If I had to describe Marvel’s Jessica Jones in one word it would be “refreshing.” Entries in the Marvel cinematic universe tend to stick to a kind of formula, and it’s a formula that has worked pretty much every time, so I can’t fault them for using it. That said, it’s nice to see them take chances and diverge from what has been reliable in order to take the gamble that something truly amazing might come out of it. That is what happened with Jessica Jones.
Jessica Jones is really a supernatural psychological thriller disguised as a superhero show. Going into the show with that in mind, I had my doubts as to if Marvel Studios could pull something like that off. They are not a suspense-thriller studio, and this is so far outside the box for them that I was afraid they might not commit to it as hard as they needed to in order for it to work. By the end of the first episode, though, all of those fears were gone. Marvel goes outside the box, kicks the box away and sets it on fire. What they get as a result is a surprising, disturbing, and well-crafted thriller show with some of incredibly strong, dynamic characters. The titular protagonist Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is an ex-superhero who runs a private investigation business called “Alias Investigations.” Throughout the show, she has to juggle her job as a P.I. with her overarching mission to track down her former abuser Kilgrave (David Tennant), a mind controlling supervillain with no morals to speak of, all the while struggling to deal with her own lingering psychological trauma left by Kilgrave.
The series is powerful, dark, thrilling, and doesn’t pull any punches. Whenever another show might play it safe and gloss over something uncomfortable or stomach turning, Jessica Jones shines a spotlight on it. David Tennant’s portrayal of Kilgrave is intensely disturbing while remaining very charismatic, which only serves to make him more disconcerting to the audience. Krysten Ritter does a masterful job of demonstrating how a character can be both strong and struggle with very real, human, psychological problems. And Mike Colter as Luke Cage makes me extremely excited for his solo show next year. In fact, the entire cast is extremely solid. On top of that, the cinematography is some of the best I have seen from a Marvel property in recent memory; Manuel Billeater does some incredible things with angled camera shots that really added to the overall tone of the show. Further, the story is intense, engaging, and terrifying with some genuine gut-punching shock moments. All-in-all the show is top notch for a superhero show. It is definitely the best Marvel television show, and it is among the best of the Marvel cinematic endeavors. Check it out immediately, if you haven’t, but don’t go into it expecting it to be a fun, superhero romp, because that is NOT what you will get.
That’s the end of my spoiler-free review. After the break, I will discuss more in detail with plenty of spoilers (though, I will still try to avoid the REALLY big ones). You have been warned.
I want to begin by discussing Jessica Jones as a character, because I feel that is at the core of this show’s theme. Like in the comics, Jessica Jones picks up after Jessica’s career as a superhero is over and after her long-term enslavement by Kilgrave. As a result, Jessica is struggling to deal with the leftover scars of her abuse and move on with her life. Most of the time she is a fiercely independent and strong character who is tracking down bad guys and, occasionally, roughing them up, but at times, her memories of Kilgrave come back to haunt her, and she has to fight to keep them at bay. A lesser show might show this as a sign of weakness, but Jessica Jones doesn’t. Krysten Ritter’s ability to switch between no-nonsense, always in control Jessica and the Jessica who is dealing with a sudden relapse of the intense mental and emotional trauma left by Kilgrave really demonstrates her range as an actor. And show creator Melissa Rosenburg’s uses Ritter’s skills in those scenes to demonstrate something very important about abuse: being a victim does not mean you are weak. In Jessica, we have an incredibly strong character, both emotionally and physically, but she can still be victimized, because, as Trish Walker says later in the show “It doesn’t matter how strong you are.” Rosenburg took Jessica Jones from comics, a character who was already uniquely progressive, and shined a spotlight on just the right parts of her character to empower her as a representative of abuse victims. This makes her not only a well-crafted character, but also a powerful and important one.
The thematic point made by Jones’ characterization is aided by the fact that we have Kilgrave, who is one of the most terrifying villains I’ve seen attempted on television, especially in a comic book adaptation. I have to admit that I had doubts about David Tennant as a casting choice here. Tennant is a great actor, and I love watching him, but people liked his work in Doctor Who so much that, at times, it seems like he is being encouraged to continue playing that character in other projects. This is actually STILL the case in Jessica Jones, but this time, that only makes him more terrifying. Tennant as the Doctor was incredibly charismatic and entertaining to watch. Kilgrave is ALSO charismatic and entertaining… and a monster. We, as viewers, find ourselves chuckling at Kilgrave’s jokes, which sound so much like the tenth doctor’s jokes. But then we realize that we are chuckling at a joke about someone who is being mind-controlled and might, at any moment, be forced to kill themselves, and it makes us feel INCREDIBLY uncomfortable. I am almost certain this was intentional, but even if it wasn’t, it WORKS. Kilgrave is more terrifying and disconcerting because Tennant is playing him, and precisely BECAUSE he is so charming.
