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Josh Reviews Jessica Jones

December 14th, 2015
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I was excited when Netflix announced that Daredevil would be the first of their Marvel universe TV shows.  But I was even more excited when Netflix announced that Jessica Jones would be their second.  I was also somewhat concerned, since as an enormous fan of the character I was worried about whether she would be faithfully translated to the screen.  I adored Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ twenty-eight-issue series Alias (published from 2001 to 2004) in which Mr. Bendis & Mr. Gaydos introduced the character of Jessica, and I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Bendis’ depictions of the character ever since (in his follow-up series The Pulse as well as various issues of The Avengers).  Jessica Jones is one of most interesting and complex new characters introduced to the Marvel Universe in the past several decades.  The potential of seeing her brought to life on a new TV show was delicious, but I also would have hated to have seen the character not done justice.

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Thankfully, Marvel’s Netflix team is two for two as, just like they did with their tremendous first season of Daredevil (click here for my review), they have created in Jessica Jones a show that is thrilling, sophisticated, dark and very adult that is also a huge amount of fun and a delightfully riveting adventure.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

(Please note that I will be discussing this show in some detail.  I will try to avoid major spoilers, but there’s no way to discuss the show without also talking about some of its plot twists.  If you haven’t yet watched this show I advise you to go watch it immediately — really, it’s excellent, you’ll thank me later! — and then come back to read this review.)

When we are introduced to her, Jessica Jones is private eye in the Marvel Universe.  Though not a very successful one.  She’s reduced to mostly taking photos of cheating husbands on behalf of their broken-hearted wives.  Jessica has super-powers: she’s very strong, able to run fast and jump high.  But Jessica is no super-hero.  She is gruff and grumpy, short-tempered and hard-drinking.  As she tells Like Cage early in the show: “I don’t get asked on a lot of second dates.”  But what we gradually learn as the show unfolds is that Jessica has become who she is because she has been deeply broken by a trauma in her past.  A trauma with a name: Killgrave, a super-powered individual whose voice gives him absolute command over anyone within earshot.  At some point before the show begins, Jessica fell under Killgrave’s control for many long months, and I probably don’t need to go into great detail about the horror a man could do with a beautiful young super-powered woman under his complete control.

Jessica Jones goes to incredibly dark places, way darker even than the very dark comic book series on which it’s based (a series that I still can’t believe Marvel ever actually published).  What’s remarkable about the show is the way in which show-runner Melissa Rosenberg used the series as a vehicle to explore the terrible ripple effects of trauma, and how traumatic events have the power to completely re-shape and distort an individual’s entire life.  As we get to know them, it becomes clear that almost all of the characters in Jessica Jones are suffering from the effects of a trauma in their past (even, it turns out, the villain Killgrave), and the show explores the different ways that these characters face those traumas.  Some find a way to work through those experiences, while others are completely defeated by them.  This gives the show a rich thematic through-line that elevates it to a level above what one might expect of a super-hero TV show.

I’ve read some reviews of Jessica Jones that assert that this show isn’t a super-hero TV show at all.  I don’t quite agree, though I can absolutely see where those reviewers are coming from.  It’s a compliment to the quality of this show.  Jessica Jones is a show that is far more strongly focused on the development of its characters — and the show boasts a rich array of wonderfully fleshed-out characters — than it is on super-heroic fisticuffs.  In fact, there’s almost no super-powered fighting in the show at all, and I for one didn’t miss that for a second.  The intensity of Jessica Jones comes from the dramatic, often-wrenching stories of its characters, not from super-powered violence.  (Though there are some great super-powered fights in the second half of the show, and I must say that they were pretty great!)

