The Punisher: The Dark Hearts of Men

"Who among us can look at themselves without shame?"

I'm just going to say it up front.

I was wrong about Pilgrim.

Wow. That was just a really well constructed episode. Honestly, I kind of want this review to just be 'That was really good. You should go watch that, if you haven't already.'

The Punisher gives us an episode structure that we've seen done elsewhere, does it well, and then at the very end turns the entire thing on its head with a last minute reveal that totally changes what we thought we were watching.

The structure in question is the time honored 'Main characters in separate, self contained character studies that never intersect.' The first previous example of this structure to come to mind is, of course, ' Conversations with Dead People' over on Buffy. This structure has two main virtues. First, it's a great way to really focus on character development before your season long arc kicks into high gear. Second, and more usefully, it's a great way to cover the fact that your main actors couldn't get their schedules to match long enough to get a scene with them together.

I doubt that scheduling was an issue in this case though, as 'Dark Hearts of Man' is, in hindsight, clearly structured the way it is for a very specific reason. Last chance for a spoiler warning if you haven't watched it, because we're about to discuss that last minute pivot, and it really works better as a surprise if you don't know it's coming.

For most of the episode's runtime we think we're watching three separate character studies. Well, two character studies and an action sequence that pauses a lot for brown study. We have Pilgrim, recovering from a fight, Dinah and Krista sharing a girls' night of red wine and a debate on the ethics of retaliatory violence, and Frank and Curtis preparing to raid Billy's hideout and then actually raiding Billy hideout.

Taking those one at a time, let's talk about John Pilgrim. In my review of a few episodes back, I complained about how cliched hypocritical religious figures who judge others while they do bad things themselves are. That remains true, but it's not at all what the show was doing with Pilgrim and I apologize for assuming that that was where it was going. Pilgrim, it turns out, was once part of a white supremacist group, but somehow got away from them, changed his name, and tried to become a better man by embracing religion. Unfortunately, it appears that no matter how hard he tries to be a good man he keeps getting dragged back into a world of violence and that that world is still very much part of his own nature. The image of bloody, cut up John Pilgrim, barely able to move from all his injuries, forcing his arm out to pick up his preacher's hat and put it back on seems like it kind of sums up Pilgrim's entire existence. The montage of him in the hotel afterwards recovering from the fight through the application of whiskey, cocaine, and prostitutes is as broken as I've ever seen a character on television, and it was fascinating. Great work by Josh Stewart.

Meanwhile, Dinah and Krista's conversation was so close to being healthy. If you didn't have any outside context it genuinely would have seemed like a healthy friendship, and Krista's advice was totally solid. But wow, the undercurrents of unhealthy going on there. Essentially they were debating about whose man was better, so sadly they receive no Bechdel test points for today, but if you look at what exactly each of them was trying to say, something interesting turns up. Dinah was arguing that Frank is basically a good man, as adjusted for personal circumstances. Whereas Krista is arguing that Billy isn't any worse than Frank is, because Frank is just as bad. Those are not equivalent arguments, and it says a lot about each of the women involved. Also, I can't have been the only one saying to themselves, 'Hey Dinah. maybe ask why the light fixture is dangling from the ceiling... that might be important...'

And finally we have Frank and Curt, just hanging out on the roof waiting for night to fall so they can try to take Billy out. For all that Frank jokes with him about it, it's very clear that they both know that Curtis would never in a million years turn him in for the reward money. It's also clear that Curtis knows Frank would still rather be there with Billy. That's just a sad and multilayered dynamic, and I like the way everyone involved played it. It was almost a shame to get the actual action sequence, because the character work was so well done between the three men, without Billy even being physically there.

The bookending of Frank and Billy getting jumped in by their military brethren and Frank getting jumped out by Billy's crew in the warehouse was a nice bit of structural detail as well, the first being an, arguably unhealthy but we're not judging here, example of male bonding. The second being what we might refer to us 'male un-bonding.' They frame the discussion between Frank and Curtis nicely, as well as just being a really solid structural hook to frame your episode around.

