“The Punisher” takes a timely tour through masculinity tropes

Spoilers for Season 1 of Netflix’s “The Punisher.”

The first time we see Frank Castle in episode 1, he’s split in two: the happy family man, teaching his son to play the guitar, and the lonely, taciturn recluse of Daredevil. These two sides make routine appearances throughout the 13-episode first season of The Punisher. Castle himself changes in minute but profound ways as he interacts with a wider circle of allies and enemies, and the many facets of masculinity the represent (even the women) form the heart of the questions that keep being revisited during this show: Is there a way to fix a broken person? How does a soldier live as a civilian again? Is there a way to thrive after a terrible loss? What is the true measure of a man?

At the beginning of the season, we’re introduced to Pete Castiglioni, “the gimp.” This is the persona that Frank adapts in order to make a living after he’s done visiting revenge on the men who killed his family. Except Frank isn’t living. The lack of violence in his life has left a gap, and it’s one for which he can’t compensate. Long-haired, bearded, and barely verbal, he is engaged in backbreaking work for as many hours as possible to numb the memories of his wife and children that revisit him every time he closes his eyes. He wakes up so many times to his wife sweetly whispering “Hey sleepyhead,” that it begins to cause an aversive reaction to her tenderness. Knowing that the loving vision of Maria almost always ends with her getting shot in the head is a brutally effective way of communicating Frank’s isolation and his unwillingness to connect fully with those who try to care for him. As far as masculine tropes, Frank fits pretty solidly in the anti-hero mold. Apathetic, cynical and amoral, he nonetheless retains an individual code of honor (and a couple of personal attachments) that keep the character from becoming one-note.

Marvel’s The Punisher

Set up as Frank’s  direct opposite in the narrative (and the ego to his id) is his best friend and fellow ex-Marine Billy Russo. Billy was with Frank during their fateful Cerberus assignment, and a witness to his fateful attack on William Rawlins. Where Frank is trapped in a revenge cycle, Billy, an orphan, seemed to shake off his wartime experience with relative ease and is now the head of the private security firm Anvil, a charitable contributor, and an eligible bachelor.  Billy seems to be all that is upstanding in a veteran and a man. It’s not until about the midway point that we discover he’s William Rawlins’ ally and a deeply disturbed individual who has his birth mother drugged in a home as punishment for giving him away. More importantly, he knew of the plans to eliminate Frank’s family and did nothing, despite being close enough to them to be counted among their own. As befits his opposition to Castle, Russo is an anti-villain whose polite, friendly demeanor and occasional honorable gestures belie his capacity for violence. The occasional flashes of what passes for honor (reassuring Curtis that his word has value, caring for Dinah Madani after the death of Sam Stein) are less about morality than ensuring he alone ends up defeating Frank.

One of the most enduring of Frank’s connections is his friendship with Curtis Hoyle (played superbly by Jason Moore), an ex-Corpsman cum-insurance salesman and group therapy leader. It’s immediately apparent the men share a deep trust and respect of each other. Early on in episode one, Curtis tells Frank that “part of the problem” is that “nobody wants to be themselves anymore.” In a show where pretty much everyone is pretending to be something that they aren’t, it’s Curtis, with his artificial limb and all the associated trauma it brings, who is the most true to himself, be it in strength or weakness. Although it’s implied that Curtis is about the same age as Frank and Billy, he is a mentor. He is by far the most psychologically whole and emotionally intelligent of the characters, and as a PoC, I love the significance of casting a man of color as the conscience of these two polar opposites. If Castle is the id and Billy Russo the ego, then Curtis is definitely the superego, navigating a tight course between two facets of the same persona.

Former NSA analyst, threat, and eventual friend and ally David “Micro” Lieberman first presents himself as a hacker who repeatedly bests Frank in sheer canniness. Over the course of the series, he evolves from a potential threat and a non-fighter into a true sidekick, providing the technical and strategic know-how to help round out Frank’s brawn. Lieberman is also a man protecting a family from a terrible threat by means of an equally terrible lie. Micro has rigged cameras all around his house, so he can keep a big-brother-like watch over his wife Sarah and two children. Early in their partnership, Frank tells David that Sarah said he wasn’t the type “to get his hands dirty,” and this kicks off Lieberman’s emotional reawakening from hermit hacker back to husband and father. It’s the way that Lieberman handles this that’s notable for a male character. David is utterly confident in his professional skills, and endearingly honest about his personal failings. In one of the moments of emotional intimacy that this show does so well, Frank and David get drunk after David’s wife kisses Frank, who she knows as Pete Castiglioni. The two men exchange the stories of how they met their wives, and toast to the fact that “when you know, you know.” David ends the series as the classic sidekick, not only Frank’s partner in his quest for justice, but as a brother-in-arms to take the place that Russo vacated in his life.

