The Good: Impressive acting, Great character moments, Decent plot progression, amazing direction for capturing details.
The Bad: Minor issues with Lieberman's character.
The Basics: The Punisher hits the story's midpoint at "Cold Steel" and achieves a near-perfect episode!
For a show that features a pretty heavy cast of very masculine men, The Punisher Season 1 has done a remarkably good job of presenting the complex emotions of various men who have been traumatized by war. Fans of Netflix, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and even fans of The Punisher who might have been concerned that the first season of Netflix's The Punisher would be a bland, violent revenge story have quite a bit to be pleasantly surprised by with the execution of Frank Castle's continuing story. In fact, over the course of the first eight episodes, there are only two aspects of the show that stand out as actually stupid. The set-up of The Punisher is that Frank Castle has spent six months off the grid after eliminating everyone who was even marginally involved in the murder of his family . . . and it turns out that his research into that was woefully inadequate. So, right off the bat, there is a somewhat ridiculous quality to The Punisher in that Frank Castle seems somewhat moronically underprepared for a guy whose just gone on a worldwide killing spree.
The other moment of sheer stupidity in the first half of The Punisher comes in the last few seconds of "Crosshairs" (reviewed here!). Because "Cold Steel" opens right after that moment, it is impossible to discuss the midseason episode without addressing the moment of utter idiocy from the climax of "Crosshairs." (Consider that a spoiler alert for those who have not seen "Crosshairs!") "Crosshairs" found Lieberman devising a way to reveal the identity of Agent Orange - the man who committed war crimes using Schoonover's Cerberus Squad, and Frank Castle, on the MICRO video - by tracking a phone back to where Agent Orange is holed up. That plan worked and Lieberman told Castle the location at which they found themselves was a CIA safehouse. Despite that, Castle attempted to shoot Agent Orange, Rawlins, and only Frank Castle seems surprised when the window through which he attempted to shoot Rawlins was bulletproof. For sure, it's a cool visual moment when Rawlins stands before the bullet-shattered window, but Castle is pretty fucking stupid to have thought that a CIA safehouse would not be bulletproof. Hell, I'm a civilian and the moment Lieberman said "CIA Safehouse," it screamed to me that the windows would have to be bulletproof - especially for a building that had so many windows! Despite that lingering moment of utter ridiculousness, "Cold Steel" starts strong.
Billy Russo visits his mother in an in-patience psychiatric facility where he has had her committed. After talking to her and drugging her, he departs to go seduce Madani. Back at the lair, Lieberman manages to identify Rawlins as the head of C.I.A.'s covert operations. While Lieberman freaks out, Frank Castle comes to believe that the lack of information on the C.I.A. site indicates that they are out of the woods. But when Lieberman notices that the camera feeds to his family's house are out, he sends Frank to look in on his wife and children. Castle finds Sarah Lieberman alive, well, and in crisis over how to actually discipline her son, who continues to act out. Sarah gets a little drunk and kisses Frank, which upsets Lieberman back at the lair (who sees it on the feed Frank fixed).
Rawlins meets Russo out in an abandoned lot, where they make plans to apprehend Castle based upon the intel they gleaned using the bug in Madani's office. While Lieberman and Castle make amends, Lieberman realizes that Madani might be the key to getting back to his family by using the MICRO video and Castle as an eye witness to lock up Rawlins. Russo approaches four mercenaries to participate in the operation to kill Frank Castle before Homeland can scoop him up. When Lieberman wakes up, Castle sets him straight on his relationship with Sarah and the two men in hiding are surprised when Sarah reaches out to "Pete" about Zach. Sarah correctly sees the escalation in Zach's bad behaviors and Frank does his best to parent David and Sarah's child.
The Punisher has had a pretty decent habit - up through and including "Cold Steel" - of not making the viewer wait especially long for reversals. Instead of building a story that is based upon big, sudden turns, The Punisher is all about developing characters and make them make sense. Billy Russo has been a slow burn of an adversary in The Punisher (though the name of his company and the tradition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for businessmen to be utterly corrupt, ambition-driven villains telegraphed his real character), but by "Cold Steel," he is pretty much out - at least to the viewer.
