When Josh Stewart’s casting in The Punisher season 2 was first announced, Netflix and Marvel declared that the Criminal Minds alum would be playing John Pilgrim, a man who “left behind a life of violence” but is ultimately forced “to use his old skills.” This sets him on a path that leads to Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), but when it comes to the nature of their confrontation, the press release had little to say.
Stewart and company were just as mum during a set visit in June, when journalists were given the chance to watch him film a decidedly nonviolent scene. Wearing a white dress shirt, a black vest and black slacks, Pilgrim shares an intimate moment with a character named Rebecca. He proposes to her, but not before confessing to the many sins that he has committed in a past life and under another name. The sin that sticks out the most is his propensity for violence. He even says that he has hurt people “simply because they were different.”
The idea that an antagonistic character in a show about a murderous vigilante would hail from an equally violent, albeit religious background is sure to ruffle some feathers when The Punisher season 2 drops sometime in January 2019. Even so, as Stewart explains, his character is not meant to vilify Christianity specifically. More than anything, he says, Pilgrim is a fundamentalist whose faith can, at any moment, devolve into an unhealthy form of extremism.
“He’s a Christian fundamentalist with a rage, a violent side that’s buried deep within him,” says Stewart. “You can look at the stereotypes of what Christian fundamentalism is and see that there are probably some elements of that in John. What’s true is true to him. What’s right is right. What God says is what God says. He’s very by the book. As for his past, I think that this was probably the only way that he could come out of that. There’s a sort of fine balance to him. It’s not something that he could half-ass. It’s almost like an addiction. It’s all or nothing with him.”
Aside from Matt Murdock’s guilty Catholicism in Daredevil, Pilgrim’s belief system is one of the more blatant depictions of religiosity in Netflix’s Marvel shows. Aside from occasional references and throwaway lines, a belief in a higher power doesn’t even seem to be a concern for Castle. But it is for Pilgrim, and while it may be one of the most significant differences between him and the titular anti-hero, they share a knack for killing that is bound to pit them against each other.
“He’s a very honorable, loyal and trustworthy guy. You would absolutely want him on your side,” says showrunner Steve Lightfoot. “The problem is, the people that he has chosen to believe in aren’t necessarily the best people to put one’s faith in. So in that way, he’s a mirror for who Frank is, or at least who Frank was in season one. John put his loyalties in the wrong place, but since he’s already put his loyalties there, he’s going to do everything he can to make sure he wins. And Frank, unfortunately, is on the other side of that.”
He adds that the best villains are those who don’t necessarily “wake up every day thinking they’re the villain.” Instead, they’re characters who believe in what they’re doing. They might even think they’re the hero of their own story. In this way, Lightfoot notes, Castle may very well be the villain of someone else’s story (and he was exactly that for the first half of Daredevil season 2).
Stewart, meanwhile, thinks of Pilgrim and Castle’s similarities less in terms of their violent tendencies or potentiality for villainy, and more in terms of the “constant battle” they fight within themselves. That is to say, their struggle to straddle the morally gray area of their chosen professions.
“Living in the gray is the more interesting place to play, especially for an actor or a storyteller,” he says. “If you’re just the good guy, then you’re gonna do what you’re gonna do. Superman’s gotta do a certain thing. But if it’s this gray area, like the one that John and Frank find themselves in, then there’s more to talk about. There are more ways that it might go.”
Moral ambiguity notwithstanding, these two men also share a belief in rules. Not the rule of law, of course, as Pilgrim and Castle both ignore the laws of human society in favor of altogether different codes of conduct. For the latter, this revolves around his own personal sense of righteousness and vengeance. For the former, it all comes down to the word of the Christian God.
“He’s a God-fearing person when he comes into this world,” says Stewart. “People have been sent to fight for God in our history and I don’t think John sees himself too far from that ideal. He’s a vessel for God and is willing to be whatever he needs to be to accomplish that. Whatever’s needed is what he’s gonna do.”
The Punisher season 2 is now on Netflix.