The cast for the show is impeccable.  I knew Krysten Ritter only from her terrific work on Breaking Bad, and I was intrigued by her casting.  By the end of the season, I was quite pleasantly surprised by how definitively I felt she had filled out the role of Jessica.  This is a tough role, first of all because, for me as a comic book fan, I felt that Mr. Bendis and Mr. Gaydos had very successfully imbued their comic book character with a heart and a soul.  Jessica was such a unique creation that I feared she would be so easy to get entirely wrong on TV.  And so bravo to Ms. Ritter for so confidently and competently bringing Jessica to life on TV.  Ms. Ritter was able to play Jessica’s tough, take-no-shit attitude while also allowing us glimpses of the broken, noble soul she has tried so hard to bury deep down inside herself.  Before watching Jessica Jones I wasn’t sure I could imagine ANY actress successfully playing Jessica Jones.  Now I can’t imagine anyone else playing her.

An equal challenge to casting Jessica was casting Luke Cage.  I was thrilled to hear that Luke would be appearing on the show, as he became a hugely important character in Mr. Bendis & Mr. Gaydos’ Alias comic.  The arc of his relationship with Jessica became a compelling through-line of the comic’s story.  Luke Cage has been portrayed many different ways in the comics, but I always felt that I enjoyed Mr. Bendis’ version of the character the most, giving Luke a sweetness and nobility to balance his tough-guy exterior (and his unbreakable skin).  Mike Colter was an absolute revelation as Luke, absolutely perfectly cast.  He certainly looks the part — a huge, buff dude — but he brought such a gentle, open quality to Luke that was absolutely perfect.  I loved Luke in the series.  He was used in exactly the right way and we saw him for exactly the right amount of time.  (The show was able to maintain Luke as a strong presence while keeping the focus squarely on Jessica and forcing her, in the end, to stand alone on her two feet.)  I am now hugely excited for Luke’s solo Netflix series.  (I hope Jessica pops up in it!)

Rounding out the trilogy of lead roles was David Tennant as the villain Killgrave.  I am not a Dr. Who fan so I didn’t have any prior attachment to Mr. Tennant, but he blew me away with his work here.  Once again, perfect casting.  Mr. Tennant played Killgrave perfectly, making a hugely slimy, despicable bastard without tipping over the line into camp or moustache-twirling.  He even succeeds in allowing us to feel a teensy twinge of sympathy for this horrible character late in the season, while still allowing the audience to continue to root for Jessica to find a way to punch his head in.

Beyond those three leads was a wonderful array of secondary characters.  I was impressed by the series’ strength of female characters, an unfortunate rarity in super-hero comics and their movie/TV adaptations.  Under the strong guiding hand of show-runner Melissa Rosenberg, the Jessica Jones series found a strong focus in its exploration of these wonderful female characters all of whom, like Jessica herself, had noble qualities mixed with deep human failings.

Rachael Taylor invested an impressive amount of heart and soul into the character of Trish (“Patsy”) Walker, Jessica’s best friend.  In the comic book Alias this role was filled by Carol Danvers (the super-hero Captain Marvel), but since Captain Marvel is soon to be headlining her own feature film they decided to replace her with another character.  I missed Carol, but it was a great choice to use Trish Walker (who, in the comics, is another B-list super-heroine, Hellcat).  Here in the show, they made the smart decision to not give Trish any super-powers.  Having Jessica’s best friend be a “normal,” non-powered woman gave an interesting dynamic to their relationship.  I loved Trish, she was smart and loyal, and I loved that the show gave her character some space to live and breathe on her own, separate from Jessica (particularly with the mid-season story of her fling with the cop Will Simpson — I didn’t love where that story wound up, see below, but I loved the beginning of that relationship and how the show allowed Trish to be a dynamic, independent, sexual being all her own, not just Jessica’s side-kick).

Carrie-Ann Moss also knocked it out of the park with her role as the tough-as nails attorney Jeri Hogarth.  At the beginning of the show it seemed that they were setting Hogarth up as something as a tough-love mother-figure for Jessica, which is an interesting dynamic, but I was impressed by how much more complex the show wound up making this character.  Hogarth does some terrible things over the course of the show — this is a deeply, deeply flawed woman — and yet Ms. Moss’ intensity and force of personality keeps Hogarth as a wildly fascinating character.  This was the character that I was most curious about, watching the season, wondering where her story would wind up.  I also love that the show portrays her as a lesbian without feeling the need to make a big deal of the fact, or to use that to in any way define the character.

