As the product of the Vietnam War, The Punisher is an inherently political character, a walking, talking, gun-blazing embodiment of angry veterans and uniquely American id. Since his 1974 debut, Frank Castle has often been co-opted by real-world political activists (and radicals) for their own agenda; that's been much to the chagrin of the character's creator, Gerry Conway, but perhaps to be expected for an anti-hero vigilante with a penchant for mass violence.
Much of the Netflix series about the Punisher has been about grappling with the character's place in the modern world and how he moves on from the trauma of war (here, he fought in the War on Terror) and the murder of his family, a true double whammy. The most overtly political the first season got was its depiction of PTSD and the veterans who return damaged from their tours of duty, only to be ignored by the government that sent them there; for the most part, it was about one man's journey. But the show's second season, which debuted on Friday, takes a broader view, asking in its narrative how Frank can exist in civilized society, and more philosophically, perhaps, who the Punisher would fight for in a fractured nation that suffers from more gun violence, political extremism, and domestic terrorism than ever before.
The ideological villains in this second season are far right-wing fanaticism, greed, and the Russian underworld, three main contributors to the unholy coalition of the most modern reactionary politics. Frank is up against a conspiracy of corruption and deceit, enforced by a puritanical Christian hitman named John Pilgrim (played by Josh Stewart). Based on the trailer, fans speculated that he was really a Marvel character named The Mennonite, and while Lightfoot did take inspiration from that character, he also mixed in nods to films like The Night of the Hunter and other extremist beliefs. More than once, the camera lingers on the faded remnants of an Iron Cross tattoo on Pilgrim's chest, unerasable evidence of his Nazi past.
"It was about any kind of fanaticism, any belief in anything to the point where anyone who doesn't agree with you can be killed, or is less than human, is a bad thing," Lightfoot told SYFY WIRE. "Pilgrims die. He was part of one tribe in the Nazis, the far right stuff, because he just needed to belong to something. In some ways, he was rescued from that by something else to believe in, but if you believe in it to the level he then chooses to, it can become a negative thing."
One of the reasons that Lightfoot chose not to identify Pilgrim as The Mennonite was the danger of broad application. "I deliberately didn't do that because I didn't want to say this particular faith or creed [is bad]. Because I didn't want to buttonhole people like that," he said. "I think faith's a great thing. I think it drives an awful lot of the good in the world, but I think if you believe in anything to the point where anyone who doesn't agree with you is the enemy, then that can never end well."
But Pilgrim certainly is a fanatical evangelical Christian, obsessed with purity and willing to cleanse the filthy New York streets with blood. He self-flagellates often to make penance for his human flaws and acts as a tool for a manipulative pair of mentors who combine the worst aspects of far-right religion and business ambition.
The Schultzes, an older couple played by Corbin Bernsen and Annette O'Toole, are billionaires who run a small-town cult and corrupt global empire. When SYFY WIRE suggested that Pilgrim represented the modern alt-right, Lightfoot was careful to point out that the show never specifically identifies him that way, but about midway through the season, the Schultz's plans get linked with that movement. Frank's accidental protégé, Amy (Giorgia Whigham), puts the pieces of an unraveling blackmail scheme together, and the Schultz's goals become clear.
"They're buying Congress basically, one small piece at a time," she says. "They run these alt-right websites and use them to make up scandals and ratf**k their opponents."
That makes them somewhat like the Mercer family, the billionaire technology and hedge-fund pioneers who for many years funded the far-right "news" company Breitbart. Robert Mercer is a right-wing, evangelical Christian who donated vast amounts of money to right-wing networks in a successful quest for political influence. It's not a one-to-one comparison with the Schultzes, but the archetype is there.
Some of the people that Mercer financed, like Steve Bannon, were also involved with Russian politicians and magnates, which again plays out in this season of Punisher. The season is part MacGuffin chase, with a number of parties interested in getting their hands on a series of photographs that could be used to blackmail the Schultzes. One of the organizations involved is headed by a Russian billionaire who is seeking his own underhanded political influence. In one early episode, Frank delivers a quip that really says it all: "I don't normally do business with Russians."
There's no suggestion that The Punisher is Antifa or some left-wing crusader; his penchant for violence and embrace of guns would probably not win him many votes in the 2020 Democratic primary. He is no Captain America, either. But for a character that has been for so long co-opted by a right-wing movement, it is a big stance.