Netflix has made a thoroughly satisfying, emotionally resonant, action-packed series it’s hard not to love… despite Marvel’s best efforts.
Some season one spoilers below.
Jessica Jones, in a nuanced, outstanding performance by Krysten Ritter, is a hard-as-nails P.I. who takes zero shit from anyone. She is resourceful and self-possessed, with an abrasive, cynical manner that can make her downright unpleasant. Under her protective layers, however, there is an irrepressible selflessness and idealism, which always draws her back to the hero’s path.
What makes Jessica one of the most intriguing TV characters in recent memory is her response to the psychological damage she sustained as a pawn of Kilgrave, who used his mind-control to subjugate her will for months. Her backstory is full of pain, failure, victimization, and violation. But what makes her extraordinary is that her experience doesn’t motivate her, dictate her actions, or act as the driving force in her life. Jessica is motivated by her own heroism, her need to make a positive difference in the world. That drive is complicated by her PTSD, dampened and darkened, but it is not eliminated. The damage she sustained means that her demons require true courage to face. But she has that courage, and the will to do what is right even when it seems impossible, and that is what makes Jessica Jones a hero.
She is not always likeable. The way she treats Luke Cage, for example, is painful to watch. But after torturing herself for so long about Reva’s death, it makes sense that she would instinctively clutch at the one thing that brings her some peace, no matter how despicable her actions. It’s not excusable, but it is understandable. And when the situation becomes about something larger than just herself, she does the right thing and tells Luke the truth. Yes, she pushes her foster sister away in order to protect her, belittling Trish’s burgeoning ability to protect herself, but this is the best way she knows to express love. Yes, she associates with amoral employers like Jeri Hogarth, but after seeing true evil at work, lawyers are small potatoes. Jessica is not perfect; she is human. Sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes it’s hard to put your life on the line for a world that has brought you so much pain. But Jessica keeps trying, despite it all. She fights for a redemption she doesn’t need and a salvation she doesn’t believe in, and we respect the hell out of her for it.
Jessica’s demons come in the form of Kilgrave, one of the most chilling and compelling villains in recent history. Played perfectly by David Tennant, Kilgrave has the power of a master supervillain, and the ambition of a toddler. He has no plans for world domination, and no need for wealth or power. There is nothing he can’t have, and therefore nothing he really wants. Kilgrave’s only concern is his own amusement. The only thing (“Excuse me, ‘person,’”) to ever escape his grasp is Jessica, sparking his obsession with bringing her back under his control. Kilgrave is the personification of rape culture and patriarchal entitlement in a snazzy purple suit. When his powers aren’t an option, he finds other ways of controlling Jessica, such as stalking her, photographing her, threatening her friends, buying her childhood home and insinuating himself into her past, thereby leaving no part of her life that is free of him. One of the most startling revelations about Kilgrave is that he didn’t think of their time together as rape, and seems to genuinely believe he did nothing wrong. While he is, make no mistake, a stone-cold psychopath, the act for which we, the audience, loathe him the most (the life-shattering wounds he inflicted upon Jessica), he wasn’t even aware of doing. He hadn’t enslaved Jessica in order to hurt her; that was a side-effect. He only wanted her, and failed to consider that she was a person whose choices deserved respect. This is the foundation of many real-life cases of rape and abuse, and hits much closer to home than the typical villain’s mustache-twirling cartoonish sadism. To Kilgrave, no one is a person. Everyone is an object and a tool of his will.
Kilgrave is Jessica’s opposite in every way. Where she is all selflessness, he is pure selfishness. Where she holds herself to an impossibly high standard despite her personal tragedies, he uses his difficult childhood to excuse his every misdeed. Where she is empathetic even to people who treat her poorly, he has never really considered anyone’s feelings as relevant; not even Jessica’s, whom he purports to love. But, although Kilgrave is absolutely responsible for his own decisions, it is difficult not to wonder: Would it be possible for anyone to have his abilities and NOT eventually become corrupted?
The series, this cat-and-mouse game between a damaged hero and her abuser, is well-acted, tightly written, and beautifully shot. Its one major flaw is unfortunately common in the Marvel universe. Because Marvel’s series’ and movies all share continuity, and because Marvel naturally wants to pull its audience from one series to others, the franchise can’t resist a little cross-pollination. This show has a completely different tone from other works in the Marvel universe; it is telling a very different type of story in a distinct and original way. However, the narrative is plagued with distractions and interruptions in tone, such as references to the Avengers movies, and the unnecessary appearance of crossover characters from Daredevil. As there are currently no plans for a second season of Jessica Jones (although the character will almost certainly be appearing in upcoming projects), it stands to reason that season one should function as its own self-contained series, giving Jessica and her people their own platform before they share a billing with other Marvel heroes. Why, then, dedicate a surprising amount of the finale (and Jessica’s emotional final showdown with her nemesis, the conclusion of HER story) to setting up Luke Cage for his upcoming series and introducing us to Claire Temple? The role of Will Simpson is also, apart from being the human embodiment of mansplaining, somewhat puzzling. Simpson’s arc doesn’t actually affect Jessica’s (and doesn’t even really further Trish’s), nor does it arrive at a satisfying resolution, giving it the impression of also being groundwork for another series or a future spinoff, rather than a relevant chapter in Jessica’s story. It is so frustrating to see screentime for Jessica and her people, in her only dedicated series, sacrificed to make room for character and plot threads that are not relevant to her, or that are just going to be deliberately left hanging for a future series to pick up. Jessica Jones is unfortunately cheapened by Marvel’s attempts to use it to promote or launch other projects, rather than valuing it for what it is and making Jessica the true centre of the story she deserves.
Despite Marvel’s intrusive tendencies, Jessica Jones is a superb series, probably the best Marvel has put out so far. The characters are well-positioned to appear in future Marvel endeavors, and if there is any justice in the world, will get the second season they deserve.