Eka Darville was terrific as the broken-down druggie Malcolm who lives in Jessica’s apartment building, and he did wonderfully subtle work playing Malcom’s arc over the course of the season.  I loved the writing of this character, and the way a mid-season discovery totally re-shapes his story.  And I loved the surprise of the very last scene of the final episode, it which I realized exactly which character from the comic-boom Alias Malcolm was.  I couldn’t believe that got by me!  The show had reshaped the comic book character into a much more complex, interesting role, and I truly didn’t know that Malcolm on the show was the same character from the comics until his perfect final line.  Well played.

Erin Moriarty as Hope, Will Traval as Will Simpson, Susie Abromeit as Hogarth’s lover Pam, Robin Weigert as Hogarth’s estranged wife Wendy, and the great Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon from The Wire!) as NYPD detective Clemons all did strong work in their roles as well.

If Jessica Jones has a weakness, it’s that the show felt stretched a tad too long at thirteen episodes.  In the comic-book Alias, we got to follow Jessica on several different investigative cases before Killgrave became front-and center.  I liked that structure, and I wonder if this TV adaptation wouldn’t have benefitted from giving Jessica a few stand-alone adventures in the first half of the season before focusing in on Killgrave.  Instead, the show makes the choice to focus almost exclusively on Killgrave, with him as the primary threat to Jessica almost completely from start-to-finish.  By the end, this got a little tiring for me, and I think that if going this route the show would have been stronger at ten episodes than it was at thirteen.

The show was almost entirely serialized, which was an interesting choice.  Generally I love serialization.  As a genre fan in the eighties and nineties, I wished the shows I loved (including the various Star Trek series to The X-Files) would have more serialization and fewer stand-alone episodes, and I have loved watching television shift to a more serialized model in the last decade-plus.  I think this is generally a stronger story-telling approach, allowing stories to continue from week-to week, resulting in far more complex, interesting plots and more sophisticated character development.  Jessica Jones represents an interesting sort of apotheosis of this approach, in which the episodes bled completely one into the other.  I don’t really feel that any of the individual episodes had any sort of distinct identity of their own.  I can’t imagine ever watching a random episode of Jessica Jones on its own.  This show was one, complete thirteen-hour movie.  If I ever want to rewatch this story, it will be all thirteen episodes from start-to-finish.  It’s an interesting choice, and one that I generally support.  So I’m surprised to write that I would have preferred a few more stand-alone adventures for Jessica in the first half of the season, and yet I stand by that.  Or, again, if they wanted to go this route of making Killgrave the primary focus of the season, then I think the show would have been better with a few fewer episodes.

The only other area of the show that didn’t entirely work for me was the character of Will Simpson.  For a show that otherwise developed its characters so deftly, his arc felt disjointed and rushed.  His shift from Killgrave-victim to heroic partner of Jessica & Trish to super-villain went way too quickly for me.  Particularly that last turn felt too rushed and out-of-left-field.  I was excited at the moment in which Simpson asked for a red pill and I suddenly realized which Marvel character this dude was destined to become.  I had a strong emotional response to that, in the best way, in that up to that point I liked the character on the show and so I was saddened to learn of the fate that was ahead of him.  But I was stunned how quickly, after that point, the show turned him into a super-villain.  It felt very rushed, and it seemed like evidence that the show was stretching to fill its final few episodes, suddenly turning Simpson into an obstacle for Jessica on her quest to defeat Killgrave.

Some other thoughts:

The show made the smart move not to have Killgrave actually be purple like he is in the comics, but I loved how they found a way to surround him with the color purple.  I also loved the touch in the finale of showing us the amped-up Killgrave turning purple in the face for a brief instant.

