[Review] - Jessica Jones

Courtesy of Marvel Television Productions
Last week, I had kind of a break down over the new Supergirl series. I wasn't kind to it, because it no longer deserves kindness. And part of that was, in the days preceding and week following that particular episode, I was slowly making my way through Jessica Jones, the latest Marvel/Netlfix production, and step two on the road to The Defenders. And frankly, Jessica Jones is everything that Supergirl clearly aspires to be, but with a significant difference: Jessica Jones is good. Really good. Not as good as it's predecessor Daredevil (though I haven't rewatched that series since earlier this year, and the two series certainly deserve side-by-side comparison). But if the goal was to create a modern, engaging, female-lead series that made worthy comment on society and culture through extensive metaphor, then they blew the roof off it. It wasn't all perfect (all shows cannot be Hannibal or Ash Vs Evil Dead), but damned if it wasn't close.

It occurred to me after finishing the series up that Jessica Jones is the embodiment of counter-argument for every complaint against the MCU. No female leads? Rectified. Very few minorities? Solved. Shallow relationships between romantic interests and friends? Resolved. Ineffective villains? Avoided. I might even go so far as to say that, as financially successful as the movies are and will likely continue to be, the TV division is putting the heat on. And Kevin Feige needs to stop being so flip or disinterested in what Jeph Loeb is doing with these Netflix properties. Because these two series, and Agent Carter, are better then a large swatch of the films that Feige has made (Agents of SHIELD is not). They just are. They are better stories, they are better characters, they are fuller and more rounded and more open to actually doing interesting things than just creating more franchise fodder.

And it should also be noted that the cast is almost entirely women and minorities. In fact, there are only four Caucasian males in recurring roles. The series can best be summed up as "several women and minorities are dominated, assaulted, restrained and threatened by a British WASP." And if that isn't a metaphor for the modern world of entertainment, I don't know what else could be. Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that would put day drinking under special skills.

Let's get right to it, shall we: Jessica Jones is a series that unabashedly and very directly tackles the issues of PTSD, rape, abortion, alcoholism, guilt, abuse, and racism. This is a very direct show. But it manages to be direct without being anvilicious. It manages to be direct and frank and honest about these very heavy topics, and manages to be very entertaining in the process. And it only feels the need to cover about half of these topics in metaphor. Now, comic books are at their best when they are metaphors. Spider-man is actually about puberty, X-Men is actually about Civil Rights, Batman is actually about... well, Batman. But more often than not, in book and film form, the message is forgotten or forsaken in favour of big explosions and lots of special effects. Jessica Jones is the first of the MCU products, and the first comic book movie/TV series since X2 that I feel really uses the concept of metaphoric story telling to it's maximum potential.

Jessica Jones is all about relationships. This is key to it's success. It isn't about finding a Macguffin, or over throwing a dictator. It's about how a character relates to another. It's entirely character based. While Daredevil was character driven, it was also very event oriented. A series of specific maneuvers meant to drive Matt closer to Fisk. Here, the lone goal is "getting" Kilgrave. But even that goal lacks clear result until more than half way through the series. "Getting" him transforms over the course of these 13 episodes from avoiding him at all costs, to arresting him, to implicating him, to finally killing him. And what keeps moving those goal posts is the evolving relationships between Jessica and the other characters that inhabit her world. Basically, as each relationship deteriorates, usually at Kilgrave's hand, her resolve at finding a more permanent end hardens.

When the series starts, Jessica is alone, scared and broken. She has no friends, no family, and no hope. And yet, it is in this state that she is most capable of mercy, in that she's much prefer to ignore something until it goes away, or run from her problems. As the series progresses, as her relationships increase, as she finds reason to care about things in the world again, its when she becomes capable of murder. Matt Murdock spent his thirteen episodes debating whether or not he could kill someone, but his goal in killing would have only ever been for the sake of an abstract idea. Like Batman, Daredevil fights for Justice. He doesn't really have anything to loose, not even himself. For Jessica, the entirety of the fight is personal. She has no secret identity to hide behind, therefore making her whole life a raw nerve for Kilgrave to poke at. Trish, Luke, Hope, Jeri, Malcolm are all weapons against her, sometimes literally. And unlike other villains that make veiled threats and never follow through, Kilgrave is and does make good. There is a constant threat of menace hanging over the entire series, as you are never entirely certain who is operating of their own accord, and who might end up stepping off a ledge at any given moment.

Like Daredevil, the series exists within the world of the larger MCU but aside from casual mentions of "the green guy" explicit references to the Avengers are kept minimal. Instead, and what we had hoped would be the case with AoS way back when, is that they've opted to do some significant world building. Showing us the effects of living in a world with superheroes has on every day life. And the result is oddly but also naturally pessimistic. Superheroes aren't lauded as gods among men, they are viewed with suspicion and ire. People tormented by loss seek to extract revenge, and the average person reacts with uncertainty and discomfort at the discovery of a person's abilities. A lot of America's racial issues are examined throughout the season, as people either refuse to admit there is an issue, or over react and judge all by the actions (or imagined slights) of the few.

The rest of the time, the show doesn't either worry about subtly. Jessica is raped. Hope is raped. Trish is physically abused. Jeri is attacked. They all suffer for it. The difference between doing this well and doing this exploitatively, is that they never feel like victims. They are victims, and they all react with the appropriate emotions, but these narrative devices aren't done at their expense. They aren't done for cheap storytelling drama, or to push another character's story. If any of them had, Jessica Jones risked becoming just another in a long line of stories that turned trauma into entertainment. Instead, they treated trauma as trauma. And because this is a world of metaphors, when these victims find their strength to rise above their trauma, that strength is literally super.

