JESSICA JONES Review: AKA Pretty Much Perfect

The new Netflix Marvel show is, start to finish, incredible.

This review contains complete spoilers for season one of Jessica Jones.

If I had been behind Netflix’s Jessica Jones series I would have had main villain Killgrave, a mind-controller, bend to his will a C-level Marvel bruiser, a villain who could go toe-to-toe with the series’ heroine, who has super strength. This is why it’s probably for the best that I wasn’t running the show, as Jessica Jones actually found a better, more elegant and more thematically resonant way to give its lead some competition when it came to throwing punches. And that decision, to me, encapsulates why this show works so well as a cohesive, complete story.

To say that Jessica Jones is better than Daredevil is to truly undersell how good Jessica Jones is; what Melissa Rosenberg and her team have done here is nothing short of miraculous - they have created a series whose tone is perfect, whose characters are great and, most importantly, they have masterfully interwoven the show’s themes and real world metaphors with its genre trappings, making a series that operates on both literal and metaphorical levels at once and in total harmony. What’s more, they have created a binge-watching show that is actually paced correctly, that keeps you flowing from episode to episode while making each episode a coherent and satisfying experience on its own.

Some preface here: I am not a fan of the Jessica Jones character in the comics. I thought that her series, Alias, was try-hard bullshit with a 15 year olds’ sensibility of adultness. What’s more, I found the character as written tiresome, a rote drunk PI whose adventures felt like Crime Fiction 101. When Alias was canceled I found Jessica Jones even harder to deal with - Marvel retired her from being a PI, knocked her up and moved her into Avengers Mansion to hang out with her baby all the time (with a couple of detours back into her costumed identity, none sticking).

That’s why this is the highest compliment I can pay to the Jessica Jones TV show: it makes me want to go back and give Alias another shot. The series, and the performance of Krysten Ritter in the lead, have recontextualized the character for me in a major way, allowing me to understand and appreciate her as I never could before. Ritter’s performance - equal parts comedically irritated, effortlessly badass and deeply broken - gives Jessica Jones a richness rarely seen on TV, placing her in the company of television’s famed Bad Men like Tony Soprano and Walter White and Don Draper. Jessica Jones is as likely to do something terrible and mean as she is to do something heroic and awesome, and the relationship between those two sides of herself are in constant, unending flux. What makes Jones different from those Bad Men, though, is that they are motivated by deep selfishness while she is motivated by deep self-destruction.

Her self-destructive tendencies are the result of trauma - more than one of them. Trauma is the theme of Jessica Jones, and each of the characters suffer from it in their own ways, and each of them react to it in their own ways. For some trauma brings healing and helps them become better people, while for other trauma fractures them in unfixable ways, leading them to become desperate villains - even if they never see themselves as such. Much of the tension in the show is watching Jessica navigate these two paths and wondering which way she will go - will she use her pain to find the strength to be better, like next-door neighbor Malcolm, or will she give in to it all and go dark, like killer cop Will Simpson? It’s to the credit of the writing and performances that although you know the answer - this is a Marvel superhero show destined to lead into the Defenders crossover - the tension feels palpable nonetheless.

There are a lot of strengths to Jessica Jones, but one of the greatest is the structure of the series. Where Daredevil’s structure frustrated - we knew from the beginning that Wilson Fisk was the Kingpin and a bad guy, and Daredevil knew the same very early, and yet we still had to suffer through investigations into the truth of him - Jessica Jones’ structure is more like a tightly-plotted novel. There is little wheel-spinning (although the final two episodes do hit a lull; all of these Netflix shows are two episodes too long) and all of the strands of the story, all of the subplots and character moments, feed into the larger themes in a way that is satisfying and engaging, that lends depth to the main story as opposed to being a way of padding out the main story. Each character has a role in the show, and each character’s journey - whether as a victim of trauma or a perpetrator of it - reflects back on Jessica’s story, illuminating it in different ways.

