Trouble doesn’t so much follow Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) as ride right along alongside him up front of his pick-up truck.
That’s why when ‘Pete’ – the same alias when he’s supposed to be starting afresh? Really? – finds himself making an innocuous stop at a Michigan bar, enjoying a country rock band and drinking beer moderately, it’s never in doubt that the tranquility isn’t here to stay.
But it is for a surprisingly large portion of this season premiere, the narrative initially consumed by Frank’s flirting with/defending of/having sex with/taking to breakfast of barmaid Beth (Alexa Davalos). There has been criticism of this slow and largely action-free first half-hour. While it is admittedly lacking in the pace expected of a show driven by explosively violent sequences and an incendiary central character, my sense is that this is the right way to start.
After all, it is the only way Frank can be at present. He has been essentially given the chance to start again by Agent Madani and the powers that be in thanks for last season’s climatic heroics. He is trying to build himself a world anew and an existence away from the bullets and bad guys; why shouldn’t he find himself in a bar, picking up a girl? Frank’s tenderness and familial sensibilities come out swinging when he meets Beth’s son Rex, and we see a glimpse of the happy life Frank might lead if he wasn’t also known as THE PUNISHER.
I think there had to be a sense that Frank tried to find normality. I certainly found myself almost longing for it, Bernthal’s performance at its strongest deflecting awkward breakfast chat with Rex or when a rare half-smile appears in Beth’s company. But that wouldn’t make for a season of high-octane comic book adaption now, would it?
No time is wasted in introducing Amy (Giorgia Whigham), widely publicised as a major addition to the main cast. She frequents the same bar Frank finds himself at, and we know that God-fearing John Pilgrim (Josh Stewart), the season’s new bad guy, is after her because he’s interrogating and eventually killing people who are in contact with her. The cross imprinted on the neck was a nice touch.
And fairly soon, as was never in doubt, Frank’s repeated meetings with Amy evolve into a curiosity into her shifty behaviour that evolves into a full-blown bar-room bust-up with Amy’s mysterious pursuers. The THWACK and CRACK of an obliterated bathroom hand-basin never fails to satisfy, and neither does the sight of Frank doing what Frank does – although, Bernthal’s fine abilities are least utilised in such scenes. I hope the tenderness returns aplenty – sue me!
Surprise, surprise – Beth takes a bullet. As Frank races her to a hospital with Amy in tow, they’re cut off by Pilgrim’s surviving mercenaries, or whatever they are. Frank guns them down without hesitation. He’s back. Beth gets to the hospital. Hopefully she lives, but I don’t foresee her or Rex playing much part in the rest of the season either way. Her purpose would appear to serve as a reminder of what Frank had and longs for again, but will never have because of who he is.
Precisely who that is, is a man who openly “hopes” that there are more to come of those who were after Amy. There will be, and in Amy Frank is given a taste of something else he once had and lost – a daughter figure, roughly the age his would be now were she not murdered.
Largely absent from episode one is the other female lead, Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), swigging from a hip flask by Billy Russo (Ben Barnes)’s hospital bed, and wishing him “sweet dreams”, from which he duly wakes. Things are set for both he, seeking bloody revenge as Jigsaw, and John Pilgrim, seeking a way to Frank, to come after Madani in full force. Does Russo really need to have that cheap-ass Halloween mask on already though? In his hospital bed?
It’s a well-considered opener in terms of where Frank is now, and how he would like to rebuild his life but has too much sense of duty to let a case such as Amy’s pass him by. The scenes with Beth were great, and served as a reminder of the way Bernthal carries this show not only on his broad shoulders, but through subtleties and softness.
There’s isn’t quite enough intrigue built around what Amy’s story is yet, but there’s enough to suggest her relationship with Frank will be one of contrast and balance. It should certainly be distinct from David Lieberman’s chemistry with the central character last season, which was one of the show’s strengths.
Neither Russo nor Pilgrim’s brief turns provide bags of unease or threat, but there’s plenty of time for that.
It’s rather incredible how many shortcomings are made up for by Bernthal’s powerhouse performance. It’s like he was born for the role, and that alone is enough to sweep me along with the show.