With the second season of everyone’s favorite blind masochist about to air, it’s time I finished this post:
I’ve watched Marvel’s Netflix series JESSICA JONES all the way through three times. Twice on my own and once with my wife. I’ll say this: It’s very good. Flawed, but very very good.
For kindness sake, I’ll do a brief recap on the assumption that there’s one or two people reading this who haven’t heard of the show: it’s a 13 episode Netflix Original series that’s loosely adapted from the comic book ALIAS, which launched in 2001 as part of Marvel’s MAX line. Basically, it’s an R-rated comic, where characters can say Fuck and occasionally do fuck. Nothing ground breaking about that, except that this comic also featured Captain America and a bunch of other characters from the main branch of Marvel publishing, where the Comics Code mentality still had a lingering influence.
The lead character was created at the last minute for the comic; originally, it was supposed to be Jessica Drew, aka Spiderwoman, but Marvel’s editors decided to use her for something else, so Brian Michael Bendis created Jessica Jones to replace her. Jones’s story in the comics: After a traffic accident with a truck full of chemicals (like Daredevil) she gained superstrength, limited invulnerability, and the ability to fly (awkwardly), so she did what she thought she was supposed to do. She put on a costume and fought crime, taking the name “Jewel”.
Then it went all wrong. She fell under the sway of mind-controlling villain The Purple Man for months. When she finally broke free, her life was ruined. What’s more, she realized that she had vanished for months but no one had noticed. She threw away the costume and, with her anger and pain and PTSD, became a hard-drinking private investigator.
It’s a great idea: a super-powered private eye in the Marvel comics, which is a world where superpowers have been around for generations and there are a whole lot of people with dearly held secrets.
For the TV show, Jessica is pretty much the same but the setting is not. Jessica still has powers (superstrength and superjumping, with a smidge of toughness thrown in) and she’s still self-medicating for her PTSD from her clash with a mind-controlling villain, but she inhabits a world where superpowers are a rare thing, largely hidden and mysterious to the public at large.
So the show has some superhuman abilities, but there are no costumes, no masks, no secret identities, and no thwarted bank robberies. Instead, it has great characters. Yeah, the pacing falters late in the season, but those characters carry it through.
Spoilers after the cut
ADMIRABLE AND ALSO AWESOME
I was surprised to hear that some people didn’t like the show because Jessica wasn’t a “hero” in a traditional sense. Hearing people say “I preferred DAREDEVIL” was particularly baffling. I enjoyed season one of DAREDEVIL a lot, and I’m planning to stay up for season two, but can we please remember that Murdock tortures people, throws them off roofs, and says—without any contradiction later in the show—that he enjoys hurting people?
Jones starts off the show with zero interest in being a hero. She is struggling to get by, and deep into the cynicism that comes from working a seedy job focussed on peoples’ worst behavior. It’s only when the man who ruined her life—the one whose superpowers trumps hers—turns out not to be as dead as she’d believed that she puts aside her fear and trauma in order to protect others.
No, that’s not putting on a mask and beating up bank robbers. God forbid, because that bullshit was boring in the comics, too. And as much as Jessica goes against the boy scout superhero archetype, the show continually demonstrates that, alongside her self-destructiveness, cynicism, and abrasiveness, she has an instinct to do good.
Hogarth: You’re acting paranoid.
Jones: People keep saying that. It’s like a conspiracy.
I want to come straight out and say that Krysten Ritter really makes this show work. There’s so much weight on her–along with some clunky dialog mixed in with the good–and she manages just the right balance of dourness, sarcasm, defiance, and self-loathing.
There are lots of great performances here, but Ritter’s stands out.
ABUSE AND ABUSERS
Much of JESSICA JONES is about abusive relationships of one kind or another, and they’re not all romantic relationships, nor are the abusers all men. Kilgrave (played by David Tennant and thankfully not purple-skinned like in the comics) is the mind-controlling Big Bad of the series and he’s exactly as awful as you’d expect—especially when played by someone with Tennant’s charisma) but Rebecca Du Mornay is fantastic in a smallish role as Trish’s abusive stage mother, and upstairs neighbor Robin swings wildly between awful/tragic/comic relief and back again. Then there’s Will, one of Kilgrave’s victims who is desperate to regain control of his life, even if that means hurting the people who are supposed to be on his side.