Jessica herself stomps through it all, both trauma survivor and trauma inflicter. On a larger scale, all of the characters are caught up in the fallout of her continuing battle with Killgrave, the Purple Man, but on a more personal scale she has fucked up the lives of people like Luke Cage and Jeri Hogarth (it’s almost comical how much trouble Jessica causes Hogarth. Hogarth’s life would be so much better off if Jessica Jones had never come into it). That dichotomy is important, thematically, because it shows the way that trauma flows like a river - we get it and we deal it, passing on the hurt someone gave us because of the hurt that someone else gave them and back and back, forever into distant pre-history. That’s why the presence of Killgrave’s parents and Trish Walker’s mom are so important, as they highlight the generational way in which we pass down pain.

Man, all of that sounds high-falutin’ and serious, like Jessica Jones is a meditation on the nature of trauma (and I haven’t even gotten into the rape and consent stuff yet)... which it is. But it’s also an incredibly fun show with truly likeable characters; this series isn’t bleak or grim, even though bleak and grim things do happen. This series has a sense of fun to it, a sense of humor, and you want to spend time in the world it has created. Jessica Jones may poke at the edges of our ability to withstand misery, but in general it doesn’t rub our faces in it, and the way that characters laugh and joke and interact cuts the bitterness of the cruelty and horror they face (and inflict upon one another). The balance is ideal; every time things gets heavy the show brings in a laugh, or it unleashes an episode full of ‘Holy shit!’ moments that get your heart racing. That tone is vital and apparently all but impossible to achieve most of the time, judging by how rarely I see it. Jessica Jones is important and smart but it’s also a blast, with good action interspersed throughout.

In fact I would say it has the most interesting superhero action I have ever seen. Jessica and Luke are super strong, but neither are trained experts like Daredevil. What’s more, they’re going up against mostly goons, thugs and people brainwashed by the Purple Man; as a result the show is very adept at letting us see that their fighting style is more brawler-based but also that they’re going easy on the guys they’re hitting. More than once Jessica seems to just swat away an assailant, a move that makes sense - she doesn’t want to be shattering jaws. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a superhero show or movie so careful with this - watching The Avengers or Spider-Man or even Batman (who isn’t technically super powered) you get the sense that A LOT of low level bad guys end up being huge strains on the health care system. But again, that a show as interested in consequences and trauma should be so careful about violence makes sense.

The action is kind of a microcosm of how the tone of Jessica Jones works. It’s realistic but at the same time full of superheroics - Jessica is careful when hitting guys, but she still sends them through walls and over cars. This series is far more comfortable with the superheroics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than Daredevil was; where Daredevil seemed to play down his powers to fit into a Zatoichi/blind guy has slightly enhanced senses thing, Jessica Jones goes all in. Every episode she’s displaying feats of strength, Luke Cage very early on shows off his powers by running a power saw on his abs, and the Purple Man is constantly doing mindfuckery. From very early on in the series it’s clear: this is fantasy, working in a heightened reality, and nobody is apologizing for it. By the time Sergeant Wilson starts popping super soldier pills you almost feel let down - he could definitely be jacking something into his veins and turning into a monster! We would accept that in this show!