The greatest strength the series has is in the supporting cast. As good  job as Kristen Ritter does, the show runs very close to making Jessica the second fiddle of her own story. The writers did an amazing job fleshing out every single back story and creating real and engaging characters for us to follow. The MCU movies tend to focus on the hero above all others, and it shows through underdevelopment. Even Daredevil, which did a great job with Matt and Fisk, made less of an impact with Foggy and Karen and Ben. In Jessica Jones, there isn't a single character that feels under-served by their screen time. Hell, even Pam the Secretary gets a fully formed arc. That's not to say they aren't all perfect. Clemons suffers the same issues as Ben did on the other story, in that he's basically there to be an authority figure for Jessica to convince of the baddie's badness. And Robyn, despite meaning to be a sympathetic character, is never likable enough to be anything other than an annoyance. Jeri's storyline runs dangerously close to cliche, but is saved by a pretty great and understated performance form Carrie-Ann Moss, and the fact that they took a very cliched male arc and gave it to a lesbian character.

The greater successes of the show exist in the characters of Trish and Luke. The show is really unfair in giving us this much of Mike Coulter's Luke Cage now, as all it really makes us want the full Luke Cage series now please. Coulter is infinitely watchable, and while his absence in half the episodes is never pressing, as soon as he reappears, you feel as though it should have been. I am now very much looking forward to Luke Cage, because there is no doubt that Coulter will be able to carry it with charm and poise. Cage and Jones' relationship is a godsend of televised romance, not over-inflated, not inevitable, but seeming completely natural and destructive and complicated, as normally happens when you fall for someone that you probably shouldn't. As often as I extol the virtues of the platonic relationship between characters, I'm not adverse to a well constructed romance. And that is what we get here. The series also wisely avoids giving characters absolutes. No one proclaims love, no one promises the world. They roll with the swings and roundabouts, and nothing comes easy.

Equally beautiful is the relationship the shows builds between Jessica and Trish. Trish might well be my favourite character on the show, and proof to nay-sayers and Marvel head honchos that no character should be discounted just because they aren't a headliner. The fantastic failure of the Fantastic Four, and the utter success of Trish "Hellcat" Walker are proof that it is all in the approach. Trish would normally be the damsel role, except she's just as active and proactive as Jessica. In fact, she's more zealous and more inclined to take action despite the danger than Jessica. Trish and Jessica form your standard hot-and-cold pair. Where one is open, the other is closed. Where one sees opportunity, the other sees inconvenience. The show glosses over the fact that it was Trish's pushing Jessica into heroics that resulted in her drawing Kilgrave's attention. the show isn't about blame. Or rather, it isn't about allowing blame to turn into poison. Using Kilgrave's abilities as a metaphor, the show allows characters to actually deal and confront other characters about their actions. Too many shows just let characters fester in silence. Jones forces characters to admit their actions, and to work to earn forgiveness. And in that forgiveness, to become stronger.

A lot of credit is being laid at the feet of David Tennant's performance as Kilgrave, and a lot of that is earned. He does a very good job of playing a loser. What makes Kilgrave effective is his apathy and his own perverse emotions. He doesn't care about anyone else but himself, and that makes him dangerous. Every single action is self serving. When we first meet him, this makes him menacing. But as the show shifts and we learn more about him, we discover that the reasons for his egotism is that he is a pathetic, sad lonely man incapable of admitting his own responsibility. And the show comes right up to the raggedy edge of making him sympathetic. Jessica attempts to show him that his powers can be used for good, and his back story does contain all the elements of making him a tragic character. But brilliantly and rightly, they always bring it back around to the the fact that his powers have essentially turned him into a spoiled child who was never told no. His infatuation with Jessica has nothing to do with her. He wants her because of how he feels around her, and because she was the first person who properly said no to him. This series is essentially a child testing the limits of that no. The result is an unpredictable and gloriously despicable character on the page, and Tennant brings his standard charm to the role, which produces a thick layer of sleaze. I wouldn't, as many are, tout him as Marvel's greatest villain, but he certainly ranks.

As I was watching the series, it felt at times that the pacing was off. Daredevil was a steady climb, a building tension that only relented in the final episode. Jones was much more in tune to the standard ebb and flow, and one could easily make out where, had ABC produced the show way back when, they would have filled in the season with filler and bottle episodes to kill off extraneous episodes. Multiple times, I thought the writers had taken things too far in one direction too early. Most discomforting to the pace was Jessica's journey to the suburbs in episode 8. In the end, and in retrospect, this was all intentional. There was actually far less decompression then there seemed, though there was some, which resulting in the show having about ten or eleven solid episodes worth of story spread over thirteen. And the Will character, while interesting at first, seemed to take a hard right in his third or forth appearance, and became a tool for the writers to introduce larger concepts that will likely have some pay off in other series or seasons, but mostly become a distraction here (though they do allow Trish to get a taste of Jessica' world).

Even before Daredevil premiered, Jessica Jones was the Defenders series I was most anticipating. And thankfully, it lived up to that anticipation. If nothing else, it shows that the Netflix team have a solid, sturdy handle on how to make these shows to maximum effectiveness, and the second time around have shown that they are capable of learning form their mistakes and making improvements. It stands to reason that, as Daredevil made Jessica Jones a better show, Jessica Jones will make Daredevil season 2 better still, and that in turn will improve Luke Cage. And so on and so forth, until they all meet up in what I expect will be a very cussy, whisky soaked brawl of a team-up season. With Rosario Dawson being the snarky Coulson of Hell's Kitchen all the way. And I'm looking so much more forward to that than the Civil or Infinity Wars.

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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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