Russo opens "Cold Steel" and the scene he shares with his mother is an excellent example of how The Punisher develops its characters. Russo enters a room with a woman in a bed and anyone attuned to the performance by Ben Barnes can tell right away that he is exerting dominance over her. Barnes has a stiffness and professionalism in the scene with his mother that screams of a man exerting control over a helpless person. Those who are actually listening to the dialogue will realize long, long before Russo identifies the woman that she is his mother, but the way the moment plays in "Cold Steel" is confirmation, as opposed to revelation. That makes for a much smarter and troubling moment than many of the other reversals in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - just when the viewer thinks they know the depth of how crappy Russo is, he does something suspect, and the viewer might hope he can't be as bad as they suspect, but he goes even lower! Ben Barnes proves himself to not be just a pretty boy with the way he is playing Russo and in "Cold Steel," he goes even darker than before in a way that is skilled and subtle. The final scene of "Cold Steel" plays off the first in a way that is utterly terrifying because of Barnes' performance.
David Lieberman continues to expand the depth of his role as sidekick and there is something a little disappointing that he does not acknowledge that Sarah kissed Frank, not the other way around. Frank Castle, surprisingly, is a bit of a gentleman and he actually respects David not to poach his grieving "widow." The two start to actually bond afterward, despite the fact that Lieberman is drinking to get over what he feels is his wife's betrayal. Lieberman moves from being a concerned family man to jealous to drunk and accepting. Lieberman and Castle have different methods and "Cold Steel" reinvigorates Lieberman's obsession with getting reunited with his wife and family.
Madani continues to be characterized in "Cold Steel" as a smart, resourceful director at Homeland Security. She organizes an impressive trap to try to figure out who is pulling the strings in the Kentucky incident. In fact, Madani is so efficient that the only thing that credibly lands the suspension of disbelief in the trap she sets is that Russo and Rawlins do not know she has found the bug in her office. The only issue with Madani's character in "Cold Steel" (and lingering from "Crosshairs") is a missing scene; the viewer saw Madani sweep her office for bugs, but not her apartment. Madani is efficient and tactically-brilliant in "Cold Steel" and it is only her ignorance that Russo is her enemy that makes her operation go sideways.
The real credit in "Cold Steel" goes to director Antonio Campos. The raid scene that caps off "Cold Steel" is intense and Campos manages to insert the scene with a number of very important moments that play off subtle character movements and expressions. A masked Russo recognizes Madani's voice in the middle of the firefight and he makes choices based upon that, which are well-executed. The thing is, Campos creates a scene with a rising tension that is intense and smart, but it manages to feel fresh. It is not long into the scene where Madani and Russo's men square off that it becomes clear that there is going to be a significant casualty. "Cold Steel" delivers that moment and Campos is so gifted a director that even the viewer who has figured out who is not going to walk away in the scene manages to be surprised when the moment comes. Indeed, Campos constructs a scene that seems to telegraph a character's death, then pulls back from it; it is only when Russo's face is exposed that the viewer is likely to sit up and shout "No!" because they know that Russo cannot go down that way. "Cold Steel" manages to develop expertly.
"Cold Steel" is not all intelligence operations and gunfights; playing off those moments are the scenes with Frank Castle and Sarah and Zach Lieberman. That Frank starts to take a parental role in Zach's life is wonderful and continues the mature themes of The Punisher. Kids need parents and guidance, especially when they are in crisis and "Cold Steel" illustrates that well. While David Lieberman's actions in regard to Castle's interacting with his son is very human and realistic, it is still a little disappointing for the character - who is usually such a big picture type of guy.
David Lieberman's sudden erratic behavior, which makes sense when he is drunk, but not so much at the episode's climax, is realistic but a little bit of a letdown on a character front. Despite that, "Cold Steel" manages to be the best episode of The Punisher yet!
For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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