Steve Lightfoot discusses that unusually quiet ending, Jon Bernthal's performance, and how the writers approached the story's gun violence
WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the entire season of Marvel’s The Punisher. Read at your own risk!
Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) set out to exact vengeance on the people responsible for his family’s murder at the end of Daredevil season 2, and by the time we catch up with him in his spinoff series, his ruthless crusade is nearly complete. Yet even after he kills every last enemy, he can’t seem to get his horrific past out of his head — and his past isn’t interested in setting him free.
Before we move on, this is your last warning to look away if you haven’t finished watching the 13-episode season of Marvel’s The Punisher.
Okay then. Here’s how the series ended: Frank murders Rawlins (Paul Schulze), but when he’s forced to battle his best-friend-turned-biggest-enemy, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), he decides not to kill him, destroying his face instead. Marion James (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) lets Frank walk away a free man with a new identity at the request of Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), who vows to make Billy pay for his actions, including his murder of her partner, Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson). Frank then ends the finale at the veterans group run by Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), delivering a heartfelt speech about how scared he really is now that he no longer has a war to fight.
It’s a quiet ending to a season full of R-rated violence that made The Punisher Marvel’s bloodiest outing yet on Netflix. And it’s one that sets up a potential future for the tortured vigilante — a future the series’ showrunner, Steve Lightfoot, would very much like to see. EW spoke to Lightfoot about the show’s conclusion and where it could lead.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had a unique challenge when it came to this show because you had to take a fan-favorite character already introduced in another show and create a story around him. What did you prioritize when it came to breaking the season’s arc?
STEVE LIGHTFOOT: When I came in to meet about this show, I hadn’t realized that they had done that Daredevil season 2, so Marvel showed me that show. The real starting point, for me, was watching the approach they had taken and what Jon had done with the part.
And seeing his performance was when I got really excited about the prospect of doing the show, because I felt like it had a real mix of ferocity — he was genuinely scary — and this real humanity, where he moved me at the same time. I felt like there was a story about grief and how men build a very extreme version of that, and exploring that was what interested me.
It’s also interesting how you had to build a show that had so much to do with American identity. Throughout the episodes, characters question what it means to be American, to fight for freedom, and to be abandoned by your own country. For you, as a British writer, how much of a challenge was that to look at this from the outside?
Well, I’m a real America fan, for good or ill. I’ve lived here for a while now, and I actually did an American studies degree in college, and so I was always very interested in how [American identity] worked.
And so there were two things: One was, you start with the character, and I think of Frank as the classic antihero. He is a very American figure, right back to westerns, and I felt like that lent itself to something, just, around him. And I have a room full of very talented writers who are all American so, you know, it’s not all me. [Laughs] They steered me when I was wrong, and they all had things to say — there’s a little of everyone in the show — and I don’t know if the issues are that different from the ones we face in the U.K. You know, we’ve sort of been in the same wars as long you guys have.
You start the series by essentially having Frank destroy his Punisher persona. Why give him a breather from all the brutality? Most fans want to see the Punisher do what he does best instead of taking time off to brood, don’t they?
I mean, I think we get there in the end. [Laughs] He ends up doing plenty of [killing], but I think Marvel has done such a great job of making these shows very character-driven, and so if we just picked up where Daredevil left off and you caught him sprinting at full speed, it’s very hard to let the audience in on that.
Our show had to take an antagonist through to becoming the protagonist, to being the guy who’s the heart of the show. We had to get on board his journey, so for me, I felt like the way to do that was to not ignore what happened, but to reset him a little. I was really keen to get inside his head and understand the man before we lit the firework and set him off against a new set of enemies. Just having him wipe out a bunch of people every week would get kind of boring and repetitive, and I felt like we needed to know the man before we could start doing that.
Let’s talk about the ending, then. It’s such a quiet final scene compared to much of the series; what went into the choice to cap the season with him delivering a monologue about his fear of not having a war to fight?
It was two things. Jon and I spoke a lot, and the nature of the speech came out of conversations we had been doing about veterans and how they felt and how they worked. After the premiere, one of the veterans we used as an extra — a lot of extras in that veterans group were actual veterans — and he came up and was incredibly happy with that ending. He said, “You know, that’s absolutely how it is.”
