“I was never the hero you wanted me to be.”
— Jessica Jones
Look out, Daredevil: a new Marvel superstar has joined the Netflix Originals roster. Jessica Jones is a gloomy twist on a superhero story starring Krysten Ritter of Breaking Bad, Mike Colter from The Good Wife (as Luke Cage, scheduled to have his own show in 2016), and David Tennant of Doctor Who fame.
Jones is an outcast superhuman who gives up the life of a superhero for a lucrative private investigator business called Alias Investigations. She’s a deadpan, alcoholic, detective genius whose method of getting the job done tends to rub people the wrong way. In the first episode, Jones is tasked with serving an evasive nightclub owner with court papers. She secures her target by lifting the back of his car and “threatening him with [her] laser eyes.” The laser eyes might have been a bluff, but the super-strength was all too real, and she brandished it, unlike most familiar heroes we’ve seen lately, unmasked. Jones’s first major case of the season involves finding a missing girl named Hope.
When her potential captor reveals some familiar habits, Jones is sent into a spiral of dysphoria and panic as she begins the hunt for a man she believed to be dead. A man she saw die. The first episode feels a bit disorganized, with too many characters flitting in and out of the story in relatively short bursts. It doesn’t help that we are seeing the story unfold from the perspective of a reckless alcoholic with hallucinations caused by PTSD. There is just too much going on and too many disjointed tidbits of vaguely relevant information.
Jones’s best friend is a news reporter with mother issues, who’s also an adoptive sister. A friendly bartender—who is unknowingly sleeping with a married woman—is the “unbreakable” man (his skin can’t be punctured). The fighting neighbours upstairs are fraternal twins with a disconcerting dynamic. The lesbian legal firm owner is cheating on her wife with her secretary. A mind-controlled cop develops a conscience and gets too involved in a world outside of his norm. There are frequent visits from a drug-addled, well-meaning, peanut-butter loving…companion? The layers of backstory feel like they have been placed but not properly woven together, the equivalent of dotting a paint on a canvas but forgetting to blend it in. There is so much potential, but it is produced clumsily.
Jessica Jones is an amazing character, though, and that’s the redeeming quality of a season that gets off to a bit of a scatter-brained start. She’s dynamic, brazen, and intelligent. She uses people mercilessly, but the immediate regret is tangible. And when the storylines and characters become more coherent and fleshed out around episode 4 or 5, the world of Jessica Jones actually begins to deserve its title character in all of her complicated glory.
Maybe the show tries to overreach a bit by introducing too much too quickly. But it’s this broad-reaching storytelling that allows for one of the most compelling parts of the show: Its connection to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. The ties between the MCU and Marvel’s various television shows (Agents of Shield and Agent Carter, for example) are pretty obvious, but the connection is rarely made explicit. Jessica Jones discards the conventions of secrecy and subtlety when, in a shocking moment, Luke Cage acknowledges “the big green dude and his crew.” It was an exciting moment, this small nod to the larger Marvel movies. But the show goes on from there, referencing “The Incident” where the city was “being attacked by aliens” and even including a storyline where a victim of the New York battle in The Avengers goes after Jones for being one of those “freaks.”
If only all the Marvel TV shows got this star treatment.
By tying Jessica Jones into the wider MCU, the show establishes a longer, deeper backstory than 14 episodes could possibly convey. It also makes Jones’s story seem more vital and her flaws and reservations more believable. She has other superhumans to look up to, although she doesn’t necessarily like what she sees. This connection is important for Jessica Jones because the central antagonist comes across as lacking. Most superheroes deal with organized crime, plots to destroy the city or the world; Jones is dealing with…well, a glorified stalker.
Kilgrave, David Tennant’s character and the show’s main villain, uses his mind-control powers to obsessively stalk, torment, and (in the past) manipulate Jones. He has her photographed and followed, he hypnotizes her into a romantic relationship with him, he raves about her to his latest victim (the missing girl, Hope), and he takes an entire police precinct hostage to confess his love for her. If Jones wasn’t such an interesting character, the underlying conflict would be utter shite.
Another issue the show struggles with is the lack of prolonged suspense. Things seem to happen in full view (Kilgrave’s elaborate plot to buy and recreate Jones’s childhood home) or entirely out-of-the-blue (Jones waking up to a dead body in her bed). Without the shades of grey in between, the show has no tension. Mysteries don’t hold up for more than an episode, at most. The few unknowns that aren’t revealed straightaway (for example, Trish’s relationship with her mother, which is hinted at in the first episode and not explored until episodes 6 and 7) are exposed entirely over a condensed amount of time. There is no tact, no nuance. Instead of a breadcrumb trail, we get the whole loaf.
Jessica Jones may handle supervillians poorly, but it handles “superheroes” with style. It dodges the expectations placed upon it, like Jones assuming a “secret identity” or a colorful costume. In fact, it actively pokes fun at these trends. When Jones’s best friend Trish, a popular talk-show host and a former child star, suggests that Jones don a costume and “save the world,” Jones not only refuses but demonstrates the danger of wearing a mask, flipping it slightly to the side so the wearer can no longer see. Jones stops a car from hitting a young girl in a crowded street while wearing a mascot sandwich suit; she’s not interested in hiding. When speaking to Kilgrave, she mentions his assumed name is “kinda obvious” and asks whether “Murdergrave” had been taken. It’s like the show is trying to say: “Hey, remember all those superhero stories you’ve been inundated with lately? This isn’t one of them.” In some ways this is a good thing; in others, not so much.
It isn’t until episode 9 (“AKA Sin Bin”) that the series starts really to take some exciting twists and turns. This episode is absolute chaos, with an electrified prison, a family reunion, a death-by-scissors, and some surprising betrayals. I won’t elaborate, as I want to avoid major spoilers, but the series shifts from a bit cartoonish and predictable to deeply disturbing in all the right ways. So if you can hold out until here, the time you’ve spent with the series will be well rewarded. I look forward to season 2, hoping that this intensified level of drama will transition smoothly into future story arcs. Jessica Jones may not be love at first sight, but it at least deserves a second date.