So there we have it, a nice little episode that explores three different situations in a way that helps us to understand the characters involved better, so that we have a better feeling for the personal stakes involved as the series moves into its end game. Or at least that's what we thought we'd just watched, but then the episode pulls the rug out from under us with the reveal that what we'd really just seen was the story of how Krista realized how to destroy Frank based on her ostensibly friendly conversation with Dinah. We were simultaneously watching her come up with the plan and the plan being carried out, and we had no idea. Now that's a neat way to twist an ending. To be fair, they were upfront about showing their cards; they showed us the '24 hours earlier' screen caption when Krista and Dinah's conversation began. But man, who could have guessed how important that time disconnect would turn out to be. Well played, show.


Bits-

-- I really, really wish that I didn't immediately know what the '14' tattoo on Pilgrim's assailant's arm meant. Short version, it means he's a white supremacist. If you don't know specifically what the 14 means, I beg you to count yourself lucky and not look it up. You're happier not knowing.

-- Fascinating as Pilgrim's meltdown into his old habits was, I did kind of wonder where he got the cocaine. That was cocaine, right? I think that was cocaine.

-- Both fight scenes this episode were hard to watch. To the extent that I started having trouble believing that anyone involved in them wasn't dead. Both were also not in hallways, which I think might be a fineable offense for a Marvel Netflix show.

-- It seemed like a flaw in the episode early on that we see Billy on the higher roof looking down on Frank and Curt but that he didn't kill him. It makes perfect sense now.

-- Speaking of Billy and his plan, his plan only really works if Frank kills all Billy's soldiers and makes his way to the room to find the dead innocent bystanders. Did Billy just assume that Frank would kill all of his guys and factor that into the plan? It kind of feels like he did. Which is just stone cold.

-- I desperately want to believe that Billy's soldiers had an arts and crafts night at Valhalla, at which they got out magic markers and all colored their masks together. Please show me that flashback.

-- The bulk of this episode was taken up with the question as to whether Frank was the same as Billy. Normally that would be boring, since the answer is obviously 'no,' but here it turned out that the fact that the answer was obviously 'no' was sort of the point. It wasn't about proving that Frank was just like Billy, it was about a plot to make Frank believe that he was just like Billy. Clever use of the audiences' expectations.

-- The choice of music for the montage of Pilgrim recovering from the fight was fantastic. This show actually does a really good job with the music cues.

-- Billy sees his fight with Frank as 'he thinks he's better than me.' That kind of glosses over the whole 'you killed his wife and family,' Billy.



Quotes:

Billy: "Pain is only temporary, right?"

Dinah: "Does ‘friends’ come with a confidentiality clause?"
Dr. Dumont: "You can write me a check if it makes you feel better, Dinah."

Dinah: "When Frank smashed Billy into that mirror, he was looking at himself."

Pilgrim: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."
White Supremacist Guy: "You have no mercy coming."
Pilgrim: "I wasn’t talking about me."

Frank: "That’s the thing with Bill. He’s always alone."

Pilgrim: "Brotherhood is a hall of mirrors."

Billy: "I am you, Frank!"

I am a huge fan of solid structure, and this episode has structure so solid you could build condos on it. Along with some genuinely moving character work, the reveal of unexpected depths in the bad guys, and an ending that makes you immediately watch the episode again.

Four out of four dangling chandeliers.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, volunteer firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla.

4 comments:

Aaron Studer said...

Really nice review! Of all the dissection and analysis into what separates Frank from Billy this episode (and this season for that matter), I think Curtis summed it up pretty simply here with his line to Frank - “you give a shit about people, Billy doesn’t.”

Billie Doux said...

An excellent episode. But wow, so uncomfortable. It felt like we were watching a bloody, vicious, visceral beating from beginning to end. Did Billy really just sacrifice nearly all of his team in order to set Krista's plan up? How supervillain of him.

Mikey wrote, "I desperately want to believe that Billy's soldiers had an arts and crafts night at Valhalla, at which they got out magic markers and all colored their masks together. Please show me that flashback." Lol. :)

Mikey Heinrich said...

Come on, Billy. You know it's the only logical explanation for all of their masks being individually decorated. :)

I bet they brought pot luck hot dishes and bars to it as well.

And that one big soldier brought his famous seven layer taco dip. You just know he did.

Genkitty said...

Pilgrim picked up the cocaine from one of the thugs before he left the bar, rummaging around in pockets until he found it.