And so my thing was, if Frank just went on a journey across the show and didn’t learn anything and didn’t come to terms with his own nature somehow, then there was no redeeming quality to the story. I think he had to learn something about himself and not just finish off the bad guys; he has to change. The truth is, in the event of a season 2, which I desperately want to do, we will very quickly find him a new war to fight, you know? [Laughs] His nature will kick back in.
But I think having him admit that it’s harder to deal with the peace than to just find something to fight is important. Realizing something about yourself doesn’t mean that you will act on it. It was important that he went on a journey, not just in terms of the plot but also emotionally. There were other scenes that could have come after [that last one], but I just felt in the end, especially with the way that Jon delivered it, I just thought, “I just want to end on this guy.”
So where would you say Frank’s head is at by the end? Does he still need his Punisher identity?
There’s a lot of conflict in Frank. There’s the guy he would like to be and the guy whose nature and all of his experiences made him [into]. The thing in the end that makes us empathize with him is that he knows that what he does isn’t always good. He’s not unaware of his own faults.
And so I think the interesting thing for me is, just because he’s recognized something about his nature doesn’t mean he’s not going to succumb to it pretty quickly. I think a part of it is he just loves the excuse to get it on. It’s where he feels most comfortable.
Another character that captured that push-and-pull between right and wrong is Lewis (Daniel Webber), who chooses violence as a way to make himself feel better, even though he doesn’t want to be a villain. What do you hope people take away from that story?
Lewis’ story is a tragedy. In so many ways, if someone had just gotten an arm around him at the right time or if certain things hadn’t gone the way they had gone — you know, if O’Connor [Delaney Williams] hadn’t lied to him, which unhinged him — he may not have lashed out. What’s interesting to me is the psychology of when people are hurting, they lash out, and I think Lewis is a very extreme example of that. When people get in a hole that deep, it’s incredibly difficult to see your way out.
It’s sort of the same for Billy too, who knows what he’s doing is wrong but can’t bring himself to stop. Obviously comic book fans knew from the start that Billy’s destiny would be to become the Punisher villain Jigsaw, but why did you decide not to have Frank kill Billy in the end, when his code is that he kills everyone, other than to make sure this comic book villain comes to life?
One of the tricky things about adapting the Punisher comic books is that he kills his enemies, but I think films and shows benefit from building an awareness of our [adapted] characters — our villains as well as our heroes — and we changed the iteration of Billy early on when I had the idea that he be the villain and set him up so that we have somewhere to go at some point in the series. He’s one of the iconic Punisher villains, and I thought that this would be such a great road to travel. I felt like we gave Billy a great trajectory of his own, which we’re now only halfway through. If we come back to him, he’s gonna be totally different guy.
Before The Punisher, you worked on equally bloody shows like Hannibal and Narcos. This series, however, was always going to invite controversy given our current debate over gun control. So what was your approach to portraying the violence of this series, especially its gun violence? Does it disturb you how much people cheer during the show’s most violent scenes, as they have at screenings?
I mean, that’s a bigger question. What’s amazing — and this is separate from any political debates or anything — is just that people have always been entertained by violence, whether it was gladiators 3,000 years ago or violence on screen now. When people cheer in screenings, it’s always kind of surprising and interesting to me how entertained people are by that.
My attitude is two-fold, in terms of doing [violence on] the show. There was a baseline set by the other Marvel Netflix shows, and I thought what they had done in Daredevil season 2 in relation to Frank set a template that we followed. I don’t think we’re particularly different from [the violence in] that, and my own personal feeling is, if you have someone get hit in the face, you have to make it uncomfortable and make people see that it hurts and that it’s not something you want. I feel like, [scenes] when someone gets hit ’round the head with something and there isn’t a mark on them are actually worse than making people understand the cost of violence, and not only physically.
What I hope we did in the show, around Frank and everyone else, is show the cost of being around that violence emotionally. You know, it’s not like Frank does this and then is a happy guy. I think any nature of being around that sort of violence for any length of time massively changes people, and I feel like the show had to be cognizant of that.
Finally, we’ve touched on the potential future of this series several times, so I have to ask: Have you heard any updates on a second season?
No, I genuinely don’t know how the Netflix system works with making those calls, and I assume once they do [make a call] they’ll tell Marvel and Marvel will tell me and we’ll jump back to it. But I’m very excited to do so. I think we left both Frank and Billy in places where there are so many ways to jump off from if that second season comes. We can do anything with them, in truth.
Marvel’s The Punisher is currently streaming on Netflix.