The Punisher and Change from the Outside In
A soldier is stuck in a hole. He can’t get out. People pass by up above, each of them offering him solutions on how to get himself out of the hole—or even on how to forget he is in the hole. But nothing works. The soldier cannot get himself out, and he begins to despair. But then another soldier passing by, filthy and dirty like him, sees him there. He jumps down into the hole alongside him. The soldier in the hole freaks out and says, “What are you doing? Now we’re both stuck in the hole!” But the other soldier, the one who jumped down from the outside, says, “Calm down, buddy. I’ve been here before. I know how to get out.”
In The Punisher, Frank Castle—arguably Marvel’s least marvelous vigilante—arrives on the small screen with his own show, presenting a surprisingly nuanced look at the nature of right and wrong, post-traumatic stress disorder, and personal identity. Frank is a Marine who returned from his final tour of duty only to have his family gunned down before his eyes at an outing to the park. Ostensibly, the murders happened during a drug deal gone bad, and his family was merely caught in the crossfire. To really be familiar with this story, you need to have watched Daredevil season 2, as The Punisher picks up in medias res, with Frank finishing—so he thinks—the vendetta he began in that show: to kill everyone involved with the murder of his family. To Frank Castle, justice is black and white: The bad guys who killed his family need to die, and he’s the one who will kill them. In the second season of Daredevil, Frank uncovers a military conspiracy involving the drug deal that went south, claiming the lives of his wife and children, and nearly claiming his, but he had no idea how deep the conspiracy really went. So when Frank’s black-and-white justice is revealed to be inadequate to make right the murders and betrayal of his family—and his very soul—he spirals into hopelessness and despair.
Frank Castle is that man stuck in a hole, and his bleakness and struggle throughout the show reflects the state of hopelessness common to many people caught in the binds of a host of crippling problems—from the post-traumatic stress the show directly addresses, to depression, to anxiety, to fear or rage, to the valley of spiritual uncertainty. The Punisher reminds us we live two lives: an inner life and an outer life, and that decisions we make here in this life affect our eternal souls. It is the sort of show that challenges us to choose life, even when death seems sweeter. And for those of us who have walked the road of mental illness, stories that lift us up and remind us life is more precious than death are vital to our souls. And what The Punisher truly gets right is the overarching message that we can’t do it alone. The only way to truly change from the inside out is to allow yourself to be changed from the outside in, and Frank’s internal war mirrors the war raging for all of our souls.The Punisher reminds us we live two lives: an inner life and an outer life, and that decisions we make here in this life affect our eternal souls.
The Punisher is not an easy show to watch, but you wouldn’t expect it to be easy to watch a dead man walking around, caught up in his own grief and shame and supposed worthlessness. Believing his vendetta complete after the death of the last gangster, Frank tries to start a new life under a new name in the first episode, but it quickly becomes clear that Frank is, as a character much later in the show points out to him, “a revenant—walking the earth completely unaware that [he’s] already dead.” And indeed, the rest of the world believes Frank Castle is dead. Haunted by dreams of killing his wife by his own hand and by memories of his family’s murder in the park, Frank can’t find peace. He isolates himself, he can’t sleep, and he wishes for death. He takes a job as a construction worker and works from dawn until well after dark, breaking down old walls with a sledge hammer—one strike for every memory that haunts him.
Frank can’t heal himself, and he can’t help himself. His attempt at starting a second life was always doomed to failure because he’s still living in the hole, a revenant, dead inside while he walks around on the earth. And this is how it feels, sometimes, to suffer from mental illness like depression. The hopelessness of walking around dead inside—wondering if anyone sees your pain, or even sees you at all… you might as well be sitting in a hole with a shovel, digging your own grave. And that is where Frank is, early in the story. He tries to bring justice to himself by taking on the mantle of the Punisher, but every life the Punisher takes only digs Frank’s hole deeper, his self-imposed isolation serving as nails in his coffin.
Isolation is the natural tendency of the hurting. Sometimes we like the hole into which we’ve fallen. Sometimes the hole’s four walls are stalwart and safe and insulating, and the hole comes to feel like home. For Frank, there are a handful of people who still know he is alive, and these people try to offer aid to get him out of the hole, but he constantly rebuffs their efforts. They identify his pain, which makes him feel weak, and nobody wants to feel weak when they are hurting, so he pushes them away. One such person is his old Marine pal, a corpsman named Curtis. Curtis, who came back from the war with a missing leg, runs a post-traumatic stress support group for military veterans that meets in a local church. Curtis is almost always situated in front of the crucifix, and in the context of the story, he acts as Frank’s metaphorical priest. Frank confides in him, confesses his sins to him. Curtis keeps his secrets, protects him, but encourages him to do better, to be better, to come back up to life—to start a real second life. Curtis is, as another character says of him, “Good at putting people back together.” But Frank never comes to support group. He only ever visits Curtis in secret. Curtis is one of the first characters to identify the turmoil of Frank’s inner life. “The only person you’re punishing is yourself,” he tells Frank. “You’ve been in the hole so long that it’s become home.” Frank’s response to Curtis reveals the despondency of his spirit. “Maybe that’s where I’m supposed to be,” he says.
