Netflix’s second intervention into the Marvel cinematic universe debuted this Friday to much anticipation and critical praise, and having binged the whole first season in the last 24 hours, I have to say, neither the anticipation nor the critical praise were misplaced. While the series is not perfect, it definitely is one of Marvel’s strongest adaptations to date, and is a substantial step up from Daredevil, which was also no slouch.
Granted, comparisons are not always the most useful barometer of judgement, but the similarities between Daredevil and Jessica Jones make the impulse too strong to resist. Both utilize a distinctly noir style and aesthetic, and while it serves each series well, Jessica Jones keeps to the genre’s conventions with greater loyalty, and is substantially better for it. Our titular character, played by Krysten Ritter, is a P.I. vocationally, an alcoholic recreationally, and quite emotionally and mentally damaged, if physically pristine.
Super-strength, that’s her thing, the result of a seemingly random childhood car accident which left her orphaned but also mysteriously uber strong. However, fat lot of good it does her as an adult when she first happens upon her nemesis, the unsubtly named Kilgrave (David Tennant). His thing is mind-control, enacted through vocal commands, and Jessica quickly becomes his round-the-clock victim, as he lives out a sadistic version of Ozzy and Harriet with her.
However, this part of the story is told mainly through flash-backs and references. When our heroine first appears on screen, she believes Kilgrave to be dead, the result of a bus accident that we quickly learn was not as fatal as first believed. Jessica cottons on to this though a seemingly unconnected case first brought to her attention by a pair of referred clients. From it she begins to piece together the horrifying truth – her former abuser is still alive, and trying to get to her once again.
While most superhero narratives utilized metaphor to connect to real-world conflicts and dramas, Jessica Jones wisely dispenses with any degree of conceit. Hers is the story of a woman recovering from being a hostage victim of rape and an abusive relationship, only slightly hyperbolized by the narrative existence of superpowers. While this dynamic can make the series extremely difficult to watch, it is also one of its best features. It does not shy away from, or euphemize what happened to our protagonist, and her agonizing struggle to stay free of Kilgrave’s sinister clutches, and protect those around her from the same fate, is skin-pricklingly realistic.
This is probably a good point at which to mention both the writing of Kilgrave and David Tennant’s portrayal of him are utterly, masterfully spot-on. His backstory is one of strongest and subtlest narrative threads of the season, and they manage to make him very human and three-dimensional, without making his choices appear remotely sympathetic. He is unequivocally evil, but his evilness is also deeply human in its origins, motives and manifestations. Kilgrave is not the kind of antagonist born of cheap revenge plots, or a science experiment gone-wrong; his evil is derived from a particular kind of male-entitlement that percolates through our world with terrifying commonality.
To wit, there is running gag in the series where Kilgrave regularly orders Jessica and other women to smile for him, and it is clearly a direct citation to that utterly familiar female experience of being told by strange men on the street to “smile,” and the compliance that often is extracted via fear. Kilgrave leverages Jessica’s fear and forces her to send him pictures of her smiling every day at 10 am, his routinized banal form of remote torture.
Her expressions in these photos perfectly captures the half-hearted grimace women train themselves to provide entitled men like Kilgrave to avoid the possibility of a worse fate than having to pretend to be pleased someone is harassing you. Her dilemma in these moments is one every woman recognizes deep in her gut.
Indeed, this is what truly makes Jessica Jones the stand-out sibling compared to its predecessor. While Matt Murdock’s tale is one that is familiar for your run-of-the-mill superhero, his story frankly has very little to say about what it means to be a man, or a human being. Despite her super-strength, Jessica Jones’s experiences are almost too human, too real, managing to communicate with uncanny accuracy a certain kind of primal, visceral experience of harassment and abuse that is familiar to more people than I could count, or would ever want to.
I would venture this is why the show takes such great pains to downplay, and underemphasize her super-human characteristics. While she has fight scenes aplenty, her powers never get trotted out to be gratuitously ogled and awed at by the audience. The show is notably devoid of highly stylized, FX laden displays of her abilities set to dramatic music, and often we are more encouraged to marvel at her skills as a P.I. and her capacity to keep herself emotionally in-check (most of the time), despite her constant state of intense duress. In other words, it is her humanness the show wants us to invest in and root for, not the incidental, if extraordinary, capacities of her body. She’s a person, not a spectacle, a fact the series is adamant about maintaining.
