Jessica Jones, Season 1
Created by Melissa Rosenberg
Released November 20th, 2015 by Netflix
Five episodes watched for review
Is there more to say about gritty, troubled superheroes? Yes, according to Jessica Jones, the latest Netflix entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After this year’s Daredevil, a show following the modern trend of dark comic book characters kickstarted by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films but dating back at least to the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, the thought of the style being passé seemed more than plausible. Especially in light of sharing a distribution platform with Daredevil, creator Melissa Rosenberg appeared to have her work cut out for her in making Jessica Jones stand out.
And to a certain extent, the series is of a kind with its moody forbears. The voice-over narration and shadowy city streets establish a strong linkage to film noir, revisiting ground well trodden by Miller and Moore back in the eighties. In spite of her considerable strength and ability to almost-fly, Jessica (Krysten Ritter) seems terminally haunted by her past with the vicious Kilgrave (David Tennant), cementing once again the idea that being a superhero isn’t the consequence-free fun one might hope. She takes to alcohol to cope with the trauma, emphasizing its effects and painting a heartbreaking portrait of the person who suffers from them.
But in spite of the stylistic similarities to other superhero narratives, Jessica Jones feels innovative, thanks in large part to its titular protagonist. For one, the gender swapping from the male-dominated dark comic book norm makes the concept seem instantly fresh, if only in a superficial manner. The show develops its female lead by investigating her sexuality, replacing the all-too common flat love interest with no character beyond her relationship to the protagonist with a troubled, complicated affair with fellow superhuman Luke Cage (Mike Colter). (The depth of Cage’s character is undoubtedly motivated by a show based around him being an upcoming Marvel series, but the result still works.) Unlike fellow Netflix series Narcos, released earlier this year, the voiceover lets the viewer get to know the protagonist, providing psychological insight which enriches her overall character. Ritter plays Jessica with a fragility that endures in spite of her ass-kicking bravura, bringing out the character’s resilience while never forgetting the significance of her traumatic personal history.
Her background owes its pain in large part, of course, to Kilgrave, who controls her mind and exerts an influence over her which lasts far beyond her physical captivity. He doesn’t get explored in nearly the same psychological depth as Jessica, but his mysteriousness makes him a shadowy villain who works well as the elusive antagonist looming over the show’s universe. Tennant conveys Kilgrave’s evil without denying his charisma, forming a duality which makes the character a compelling enemy.
The show’s way of revealing the nature of Kilgrave’s crimes effectively develops both him and his victims, never holding the viewer’s hand but keeping the villain’s threat unambiguous. Hope’s (Erin Moriarty) actions in the pilot, “AKA Ladies Night,” demonstrate the effectiveness of Kilgrave’s mind control, something which only gets further established as Jessica continues to remember her experiences with him. Indeed, she seems permanently wounded by his physical and psychological violence, as it consistently hampers her work, relationship with Luke, and day-to-day existence. As a result, Jessica Jones reveals Jessica’s past without miring the show in exposition, keeping the focus on how her pain impacts her life in the present.
If the characters around her and Kilgrave aren’t quite as compelling, the result still fails to hold the show back too much. Malcolm’s (Eka Darville) helpless junkie shtick isn’t intriguing or original, and a revelation in “AKA 99 Friends” isn’t quite enough to change that. Best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor) works better, but she still gets overwhelmed by Jessica’s complex and dominating personality. Blander still is her love interest Will Simpson (Wil Traval), a cop and fellow Kilgrave victim who doesn’t get explored much beyond his military background and attack on Trish. Even if he feels like a balance to the flat female characters who’ve haunted pop culture for ages, Will hardly functions as a magnetic personality on his own. In spite of these characters feeling like window dressing, the central interests they adorn work well enough to stand out amidst the distraction.
They certainly don’t detract from moments such as the gripping final act of “AKA It’s Called Whiskey”. Jessica’s complex psychology makes her a compelling central figure for Jessica Jones, proving that grim comic book narratives can continue to generate intrigue after all.