It would have been easy for the show to just stop there. He is a terrifying villain who is so charming that he makes you uncomfortable. That would make for a great villain, but it doesn’t stop there. Instead, the show goes further to make him a more complicated character, without undermining the horribleness of the things he’s done. Kilgrave tells Jessica that his parents did this to him, and that they tormented him and subjected him to tests, and that being the way he is isn’t easy. And, for a moment, Jessica does consider how she could harness Kilgrave’s power for good. But, in the end, she decides, as she should, that there is no excuse for Kilgrave’s actions. This is a great arc for character development, but it also serves to continue the shows argument about abusers and victims. Abusers always have a reason for what they do, and, yes, they are not just 100% evil monsters, but that doesn’t excuse their actions. By humanizing and complicating Kilgrave, the show actually pushes that point further.
What really impressed me, though, was the ways in which the show didn’t shy away from the more uncomfortable effects of Kilgrave’s actions. A lot of shows would. A lot of shows wouldn’t use the word “rape” as directly and powerfully as this one does when Jones tells Kilgrave that he raped her. And while I am on that subject, this show manages to make an audience completely repulsed and disgusted by a rapist (more so, I would say, than any other show I’ve seen) without actually having a rape scene. Funny how that scene isn’t actually necessary to accomplish that effect. Other shows should take note! Anyway, the show doesn’t shy away from that, and it also doesn’t shy away from other disgusting impacts of Kilgrave’s power, like a man peeing himself, because he can’t move. This show commits to showing the dark and uncomfortable, because it is needed to make the show work.
These amazing characters wouldn’t do anything, though, if the plot didn’t work so well. The actual plot of the show actually feels pretty standard for a suspense-thriller, albeit really solid one. Jessica finds another victim of Kilgrave’s, Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), who has been forced to shoot her parents, and then Jessica works to clear her name throughout the show by tracking Kilgrave down. This would be a fine plot on its own. It’s perfectly serviceable, even above average, for a superhero show, but what really pushes Jessica Jones to the top is the way the plot is executed. The show begins on a steady climb for the first few episodes, showing the audience just how bad things are and continuing to peel away at the layers of Kilgrave’s control, whilst also revealing just how far the show is willing to go. It’s great. It immediately draws us in, and I was consistently impressed at every turn.
At mid-season, it levels out a bit, seemingly plateauing for a few episodes. But as soon as we are getting comfortable, an old lady blows herself up on Kilgrave’s command, or someone I didn’t expect to die ruthlessly stabs themselves, or a man tries to throw himself off a building. The show knows how and when to use its gut punches, and those gut punches work to keep the audience from ever feeling comfortable, as they wait anxiously for the next moment. The end of the series is epic in the way that this series really should be. They could have easily set the show up to have a very standard superhero/supervillain face-off fight with lots of broken buildings and Jessica having to fight off hordes of mind-controlled slaves, but that’s not really what happens. Yes, there is a big battle, and yes there ARE mind-controlled slaves, but it’s less a knock out action battle like a standard Marvel film or even Daredevil and more of a psychological battle: Jessica and Trish walking into a trap that they know is a trap and then working to outmaneuver Kilgrave mentally. All-in-all there isn’t a truly weak or wasted episode in this series. It’s all constructed extremely well.
That isn’t to say the show doesn’t have weak moments, however. There are suspense tropes that I really hate. You will learn this more and more as I continue to blog. I hate suspense created because of characters keeping secrets from each other that we, as an audience, know they shouldn’t be keeping. I think it is lazy writing, and we’ve seen it a thousand times before. Similarly, I hate when suspense is created by characters making really stupid decisions that it seems like they would not normally make, except that the plot needs to move in a certain direction. Jessica Jones is guilty of both of those to an extent (and they are especially common in superhero shows, so I’m not surprised); however, it does not commit to them for long. The suspense created by Jones keeping the secret of Reva’s death from Luke is handled within an episode of us knowing for sure that’s what she’s doing. And while characters definitely make stupid decisions that should be obvious to them, it does not move the plot in quite the direction I expected it to, nor are the decisions seem completely unreasonable (for example Trish leaving Hogarth alone with Kilgrave seems idiotic to the audience, but Trish’s lack of exposure to Hogarth can be used to justify why she is willing to do so, especially since Jessica left them alone earlier, and nothing happened). Could the show have been made a little stronger if these tropes weren’t there? Probably, but it’s an amazing show anyway, and I am willing to forgive minor problems like this.
There is so much more to say about this show. I haven’t even touched on what is so amazing about Luke Cage, or what Trish’s relationship with her mother says about parenting, or how interesting the relationship between Jeryn Hogarth and Pam is to me, but I also can’t expect you to read a 40 page paper as a blog post. I might return to those topics in later posts. For now, though, if you haven’t seen this show, go watch it. If you have seen it, please feel free to discuss it in comments. I would love to talk to you about it.