Jessica Jones Season 1 (TV Show Review)
The world of superhero television has been quite a abuzz this year. Whether it is the topic of the new DC Television shows like Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow or Arrow and Agents of SHIELD coming back for yet more after seeing some record success, or even the release of the Netflix Marvel shows, 2015 has been pretty damn incredible so far. And it only keeps getting better. Earlier this year we had the first of the new Defenders franchise, Daredevil, which did an incredible job of bringing the blind lawyer and superhero Matt Murdoch to television. Successful enough that it was almost immediately renewed for a second season, which only seems to be getting better with each new piece of information coming out about the show’s production.
But of course, one of the things that Daredevil was meant to do was pave the way for Jessica Jones, the second show in the series of 4 that will eventually lead to a Defenders show. Starring the likes of Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, Mike Colter and Rachael Taylor, Jessica Jones has had a great first season, and I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the show. Sure, it had some hits and misses like most debut shows (especially the superhero variety), but it also did some really mind-boggling things that you wouldn’t have expected. And the stars, and the writing and everything else all fit together into a really neat package that is worth going back for a rewatch.
The idea of this show is that our lead character is one of the many “gifted” people that have been appearing more and more. It all kicked off with the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk, but while those particular stories focused on the grandiose elements of superhero fiction, the likes of Daredevil and Jessica Jones focus on something very different – the general chaos on the streets of the city of New York. While villains such as Red Hood, Ultron and Ming are certainly individuals that deserve to be taken down, we also have villains on the streets, villains such as multi-millionaire Wilson Fisk and the super-villain Kilgrave. The goal of the Netflix shows is to show how there are conflicts on the street-level, where the stakes are much lower in comparison than in the grandiose adventures of the Avengers, but no less important.
In that particular context, I believe that Jessica Jones takes on a whole different meaning. First of all, the titular character is only the second woman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be leading her own story. While Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Pepper Potts, and Jane Foster have had their few minutes of fame, it wasn’t until this year’s Agent Carter that we first go to see a full-on female-oriented story in the MCU. And even then, the show’s first season was a paltry eight episodes that was only a fill-in for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, which paved the way for the MCU on television back in 2013.
Comparisons between Agent Carter and Jessica Jones will inevitably be made, but I think that that would be a disservice to both shows. First, Agent Carter didn’t get to really take-off in the way that other superhero shows of late have been able to do. Second, it was only an experiment and a fill-in whereas Jessica Jones is part of a much larger plan with a greater drive and impetus behind it. For that reason, I look at both these shows very differently, though I like them both equally.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand.
The first season of Jessica Jones runs at a pretty decent 13 episodes, which is the metric for the Netflix-released Marvel shows. Having a much shorter season than usual means that the show is really able to find its groove and run with it, instead of dissolving into an occasional boring segment that only puts the characters through their paces rather than really advance the storyline, as has been the case with most of the superhero shows we’ve seen to date. And unique to Netflix, the entire season was released altogether, making a binge-watch of the show fairly easy. And I loved that aspect of it as well.
When it was announced that Krysten Ritter was going to be Jessica Jones, I had my doubts. I had seen some of her work before and none of it convinced me that she was a good choice for a character who is a mainstay in the Marvel street heroes division, and is even more important when you consider that she has often been one of many bridging characters better street heroes and the big leagues of the Avengers and the like. But then, I started watching the first episode, and I was hooked. Ritter hit the character on point and she was perfect for what she was called on to do. There certainly was a moment here and there where Ritter’s performance didn’t impress and where I kind of felt that she was overdoing the dialogue and the scene, but by and large I was left excited by what she did.
While I wish that the show had focused a bit more on her career as a private investigator, the meta-story of her fight against the villain Kilgrave was extremely fascinating, especially once you consider the many themes that the show’s writers and directors seeded in.
The show dealt with, first and foremost, post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is a medical condition that many people live with everyday, and until now we have never really gotten a good luck at how it can affect superheroes. Sure, there was the whole subplot in Iron Man 3 regarding this but it was terribly written and the movie itself was below-average. Jessica Jones takes it to a whole different level. Given the mental and physical abuse that she endured while under Kilgrave’s influence, Jessica’s self-recovery is remarkably well-portrayed and is always presented in service of the larger story rather than something the writers might have twisted on itself to present a negative portrayal. And that’s where I applaud the show the most. Portraying PTSD on television is never an easy task, but the writers here succeeded quite well, and I’m happy that they didn’t focus too much on it, bringing it up now and then when it made sense for the story but never overdoing it. And Ritter’s performance was exceptional as well. I wouldn’t have expected it of her before, but I am definitely a believer now.
Then there’s the issue of rape, and this ties in to Jessica’s PTSD. Kilgrave, while being one of the most fascinating of all Marvel cinematic villains to date, was also a very horrible human being. His ability to make people do whatever he told them to, regardless of their own desires, is a powerful ability and he certainly abused it as much as he could. His mental abuse of Jessica was worse than his physical abuse of her, but no less important, and it was very sobering to see how the writers brought up the issue of rape and its effects on the victim involved. This was one of the cornerstones of Jessica’s fight-back against Kilgrave and while I wish that the scripts had tried to shed some more light on this, I am still satisfied with what the writers did. It was much more than I had expected and it also neatly fell into the larger framework of the show.