It was entirely unnecessary to include Rosario Dawson’s Claire in the finale, as Jessica Jones was a strong enough show that it stood completely on its own without having this crossover with Daredevil.  But still, it was nice to see her, and the show provided a strong explanation as to why Claire wouldn’t have immediately called her friend Daredevil to help deal with Killgrave.

One of my favorite parts of the early episodes was the way the show explored Jessica and Luke’s joy in discovering another super-powered individual like him/her-self.  That was very sweet, and well-played.

Speaking of Jessica and Luke, though, I was a little surprised and disappointed that we didn’t get a final Luke/Jessica scene in the finale.  They’re keeping us hanging for a second season, or for Luke’s own show, I guess…

I loved the running gag about Jessica’s broken door, as well as the way the show leaned into the increasingly devastated nature of her apartment/office in the second half of the season.

I loved the show’s opening credits and music.

I loved the casting of Clarke Peters on the show, and I started to get very excited at the thought of his playing a part in many future Netflix Marvel shows.  Sadly, they wrote off his character way to s0on for me.  It was interesting and weird to see Jessica Jones make exactly the same mistake that I felt Daredevil did.  Both shows killed off a wonderful African American character, at almost exactly the same point in the season.  And in both shows I think it was a mistake.  Ordinarily I love it when shows have the guts to off a major character, but in both of these cases I thought these shows had long-since earned my respect as shows that were not pulling their punches.  Both of these characters are characters I wish we’d have gotten to see lots more of in future seasons.  It’s a shame to see these two great African American actors, playing two wonderful African American characters, written off of these shows.  Oh well.

I loved that there was not a single super-hero costume to be found in this show.  Usually I criticize a show or movie that I feel is embarrassed by the super-hero story it is telling, and I’ve loved how the Marvel Studios films have leaned into the bright, colorful nature of the characters’ iconic costumes.  But Alias was always something different, a street-level story set within the Marvel universe, and Jessica Jones perfectly captured that.

And have I mentioned that this show is dark?  I was bowled over by how adult and grim Netflix’s Daredevil series was, and Jessica Jones is, I think, even darker.  The show goes to some tough, tough places.  I was particularly surprised, but impressed, with the show’s decision to tell us that Killgrave had literally raped Jessica, something that even the very-dark Alias left as metaphor rather than literal fact.  But the show makes that literal (thankfully we don’t see it, we just hear Jessica talk about it), thus forcing the characters and the audience to address that.  This seems like it might be cheap or exploitative, but in Melissa Roosenberg’s hands it instead gives the show a hefty dramatic weight as the entire story from the comics is dramatically re-aligned to directly the issue of the way that Killgrave’s victims have been physically and emotionally violated.  It’s powerful stuff for a super-hero tale.  It gives the story a thematic point, a reason for this story to be told.  This winds up being a very smart move, in my opinion.

The show is truly fearless in its depiction of the horrible things that Killgrave does.  Perhaps, on occasion, they take it too far, such as the way we see Killgrave lock two young kids in a closet in an early episode.  I kept waiting for the show to show Jessica or someone finding and rescuing the kids, but nope, we never do.  I actually found that to be a little distracting for me, as I kept trying to track how long the kids had been trapped, and wondering how/when they would be saved.  I think in that instance, not ever showing us the kids again felt like a story-telling mis-step, rather than a dramatic way to emphasize Killgrave’s evil.

Good lord did I get an incredible level of joy out of hearing Mike Colter as Luke Cage say “Sweet Christmas.”  Sigh.  The simple pleasures.

If you haven’t yet given Jessica Jones a try, perhaps because you’d never heard of the character, then don’t wait and dive into this series.  Netflix has once again hit this Marvel TV show out of the park.  How is it that these Netflix shows are so amazing, while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. remains so milquetoast?  Best not to dwell on that.  I am 100% on-board with these Netflix Marvel shows right now.  I cannot wait for the second season of Daredevil, and for the upcoming Luke Cage show.  And I very, very much hope to get to see a second season of Jessica Jones!!

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