Jessica Jones, Season 1
Created by Melissa Rosenberg
Released November 20th, 2015 by Netflix
The relationship between Jessica (Krysten Ritter) and Kilgrave (David Tennant) is at the heart of Jessica Jones’ first season. Her fear of, and desire to get revenge on, Kilgrave make for compelling character motivations, propelling Jessica through her various crises without ever suggesting that he is the only noteworthy aspect of her life. He makes for an excellent foil, getting just enough humanizing backstory to be believable without his villainy ever being in doubt. In lesser hands, Kilgrave’s tortured history with his parents (revealed in “AKA Sin Bin” and “AKA 1,000 Cuts”) could suggest the show siding with the perpetrator, but showrunner Melissa Rosenberg is careful to never let the viewer forget about the pain he causes Jessica, regardless of the reason for his evil.
Tennant and Ritter are crucial in developing the characters as individuals and in relation to one another. Ritter’s sullen face conveys the horrific effect of Kilgrave’s treatment, showing the suffering her past continues to cause her while also emphasizing her defiance. Ritter maintains a difficult balance between likability and anti-heroicism, creating a character the viewer can’t help but root for even as Jessica’s attitude risks alienating audience sympathies.
Tennant also does a brilliant job of preserving a balance between character traits, even if his task is of a quite different nature. On the one hand, Kilgrave is a suave, charismatic figure, seeming like he could get nearly whatever he wanted even without his mind control powers. But in spite of his appeal, he is a rapist and murderer, and Tennant keeps the character’s heinous actions at the forefront. The result makes for compelling drama, as the pathos of Jessica’s quest collides with Kilgrave’s unforgivable (but magnetic) evil.
Less captivating are the characters around them, whose faults become more and more apparent as the season progresses. Dullest of all is Robyn (Colby Minifie), whose cloistered life never seems believable or captivating. Her lack of engagement with reality feels like an intended point of comic relief, particularly in contrast with the cool-headedness of a post-Kilgrave Malcolm. Yet her struggle to cope with life after her brother also seems aimed at being an engaging, emotional B plot, and she becomes hard to take seriously after being initially presented as a mere punchline. As a result, her scenes fall flat, deflating the tension built by Jessica’s hunt for Kilgrave.
Will Simpson (Wil Traval) gets a similarly confusing depiction, giving his character an incongruity which keeps him from feeling cohesive or well-developed. His suffering at Kilgrave’s hands engenders sympathy, but he seems equally dull when not being mind-controlled, leaving one to wonder what Trish (Rachael Taylor) sees in him. A boring hunk would hardly be the most egregious element in a female-centered show like Jessica Jones, with flat male characters making up for the years of one dimensional female love interests running amok in superhero tales, but the series seems to want Will to be more than that. When he hunts down Jessica and Trish while amped up on combat pills in “AKA I’ve Got the Blues,” he doesn’t work as anything more than a bland threat, and his weak characterization keeps the scene from having the complexity of the Jessica-Kilgrave interactions.
The subplot about the origin of his pills feels equally listless and tacked on, even if the mysterious “IGH” can explain the source of Jessica’s powers. The origins of her abilities are much less pertinent to the show than the ways in which she can use them against Kilgrave, making the former storyline come off as little more than padding to fill out a season which centers around the latter storyline. The unresolved plot strands with IGH suggest a likely direction for season two, but they feel incongruous here, adding an unnecessary story element which serves as window dressing for the showdown at the heart of the season.
Of course, the ostensible resolution of the showdown in “AKA Smile” suggests a challenge for Jessica Jones in presumed subsequent seasons, and one which the half-baked IGH plot doesn’t resolve much. (The show has yet to be renewed, but its critical and commercial success bodes well for future seasons.) As good as Ritter is, will Jessica be as interesting without Kilgrave as an antagonist? Only time will tell, but the first season belongs to the two characters, and they’re more than enough to sustain the show through its shakier elements. Kilgrave and Jessica give Jessica Jones a suspenseful and emotional start, even if it leaves one wondering where the series goes from here.