There’s another side to that, though. One of the more intriguing throughlines of the series is that Jessica can’t just walk up to and kill the Purple Man because she wants to haul him into court and try him, as he has forced an innocent girl to kill her parents, and Jessica wants to get that girl out of prison. It’s an intriguing dilemma, one that allows the powerful Jones to be at the same level as the physically weak Killgrave, and it’s also one that speaks to a larger question of heroism that Daredevil swatted at - is it okay to kill, even if the guy is a total scumbag? Can he be rehabilitated? Is he too dangerous to live? But within the world of the MCU there’s something slightly off here; everybody in New York watched a rage monster and a god fight aliens, so why would a mind controller be so totally hard to believe? Even Luke Cage, a guy with unbreakable skin, scoffs at the idea at first (which plays into thematic stuff, by the way - it’s all about the way rape victims are often disbelieved, even by their loved ones). It’s been nine or so years, in universe, since Iron Man showed up - why aren’t the people, especially those with powers, more open to weirdness? Why hasn’t the justice system/police department reacted in some way to the appearance of superhumans? The answer is because the story needs Jessica Jones to not just grab Killgrave at the first opportunity, but I do think there’s room to give a sense of an expanded world of heroes and villains -when Jessica tells a guy that no one will believe she picked up his car with her bare hands I want to ask if she’s at all aware of what happened in Sokovia earlier this year.

But these are nits I’m picking. If we’re going to talk about the superheroics of it all, I’m more than satisfied. Luke Cage is great… if a little level-headed going into his own show. The Luke in Jessica Jones is definitely late period Luke, not early, boisterous Heroes For Hire Luke, and while I like the more mature version of the character I must admit I want to see somebody with a little bit of reckless swagger as well. Mike Colter plays the role, and he’s got such a sense of grounded decency that he could give Captain America a pep talk. He also has killer chemistry with Krysten Ritter, making Luke and Jessica feel like a legitimate couple. In the course of the show Luke is very much the damsel in distress more than once - The Purple Man tries to fridge him, even - but nobody brings this up. There’s a lot going on in this show when it comes to gender roles, consent issues, stuff like that, but what makes it all so refreshing is that no one stops and shines a light on it. It’s just there. Luke Cage is just a pretty cool dude who treats Jessica like an equal and who needs his ass saved once or twice.

The non-super supporting cast is just as strong. Carrie-Ann Moss is perfectly sleazy as Jeri Hogarth, a lawyer for whom Jessica occasionally works. Hogarth is in the middle of a divorce (from her wife, one of the many unremarked-upon pieces of progressivism in the show) and while that divorce at first seems disconnected from the main story it becomes apparent how vital it is to everything going on, thematically if not entirely plotwise. But even though the divorce is essentially tangential the show smartly wraps it into the body of the story, making it feel less like a subplot and more like a set-up for one of the most fucked up episodes of the season.

Rachael Taylor is Trish ‘Patsy’ Walker, a character who in the comics is also a superheroine known as Hellcat. Trish is Jessica’s best friend, and she has her life together in ways that Jessica could never fathom. But even still, Trish envies her friend’s powers, and in flashbacks we learn that she tried to get Jessica to embark on a superhero career, going so far as to create costume for her. Trish wanted to live through Jessica, and this adds a layer of complication and reality to their relationship. Taylor is glorious in the role, and while she left me cold in the first episode by the end of the series I wanted Trish to don tights and take to the rooftops herself. And that’s not just because it would be cool (and because Hellcat is my favorite fourth string Marvel character), it’s because Taylor is able to convincingly give Trish a life beyond the edge of the frame - you believe that there’s more to explore with this character, and that the actress has the chops to bring us there.

Perhaps the greatest example of how rich the supporting characters are in Jessica Jones is Malcolm, Jessica’s junkie neighbor played by Eka Darville. Malcolm is, on paper, a terrible character - he’s the sweetly naive smack addict down the hall, a guy who clearly exists only to be killed late in the season for cheap pathos. Except that isn’t the arc of the character at all! He’s been planted by Killgrave, who made him become a junkie, to spy on Jessica. That reveal comes halfway through the season and then Malcolm’s arc only gets better; as he goes along he kicks his habit, gets out of Killgrave’s control and finds himself turning into a de facto social worker, hosting weekly get togethers of Killgrave’s victims. Jessica helps Malcolm kick smack, but beyond that his destiny is in his own hands, and he charts a positive, healing course away from trauma, one that encompasses helping others. If there’s a real, honest to god hero on this show, it’s Malcolm, and Darville plays him craftily. At first he makes Malcolm almost irritatingly goofy, but when the shit goes down Darville brings a lot of depth and doubt to this guy. He’s not just a social worker saint - he’s a man with a storm still within, a guy still wrestling with his doubts about himself.

