SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Season 2. If you have not yet finished watching the episodes, read on at your own risk!
Over the course of two seasons of , Ben Barnes took Billy Russo on a pretty crazy and substantial arc. After being best friends with Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle during their time in the Marines, Billy winds up being responsible for the death of Frank’s family, and revenge arrives in the form of a savage beat down, resulting in a fractured memory and serious scars. Trying to put the pieces back together (like a jigsaw puzzle) he spends most of Season 2 working on his own version of a selfish and brutal redemption — and this was something that Barnes wanted to emphasize in his performance, all the way to his final words.
To that end, in fact, the actor actually took it upon himself to change Billy Russo’s last lines in the finale himself, right up until the character gets cut off by a fatal bullet from Frank Castle’s gun. I learned this while recently sitting down with Ben Barnes and his co-star Amber Rose Revah, the subject coming up during a discussion of Billy’s subjective view of himself as a protagonist and his final moments. Barnes explained,
I worked really hard on that last line, and I was really unhappy with what was originally there. Bless our showrunner’s heart, he let me rewrite that last couple of lines because it was really important to me to have it be what I needed it to be. And I had actually, weirdly, the reference in my head was , the whisper. Just because I love ambiguity at the end of something, in terms of a forgiveness and of an intimate relationship. I think even though Billy and Frank don’t have much screen time together, theirs is a very intimate relationship. They have history.
Billy’s final words are significant in part because you can barely make out an “I’m sorry” before Frank ends his life with a final gun shot. Given everything that happens leading up to that moment, it has an impact on the way that you ultimately see the character, because you the audience has to make a decision whether or not that apology should be taken as truth.
In Ben Barnes’ opinion, it should, and a lot of the reasoning is tied up in the serious brain damage Billy Russo sustained during his bloody confrontation with Frank Castle at the end of Season 1. While Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani refuses to believe in his amnesia, Billy legitimately doesn’t remember a lot of the horrible things he’s done, and the subjective perspective offers the possibility that it’s a reset button. Of course, as the actor noted, he still has some terrible instincts that he must try and calm if he wants to be a “hero,” and a not-so-great motivator in the form of Floriana Lima’s Dr. Krista Dumont. Said Barnes,
What I was interested in was this sort of protagonist element to Billy in the season. Which was, ‘Does he inevitably slip back into these narcissistic ego ways of wanting only power and only good things for himself, or is there potential for redemption?’ And I think he’s basically realized that Krista’s pushed him in this Lady Macbeth kind of way to haunt Frank again. And then when he’s got to it, once the rage dies down, he knows there’s something more there. He’s not sure, but he knows the truth when Frank walks in that room that he must’ve done something.
Continuing, Barnes acknowledged that before that point in the show other characters have told Billy what he has done and why Frank wants to kill him, but in those moments he has been in pure denial. That all changes in the final scene when The Punisher walks into the basement where Billy is bleeding, as the villain known as Jigsaw has a moment of clarity:
He’s been told what it is at this point and he doesn’t believe it. And I think once he really does believe it, I think it’s interesting if [Billy] thinks, ‘I don’t deserve to live.’
So what was the original line going to be? I followed up with that question, and while Ben Barnes didn’t fully elaborate, the impression that I walked away with was that the character’s final moments were going to be much more brief, and not give Billy a real chance to express himself. The actor said,
The original last line said less. I wanted it to be closer to hinting that there may be redemption there, because I think for a villain, that’s really interesting. But I think we managed to get it just down the middle.
Looking at the scene from another perspective, obviously it’s a big moment for Frank Castle, as he finally gets real revenge, but Ben Barnes also made a point of noting the important role that Dinah Madani played in his death. Like Frank, Dinah has her own vendetta against Billy — given that he manipulated her and then shot her in the head — and she is basically the one to kill Jigsaw before Frank delivers the final blow.
The scene where Dinah and Billy battle for the final time was another sequence that came together through a lot of deliberation and script changes, with the actors and filmmakers going as far as to actively try to fool the audience. Originally the throw-down was going to conclude with the two choking each other out at the same time, but Ben Barnes explained that changes were made so that there could be a little bit of a double reverse in the finale:
In the script, it said, ‘They pass out at the same time.’ But [Amber and I] talked about it together, and I was like, ‘I felt really strongly that you need to feel like Billy’s won again, but he hasn’t.’ And what’s really happened is, you think you’ve watched me kill her, but what you’ve really watched was her kill me… Frank puts a bullet in me and executes me, which is an amazing blend of completely merciless behavior, which is exactly what The Punisher should do… She’s got her vengeance, but then Frank is given the opportunity to have his as well.
Whether or not there is a Season 3, we obviously won’t be seeing Billy Russo again — but he definitely went out with a bang. Of course, fans will still always be able to rewatch his story play out opposite Frank Castle as the episodes continue to live on Netflix.