Much of the plot follows the abusers themselves. If they were only about taking control, they’d be pretty dull. They want to be loved, too. They’re looking for connection with their victims, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes a second chance, sometimes a fresh start, and yeah, it’s gross.
While the Jessica/Kilgrave storyline is completely fucking amazing, the other abuser storylines don’t work so well. Trish and her mother, hinted at during the early episodes of the season, takes over too much of the storyline as it stretches to fill 13 episodes. Will, who is a frightening, then likable, then frightening character again, plays the role of untrustworthy ally, then becomes a mini-boss for Jessica to overcome.
And finally, there’s Robin, the only character in the show that didn’t work. The transitions from abuser to pathetic figure to comic foil to infuriating plot complication soured the tone. The performance was too broad, almost mugging for the camera, and the directors should have asked for something else.
The interesting thing is that the abusers want what the same thing the other characters want: connection. It’s just that they want it on their own terms, without having to give up anything of their own.
Of course, Jessica herself plays the role of abuser at her lowest point in the story. When her self-loathing is at its strongest and she’s more drunk than she’s ever been, she finally goes out and does what Hogarth hired her to do: use threats of violence against Wendy, Hogarth’s wife, to force her to sign some divorce papers. It doesn’t work out, in part because Jessica screws up and nearly turns her threat into actual lethal violence; the only reason Wendy isn’t killed is that Jessica has to save her.
Those (aside from Jessica) are the main four, but there are other, smaller examples of characters who offer abuse: Hogarth really, really shouldn’t have hired Jessica to threaten her wife, plus the obnoxious dude in the suit at the bar, plus the fabricating neighbor, plus plus plus.
In the comics, Jessica’s closest friend is superhero Carol Danvers. Unfortunately, Danvers is going to be the star of the forthcoming CAPTAIN MARVEL movie, due sometime in 2019 after having been postponed several times.
So, the TV show couldn’t use that character (and probably didn’t have the budget to portray her flight/energy blasting powers) so she was replaced by Patricia Walker, called Patsy in the comics and Trish on the show.
Walker actually pre-dates Marvel comics itself: she was the star of an Archie-like romance comic in the forties, and had a long history until her company was acquired by Marvel. Eventually, she was recycled into the hero Hellcat, who was basically a highly trained martial artist.
Her romance comic past has been changed to a starring role in a teenage TV show in the style of CLARISSA EXPLAINS IT ALL. As an adult, Trish hosts a popular radio show, and is Jessica’s only friend, although they’re estranged at the start of the show.
But they kept hinting that she might become Hellcat. She trains hard with a self-defense expert. She’s excited by the superhero costume she has whipped up for Jessica (the only appearance of the Jewel outfit in the show, since TV-Jessica refuses to consider it). She wants to be the hero that Jessica refuses to be.
Too bad for her that it never works out that way. She puts up a good fight when Kilgrave sends Will to murder her, but despite her training it’s Jessica who saves her life at the last moment. When Kilgrave’s bodyguards rescue him, they take her out easily. Even when she steals Will’s fighting drugs to take him on at the climax of his plot thread, she’s facing an opponent who doesn’t want to hurt her and she still can not defeat.
But for all Trish’s inability to exert herself through violence, she’s still the moral center of the show. She’s the one who urges Jessica to do what’s right, who keeps their plot against Kilgrave moving forward, who stands by her friend no matter how dangerous things get.
Jeri Hogarth is a type of character that I really like: a terrible person working on the side of the good guys.
Carrie Ann Moss plays the role beautifully, bringing an understated chill to the role. Hogarth is a character who will do whatever she has to do to get what she wants. If that means hiring an alcoholic with superstrength to bully her wife into signing divorce papers, or other, more mundane ethical violations, she’s there.