Malcolm reacts to trauma by helping others. Trish reacts by gaining complete control over her life and her safety. Jessica reacts by becoming self-destructive. Luke reacts by finding a quiet place where he can feel safe (his bar). Killgrave reacts… well, we’ll talk about Killgrave extensively below. But perhaps one of the most interesting characters, in terms of how they react to their trauma, is Will Simpson, played by Wil Traval. Simpson is violated by Killgrave and his response is to slowly sink into a morass of vengeance, fueled by drugs. This review is already way, way too long, but it’s interesting to note that the show is just as much about substance abuse as it is about rape or emotional trauma - Jessica, Simpson and Malcolm all deal with their own substance abuse issues, in their own ways, with varying degrees of success.

Simpson is better known to comic fans as Nuke, a pill-gobbling super soldier from long before Jeremy Renner was taking his chems in the Bourne spin-off. For some reason his character’s first name has been changed - to preserve the reveal of where he ends up? - but the basics remain close enough to the character created by Frank Miller. Ex-military, Simpson was part of a program that used performance enhacing, color-coded pills. Now out of the service and in the NYPD, Simpson is briefly mind-controlled by Killgrave and basically snaps. What’s interesting is that he seems okay at first, even starting a romance with Trish, but the weight of his experience is too much for him, and he becomes obsessed with killing Killgrave and anyone who stands in his way - including Jessica, who wants to bring the Purple Man to justice. Traval plays Simpson first like a boy scout before descending into twitchy nastiness, and he essays the arc nicely. I didn’t see it coming.

Substance abuse, rape, trauma - these are some of the topics Jessica Jones touches on in its thirteen episode, but another is the way men and women interact. It’s fascinating to see Simpson as the boyfriend gone wrong, and to see that the relationship between he and Trish is pretty common - minus the performance-enhancing combat pills, of course. This is part of why Jessica Jones is incredible, because the metaphors are solid under the genre trappings. This is how genre is supposed to work, to speak to us about the real world using heightened metaphors. And that’s why Killgrave is absolutely, completely, totally incredible. Not just as a villain, mind you, but as a character.

The Killgrave we see on TV is very different from his Purple Man comic book origins. He’s not purple, for one thing. He had a different first name in the comics, and he was a Russian spy. That means every element of his TV backstory, and the way he fits into the show’s larger themes of trauma, were invented for the series. More than invented, they were perfected; the Purple Man was the kind of Silver Age villain whose powers weren’t thought through by creators, and who was ripe for reimagining as a result. Brian Michael Bendis reimagined him for Alias, but Melissa Rosenberg truly redefined him for Jessica Jones.

Killgrave works both as villain and metaphor - he’s the mind-controlling freak but also the controlling ex-boyfriend who crosses the consent line through manipulation and emotional abuse. Killgrave is a stalker, first and foremost, and his goal is one that he believes is noble: he wants Jessica Jones back. He believes that her ability to withstand his control means she’s his perfect match, and he turns all of his considerable abilities towards ‘winning’ her. But he tries to win her in the way that an obsessed ex does, by infiltrating her life, by sidling up to her invisibly through intermediaries, by keeping tabs and professing his undying love in ways that he thinks are romantic but are, in fact, deeply creepy.

What’s great about Killgrave is that he’s a villain whose motivation is totally understandable for many men and is absolutely familiar to most women. I watched Killgrave and recognized myself in some of his nuttiness - in the past I have used ‘grand romantic gestures’ to try to win back exes, and with the clarity of hindsight I now understand these moments were kind of creepy at best. Killgrave thinks he’s being romantic, but he mentions that everything he knows of love he learned from TV, something very familiar to a generation raised on unrealistic displays of romance in the media. Growing up on Say Anything can really, really leave you warped.

