In the wake of Marvel and Netflix's latest outing, the second season of Daredevil, I thought I'd look back on their previous entry. There's plenty to talk about in Jessica Jones, the darkest thing in the MCU so far and featuring one of the most genuinely unsettling villains to defile our screens and a protagonist who would rather drink the cheapest bottle of whiskey she can find than do any sort of heroism.
Jessica Jones, as portrayed by Krysten Ritter, is a great character to lead the second Marvel-Netflix collaboration. The length of the thirteen episodes give the character a chance to go through an emotional arc that most other modern superheroes don't have the chance to and it gives us, as the audience, a chance to watch a hero who has to deal with the real consequences of violence. Even if it is the super-powered kind. Even Netflix's previous Marvel collaboration, the first season of hit Daredevil, didn't get quite so dark as a world inhabited by sexual violence, assault and the PTSD that comes with this. Jessica's world is full of people who suffer and are tormented, too often as a result of her own struggle with David Tennant's Kilgrave.
The central story of Jessica Jones revolves around the titular character's battle with former abuser and tormentor, Kilgrave, who only needs to speak to bend others to his will. The show doesn't shy away from the deeper ugliness of the concept and shows a man who has never had to learn any kind of empathy or self-control because of his superpower. Kilgrave is a terrible kind of abuser, one who truly doesn't seem to understand the horror of his actions, and the show is littered with great examples of this, such the self-infliction of scalding hot coffee or being left unable to move for hours on end. Mostly for minor infractions or irritations.
One powerful scene features Jessica calling Kilgrave out as a rapist and yet he continues to try and convince her that she wanted every second of it. It's deeply unsettling and all too close to reality. Though we don't see Jessica engaging in typical heroism, such as saving New York from alien invaders as one of the Avengers, watching her stand up to a monster like Kilgrave is watching a different kind of hero, a different kind of strength and yet just as impressive. She starts the series determined to run when she discovers the return of Kilgrave, but then becomes determined to bring him down after seeing him inflict the same horrors on the young Hope Shlottman, as played by Erin Moriarty (I had no idea until right now that her name was Moriarty. Come on, that's kind of cool.)
One of the main strengths of the series is showing Kilgrave's impact on Jessica as a character. Her drive to defeat Tennant's villain brings out the darkest parts of Jessica's character, and we watch her plans and her morals spiral out of control. She is more and more willing to go to extreme lengths, risking her own life and others to exonerate Hope. She beats Kilgrave half to death to force the confession, in a scene that successfully makes the viewer uncomfortable, despite knowing that Kilgrave is guilty. Using Kilgrave's parents as leverage directly leads to the brutal murder of his mother, and he is able to force his father to make him even more powerful and dangerous. Her brief plan of trying to be incarcerated for her neighbour's murder was admittedly infuriating to watch as a viewer, but it did lead to a terrific confrontation with Kilgrave in the police station.
Overall, this is what makes Jessica such a great character to lead the series. She's not a natural hero, not like Steve Rogers or the Avengers, and her only solution is to kill the monster that terrorizes her. Even Daredevil's Matt Murdock drew the line at killing. There's no last minute hand-wringing over whether this makes her a monster too, as most heroes are wont to do. Jessica knows he has to be stopped and is willing to get dirty to do it.
The supporting cast are another important part of Jessica's battle with Kilgrave, and lead to some of the show's biggest strengths and weaknesses. Trish Walker is one of those strengths, much more than just a sidekick or best friend character. She is every bit the hero Jessica isn't, the voice of reason in Jessica's destructive storm of a mission and played brilliantly by Rachel Taylor as Jessica's grounding force. It will be interesting to see if she becomes a costumed hero, aka Hellcat, as she does in the comics. She certainly has the enthusiasm for it, and kicks more than enough ass.
Mike Colter's Luke Cage is a great presence in the series and brings a range of subtleties to his relationship with Jessica. What starts as a one-night stand leads to a series of encounters that explores Jessica's deeper guilt about her time under Kilgrave, but also offers a shared bond over their lives as secretly powered people. Admittedly, his sudden disappearance in the second half of the series is very jarring, and when he returns under Kilgrave's influence we are left unsure as to where he stands in his relationship with Jessica. Colter did a great job though, and I'm excited to see him as the star in his own series.
The rest of the cast are a mixed bunch, but together they work to show the severity of Kilgrave's influence and impact. Every character is transformed by their interaction with the man, no matter how big or small. Wil Traval's Will Simpson starts as Kilgrave's thrall, then becomes a foil to Jessica in a shared mission to get revenge on the supervillain before finally becoming a monster himself. He reflects Jessica's own journey, showing what would happen if she were to let her vengeance push her over the edge. While his later turn does feel a little sudden, I enjoyed the character as a showcasing of what Kilgrave's influence can do to a person.
Malcolm's journey is one of recovery, and learning that the former social worker's addiction was created by Kilgrave simply so he could spy on Jessica is painful to watch. He serves a similar role to Trish, attempting to ground Jessica as a conscience. Carrie Anne-Moss is always great and I mostly enjoyed her scenes as Hogarth, but more so as a foil to Jessica. Her own subplot added little to the overall story for most of the series, though it did culminate in the truly unsettling 'death by a thousand cuts' scene. The less said about Robyn the better, a character who never seemed to learn or develop and her scenes are arguably the weakest of the series. Which is a shame, because the unnecessarily brutal death of her brother simply as a message to Jessica was a gut-wrenching moment and should have made her a more sympathetic character.
Kilgrave is the most unsettling and terrifying villains Marvel have put to screen and his presence is always felt. At times Tennant plays him with all of his natural charm, a man who could win people over even without his abilities, but then we see the stark contrast of how his power has made him childish, prone to tantrums and outbursts. I appreciate that the show took the risk of almost humanizing him; it would be easy to leave a character like Kilgrave as a pure monster. But we see his origin as a scared little boy, a man who doesn't understand consequences and even briefly a victim of Jessica's own physical violence. There's even a fascinating glimpse where Jessica considers 'turning him good' and he actually saves several lives. But then the fantasy is shattered when Kilgrave only shows enthusiasm because he enjoyed the praise from the family. He will always be selfish, and if he ever gets bored of the admiration than he would be right back to his old ways. In the end, these glimpses of humanity only heighten the monstrosity of Kilgrave.
As a season, Jessica Jones is mostly solid. The opening episodes are fantastic, as is most of the second half, but it suffers a similar set of bumps as Daredevil did before it. There are moments in the back half of the series where the momentum drops on multiple occasions, coming slowly to the climax rather than building up towards it. It feels like their confrontation almost peaks around Episode 9, but fortunately the last couple of episodes rack up the tension again and lead to a satisfying and entertaining finale. Cage's disappearance certainly doesn't help the momentum issue, and his return at the series end certainly helps breath life back into the show. Visually, the series is very impressive and well constructed. The use of purple is a great allusion to Kilgrave's comic moniker as the Purple Man, and the overall influence of the noir genre works to great effect to set Jessica's world of private investigating and trauma apart from its Marvel cousins.
Despite its missteps, Jessica Jones told a new and darker story than its Marvel counterparts and I'd say succeeded. Darker doesn't always mean better, but in this case it tells an engaging story of recovery in the face of violence and consequences. Jessica's story is equally compelling and entertaining, sprinkled with her own brand of dark humour and featuring a mostly great cast of characters up against a fantastic villain that genuinely makes your skin crawl.