Jessica Jones is a very interesting choice of characters for Marvel’s second installment in their direct-to-Netflix Defenders chronology, particularly because she’s never a Defender. For a more general audience, though, this is an even more interesting choice because Jessica Jones isn’t the sort of comic book character that’s “mainstream” in the geek knowledge-base. She’s more niche geek, if you will. That said, she’s played a role in the Avengers and crossed paths with other characters from Hell’s Kitchen, notably Daredevil and, more consistently, Luke Cage, so this series makes sense in a courageous way from Netflix’s perspective.
For those who don’t know, Jessica Jones receives her superhuman abilities in childhood following an accident, and her attempts at being a hero (de-emphasized in the writing of this series) don’t end well as she falls into the hands of Zebediah Kilgrave. She instead becomes a private detective. In the series, this is less from a desire to do good than it is to “make a living in this…town,” but she’s also good at it, although catching others in extramarital affairs is less than glamorous.
I liked the directorial choice to emphasize the “private eye” element of this story, because it’s part of what sets Jones’ character apart. The opening score is outstanding, full or noir-ish appeal blended with modern edge that captures the character and her landscape perfectly. The score becomes extremely important as the series progresses, because it doesn’t recur regularly. In fact most episodes open without it, and the entire opening credits sequence is only used to mark a new act, as it were, in the story. The directors make use of this creative decision quite effectively.
Overall, the writers have been very faithful to the characters, as well. We see adapted origin stories, as is expected at some level when the stories move to the screen, but they are still handled mostly with respect to the canon. We see a fringe villain introduced, and I’m very impressed with Rachael Taylor’s (of Transformer’s fame) portrayal of Jessica’s friend, Trish Walker…aka Patsy Walker, aka one of Marvel’s oldest heroes, Hellcat. While we don’t see any costumed identity launched in this season for Trish, we certainly see a respectable groundwork laid for her, which I’m in hopes Marvel will develop further.
The writers have also impressed with their introduction of Luke Cage. This was sort of necessary, as it would be impossible to divorce Jones’ and Cage’s stories and still remain faithful to the comics canon (their romantic involvement anchors multiple story arcs). Cage is gritty and real. His conversation over breakfast with Jones about the nature of their abilities and the stories of their acquisition is pleasing to any serious fan in its brevity and light-heartedness. One of the things done well here is that the characters are all picked up well after their origins. We don’t see them acquire their powers, we only see how they’ve learned to adapt their lives to having them. These are characters, as Captain America phrases it in the printed version of Civil War, who are “close to the street.” They don’t don costumes and fight alien invasions (at least not yet). They fight to survive the evil around them, and hopefully save some other lives in the process.
What’s particularly compelling about Jessica Jones as a character is that she flees from heroism, but, in the literature at least, only after trying to use her abilities for good in that way. Here, we don’t see Jones wanting toward being a hero in an overt way. Although her impulse is to save those in trouble when she has the option, her goal is survival. Still, we see this survival instinct as only a secondary desire to revenge, to the point that she is willing to sacrifice several other lives in order stop Kilgrave late in the series. She even tells Trish at one point, “I’m still not the hero you want me to be.”
Another outstanding point in the series is both the writers’ treatment of, and David Tenant’s performance of, Kilgrave. Felt as much in his absence in early episodes, descriptions of him from other characters paint him in a manner to match the very visible outcomes of the use of his powers. That is, we see Kilgrave’s actions before we meet him, and the result is a villain that is, without question, terrifying. Kilgrave leaves the viewer disturbed, shaken, and questioning their own thoughts on many evenings after watching one of these episodes. This could be the most insidious villain we’ve seen from Marvel Studios to date, and that’s no small accomplishment.
Unfortunately, what the writers and directors did well in plot and treatment, they nearly destroyed with lack of taste. Something that sets apart Netflix’s presentation of the characters of Hell’s Kitchen is their brooding realism. The violence is more violent (something that detracted heavily from Daredevil’s first season), the darkness darker, the passions more full in this depraved section of New York. The directors of Jessica Jones made poor decisions to take sexual elements that were necessary to the story and transform them into the most racy and most crass scenes possible, giving minutes of graphic screen time to the plot point that two characters slept with one another. Similarly, a lot of screen time is given to two attorneys whose romance, while hardly worth mentioning in the overall plot of the season, was given extended time in multiple episodes, as though only there for public opinion points, not for the story. While the violence is not as overstated as Daredevil, there a several moments when the resulting gore certainly is. The blood and shock value is numbing, causing the viewer to detach rather than engage the evil acts of Kilgrave.
That’s just bad art.
Then, there’s the dialogue.
For everything that the writers did well in plotting this season, they fell short of in dialogue. The banter between characters does manage to have a few scattered bright moments (likely due to the actors’ performances saving the scenes), but, overall, interactions between characters (especially those who are not leads) leaves much to be desired. Most distracting is the writer’s love a very specific obscenity. While there are very notable exceptions in which a very good writer can get by with this, this isn’t that writer and not one of those moments. When one character’s speech cadence is marked by an obscenity as a pausal phrase, then that’s a character. When every character’s speech cadence uses the same, that’s the mark of a writer who cannot find the characters’ voices. This distracted me severely enough to make me miss important information more than once.
That’s just bad craft.
There’s an intentional harmony, or at least an attempt at one, made in several moments here…a discord between Jones’ heroic impulses and the pragmatism forced on her by her environs. There’s a glimpse of the costume that she wore in the comics as Jewel that delights fans, for certain, but also references so subtle as to be easily missed when she intervenes on behalf of those who can’t help themselves, and another characters tells her at one point, “You’re a good person, Jessica Jones.” Jessica simply swaggers away, maintaining her facade that she needs no one else around, and continues to survive. This lack of overt heroism, however, is not as much of a detractor from Jones’ character as one might imagine. Rather, it actually makes her more compelling, an extremely human struggle to move past trauma and take the journey from anti-hero to hero, which is where we see our tough-as-nails P.I. in the last scene.
Jessica Jones is a fascinating character full of potential, someone original that gives a lot of depth to the Marvel Universe on the page. She can give this depth to the on-screen universe, as well, if she can survive poor writing and directing. This season, while it did a lot of good things, was mostly lost to bad taste. I hope that future installments will be back to (at least) the level of what began with Daredevil. If you intentionally dig for the good as you watch this season of Jessica Jones, you’ll find it. Otherwise, it will seem like every other program that you might watch on HBO, and you’ll move on. If you’ve never met the character before, that would be a shame, but it’s true.