But there’s more horror to Killgrave than that. He also personifies the ugly reality of date rape; Jessica’s quest to get Killgrave into court reflects the difficult efforts to get he said/she said date rape cases prosecuted. There is no evidence, there are only competing stories being presented, and Killgrave - standing in for smirking date rapists everywhere - is polished and able to present the more believable story. The system cannot handle Killgrave just as, in many ways, the system cannot properly handle date rape.

Jessica Jones takes the exact opposite approach to Killgrave as Daredevil took to Kingpin. While Daredevil presented us a human Wilson Fisk very early on, Jessica Jones spends a lot of time with Killgrave in the shadows or popping up to leer from a distance. He feels evil. And then the show humanizes him. We learn his backstory. We discover that, just like everyone else in the show, he is processing his own pain. And we come to understand his point of view; he’s presented the opposite of Nuke - as opposed to a guy turning into a villain, Killgrave is a villain who slowly becomes sadly human and even, at one point, seemingly redeemable. Every new reveal of Killgrave reduces the grand sweep of his villainy… until the end of the series when he lets loose and really gets absolutely nasty. This structure plays with us; first it undercuts our expectations, and then it reduces our tension before slamming us in the face with extreme violence and cruelty. It’s fantastic storytelling.

That storytelling is aided by the casting of David Tennant, who is suave and handsome while being menacing and yet sort of weasely all at once. I’m no Whovian, so my Tennant exposure has been limited, but in Jessica Jones he proves himself to be adept at a truly high level of creepiness. Tennant’s good looks go a long way, but what he really nails is the self-pitying at the heart of the Purple Man. There’s a speech Killgrave gives about how hard it is to be him, to never know if someone is doing something because they want it or because he ordered it, that could be high camp but that, from his mouth, has a true tinge of pathos. Self-pity is hard to pull off without becoming self-parody, but Tennant does it. That he has such a twinkle in his eye and a slightly charming grin on his face only helps sell it all.

Just as Colter has great chemistry with Ritter, so does Tennant. That’s also key to making this whole thing work - Jessica and Killgrave are engaged in a very deadly dance, and they need to be believable partners in it. The scenes they share when Killgrave recreates her childhood home are perhaps among the best in the series, and they lay the groundwork that makes the neck-snapping finale so satisfying… even as the rest of the show lays the groundwork to leave us questioning if that was the only solution.

That’s maybe what I loved most about Jessica Jones, the way the show is very willing to walk through the grey areas of morality. It makes the show feel exceptionally unique in the MCU; while Daredevil tried to do something similar that show’s writing never made the questions of morality feel as alive and important as they do in Jessica Jones. Perhaps it’s because Daredevil approached those issues melodramatically, while Jessica Jones saves the melodrama for the superheroics. Watching the show unfold I was impressed by the refusal to give easy answers, and the brilliance of having many characters refracting the same themes in their own ways, giving a multitude of approaches to the central questions of the series. Obviously some - Nuke and Killgrave - are dealing with their pain in the wrong ways, but the show presents them as points on a spectrum.

It’s so rare to find any work that hits not just on the surface, fun level but also on deeper and deeper levels, and it’s even rarer to find it in the superhero genre. Sure, many of our favorite superhero movies and TV shows make an effort at this, but they’re rarely successful at balancing the two halves of the equation. Jessica Jones does it with ease, which I suspect is why so many people are claiming it’s barely a superhero show at all. I disagree - everybody has powers all over the place, and they use them all the time - but I get the cognitive dissonance these people are expressing. They didn’t believe that superhero stories were also supposed to have thematic depth that explores real, honest and modern issues. But that’s exactly what superhero stories should be doing, which makes Jessica Jones kind of the Platonic ideal of the superhero story. This may be the very best example of the genre yet.  

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