NB: This discusses the whole series in detail. There are massive spoilers. You have been warned.
I’m not an obsessive Marvel fan. I thought Winter Soldier was really, really good. I thought Iron Man 1 and 2 were kind of subversive and really good fun. I thought The Avengers was near perfect popcorn entertainment in the same vein as Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m quite happy to leave the rest of their catalogue alone though, thanks very much. There’s only so much SFX and caped crusading and fight scenes I can take before it all starts feeling same old, same old, and altogether too safe. However, so many people chimed in on how good Marvel TV is, and how good Jessica Jones is in particular, I had to give in and give the show a go.
Jessica Jones is about a female PI with unnatural strength gained in childhood. Years ago she was involved with another person with powers, a person who has the power of mind control. Whatever Kilgrave commanded, people obeyed. Unquestioningly. The series also is the story of Jessica’s residual trauma as a result of living with Kilgrave (Jessica was forced to live with him and allow him to rape her to feed his delusion that she loved him) and of her subsequent hard exterior, drinking habit and emotional coldness which she cast around herself as a protection from everything that happened to her under Kilgrave’s care. This is, of course, legions darker than most superhero subject matter. Some of the themes reminded me of Sandman. The commitment to moral ambiguity and pushing misuse of a so called ‘super power’ to its natural horrifying conclusion proved to be both wholly original and an effective stake raiser for most of the series.
Because this is such a character piece, much rested on the shoulders of those acting main parts. I thought Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones was excellent: the right mix of bottled up and barely suppressed anger at an unfair world and emotional fragility. Hope, Hogarth, Patsy and Malcolm are all excellent. David Tennant as the antagonist, Kilgrave, was also brilliant and I agree with those who say he may well be one of Marvel’s scariest and most complex villains yet. Certainly, he gets points for being one of the smartest about using his powers to get what he wants.
David Tennant is an actor for me who often misses. I find that he is typecast in similar ‘angst hero’ roles which usually make me want to punch the TV (an unpopular opinion but there we go). Ironically, I thought this stereotype only bolstered his appeal in Jessica Jones. Because he was the antagonist, it grated far less when Kilgrave white man angst’d (My brother just described Tennant’s acting career as Sir Angsty McAngst-alot and it’s kind of true) his way to audience pity. Of course, it helps that the show never truly let him off the hook for the many terrible things Kilgrave did, from kidnapping Hope, raping her to the point she is pregnant with his child, making her kill her parents, making a man give up his kidneys, compelling Jessica to live with him again, making Jessica’s neighbour slit his own throat, causing a neighbour to blow herself up… the list goes on.
Jessica Jones is more film noir than it is Marvel, at least for three quarters of the series. And it’s more psychological thriller/horror than it is action set pieces. It is also a character piece about the title character and her relationships with the people who have shaped her life (for good and bad). It’s more anti-hero than super-hero throughout, yes, even when the show does start treading stereotypical Marvel waters. All of this was to the good. I don’t normally binge watch tv, but this was one show I did marathon.
As to the show’s themes: there were a few. The series does one of my favourite things which is mirror characters against the title hero. It is no coincidence that Kilgrave’s latest victim’s name is Hope. She represents Jessica’s literal chance at redemption and forgiveness. Save Hope and save Jessica. Hogarth represents who Jessica could become if she doesn’t let herself feel. As does Kilgrave. The series also asks questions about power: not about superpowers, though that is a vehicle for exploring this theme, but rather the power people have over each other; emotional, physical, mental ties and how people manipulate each other using that power.
This is all a dark place for a superhero series to go. Unfortunately for me, just when I thought Jessica Jones wasn’t going to let audiences off the hook with easy wins and easier moral answers, the writers suddenly remembered they were a Marvel franchise and kill off Hope and then let the story meander for four episodes until Jessica finally defeats Kilgrave. The problem with this is that once Hope is killed there is no discernible reason for Jessica not to kill Kilgrave immediately. It also renders Jessica’s hero’s quest impossible to fulfil. Jessica has failed in achieving redemption. She couldn’t save Hope from Kilgrave. I understand that this is in tone with a nihilistic series, but it didn’t feel like the natural conclusion for me given the show’s earlier focus on Hope as the mechanism to remind Jessica to ‘give a shit.’
The choice to bring evil scientists and experiments and fist fights into the mix right at the end of the series was very Marvel, but it didn’t actually feel very Jessica Jones. The need for ongoing series and opportunities for Marvel cross-over proved greater than the urge to write consistent drama. Jessica Jones could have been dark and brutal and hard hitting and morally bleak in the same vein as British drama Line of Duty especially if there had been eight episodes instead of thirteen in the series. Instead, it felt like a hybrid: stuck halfway between chilling character drama and Marvel blockbuster in a TV format. From 1000 Cuts onwards, it is to the shows detriment. I’ll still be tuning into Daredevil though…
Jessica Jones episodes 1-9: 10/10 inky stars
Jessica Jones episodes 10-13: 7/10 inky stars