The battle for Frank’s soul would be over early in the story if not for the introduction of several doppelgangers into his narrative. Meaning literally “double go-ers,” doppelgangers are a sort of twin—people who can act as either mirrors or reverse echoes of a person, and they can serve a variety of purposes in a story. For Frank, these doppelgangers are both helpful and destructive. They work on him from the outside, holding up a mirror before him to show what he can be and what he is, and, in some cases, climbing down into the hole with him, to help him choose life instead of death.
Soon it becomes a show of doppelgangers. Everywhere Frank turns, he sees mirror images of himself. Frank is paired up again and again on screen with reflections of who he is, who he could be, who he wants to be, who he fears he is, and who he was. And these outside characters—all these doppelgangers—act in a unifying force to move Frank toward the ultimate black-and-white decision: will he choose life, or will he choose death?
The first doppelganger is David Lieberman. David is, like Frank, a “dead man.” Living underground and believed to have been killed by a dirty Homeland Security officer for trying to reveal the truth of Operation Cerberus—the operation and conspiracy Frank was unwittingly a part of while on deployment—David finds Frank and recruits his help so that David himself can somehow, someday return to his family. David’s family believes he is dead, and he and Frank have little choice but to band together. David becomes the main reason why Frank survives at all, as the season progresses, and the main source of life in Frank’s “hole.” They need each other, and balance each other, in ways neither of them could have possibly anticipated.
David and Frank are also both husbands and fathers who have lost their wives and children. Although David’s family is still alive, his living family becomes a doppelganger of Frank’s dead family—David even has one son and one daughter of the same ages as Frank’s dead children, and a house and life almost indistinguishable from the one Frank lost. Frank becomes involved with David’s family, and it’s only when Frank starts to take on the role of surrogate father and husband that he begins to swing toward life again. David’s family, and the inclusion of Frank in that family, is a powerful outside influence bringing him slowly back up to life. Frank begins to see himself in a different light, to remember that he once was a father and a husband. To see that others once again value him in that respect not only gives him something to protect, but it also encourages him to choose life over death.It seems odd that a skull should be a reminder of these things. But we all die, someday. The reminder is that, in light of our mortality, live now, and live well. Choose life.
Another doppelganger is a young soldier in Curtis’s support group named Lewis. Lewis suffers from terrible PTSD, and although he seeks outside help, Lewis’s inner hurt and anger shouts louder than Curtis’s helping words. Lewis strikes a tragic figure in the story of what can happen when boys are turned into warriors and then left to fight battles against themselves when they return home. Lewis struggles against a sense of abandonment and betrayal that is not grounded in reality, but he likens himself to Frank, and Frank in some ways sees himself in Lewis. Lewis spirals, digging and living in an actual hole in his backyard, refusing to allow Curtis to help him out of it. Lewis, wanting to be like “The Punisher” turns to acts of murder and domestic terrorism and feels the most betrayed when Frank himself disowns him and his actions.
Lewis also is a revenant, and his actions cause Frank to question himself. Is he little more than a domestic terrorist and a murderer? What, really, is the difference between them? Frank identifies Lewis’s longing for death and, when Frank corners him, he says to Lewis, “Maybe we are the same.” He encourages Lewis to take his own life—to give in to the destructive longings of his inner war, to give in to the release Frank himself longs for. It’s tragic and terrible and heartbreaking, for there is no justice in watching a young person take his own life, even after having committed horrible acts of terrorism. But the despair of Lewis’s inner life overtakes him, having utterly rejected all offers from the outside to help him change. Chanting an old soldier’s mantra, “Go, go, go like a soldier,” he kills himself while Frank whispers to him, “That’s it, kid. You can do it.”
Lewis is a destructive doppelganger for Frank. What Frank lives in his inner life, Lewis allowed to seep into his outer life. Lewis had grown used to the stench of death long before he actually died. Living in the house of a man he murdered, with the rotting corpse in the same room he based his terrorist operations from, Lewis was in some sense more of a revenant than Frank. But his example holds up a mirror for Frank: will Frank follow in his footsteps? Will he choose the same end?
The wildcard doppelganger for Frank is his best friend from the Marines, Billy. Billy is his “brother.” Frank says he has two families: his actual family, and his Marine family, and nobody is closer to him than Billy. Virtual twins in their abilities, they share everything, including involvement in Operation Cerberus. So when Frank discovers that Billy is part of the conspiracy that killed his family, and that Billy is one of those trying to kill him now, it is the ultimate betrayal. The hole doesn’t get any deeper for Frank Castle than this, and Frank is absolutely convinced he must kill Billy to bring not only justice, but also an end to his own suffering.
