Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for The Punisher.
It’s no secret that the character Billy Russo becomes the villain Jigsaw. It’s right there in the comics. But when you start watching Marvel’s The Punisher, it might be difficult to see how Ben Barnes’ war vet, and best friend of Frank Castle, can become this comic-book bad guy. Indeed, some fans were unsure that this new version of Russo would even become his comic-book alter ego.
As Season 1 wears on, however, Billy Russo is gradually transformed into Frank Castle’s arch-enemy. Paradoxically, it’s the unwavering affection Russo has for Frank that makes his transition to villain, and ultimately Jigsaw, so convincing.
Jon Bernthal, who plays Frank Castle in the show, tells FANDOM: “I think [Ben Barnes as Russo] does a beautiful job, and something that I thought was really present in everything he did is this love that he had for Frank. Even as they become complete antagonists and they go up against each other, the love is always there. I think that’s really honest.”
Honest equals real. Which in turn equals believable. These are three-dimensional, complicated characters. Honesty, authenticity and credibility are the benchmarks of this series and that can sometimes make it a tough watch.
The Man in the Mirror
Marvel’s The Punisher takes the dark tone of the Defenders series and magnifies it tenfold. If there’s escapist fun to be had amid the gloomier, murkier aspects in Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist — and team-up show The Defenders – there’s a distinct lack of it in The Punisher. In dealing with themes like PTSD and terrorism, The Punisher feels grittily realistic. And its violence is brutal; the results of said violence, visceral.
From the start, Russo is set up as ally to a presumed-dead Frank Castle. When Russo finds out his old friend still alive, they meet, and he keeps up what is eventually revealed to be a charade. Sure enough, we find out that Russo is working against Frank with nefarious sociopathic CIA operative Rawlins and wants him dead. In the final episode, a fight with Frank goes badly wrong for Russo. It’s this that sparks his transition to Jigsaw, setting up a villain we’re eagerly looking forward to seeing next season.
While the comics saw handsome gangster Billy Russo receive the facial scars that earn him his Jigsaw nickname from a close encounter with a pane of glass, Frank carves up Billy’s face on a broken carousel mirror. We later learn that Russo’s brain may never fully recover from the savage beating he endures. Later, in the hospital, there’s doubt cast on what he’ll remember if he ever wakes up from his coma.
Bernthal says that, in switching the glass from the comics to a broken mirror in the series, another layer is added to their complex relationship, and to the conflict between them.
“He really cares what Frank thinks,” he says. “And I think that ability then to show him to himself at the end and to make him see what he’s done, and for us to really look at each other through it and to now bring him into my world and understand the shame… I think it was good for us.”
It’s difficult to know what this means for Season 2 of The Punisher, presuming we get one. But it’s safe to say that the dynamic between them won’t be easy to pigeonhole.
A Relevant and Honest Origin Story
Showrunner Steve Lightfoot says that the hard work wasn’t in setting up Jigsaw’s signature look – his scarred face – but in building the character.
“It’s his origin story, it’s our version of it,” says Lightfoot. “In some ways, it was all about creating a version of Billy Russo as a character that felt real and relevant and sort of honest. And I think Ben breathed such life into him. We always knew how it was going to end but in some ways, the turning him into Jigsaw is the easy part because all you need to do is mess his face up at the end. But the thing I’m most proud of is I think we’d created a fantastic character before that happened.”
As for that scene at the season climax when Castle “messes up” Russo’s face, it was a neat way of bringing things full circle.
“Rather than just being in a flashy place, it was born of wanting it to relate right back to everything that had started this journey,” says Lightfoot. “So there was always something about this story [that] was always going to end up back at this carousel [where Castle’s family was killed]. And the great thing about carousels is they have mirrors right around the inside. So once we’d worked out that this thing was all about ending where it began it was then about, well, there’s plenty of glass available to us.”
The Punisher is now available on Netflix.