AKA Nobody Move, Nobody Get Boiled
When you, as a man, watch Jessica Jones, a TV series about a female superhero, a show that makes a point of utilising female directors, of getting released on International Women’s Day…do you have any right or authority to comment?
I’d like to hope I do: it’s still a TV show about superheroics and fucked up people, the kind of things I watch and read and write about. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel awkward when writing about it. For example, am I allowed to criticise, to have wanted or expected more from it? Or are those wishes sort of horribly sexist and missing the point of the show and such a release date?
For what it’s worth, I didn’t dislike Jessica Jones: far from it. I simply want to address any commentary before you get reading: in writing about this show, in enjoying this show, I’m questioning myself as much as I’m questioning the show.
At least I hope so.
The first season of Jessica Jones was beautifully dark and broken, in fitting with its lead character: Krysten Ritter, probably better known for comedy, resting-bitch-face and a mix of both (Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars & Don’t Trust The Bitch In Apartment 23) playing Jessica , an awkwardly broken woman scarred by the teenage death of her family in a car crash, her following development of super-powers (strength and stability, nothing too juicy) and her (adult) manipulation at the hands of the telepathic villain Kilgrave, played by David Tennant.
The first season of Jessica Jones dealt mostly with Kilgrave and that manipulations of Jessica (which she herself acknowledges as mental and physical rape), although Jessica wasn’t alone in her issues: adoptive sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) deals with her own fame and addiction issues as a former teen idle and current radio host; neighbour Malcolm Ducass (Eka Darville) deals with a drug addiction, finding every distraction possible to keep him away from drugs; and Jeri Hogarth (Carry-Anne Moss); a heartlessly manipulative power-driven attorney who hires Jessica solely for the fact that her abilities might make things a little some more unscrupulous in the legal world.
The first season had significant focus on Jessica and the effects of her past with Kilgrave, but the second season plays with a significantly larger world of reason and meaning: although Jessica remains at the heart of the season, Trish and Jeri are given their own substantial plots and sub-plots, addressing their own trust issues and confidence in their bodies. In a weird fashion, these subplots prove more interesting and powerful than Jessica’s, with both Jeri and Trish trying to prove themselves, in many ways to nobody but themselves. The season opens with Jeri’s diagnosis with motor-neuron disease and her following journey through all five stages of grief; Trish, instead, deals with her own ego, with her addiction issues crossing paths with her feelings of weakness when comparing herself to Jessica.
Jessica gets involved in different stages of both stories, but has her own issues to deal with when exploring her own past, the origins of her powers and a threatening monster from that past who turns out to be her mother Alisa (Janet McTeer.) Ironically, Jessica is driven to his investigation by Trish’s actions, in no small part because Trish’s addiction requires the distraction (and the adrenaline) of participating in such an investigation.
However, it takes some time for us to realise Trish’s role in all of this.
After spending the previous season (and her appearance in Defenders), emotionally absent, this season allows Jessica to take the emotional heart of the narrative, dealing with her own regrets, fears and issues with her mother.
I had my problems with Jessica’s story, which pulled her away from the heart of the narrative: with thirteen episodes, Alisa does not appear until the third episode, with her identity unrevealed until the end of the sixth. The interactions between mother and daughter remain at the heart of the second half of the season, but they appear somewhat out of nowhere after a season and a half that has hammered it home how broken and alone Jessica is.
Of course, that’s part of what makes Jessica such a broken character: with trust at the heart of the show, especially this season, it makes sense that every fact in which Jessica has trusted is now questioned and undermined. After spending years dealing with her depression, if works but is appropriately uncomfortable to reveal that some of Jessica’s depression would be meaningless. Regardless of the format, TV show or comic book, character origins (especially in the world of superheroes) are necessary, even if those characters are in complete denial. It’s a regular trope to change those origins, to fuck with the status quo, but I’m not entirely sure if it works in this case for Jessica in the context of the TV series: ultimately, while the viewer may want a happy ending for Jessica, I want that in her future, not by redefining her past.
With its focus on its female characters, Jessica Jones has dealt with depression, addiction, violence, rape and so much more: with such dark themes, it would seem necessary to end its season on a tone that is neither dark nor particularly positive for any of the characters featured, and the show falls somewhat flat because of that providing nothing particularly positive or shocking for Jessica in its close. Ultimately, Jessica loses her mother again, but such a loss makes her realise that she needs to be more willing to let people in.
Except for Trish.
Because Trish fucks up MASSIVELY, and is it possible that she does so in such a fashion that the show wants us to consider her the villain of the series?
Trish’s narrative is one addressing not just addiction, but also the comparisons between herself as a normal, weak human and her adoptive superpowered sister, whether intentional or not: like in dealing with Malcolm’s addiction, Trish is constantly driven to fix things, to control things, and has to be busy ALL FUCKING TIMES to stop her falling into addiction again. Such narrative is fascinating, going out of its way to make Trish relatable in every possible way.
And yet, the show is called Jessica Jones: allowing a supportive character to become so central is dangerous, no matter how highly she appears on the credits.
It’s a worrying thought that seems to loom over both seasons of Jessica Jones: is Jessica (emotionally) powerful or interesting enough to carry her own series? After all, the first season featured Mike Colter as Luke Cage, and the second season throws an equal focus onto Trish, whom the comics suggest will eventually become the superhero Hellcat.
And is that issue related more to Jessica as a character, or her gender?
Jessica is, after all, a likeable and broken character: but as befitting any hard-boiled detective narrative, spending too much time dealing with origins and reasoning takes away from both character and narrative. After all, we know that the hero will have dark sides, allowing the story to find a place between dark and light, but if we spend too long highlighting those differences,the hero loses a lot of their heroism and the villain becomes all the more understandable. Jessica Jones fits well in the hard-boiled detective format, but there is not enough and yet too much space for that in a 13-episode TV series that tries to find this for multiple characters.
Jessica Jones remains a fascinating and very watchable TV series, and yet I finished it wanting something more from it, and I’m not entirely sure what that is. Was it more detective stuff and less family? Or was I completely misunderstanding the narrative thanks to my male privilege and associated Y-chromosome?
Whatever the answer, all I know is that I’ve been listening to and singing this for the last few weeks…You’re welcome.
Also published on Medium.