But David tells him, “You have nothing but a war inside you!” Pinning him down—convicting him that instead of finishing his bloody crusade, he should come out of the darkness and into the light. He should share the truth with the only government official they can trust, an agent named Madani, and help Billy and the rest be brought to justice, rather than seeking death.
Frank has to make a powerful choice to choose life over death, not only for his enemy, but for himself.
And this is Frank’s crucible. All these doppelgangers—all these outside forces acting on Frank—they come down to this decision for him. Life and death are black and white, but the steps that lead us to choose one or the other are often steeped in shades of grey. Our inner selves are often more ruled by our hearts than our heads, and our hearts are deceptively wicked (Jeremiah 17:9); a show like The Punisher reminds us of this. We don’t live in a story, obviously. We don’t have clever writers inserting doppelgangers into our narratives to influence us toward life or death when we are trapped in feelings of despair. But we all have people who pass through our lives who care for us, and, as the expression goes, “No man is an island.” When we are in the hole of despair, especially if it is rooted in spiritual darkness, we are most tempted to believe we are alone—but that is a lie. In isolation, there is a pull toward death. But the reality of our stories—our real-life lives—is that we are never alone. You are not alone, because God came down as a man to be with you, and he never leaves you nor forsakes you.
At the end of the story, Frank takes up his signature skull mantel once again to reap his final vengeance on his enemies, and David—in a last-ditch effort to save his life—tells him, “That’s your death, not theirs. You do this, you’re as good as dead already.” David wants to instill into Frank a sense of the worth of his life—something which Frank has been struggling to find since the beginning of the story. “That skull is a momento mori,” David goes on to tell him. Momento mori is Latin for “remember that you will die;” it’s also the title of the final episode in the series. A concept originally taken from Ecclesiastes, momento mori became popularized during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as reminders of human mortality and admonition to live life well and in light of the next life. Momento mori are, in this respect, not just about death, but about life. David does not want his friend to die. He pleads with Frank to remember the living, to cling to life, to not give in utterly to death.
Remember the living, cling to life, do not give in to death. It seems odd that a skull should be a reminder of these things. But we all die, someday. The reminder is that, in light of our mortality, live now, and live well. Choose life.
But Frank has been living in the hole for so long, it seems nearly impossible for him to reorient his priorities and choose life instead of death. As Frank faces his enemies—his momento mori painted on his chest—and they beat him into unconsciousness, his dead wife asks him in his dreams: “Where is home, Frank? Is it here, or is it there?” Tortured for so long, it would be easy to take his wife’s hand and slip away into death. He says to her, “[Home] is with you.”
It would be easy for Frank to die, and it’s what he’s longed for most of the story. His enemy, taunting and torturing him, says, “You’re a dead man, your heart just doesn’t know it yet.” But at the end of all hope, Frank decides he’s not a dead man after all—he rejects death. Frank withdraws his hand from his wife’s, rejecting her offer to die and stay with her, and says, “I am home.” He decides to fight to live. David won’t let him die, either, showing up to save him, despite Frank’s orders to stay away.
Thanks primarily to David Lieberman, who descended into the hole with him, Frank Castle has learned the life-giving power of allowing others in. He is a revenant no more. The very last line of the show is spoken by Frank. Out of the shadows, he sits in Curtis’s support group circle and says, “First time, long as I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight. And I gotta admit—I’m scared.” Frank may be, on the surface, talking about his war against the people who killed his family and the corrupt government and army officials he felt he had to take down, but if you read between the lines, you understand that’s not really what he’s talking about at all. Frank is talking about his internal war. He had nothing but a war inside him, and now that war is over. It’s time for him to learn how to heal. How to live.
Letting go of our autonomy is scary. Allowing others to help us change is scary, especially when it requires letting those on the outside in. If your struggle is a spiritual one, surrendering to God—the ultimate, all-powerful outside force—is scary. We all swing between life and death, at some point, in this decision. Choose life and reject spiritual death. Change from the inside out can only begin once we invite change from the outside in.
We all, like Frank, have nothing but a war inside us, and none of us has the ability to fundamentally change ourselves on our own. The hole is not our home—don’t believe the lie that it is. You don’t belong there. Your life and your soul is worth far more than that. Christ Jesus came to earth in the body of a man. He can empathize with us in our weakness and our pain and our suffering and even in our death. There is a reason he came and died, as a human being. And a reason he rose again. You cannot change from the inside out without first accepting Christ’s help from the outside in. You cannot get out of the hole by yourself. He sees you there, he jumps down beside you. “Hey, buddy, calm down. I’ve been here before. I know how to get out.”
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