Another thing that the show tried to do in its first season is show the different kinds of relationships that can exist between two women, whether they be familial or romantic or sororal (sororital?). Jessica’s relationship with her friend Trish is a core part of who she is, both before and after her incident with Kilgrave. Growing up, the two of them had each other to lean on during the hard times, such as when Trish’s abusive and fame-hungry mother exposed her dark side. As adults, the two of them still lean on each other when things get tough and when they need to get back in touch with who they are. I loved how the writers presented their relationship, and both Ritter and Taylor were also pretty exceptional in that regard. I haven’t seen much of Taylor’s previous work either, which also has to do with the fact that she really hasn’t made much of a mark in Hollywood to date despite some high-profile work, but as with Ritter, Jessica Jones marks a big turnaround for her I feel. As the fearless radio host Trish Walker, Rachael Taylor showed what she is really capable of, and the fact that she got to do a few action scenes of her own was also a great move since it broker her out of what could have been a very cliche role.
And then there’s the romantic relationship between Carrie-Anne Moss’ Jeri Hogarth and Susie Abromeit’s Pam, who are in a lesbian relationship that is complicated by the fact that the former is married to Robin Weigert’s Wendy Ross. In that one stroke, we see two very different same-sex relationships. In another era and in another show, this would have been a love-triangle centered on a man who was cheating on his wife with his assistant. But the roles are somewhat reversed that all three characters involved are women. It adds both a sense of contemporary normalcy and advocacy in one. The central concept of superhero shows is that we are watching the lives of people who are different from us and yet not all that different. So what better way to highlight that than showing us a complicated romantic relationship triangle between women? I loved it, and would even extend my wishlist further by saying that I wish we had been able to get deeper in the relationship between Jeri and Wendy, because I found that to be one of the more fascinating aspects of the show, an aspect where a great relationship turned to bitterness and hate. Towards the end of the season this developed into a cliche and the “resolution” wasn’t all that great either, but I think that still feeds into how the lives of everyone in the show is changed once they come into the orbit of Jessica Jones and thus, by extension, Kilgrave.
Another great thing about the show was how the writers dealt with the concept of loss. Loss of innocence. Loss of childhood. Loss of love. Loss of self-control. Loss of good old-fashioned normalcy. Every character in the show has either already had some kind of a loss or suffers through one over the course of the season. Centered around the larger story of Jessica’s fight against Kilgrave, each of these situations is put into stark contrast with each other and we really come to feel for all of the characters. Surprisingly enough, there was even a moment during the second half of the season when I really felt for Kilgrave. No one really starts out as being evil of course, and each villain is driven by some kind of desire or trauma that transforms him or her into what they later become. It was true of Loki in Thor, of Wilson Fisk in Daredevil, and now also for Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. This is where the writers’ handling of the various sensitive themes on the show really came into focus: can a villain as repulsive as Kilgrave be somehow justifiable in his actions and can he be made to be a sympathetic character to even a minute degree? I think perhaps that there can be a simple reason for it: power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And so starts a train of loss that affects every character, whether it be our titular hero, or her next-door neighbour, or her friends, or her family. There are little connections everywhere, and the writers do a great job of stringing it all together into a really complicated web that starts to become clearer as the show goes on.
But to get back to the concept of loss on the show, some of the things really make you feel for the character. The biggest moment certainly has to be the ending of the first episode when Hope Schlottman does something terrible under the influence of Kilgrave’s powers. It is absolutely heart-breaking, not the least because it puts Jessica into a position she had actively tried not to be in, and yet could not prevent in the end. Then there’s the scene much later on when Mike Colter’s Luke Cage finds out the truth about his wife Reva’s death. That had been set up since pretty much the start of the show, but to get to the final and big reveal of it, the moment still hits you pretty hard. In the comics, Luke Cage is one of the premier street heroes of Marvel, but here we see a very earthly, very earnest side of the character. His own series is next in the chain of the Netflix shows, if I recall correctly, so to see how the events of Jessica Jones carry over is certainly going to be a unique experience.
Much like Daredevil, Jessica Jones keeps its storyline close to the chest. The reveals are all impactful enough and often they surprise the hell out of you because of the way that certain plot dominoes had been setup. And this is all the more important because of the way that Kilgrave’s powers work, and the way in which he exploits them to the full. But then again, we also have a supersleuth on our hands, and in the end, I liked the message that the show sent to its viewers. It was a…. resolution that had been a long time coming, and it certainly made me think long and hard about how we got to that point and how it all finally went down.
In terms of the performances on the show, as mentioned above, Krysten and her co-stars were all stellar. David Tennant as Kilgrave was spectacular. As tough as it might have been for Krysten Ritter to portray Jessica Jones, I think a much harder challenge was faced by Tenant, because he had to portray one of the most villainous and creepiest Marvel cinematic character to date. We start off being sympathetic to Jessica Jones given the way that the show begins, and she remains the hero till the end, while Kilgrave is enemy number one and the target for all our anger and our invested vengeance. But at the same time, Tennant made the character believable in a way that I hadn’t thought was possible. I know very little about Kilgrave from the comics, but I do know the kind of monster he is, and Tennant simply went above and beyond what could have been expected.
