming from me. And it drives home the emerging idea that Frank resents David not for leaving his family, but for saving them, when he himself could not.

I reviewed episode 6 of The Punisher for Decider. These three grafs only partially demonstrate the range of the show. How about that?

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Gunner”

Hot sex, brutal violence, lingering trauma, and an unflinching depiction of the United States military-intelligence apparatus as evil. Maybe comic-book shows aren’t just for kids anymore!  “Gunner,” the fifth episode of The Punisher’s first season, is yet another strong installment, combining the visceral pulp thrills of the action genre with one of the most strident critiques of American power on TV this side of The Americans or Mr. Robot. What’s more, veteran Irish director Dearbhla Walsh (late of Fargo’s amazing and underrated third season) makes it all look good, in settings and situations varied enough for it to almost feel like showing off.

I reviewed episode 5 of The Punisher, a show that has quickly settled into “this show does a lot of things very well” mode, for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Resupply”

“I don’t give a shit about the NYPD.” “When they first started Homeland, they wanted native speakers — Farsi, Pashtun, Arabic. The thinking was simple: Use the enemy to catch the enemy.” “You gonna give me a job mopping floors? Emptying trash? Is that ‘making good on the investment my country made in me?’ You’re just another liar in command.” These quotes, from three separate characters with very different motivations, sum up The Punisher’s take on cops, the surveillance state, the military, and mercenaries. Wild, huh? Marvel’s Blue Lives Matter/Take a Knee My Ass this ain’t, as “Resupply,” the series’ fourth episode, makes plain.

I reviewed episode 4 of The Punisher for Decider. This show is a real surprise.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Kandahar”

Even when he’s not extrajudicially executing people, Frank’s actions are horrifying. The episode brings this home with a sequence that subverts the now-trademark feature of every Marvel/Netflix show, the hallway fight. Pinned down by enemies who deliberately set a trap for his infamously lethal unit (known in-country as “the American Taliban”), Frank launches a berserker attack against the building where the bulk of their opponents are holed up. What follows is the close-quarters combat you’ve come to expect, but in an entirely different format and tone. There’s no long take, no continuity of space and time — everything is jittery, choppy, and disorienting. Jump cuts skip past several seconds of action, as muzzle flashes toss us from one shot or enemy to the next. Incongruous fades stretch out time without actually marking its passage, as they do in traditional cinematic grammar. The music isn’t some hard-charging rock or hip-hop song, nor the usual ominous electronic burble, but “Wish It Was True” by the White Buffalo, a plaintive piece of what sounds like earnest country-grunge Americana until you listen to the lyrics: “Country, I was a soldier for you, did what you asked me to, it was wrong and you knew…the home of the brave and the free, the red white and blue — well, I wish it was true.” The music swells as Frank ends the sequence by bashing an already dead man’s skull in for what feels like half a minute, blood covering his face. It’s an unpleasant sequence, saying unpleasant things about the Punisher, the war, and their intersection in the public imagination, and using the street-level superhero genre’s own tools to do so.

I reviewed episode 3 of The Punisher, which by this point is revealing itself to be a very sharp show.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “Two Dead Men”

On a more frivolous note: Like most Marvel projects, even the middling ones, The Punisher gets far on sheer chemistry between its likeable, attractive actors. (Seriously: Take a quick dip in superhero-movie-fandom tumblr and you’ll see press-junket and behind-the-scenes gifsets aplenty which prove that the most important act of rebranding DC did with Justice League wasn’t lightening things up onscreen, but casting people — like Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, and Amber Heard — who seem fun to be around, and who have fun around each other.) First in the scene where Frank meets up with his old ally Karen Page, then during Agent Madani’s dive-bar date with Castle’s former platoon mate Billy Russo, the physical connection between actors Jon Bernthal & Deborah Ann Woll and Ben Barnes & Amber Rose Revah respectively is just deeply pleasurable to watch. This has been true over and over across the Netflix end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Woll and Charlie Cox on Daredevil, Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter on Jessica Jones, Colter and Rosario Dawson on Luke Cage, and so on. But hell, turning superheroes into people you’d love to flirt with when you’re out together with friends some night, then waltz home tipsily daydreaming about the way their fingers held their glass, has been Marvel’s primary, and perhaps sole, innovation for the genre at least as far back as Kat Dennings freaking out about how hot Chris Hemsworth is in the first Thor flick.

I reviewed episode 2 of The Punisher for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “3 A.M.”

The most chilling moment in the series premiere of The Punisher has nothing to do with the vigilante of the title. Nor does the show’s most searing, if subtle, condemnation of violence. They’re both found in a quiet conversation between his assumed-name alter ego “Pete Castiglione” and Donny Chavez (Luca De Oliveira), a young co-worker at the construction site where the former Frank Castle takes out his frustrations on the masonry day after day, hour after hour. Noticing Frank’s battle scars, Donny manages to elicit from the quiet man that he’d been in the Marines. So had Donny’s dad, says the younger man, a fact that made him something close to a superhero in his eyes. Donny goes on to explain that his father did three tours — two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan — before returning home to be killed alongside his mother during a drive home one night. “I was twelve,” he says. The war that had been going on long enough for his late father to complete three tours of duty by the time Donny was in the sixth grade is still going on today. As with Frank Castle’s bloody crusade, there’s no end in sight.

Written by showrunner and Hannibal veteran Steve Lightfoot and directed by Tom Shankman, “3 A.M.,” The Punisher’s debut episode, gets this latest Marvel/Netflix drama off to a thoughtful and compelling start by taking direct aim at the character’s most controversial aspect, his status as an emblem of redemptive violence, often embraced by agents of the state ostensibly tasked with protecting life rather than ending it,  and firing away. I won’t say there’s no way to look at the episode as a glorification of rough justice and misunderstood heroism — people have been misinterpreting the character in exactly that way for decades now, and there are no shortage of other shows since The Sopranos birthed the age of the anti-hero whose viewers have gotten things bass-ackwards — but if that’s the road you wanna go down, you’re gonna have an uphill battle.

I’m playing catch-up on linking to my work thanks to the busy holiday week, but I’m covering The Punisher for Decider, beginning with this review of the premiere. This show has been an unexpected pleasure to write about.