Overview: A private investigator with superpowers must find a way to save a girl accused of a murder she didn’t commit by stopping the mind-controlling madman who shattered her world years ago. 2015; ABC Studios/Marvel Television; TV-MA; 13 episodes.
The Pulse: The kid gloves are off; Jessica Jones doesn’t go in for bullshit. There’s nothing mild-mannered, emotionally false, or apologetic about Marvel’s latest entry. It’s not a superhero show and it never tries to be one. Instead, Jessica Jones operates as an eerie thriller with one foot in the muddy morality of noir and the other in the bloody pool of horror. As an adaptation, it manages to remain thematically faithful to Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias and the character they created, while providing a more emotionally honest, and harder-edged female perspective, courtesy of showrunner Melissa Rosenberg (a reminder why representation matters when adapting these properties to their fullest potential.) The feminism on display, the focus on issues of female friendship, family, rape, abortion, trauma, and mental illness is a refreshing and necessary departure from the male-driven angst of the show’s counterparts.
A lot has been made about this series’ attention to graphic violence and sex. Yes, it’s far beyond anything we’ve seen in a comic book adaptation, but the show isn’t going in for shock value, rather a realistic portrayal of life’s tragedies and successes. While there are aspects of these tragedies and successes heightened by the fantastical elements of super-powers and science-fiction, the characterization remains grounded, sometimes painfully so. The physical extremes of both sex and violence are only further explore the show’s psychological components, and that is where Jessica Jones truly displays its maturity. Sex doesn’t feel like simple titillation at the expense of character logic, and the violence is something we cringe at, not because of its brutality, but because we’re never allowed to forget that we’re watching it being done to another human being. Jessica Jones may walk up to ledge of R-rated entertainment and lean over it, but it’s always safely contained by a harness of compassion.
Aliases: Compassion, and the lack of it is what drives the show and ultimately creates a tight-rope of choice and consequences. Central to these themes of free-will is our titular Jessica Jones, who isn’t an easily accessible character by any means, yet from the first episode Krysten Ritter captures her perfectly, possessing all the power of attitude to make up for her small frame. Drunk, wounded, self-loathing, and anxiety-ridden, Jessica is incredibly human and flawed, but possess the constant forward motion and need to take action that makes her a hero. Jones’s acerbic wit and loosely contained disgust for people make Ritter’s performance constantly captivating. Ritter is at her best when she’s interacting with the supporting cast, but never once is the show stolen from her grasp by supporting players, not even from a threat who proves to be Marvel’s greatest villain yet. Ritter exhibits the kind of effortless control over the character and her scenes that we’ve come to expect from Marvel’s lead actors.
When it comes the supporting characters, Jessica Jones may actually surpass its source material. Despite the show’s inability to use Carol Danvers as Jessica’s best friend, her relationship with Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) is one of the show’s high points. Trish’s lack of superpowers, yet willingness to involve herself in that world regardless, works better emotionally and thematically than Danvers’s addition conceivably would have. It’s refreshing to watch a genre show where the female lead can rely upon another female, instead of a group of males constantly throwing the gender balance off in a supposedly female-led show. There seems to be an awareness of this factor in the inclusion of one of the show’s biggest surprises: Will Simpson (Wil Traval) known to comic fans as Nuke. Simpson, a cop and former military operative, exhibits the kind of volatile male machoism and idiocy that provides a counterpoint to the female agency that drives the show. Although his mission seems to be in line with Jessica and Trish for most of the season, we’re never made to feel comfortable with his alpha-male presence. This twisted version of Steve Rogers ultimately serves to strengthen the female bond at the heart of the series and poke a little dark-humored fun at stereotypical male heroes.
Of course this isn’t to say that the show’s male characters aren’t handled with the same realism and emotional attention as the female leads. While we don’t delve too deeply into Mike Colter’s Luke Cage (who receives a series of his own next year), we’re given a sense of his appeal through Jessica and the romance ball is placed in her court. Cage is thoroughly badass, honest, and respectful of boundaries in all the ways that Simpson isn’t, and in need of saving. He ultimately forms an appealing female view on the male hero. The same can be said for Malcolm (Eka Darville), a heroin addict who becomes Jessica’s assistant. He is also given a sensitivity and crises of conscience that feels human and unsaddled by forced romance, or key plot involvement. The show allows Jessica and Trish to be the heroes, while the male characters fulfill the role of psycho ex, damsel in distress, and moral support, continually breaking down the conventions we’ve come to associate with the genre.
The show’s other supporting characters, notably lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Jessica’s twin neighbors Ruben and Robyn (Kieran Mulcare and Colby Minifie), also provide a necessary look at free-will and humanity’s ability to both get what it wants and overcome tragedy. While perhaps a bit too much time is spent on their respective subplots, particularly in the case of the twins, they provide interesting human counterparts to the bigger heroes and villains of the show, and cement the series’ themes of power and the emotional battle of day-to-day living.
Purple Haze: For a show centered on a private investigator, Jessica Jones is far less episodic than expected. While individual cases do have a way of factoring into the series, they are usually connected in some way to the central problem of Kilgrave (David Tennant), who is clearly established as a sinister presence from the first episode onwards. The mystery that drives the plot of Jessica Jones isn’t so much a whodunit, but a question of what to do with the person who has done it. Because of his history with Jessica, every threat in the series feels immediate, and anxiety-inducing, which is a clear step away from the more leisure pacing of Marvel and Netflix’s previous collaboration. There is a slow burn element to Jessica Jones as its first half places psychological examination and detective work over major fight scenes, but the pacing ultimately make the twists more rewarding and gives a weight to the hero and villain relationship that makes binge watching the series gripping, if a bit stressful.
In every way that we come to love the brokenness of Ritter’s Jessica Jones, we loathe the brokenness of Tennant’s Kilgrave. The mind-controlling villain is sadistically pathetic, an example of male entitlement and fanboyism at its worse. There’s no mincing words; Kilgrave is a rapist in both the mental and physical sense, and the show doesn’t shy away from making that known and reminding us of that fact. Even with the addition of a sensible backstory, and a fleeting moment where we might think his powers can be used for good, we’re never tasked with feeling anything but disgust for the character. While so many comic books and their adaptations romanticize villains, Jessica Jones creates a monster that stands well above the likes of Loki, HYDRA, or the Kingpin.
There is often something perversely appealing about the possibility of seeing villains win the day, but Jessica Jones is so efficiently crafted in establishing its characters, stakes, and real-world implications that this feeling never arises with Kilgrave. We want Jessica to win, even if it compromises her chances of being a superhero among the likes of the Avengers, because her victory, messy as it may be, is identifiably human. Through Jessica and Kilgrave, the series poses the question of whether the good a person does or their potential to do good can override the bad. This is answered with a resounding no, with the caveat that selflessness can be a catalyst for better days. Jessica Jones may not hold our hands and lead us into the optimism we may crave, but it does provide some measure of hope, damaged as it may be.
Overall: Jessica Jones trivializes nothing and doesn’t take a single supporting character for granted. While it isn’t entirely successful at situating itself in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe without trying to avoid code-names and its inherent comic-bookiness, the number of topics and characters it makes time for far exceeds the need to placate every whim of geekdom. As appreciated as it would have been to see a cameo from ol’ hornhead, or to see the show not rely on thinly-veiled names like “the big green guy,” and “the flag-waver,” the fact of the matter is that Jessica Jones was created with women in mind and staying true to that first is worth far more than any number of Easter eggs. Jessica Jones is one of Marvel’s most consistently well-acted properties, certainly its most emotionally engaging, and essential viewing for comic and non-comic fans alike.