We first meet young vet Lewis Wilson at Curtis’s group meeting. Nervous, reactive, and initially pitiful, he becomes a classic insane survivalist. Lewis is meant to populate the far end of the continuum where Frank and Russo live. While Frank is a vigilante who operates mostly outside society’s accepted norms, he has an internal moral compass that is fairly constant. Russo, the other side of that coin, is a seemingly law-abiding, succesful citizen who is in reality amoral, though he also holds his word as inviolate. Lewis goes beyond both of these characters to antisocial anarchy. Lewis is not only a loner, a terrorist and as Karen Page memorably points out, “a coward,” but he is at his heart, someone who has lost complete and total faith in his fellow man. Even the actions he took on behalf of Curtis and his father aren’t enough to save him in the end.  Showrunner Steve Lightfoot called Lewis’ story “a tragedy,” and while it’s easy to condemn his actions throughout the series, he represents a very real segment of modern society that has lost such faith in the system that they try to turn their inner violence outward. Instead, Lewis ends up literally and figuratively destroying himself.

It’s not only the male characters in The Punisher that show some of the pitfalls of what has traditionally been masculine-gendered behavior. Both DHS Agent Dinah Midani and Daredevil regular Karen Page join the party, exhibiting some traditionally masculine traits that work both for and against them.

Dinah, returning to Homeland Security after some time in Afghanistan, is pulling the classic “loose cannon” cop move: investigating something she was told to stay away from. In her case, it’s the cover-up of what ends up being Project Cerebrus, the interrogation-by-torture unit to which both Frank and Russo belonged. It’s alluded to that Dinah came back somewhat damaged from her time in the Middle East, but any time any of the characters attempt to have her unload her emotional burden, she stiffens her upper lip and refuses to discuss it. Instead, she self-medicates in the preferred way of TV men since time immemorial: sex and alcohol. Dinah is so emotionally shut-down that, by the time she realizes she has become attached to her partner, he’s dead, and by the time she trusts herself to break down in front of anyone, it’s Sam’s murderer and frequent booty call Billy Russo. Dinah has the dogged maverick streak of any TV cop on a mission, and she also suffers from the emotional blind spots that come with it. It was extremely interesting to see this tired macho trope given new life in a female character.

After the events of last season’s Daredevil ended with the closing of Nelson and Murdock, Karen Page is now a journalist at the New York Bulletin. Karen has long been an emotional touchstone for Frank Castle (I’m not on board this ship, but even I swooned when he punched the wall), and though their deep affinity could have been played romantically, instead it is sublimated into a more platonic relationship, or storge. Page and Castle are more like beloved siblings than romantic partners. Karen advocated for Frank in an extrememly dark moment in his life, and Frank is one of the few characters that not only sees Karen’s dark side, but accepts it. As Frank himself says, Karen is family, and despite the fact that she’s frequently cast into damsel-in-despair situations, she’s far from the cookie-cutter virtuous type that exists only to remind the hero of what he’s fighting for. Instead, Karen is exteremely empathic, driven and loyal, but she can be ruthless and fierce when the situation calls for it. In a lot of ways, she is a counterpart to Curtis Hoyle, as both are people that Frank trusts implicitly, and for who he doesn’t hestitate to risk his life.

Aside from the characters themselves, many of the yardsticks of manhood are referenced in passing: Cool-Hand Luke, Moby Dick, the military, a man’s role as provider, even penis size. When Micro confesses that he’s “hung like a moose,” it’s a joke, not a macho assertion. It’s as if the show, recognizing the toxic nature of certain televised masculinity tropes, alludes to them but briefly, and when forced to dwell on them, does so in a way that exposes the damage they can do. It’s a phenomenally thoughtful treatment of one of the more violent comic sources, and really excellent example of television as social commentary. In a world where men are socialized not to show emotion and only express themselves when they’re horny or angry, what a revolutionary thing it is to end the series by having your main character admit to such a perjorative emotion as fear. In fact, almost every character that expresses the traditional agression and violence that has become synonymous with the idea of vigilante heroes ends up being a villain. Even the characters who have worked to regain a working emotional balance, like Curtis and Karen, occasionally show signs of weakness, but their bravery is of another sort. They accept themselves, and keep going. They’re not flashy. They’re not aggressive. They keep their hearts open. They keep speaking for what they think is right, and they accept that there are things that they cannot repair, including themselves. That’s the midline. That is what The Punisher universe sets up as its new masculinity: You don’t have to be hold it together. It’s all right to reach out. It’s ok to think you will never be who you were again, because even if you think you are broken, so are we all in some way or another. You don’t have to be fixed, you just have to reach out. You just have to go on.