She is also a deeply flawed hero, for sure, but equally sympathetic, and heavily nuanced. She lashes out at the noisy upstairs neighbors for their fairly benign, if annoying, domestic squabbles, yet she also forgives a massive betrayal by another neighbor, and eventually aids him in overcoming the drug addiction that made him exploitable in the first place. She becomes sexually and romantically involved with local bar owner and fellow superhuman Luke Cage (Mike Colter) on somewhat false pretenses, all the while knowing it to be ill-advised, and destined to end badly. Their ill-fated love story is another highlight of season one: sexy, tragic, conflicted, vulnerable and pain-ridden often due to circumstances beyond their control. Cage only appears in about half the episode of the series, but his sparse presence made me incredibly anxious for more, a very solid lead-in to his own Netflix series, coming next year.
While Jessica’s relationships to Cage and Kilgrave are important, she is certainly not lacking for substantial relationships with women. Although I did not keep a formal tally, I’d venture that every episode passes the Bechdel test with ease. Jessica starts the series off a devout loner but soon reignites her sororal (opposite of fraternal) relationship with her foster-sister Trish (Rachael Taylor), a former child star turned serious radio host. Trish (stage name Patsy) is a former victim of parental abuse by her estranged mother/ex-manager, a woman we eventually learn was Jessica’s very first arch-nemesis. Protecting Trish was Jessica’s first gig as a superhero and their sisterly bond is core to the series. While she’s not quite as nuanced in writing as Jessica herself, she certainly is not a one-dimensional cliché, nor is she just Jessica’s platonic damsel. They do justice to her in her own right, and I would expect nothing less from a series with such well-established gender politics.
Jessica also has a contentious but often mutually beneficial, working relationship with unfaithful and soon-to-be divorced lesbian lawyer Jeryn Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss). Initially freelancing for Hogarth as a P.I., Jessica soon gets her entangled in the Kilgrave drama, to frankly disastrous results. Hogarth is written as a largely ruthless and selfish character, but not evil so much as deeply cynical and self-interested. However, season one seems to treat this merely as her set-up to a longer redemption arc as a sincere ally to Jessica in her earnest, if flawed attempt to help the helpless and downtrodden. I think their relationship will become more substantial and personal as the series moves along, and I am looking forward to watching that dynamic develop.
This cast of secondary characters are commendably fleshed out, to be sure, but Jessica remains the unequivocal stand-out of the bunch. Ritter’s performance here reminds me of a particularly poignant piece of astute acting advice : almost crying is more effective than actually crying. When you cry, the audience often steps away from the story to marvel at what a good actor you are. The best acting is acting that does not make a show of how good it is, allowing the audience to stay lost in the story. That is Krysten Ritter’s style in bringing Jessica Jones to life. She fully embodies the character without making a show of how good she is at it, rightly recognizing that there is no need. There is more than enough substance to Jones on the page that Ritter does not need to do anything flashy or extreme to make the character extraordinary. She balances Jessica’s toughness and vulnerability, her despair and lingering hopefulness, her jokes and her cutting barbs with grace and ease, melding them together into a character concoction that flows without a hitch from beginning to end. It is a thing to behold…once the story ends, and you actually remember to behold it.
My one actual criticism so far comes in the form of a plot device that I do not want to reveal specifically, but it is the primary reason Jessica refuses to kill Kilgrave for most of the season. She is given more than one opportunity to off him in the course of the series, and chooses not to due to a reservation that, while understandable, frankly does not make much sense in the grander calculus. It seemed contrived, and not weighty enough to actually hold back a person like Jessica, and it was the one nagging flaw to the first season that I could not overlook. It is not a fatal flaw, by any means, but it does drag parts of the show down.
Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones has a great deal of gritty realism, but much to its credit, it also displays a bit more self-awareness about its own genre legacy. It takes time out of its grim angst to poke fun at the initial comic book costume of Jones’s character, and it skillfully makes the requisite Jedi mind-trick joke that Kilgrave invites, and which Daredevil took itself too seriously to make re: Fisk and Voldemort. Jessica Jones knows how to take itself seriously, while avoiding the impulse to become so earnest that it falls flat. It’s a difficult needle to thread, but to their immense credit, they made it look virtually effortless.