And when she finds out about Kilgrave’s powers, not only does she idly wish she could hire him for her team, she arranges for aborted fetus of one of his rape victims sent to a lab. It’s never stated directly, but it seems pretty clear she was hoping to find a way to get Kilgrave’s power for herself.
Anyway, a fantastic, understated performance. Every time that Jessica’s PTSD lead to an unplanned display of superstrength, Hogarth’s carefully controlled expression showed her refusal to show fear. Moss deserves an Emmy nomination for the part, at the minimum. (And while we’re at it, so do the hair and costuming people)
There’s a lot that could be said about the character himself and Tennant’s performance, but most of it has already been said. This isn’t the first villain he’s portrayed, but the show gives him a chance to really run with it. And there’s something about his physical presence that really works; he looks so scrawny, especially in those skinny suits. Every time he was on screen, I was thinking that he looked like he could be overpowered so easily, if only someone could get close enough. So frustrating!
One of the big differences between this show and season one of DAREDEVIL is that Fisk was almost a co-protagonist. It was an odd, off-putting structure for a crime show, because Fisk’s plots often portrayed him as an underdog beset by powerful enemies, and he turns the tables on them at the last moment. That’s a plot structure that is usually reserved for the hero—the guy we’re rooting for—and at no point was I ever rooting for Fisk.
In contrast, when Kilgrave’s backstory comes, it’s not structured like a clever man’s triumph. It’s a story of pain, and of feeling used, and using people in return. I’ve seen more than one person say the show turned them off because Kilgrave was made too sympathetic. Personally, I didn’t find him that at all; I thought his history deepened the overall narrative.
The end of a story tells you what the story is about.
After 12 episodes of sneaking around, gunfire, kidnapping plots, betrayals, snark, and horror, huge portions of the final episode are devoted to taking care of Luke Cage, injured after Kilgrave forced him to attack Jessica.
After Jessica and Kilgrave, Luke is the third super-powered character on the show. He’s incredibly strong (although not as strong as Jessica) and has unbreakable skin, and he spends most of the show keeping people at a distance by being cool and reserved.
He’s also the love interest. Jessica, the woman with the broken front door to her home office that won’t lock (because: exposed) is paired with the guy whose flesh and personality is impenetrable. And of course she gets under his skin, and it all goes wrong.
In the final episode, while one part of the plot focusses on Jessica’s pursuit of Kilgrave, the other addresses questions of loneliness, connection, and the difficulty people like Luke and Jessica have in connecting with others.
It’s a weirdly low-key string of scenes, almost meditative, especially when compared to the combative final confrontation with Kilgrave, but it mostly works.
STRUCTURE AND PACING ISSUES
It’s odd, but the comic was more like a TV show than the Netflix show was. The original comic was more episodic, with Jessica taking several different cases over the course of 29 issues. In the show, she has the case that opens the pilot, then her parents ask her to find Hope, there’s a brief scene where she serves a rich jerk for Hogarth, and she’s hired to get the pictures of a supposedly cheating husband.
That’s vanishingly little actual casework for a detective show, but the plot is much more interested in Jessica’s clashes with Kilgrave.
As such, the story feels drawn out over 13 episodes, when ten or eleven might have been a better fit. Kilgrave is captured and escapes one too many times, the plot spends too long with him as his enhances his powers, and the story spins out in several directions with Trish’s mother, Robin’s grief, Hogarth’s divorce, and so on. For all its predictability, DAREDEVIL’s mini-boss structure gave the show a steady escalation to its climax. With JESSICA JONES, they had to throw in an unmotivated traffic accident to weaken Jessica enough that Will, with all his combat-enhancing drugs, could be a credible threat.
In that sense, it’s more like a mini-series than a traditional show with self-contained stories in each episode. Multi-episode story lines are a death sentence for shows that air once per week, leading to a ratings drop in shows as diverse as FARSCAPE and PERSON OF INTEREST, but for a Netflix binge watch it works pretty well.
But whatever its flaws, this is a great show full of fantastic characters. It has me excited for season two, whenever it comes, and for LUKE CAGE this fall, and the second season of DAREDEVIL tonight. I have a couple pots of coffee ready to brew so I can binge the show all the way through.