Cast: Krysten Ritter, Michael Colton, Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss, David Tennant
Created by: Melissa Rosenberg
Review Spoilers: Very Light
Everything you need to know about Jessica Jones can be learned by watching it. That sounds like a dumb thing to say in regards to a visual medium like television, but few shows lay their cards on the table as articulately and thoroughly as this one.
Much of Jessica Jones is shot with obstructions, through windows or past plants and chairs. The frame is dirtied up, like the shot is being snagged by a hidden camera. It’s similar to the way Parks and Recreation would use the same objects to create the idea of real camera people, or how a horror film might use a bush to give you the idea that a character is being watched. The opening credits themselves consist of watercolor images of people being watched in the privacy of their own homes. It creates a constant dread and paranoia in the viewer that simply can’t be brought about by even the tightest script or the most in-tune performance. And Jessica Jones is being watched.
Jessica, Krysten Ritter’s terse, hard-drinking softy in secret and titular character of Jones, is always under surveillance. There are always eyes on her. Her neighbors, her friends, her love interests, her enemies… Each places Jessica’s life under their own microscope. Jessica is torn between all of these interests. We cannot please everyone all the time, and Jessica cannot make happy all of her confidants if she hopes to stop her enemies. If she listened to all of them, she both would and wouldn’t kill the series’ big bad in an effort to get justice for/totally forget the innocents he has harmed.
There’s Trish (Rachael Taylor), her foster sister, former child star, and talk show host; Luke Cage (Michael Colton), a handsome bartender with a tragic past who may harbor powers of his own; Malcolm (Eka Darville), the well-meaning Bohemian down the hall who serves as the heart of the show; Simpson (Wil Traval), the cop with a mysterious past; and Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), the sharkiest of lawyers with a name that keys you into just how pleasant she really isn’t. Jessica cannot hope to make all of them happy no matter how desperately she wants to, despite how she hides it beneath leather jackets and pithy retorts.
Jessica wasn’t always a broken (and broke) P.I. She wanted to be a hero. She had the suit and everything. Helping people feels good to her, and she’s good at it, which makes it all the more tragic when that is taken away.
Not long into her hero-ing stint, Jessica met Kilgrave (David Tennant), a mysterious Purple Man with the ability to control the mind of anyone he comes across. He forces Jessica to do terrible things, for a long time, things that bring her at odds with those she wants to be closest to. It destroys Jessica emotionally. She gives up the hero game and converts her apartment into the office of ALIAS investigations, her own private investigator firm where she is the sole employee.
This period of abuse and manipulation haunts her every waking moment and directly drives her every action. Jessica has been well and truly abused in a way that will be strikingly familiar to anyone who has experienced emotional or physical abuse, and certainly in a way one wouldn’t expect to come from something under the Marvel umbrella. It’s as emotional and relatable a thematic exploration of abuse as I’ve ever seen and here it is nestled in a superhero show kids might accidentally stumble upon looking to fill that Iron Man-shaped hole in their lives.* Dear Lord, I hope not.
*I cannot envision a world in which the thirteen-year-olds writing Batman v. Superman can come up with anything as dark or compelling as Marvel’s Netflix television has proven to be.
Victims of real abuse cannot shake off their experience. They see the abuser everywhere: when they close their eyes, in choice sense memories, in the face of a stranger—well-meaning or otherwise. Jessica is flanked on all sides by Kilgrave’s trademark purple. Buildings are often lit with a strangely purple light. Those that carry purses often find themselves carrying purple ones. Jessica can no more shake Kilgrave than we might shake our own emotional tormentors, or Ramona Flowers might shake the chip Gideon Graves uses to control her. Kilgrave’s mind control gives him eyes everywhere. Jessica can never be sure that she’s safe. It’s the noir story a great detective deserves.
