Heaven and Hell according to ‘The Punisher’

A few years ago, I enjoyed binge watching Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix. Sadly, the show has now been cancelled, but perhaps it will show up again at some point? Season two was particularly interesting for a variety of reasons. Warning, if you haven’t watched the series, there are some spoilers ahead. The themes of punishment verses redemption were frequently cited throughout the drama. I believe it is central to our humanity that these particular themes resonate so deeply in us. From an early age, even those of us that aren’t all that religious, come to understand intuitively that we want some kind of justice to exist in this world and in the one that follows. Typically, this justice is on a spectrum between mere punishment and restorative redemption depending on how heinous we estimate the crime and how closely the perception of the offense impacts us.

Frank Castle a.k.a. The Punisher is a hero that is nuanced and complicated, giving the character depth and forcing viewers to wrestle with issues of justice and vengeance. I found the story to be well written and replete with a host of ultimate questions. For instance, Frank is haunted by the death of his family, relentlessly seeking vengeance on their behalf, a vengeance that is never fully enjoyed. Frank Castle lives in a continual state of anguish, guilt, and loneliness, never able to find an identity outside of the one he has embraced as a brutal executioner of those who escape existing law enforcement structures. The questions of identity and redemption are hallmark themes to season two of the The Punisher.

Season two trailer

Central to the interaction of Frank Castle and his two-leading antagonist, Billy Russo a.k.a. Jigsaw and John Pilgrim, is the competing ideas of ultimate good and ultimate evil. After The Punisher put him in a coma in season one, Billy Russo awakens, to a scarred face, and can no longer remember his evil deeds or why he did them. And John Pilgrim, a former criminal who found redemption in conservative religion is now working to ensure a theocracy will rule America, by force. Both are confronted by The Punisher, an antihero of sorts who challenges the conditioned sensibilities of justice rightly dispensed by those good enough to hand it out. In one scene, Homeland security agent, Dinah Madani has a conversation with therapist Dr. Krista Dumont concerning the status of Billy Russo. Madani is convinced that Russo is indeed a criminally insane, and must answer for his crimes. However, Dumont is convinced that Russo is not yet beyond redemption. As their existential conversation develops, the subject of ultimate justice is explored. As they debate the differences between Castle and Russo, Madani defends Castle describing justice as, “You tally up the good that someone has done compared to the bad they’ve done and then see where they come out.” Madani points out that Castle only kills the guilty, to which Dumont responds, “Who decides who is innocent?” Dumont concludes that “If there is a hell it will be an eternity facing our own failings, and we are each our own devil, creating our own hell.” To which Madani responds, “What’s your hell?” And Dumont answers, “I believe that one day, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I will free one of you from yours.”

This conversation contains amazing insight as to how we collectively tend to measure eternity in our hearts and minds. We all create functional heavens and hells and seek out a functional savior to deliver us to one and save us from the other. Dr. Dumont is convinced that she is Billy’s savior, and is willing to incarnate herself into his world and make the ultimate sacrifice on his behalf. A story revealing that, should we admit it or not, buried deep within in us is an understanding of eternal actions and consequences.

In the end, Russo, Pilgrim, and Castle, along with the cast of misfits that surround them find redemption or judgment based upon the personal ethical code they have embraced. All of them are eventually let down, in some way or another, by the personal philosophies they have elevated to gospel status. All along the way, they are forced to compromise, justify and otherwise capitulate on what they thought were the guiding truths of their identities. In the end, all of their personal understandings fail them, except perhaps, as one might expect, Frank Castle.

The Punisher unloads

In the final scene, three months after the resolution. Madani calls Castle from an undisclosed battlefield, where she now works for the CIA and offers Frank a job, to which he responds, “I already have one.” He then exists his truck in full Punisher regalia and once again dispenses with his own personal brand of vigilante justice. The cast of characters all eventually find solace or final resolution in embracing the sense of a flawed self. Even The Punisher seems to find his solace, at least temporarily so, in the death of the criminally guilty. By crafting these particular outcomes, the writers make their own judgment calls and we as viewers are left to wrestle with these larger questions. But in our lives, unlike this television show, we aren’t privy to the script.

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