The Good: Incredible performances, Artful direction, Good character moments, Excellent plot progression, Themes
The Bad: Nothing!
The Basics: The Punisher's first season closes with "Memento Mori," which makes for the season's second perfect episode!
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the first season of The Punisher is that, going into the season finale, it's not really possible to say "What a long and bloody road we took to get here . . ." The Punisher could have been a constant bloodbath, a dumbed-downed, blood and gored-up, triggerhappy vengeance story, but Netflix managed to make something smart, complex and emotionally real. For sure, there has been blood, but it's hard to look at the first season of The Punisher and argue that it was more violent and gory than, for example, Daredevil Season 2 (reviewed here!) where there was violence with Daredevil, The Punisher, Elektra, and blood-draining ninjas.
So, as "Memento Mori" opens with Frank Castle beaten to a pulp as a result of the events of "Home" (reviewed here!), it is with the promise that The Punisher will not diverge from the formula that got it to this end: it has to be smart. And wow, is it!
Madani and Lieberman bring Frank Castle to her parents' home where Madani begs her father to treat the severely wounded Castle. Dr. Madani gets Castle breathing, while at his own lair, Russo extracts a bullet from himself. Russo takes his cash, the police walkie-talkie and kills his way out of Anvil. After Castle recovers, while the CIA and Homeland are hunting him, Lieberman brings Castle money and advocates for him to retire. Castle, though, is determined to finish what he started. Madani lets Castle leave, but tells him that if she sees him again she'll be forced to either arrest or kill him. Madani returns to Homeland Security where she is called onto the carpet by James and Hernandez.
Lieberman returns to his wife and kids to begin the period of readjusting to their lives together. Curtis Hoyle wakes up to Russo in his apartment. Russo keeps Hoyle at gunpoint in his apartment, but Castle manages to box the two in by sniping from across the street. Castle negotiates for Hoyle's life and Russo and Castle agree to finish their conflict that the carousel where their conflict began. But when Castle and Madani converge upon the park, they discover Russo's endgame is not as simple as a shootout.
There are very few preconceptions I had going into "Memento Mori." The biggest assumption I had in advance of sitting down to the episode was that there was a decent chance that Russo would survive the season, leading Madani to become disillusioned enough to become a Punisher herself. As horrific as some of the events in "Memento Mori" are - the sounds of the gagged teenagers crying is particularly unsettling, arguably more than the visual gore - there is the sense throughout the episode that it actually could go any way. With both Russo and Castle shot, there is the feeling either or both could die and as the episode races toward its climax, "Memento Mori" feels anything but predictable.
"Memento Mori" starts, uncomfortably enough, like a medical drama with the gore coming from Frank Castle's wounds and the medical procedure needed to save him. Director Stephen Surjik seems to realize quickly that the level of gore is moving toward disturbing, so Russo's exit from his facility is treated with more speed and art than realistic gore. That helps to make "Memento Mori" accessible. So, too, does the fact that the episode quickly transitions into characters talking and people exploring the consequences of the prior twelve episodes.
The realism of the Lieberman's awkwardness is magnificent. Jaime Ray Newman watching Moss-Barach and the kids playing cards allows her to present Sarah Lieberman with wordless charm. Newman is great at showing the build-up to the Liebermans' reunion quickie. Impressive as well is the level of detail that writer Steve Lightfoot and Surjik put into the piece where Russo can easily recognize - and the viewer can credibly believe - the sound of Castle releasing his rifle's magazine.
Surjik creates a beautiful-looking season finale with "Memento Mori." The simple shot of the clouds over New York City is artful and the falling coffee mugs are fantastic. Surjik taking the time to show things like Curtis putting on his prosthetic leg continues the sense of realism that is seldom shown on television. In fact, it is funny for how realistic most of the episode is that Surjik has Hoyle's coffee maker work at superhuman speeds.
"Memento Mori" reveals well the level of personal betrayal Frank Castle has been feeling for the latter half of the season by showing the moments leading up to Castle's family getting slaughtered. The scenes with Frank Castle and his family are heartwrenching. Russo continues to be well-characterized as the ultimate villain of The Punisher through the illustration that he has made his own narrative.
Ben Barnes makes a truly disturbing transition over the course of "Memento Mori." Russo goew from being a military minded man with some sense of his own personal ethos to a deranged maniac without ever seeming like the transformation is inorganic. Barnes is terrifying as Russo in almost every scene he is in in "Memento Mori."
"Memento Mori" is a series of surprises and revelations and it is incredible. The performances are wonderful by all involved and the fact that Frank Castle both develops as a character and remains true to his moral core makes for compelling television. Whoever thought that The Punisher could create a legitimate tearjerker?! But "Memento Mori" is that; it develops from a series of tense, action moments that manage to bring about plot resolution to big character moments to the season's ever-present exploration of the effects upon a soldier of their actions while at war.
"Memento Mori" is an amazing end to an incredible season of television. The balance of art and realism, horror and heart makes for - and no one is more surprised than me! - a perfect season finale.
For other Marvel Television Universe season finales, please visit my reviews of:
"AKA Smile" - Jessica Jones
"World's End" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"And Finally . . . Black Bolt" - Inhumans
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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