“Ya ever see that Western, when the guy comes to town — turns out he’s, like, the devil or death or something?”
The above quote by a small-town police officer in season 2 of The Punisher sets the tone for the season early on. The officer says this after witnessing Frank Castle in action, as the latter incapacitates a small army of hitmen in a fog-shrouded forest. These men work for John Pilgrim, a former neo-Nazi who found solace in Christianity but was forced to return to his roots in order to save his dying wife. The gray morality that swallows up Castle and Pilgrim sets up one of the most important dichotomies in what’s likely to be The Punisher’s final season: the devil and God.
In the late 16th century, Elizabethan poet Christopher Marlowe — arguably the most important playwright in English drama prior to Shakespeare — wrote The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, often shortened to just Doctor Faustus. The main character is the eponymous Faustus, who is based on the Faust established in the legendary Faust tales of Germany. Like its source material, Marlowe’s tragedy is a morality play, concerned with the implications of straying from God and turning to the devil. The Punisher often deals with similar themes, but does so without the didacticism. Instead, it opts to focus on the untraversable areas of moral ambiguity that other texts are often afraid to meddle with.
The Punisher isn’t the devil or death that Dobbs spoke of, though; he’s that intangible something that’s intrinsically linked to the two. That’s where Marlowe’s play comes in, because Doctor Faustus largely focuses on Mephistopheles.
Mephistopheles is an apocryphal member of the infernal hierarchy. While Satan and other devils originated in religious scripture, Mephistopheles made his entrance in the fanciful theater of literature, first appearing in the Faust tales from which Doctor Faustus is based. While inherently devilish, he is also a sort of tragic hero, confined within his own inescapable hell. Early depictions of Mephistopheles reveal a cynical side to the demon, but Marlowe’s Mephistopheles is quite literally an angel among devils.
Despite being a devil, Mephistopheles isn’t inherently evil; he merely tries to save those who are hellbound from themselves before it’s too late, and escorts them to the fiery depths of it once they inevitably fail to heed his warnings. Neither does he reside in Hell. Instead, he brings it with him wherever he goes, pulling the damned in with him. He may be an agent for the devil incarnate, but he never consciously seeks to corrupt the hearts of men — only taking those who are already corrupted. As Willard Farnham puts it, “He appears because he senses in Faustus’ magical summons that Faustus is already corrupt, that indeed he is already ‘in danger to be damned.’” And that’s exactly what Frank Castle does to those he sees as irrevocably damned. He appears not because they are powerful or impressive, but because he can see that they are too far gone.
Farnham expands on his theory, writing that “[Faustus] enters an ever-present private hell like that of Mephistopheles” once he commits to the damnation he was given a chance to avoid. It is because Mephistopheles knows the tragedy of his own hell that he tries to encourage others to eschew that fate for a better path. Conversely, it’s also his duty to make sure they end up in that same hell if they don’t heed his advice. The only reason that the Punisher is capable of dragging the damned into Hell is because he’s already there, a devil walking among the living.
In season 2 of The Punisher, Frank’s ex-best friend Billy Russo says to his band of lowlife criminals, “Enough of us fighting for each other; we could be gods.” This blind ambition is what clouded the judgment of the erudite Doctor Faustus, whose tale is often likened to Icarus. After flying too close to the sun, Icarus’ wax wings melted, and he plummeted to the ground, dying after soaring higher than he was capable of. If Frank is to be Mephistopheles, then Russo is one of many Faustian characters that the Punisher puts down in the name of justice that can be likened to Faustus.
After leaving the military, Russo betrayed his friends in order to accumulate wealth, power, and status. While he achieved all of these things, he never did anything meaningful. Despite his self-importance, his empire was made of sand, and it swiftly washed away into nothingness as soon as the first wave hit. Faustus was similar; having been granted 24 years of magical powers, he decided to spend his time playing jokes and humiliating others. By the end of his run, his life had descended into sheer meaninglessness.
The exact same thing happened when Russo’s reckoning came at the hands of the Punisher. In Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote, “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Russo, caught between where he started and where he desired to end up, drowned in the middle, forced to perpetually exist between the two shores. He fell beneath the surface of an opaque lake, his legacy as decadent as Ozymandias, King of Kings, whose statue crumbled to dust in the middle of a lifeless desert.
The thing about Frank Castle is that he’s far more complex than some devil-inspired vigilante who conflates his own moral ideals with his personal interpretation of the law. On many occasions throughout the show, Frank’s lighter side can be seen, standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. So while he is symbolic of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles in many ways, his story is more in line with another tale of devils than Doctor Faustus: John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which tells the story of original sin with an aesthetic rewriting of Satan.
The Romantic poet William Blake once wrote of Paradise Lost, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Milton’s aesthetic is innately tied to writing of evil that is imbued with an untameable energy, whereas didactic tales of goody-two-shoes protagonists are often dull and lifeless.
Netflix’s The Punisher weaves the two together seamlessly, charging Frank with all the energy of a devil, but allowing him to adhere to his own moral code. The result is a devil that’s ruthless and unlawful, but ultimately respected by authority figures on the right side of the law such as Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani and NYPD Detective Sergeant Brett Mahoney. One particular scene shows Frank fighting side by side with an Ohio sheriff; the devil and the sheriff fight together on the right side of the law, and the cohesion between the two culminates in success. Frank is not evil — he’s just in touch with the side of the world that is.
This is what ultimately allows him to be the Punisher in the first place. In Doctor Faustus, Mephistopheles tells Faustus that he was summoned due to his blasphemy, not his power. Mephistopheles came not because he was impressed, but because he sensed Faustus’ descent into damnation. In the same way, Frank is not impressed by criminal acts of power; he just recognizes what they mean, and it’s his job to act on that.
This is why people can empathize, or at least sympathize, with Frank. He doesn’t arbitrarily choose people to kill; he punishes those who oppress others, seeking to protect innocent people from the fate his family suffered at the hands of evil. In doing so, he locks himself in his own private hell, a living martyr.
In Doctor Faustus, when Mephistopheles is asked why he left Hell, he replies:
Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
In resigning himself to hell, Frank forgoes all chances of going to heaven. But he does so anyway. He’ll take those that are hellbound with him, so that those meant for heaven can live out their days with their loved ones — until the time comes for them to ascend peacefully, which is a luxury that was stolen from his family.
Cian Maher is a freelance writer who sometimes spends more time replaying games than playing new ones, which is obviously problematic, but also very fun. If he could talk about Pokémon and Overwatch forever, he probably would.