At the same time however, Rachael Taylor and Mike Colter also deserve some praise. Regrettably, their screentime was less than I wanted to see, but at the same time, they were also standouts. In particular, Rachael Taylor made a great case for being an action hero in her own right. Her own character is as complicated as that of Jessica, and from the first moment that we meet Trish Walker, we see someone who deserves to be as much in the spotlight as Jessica herself. Thing is, that while Jessica is the headliner of the show for sure, the story isn’t just about her, but also the people around her, especially people who share her negative experiences with Kilgrave, with Trish being one of those. Trish also suffers from some PTSD when she is exposed to Kilgrave, and I found that to be one of the hardest things to watch, because of the way that she had been setup to be one of the good guys, a sympathetic character. We never really see the kind of torture that Jessica had to endure, but we do see some frightening glimpses of it with Trish. You feel appalled at some of it, especially right towards the end, but the silver lining is in how Trish deals with that experience and how she takes charge of her life to make sure that something like it never happens if she can help it.
Mike Colter’s character was the big puppy character of the show, right from the start. As such, he probably gets a lot of sympathy from the viewer, but then again, he is also someone rising above the material. His performance is a subtler one than that of Ritter or Taylor or Tennant or anyone else on the show, but it is no less important to the larger scheme of things. His scenes made you want to watch more of him. In the comics, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones are a power couple among the heroes of the Marvel universe and that unfortunately laid a lot of weight on how Ritter and Colter had to portray the beginnings of the same. But they both made it to the end with top marks, and a lot of that has to do with how easy the chemistry between the two was on the show. And also, I loved seeing a softer side of Luke Cage, the man who will eventually become the superhero known as Power Man, one of many.
One thing that I definitely didn’t like all that much on the show, and is something that Jessica Jones shares with Daredevil, is that they are a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but at the same time pains are taken to distance them from the same. The invasion by Loki’s allies in Avengers is referred to as “the incident” and is never really addressed. At least in Daredevil Wilson Fisk was portrayed as someone looking to lift New York City above that particular event and better the lives of everyone involved, especially those who suffered. In Jessica Jones we only get the barest of name-drops, and it is really frustrating because it mimics much of Agents of SHIELD‘s first season where, despite the show involving an original MCU character as a lead, the connections between the show and the MCU were few and far-in-between. I mean, just acknowledge it already, and refer to the big time heroes with their names rather than with oblique references. I get that these shows in particular are meant to be self-contained and all, but there were times when it got a bit much.
To add on to that, we also didn’t get to see Jessica do more PI work. It is her job, her professional calling, and yet we see very little of it. The show was simply focused too much on her tenuous relationship with Kilgrave rather than fleshing out the other parts of her life, her identity. After all, it was right when Trish had convinced her to be a superhero that she ran into Kilgrave, and after that she decided to help people as a PI, though much of her work involved people cheating on their partners and the like rather than anything more…. substantial. That is something that I hope the second season will focus on, because it adds an entirely new dimension to the wave of superhero shows we are getting right now, and can also serve as a counterpoint to Daredevil: Jessica helps people as a private detective while Matt Murdoch saves them in the court. And given that Rosario Dawson’s character Claire Temple also made a guest appearance in the finale, it could be the start of a professional relationship between the two heroes.
To close it all out, I think that Jessica Jones was a pretty phenomenal show. It did a lot of things that I didn’t expect it to do, and it mostly succeeded in everything it did. By tackling the various themes that it did (drug addiction was another one of them), it positioned itself favourably in the ongoing contemporary dialogues on women, relationships, heroism, self-identity, etc, and it also put forward a great case for more women in superhero television/cinema. Based on the results from Agent Carter and Jessica Jones, I can only hope that we get those Black Widow and Captain Marvel movies soon-ish, and don’t have to wait years and years. And perhaps we can even get the current crop of Marvel semi-leading ladies to take on greater context and be much better positioned than they are right now (especially ones like Gamora, who are so horribly positioned as love interests rather than being characters in their own right).
Jessica Jones is a show that you absolutely must-watch, if for no other reason that it is a bridging show between the likes of Agent Carter/Agents of SHIELD and the Marvel movies.
Posted on December 4, 2015, in Jessica Jones, Review Central, TV Show Reviews and tagged Carrie-Anne Moss, Claire Temple, David Tennant, Diversity, Diversity in Comics, Diversity In MCU, Diversity In Television, Eka Darville, Erin Moriarty, Female Protagonists, Female Superheroes, Jeri Hogarth, Jessica Jones, Kilgrave, Krysten Ritter, Luke Cage, Marvel's Jessica Jones, Mike Colter, Rachael Taylor, Rosario Dawson, Sexual Diversity, Superheroes, Susie Abromeit, Trish Walker, Warrior Women, Wil Traval, Women in Comics, Women in Television. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.