Saturday, November 18, 2017

All The Backstory The Punisher Seems To Need Comes In "Kandahar!"

The Good: Good acting, Decent directing, Characters hold to their core
The Bad: Annoying character conceits, Potential trouble on the continuity front
The Basics: The Punisher continues with "Kandahar," which provides a backstory for David Lieberman and fleshes out what went wrong for Frank Castle in Afghanistan.

The Punisher had an uphill battle with the fans; this late into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially the television component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is hard to escape the feeling that it's all been done. The Punisher has almost all of the components immediately in play for a familiar project in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: there is a conspiracy, an antihero, upper class folks who seem undoubtedly to be the villains, a revenge storyline and a person in an adjacent field who knows about the protagonist's actions and seems doomed to work at cross-purposes to the protagonist. In fact, structurally, The Punisher Season 1 seems to have a lot in common with Luke Cage Season 1 (reviewed here!). Despite, objectively, having a lot of similarities, The Punisher manages to feel remarkably fresh. That feeling continues into "Kandahar," the show's third episode.

"Kandahar" follows on "Two Dead Men" (reviewed here!) and it is impossible to discuss the new episode without some references to where the show went in the prior episode. In fact, "Kandahar" continues where "Two Dead Men" left off - with Wolf dead and Frank Castle ready to interrogate David Lieberman. "Kandahar" makes explicit, as well, portions of the mission in Afghanistan wherein Frank Castle worked under Major Schoonover. As a result, it helps for viewers to have seen Daredevil Season 2 (reviewed here!) before sitting down to "Kandahar."

Frank Castle has Lieberman tied, naked, to a chair when an alarm in Lieberman's lair begins to go off. Lieberman insists that only he can deactivate the alarm, with his retinal scan. After managing to convince Castle of the importance of letting him deactivate the system, Lieberman tries to get Castle to trust him and work with him. Lieberman tells Castle his story of getting the disc with Zubair's interrogation on it. He sent the video of the interrogation to Dinah Madani and the next morning, Wolf hunted him down and appeared to kill him in front of his wife. Lieberman, though, did not die when shot and he went underground.

Elsewhere, Madani and Stein begin investigating Wolf's murder. Curtis Hoyle and Billy Russo meet, with Russo funding the space Hoyle does his group therapy in. Hoyle turns down Russo's offer for a job. In the interrogation, Castle recalls working for Major Schoonover on Operation Cerberus, where he remembers working with Russo. The Zubair interrogation ends with the police officer getting assassinated by Castle's team and Castle burying the body in the desert. While Dinah Madani assumes command over her section, her partner brings her information that suggests Wolf was corrupt and Lieberman manages to reverse his situation with Castle. It is then that Castle recalls the mission on which Schoonover lost his arm . . . and that it was Rawlins who was calling the shots.

David Lieberman starts off "Kandahar" trying desperately to convince Frank Castle that the two of them are on the same side. It seems entirely reasonable that Lieberman and Castle would have been targeted by the same organizations. Lieberman worked for the N.S.A. and he spends a decent amount of time detailing just what it was that he was supposed to analyze and take action on. Lieberman's big break at work seemed to come when he was sent the MICRO CD-ROM.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe - especially the Netflix television aspect of it - has done interrogation episodes a lot already. "Kandahar" fits the pattern, but because it comes so early in the first season of The Punisher, the episode is preoccupied with continuing to define the characters involved. There is an immediately irksome quality to "Kandahar" in that there is a lot more torture than other interrogation sequences in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Torture does not, historically, work and there was something refreshing about "Two Dead Men" where Wolf pointed that out. The Punisher was suddenly thematically smart.

And yet, in "Kandahar," Frank Castle is torturing Lieberman. Castle's perspective is that torture is about breaking comfortable patterns and the implicit argument is that most people simply do not do torture the right way. That's a ridiculous premise and it's initially agonizing to watch Lieberman get tormented by Frank Castle. Lieberman is Castle's equal and he is eager to help Castle . . . but he is treated by Castle with unnecessary violence.

Dinah and her mother interact well in "Kandahar." Farah, Dinah's mother, is no longer saddled with expository dialogue. Instead, she actually provides calm counsel to her daughter and that is refreshing. Dinah is now in line to run her Section at Homeland Security and her mother believes that she is feeling guilty over not liking Wolf before his death. That is an interesting angle and it shows that Farah has a lot of perception over her daughter's process.

"Kandahar" occurs on Frank Castle's birthday and the current and past birthdays make for an interesting contrast.

The Punisher has a fundamental issue in the way the conspiracy was developed for the show. In Daredevil, when The Blacksmith was revealed, he referenced Frank Castle as, essentially, the last hold-out to his plan. Schoonover mentions that the rest of the elite team Castle was a part of came back to work for him after the war. The Punisher retcons that by giving Frank Castle more associates who left before the rest of the team was recalled. So, while Russo seems initially clean given that he got out early, it is hard not to believe that he is corrupt as hell. In addition to the prior, established, backstory that included Schoonover selling heroin was done using his former subordinates, Russo is clearly pumping Hoyle for information in "Kandahar." The idea that Schoonover's former team all ended up corrupt but people like Russo are still in play after The Punisher's purge, which opened this season, seems to be contradictory and "Kandahar" does not yet provide satisfying answers in that regard.

Andy Goddard directs "Kandahar" exceptionally well. Goddard is saddled with a script that felt compelled to illustrate the formative mission for Frank Castle, which was well-detailed on Daredevil. Goddard seems worried that The Punisher might simply devolve into violence and gore that is familiar and becomes boring and he directs "Kandahar" with that in mind. As a result, for the most violent battle scenes, most of the violence actually happens out of frame and Frank Castle simply ends up splattered in the gore that results from his actions. It's a clever way to direct the sequence to prevent it from becoming passe.

Ultimately, "Kandahar" spells out many important aspects of Frank Castle's backstory, while making both Lieberman and Madani more important to the story The Punisher seemed to be meandering toward in its first season.

For other works with Shohreh Aghdashloo, please visit my reviews of:
Destiny 2
Star Trek Beyond
The Odd Life Of Timothy Green
X-Men: The Last Stand
House Of Sand And Fog


For other aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please visit my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a relativistic listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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