If Jessica Jones ends up being Baby’s First Noir, that might not be such a bad thing, because Jones is the best noir since Brick in 2006, which makes it one of the two best noir since Bladerunner. Marvel properties have always fared best when adopting a genre and grafting a superhero onto it. Celebration-worthy examples of this include The Winter Soldier’s conspiracy thriller, the space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy, and Daredevil’s Ip Man-esque kung fu odyssey. Jessica Jones, being a show with a down-on-her-luck gumshoe detective at its center, is the perfect vehicle to evoke noir tropes and imagery in pursuit of a great superhero story that just as much pushes its boundaries as Marvel-detractors say the franchise is incapable of doing and may just be the best thing the franchise has ever put out across its sixteen entries.
Where Daredevil brought gritty violence and powerful fisticuffs to the MCU potluck, Jessica Jones brings the sex. Hot, emotional sex that doesn’t shy away from the cunnilingus. At first it’s jarring. By my reckon, we’ve never seen live action superheroes go at it before, much less in the typically family-friendly MCU, despite how much it would have been sweet to see Cap and Peggy Carter go at it, Allied Powers style. And this is America. We’ve always been much more forthcoming with violence than we’ve been with sex. But Jones is a great show to bring down that barrier. Jones is a show about longing, desire, sex at its most unwanted and its most gratifying, often coming back to the same two characters: our intrepid hero and our nefarious villain.
Much like Daredevil, Jessica Jones is a dueling character study between Jones and Kilgrave. As the narrative deepens, so too do these two characters. Nearly every episode reveals something new about the two of them, both on their own and (particularly powerfully) their relationship to each other. To discuss any of these developments here would be to spoil a tightly-plotted narrative I truly believe each viewer should be able to witness on their own.
It’s a lean brand of storytelling that pushes a tight narrative forward through characters we care about. Each of Jessica and Kilgrave’s actions reverberates outward into the supporting cast in ways that can’t be undone. Trish becomes more obsessed with self-defense. Luke’s disillusionment with the world grows. Hogarth’s relationships are pushed even further past the brink.
Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and Co. understand what has failed even the greatest Marvel properties so far: the villain’s plan rarely holds up. Wilson Fisk was so compelling as he spoke on reinvigorating Hell’s Kitchen, but how exactly did running guns and drugs lead up to that endgame? Both of the villains of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second season were quite compelling until their plan turned out to be “attack S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and lose our damn minds.” Even the movies villains I loved like Ronan or Alexander Pierce ultimately just had really complex justification for blowing a lot of stuff up.
Kilgrave has no grand plan. He has no vast network of resources, or overbearing doomsday device. He wants Jessica. End of plan. Whatever he needs to do to bring Jessica back into his life is what he will do, full stop. The writers avoid having to write a convincing Grand Scheme, and instead double down on smaller, emotionally destructive plots that leave a devastation hard to nail when as a story gets bigger and less personal. Kilgrave’s destruction spans not cities, but barely the geography of a neighborhood. It is a brawl, up close and personal, between two people that leave all parties involved in a much more sunken place emotionally than they were at the start. It’s a crowning achievement in genre writing that has netted the MCU its greatest villain to date and one of its most finely crafted heroes.
I have to struggle to think of things I didn’t like about Jessica Jones. “More Luke Cage” comes to mind, but if a show’s greatest weakness is not using enough of one of its great characters then I consider it largely sinless. Kilgrave’s weakness is revealed a little early and inelegantly to be as effective as I’d like, and there were one or two moments where some of Ritter’s dialogue is obviously ADR’d during fight scenes, but those are the most minor chips on a beautiful piece of craftspersonship.
If Jessica Jones never gets a season two, and instead lives on as a co-header on Luke Cage and The Defenders, she will have had herself a heck of a ride. It’s a pitch-perfect noir study, an ace character piece, and one of the finer things available on Netflix right now. I would be sad to miss out on more Jessica (Krysten Ritter is star-makingly perfect in the role) but I am also hard-pressed to think of anything that could live up to the emotional wake of Season One. Maybe her noir is over, ending in as ambiguous a way as we can ask from even the greatest detective fables. The door may be closed on ALIAS investigations, but I will not stop thinking about Jones for quite some time. Forget it, Jessica. It’s Hell’s Kitchen.