(Note: I’m going to keep this review generally spoiler-free. I’ll talk about the plot in reasonably general terms and try to avoid being specific about any big twists or reveals. But my future reviews will be pretty spoilery, so consider yourself warned!)
Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape and PTSD.
The rumors are true! The hype is not hype! The first two episodes of Jessica Jones are as good as Daredevil and Captain America 2 and anything else that Marvel Studios has produced. In Jessica Jones, the Netflix gods have also granted us something that’s almost unheard of in superhero media and almost as rare everywhere else: a female heroine who eats and drinks and shits and forgets to plug in her phone.
Talking about “strong” and “complex” female characters are basically meaningless clichés at this point—we have an obscenely low bar when it comes to female heroes because we have so very few of them. Jessica is certainly physically strong and emotionally complex, but the major achievement of this show is that she just feels like a human being… even though she’s technically superhuman.
As noir/detective/superhero/fantasy/drama fusion, Jessica Jones is an inventive genre mashup with perfect pitch—fresh and reverential and scary and funny in every way it tries to be. If you forget her gender and her superpowers, Jessica is an old-school private dick, monologuing about people’s dark sides as she stalks NYC’s underbelly armed with a camera and a jazz soundtrack. Jessica Jones also delivers plenty of comic book fun and adventure, but in what I’d describe as —okay, this is a weird sentence to type—a classy, understated kind of way. Jessica matter-of-factly jumps up buildings and snaps metal locks; Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Jessica Jones almost absent-mindedly dismantle a bar full of drunk rugby players while staring intensely into each other’s eyes. It’s as funny and fun and thrilling as it sounds. Or maybe it’s just refreshing not to have to get bogged down in yet another superhero origin story.
Speaking of comic-book shenanigans, Jessica Jones is also a thoughtful adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ books—faithful to a fault, but quite possibly improving on the source material. Even the credit sequence looks like a pretty, drippy, purple-tinged animation of David W. Mack’s pretty, drippy, purple-tinged covers, and fans of the comics will recognize several shots lifted right from the books, such as when Jessica puts an unruly client through her front door in Episode 1.
These first two episodes set up the main plot for the season. After giving up on being a hero, Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is working as a private detective in NYC, picking up odd jobs from various clients including Jeryn Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss), a high-powered attorney with a few dirty secrets of her own. In Episode 1, Jessica takes on a new case tracking down missing college student Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), putting her on a collision course with a terrifying villain from her past. Kilgrave (David Tennant) is a sadistic superhuman who can force anyone to follow his verbal commands; Jessica spent some undefined period of time under his control, but she escaped after Kilgrave was killed in an accident… or so she thought.
A year after his “death,” Jessica is still deeply traumatized by what Kilgrave did to her. She suffers from panic attacks and flashbacks and self-medicates with alcohol. Jessica Jones is one of the best representations of PTSD and anxiety I’ve ever seen on TV. At first, Jessica can’t distinguish between her flashback and the real possibility that Kilgrave is still alive. The world swirls around her as she spirals into panic; purple-tinted lights and strange voices follow her into empty rooms.
It’s symbolism that hits you with all the subtlety of a super-powered punch to the face—and it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to watch, either. Kilgrave’s psychic powers make him a supernaturally terrifying but also a very familiar kind of villain. “How do you prove a mind-controller is real?” asks Hogarth. Jessica can’t go to the police about Kilgrave; they won’t believe her, and how could they arrest him if they did? As Hogarth puts it, Jessica’s case is a “loser”—it’s the ultimate “he said-she said” case, except everyone believes everything he says.
Jessica is a victim of abuse—and that drives the action and defines her character, full stop. But Jessica Jones doesn’t really show the abuse itself—except in very brief “flashes” of memory and imagination. Sexual abuse and assault are ubiquitous in our society and our media. We already know what it looks like. As Mad Max: Fury Road proved this year—we totally don’t need to see it to believe that it happens or to understand that it’s traumatic. We understand and recognize it perfectly by its aftermath. The terrible trauma is not about a momentary violation, but a loss of agency that seems to repeat, to last and last and last. Like Fury Road, Jessica Jones is popular media about life after trauma predicated on the assumption that we should believe that a victim’s trauma has happened. (This sounds like it should be obvious—until you realize just how much media can’t seem to get it right.)
So, the superpowers don’t distract from this metaphor—they actually enhance it and focus it. By remaining vague (at least for now) about the physical acts Kilgrave forced on Jessica and his other victims, Jessica Jones symbolically represents rape not as a physical act but as a violation of agency. And, thanks to her amazing powers, Jessica never feels like she’s in physical danger. Her vulnerability isn’t about something that physically happened or might happen to her, but about how as a survivor, her trauma is always still happening.
From the show’s opening lines, Jessica defines herself by her plain-spokenness, total visibility, and straightforwardness. She’s out in the open—it’s everyone else who’s trying to lie, pretend, or hide who they are. “Do I look like I’m hiding?” she demands, picking up a sports car while muffled rap music plays in the distance (seriously). While she’s not dropping a dozen F-bombs per page like she does in the comics, Jessica defines herself as someone who does and says exactly what she wants, when she wants.
Of course, the truth’s a little more complicated than that. It’s like the front door of her office that can’t or won’t get fixed—a glaring, cardboard-covered metaphor. It’s a fine line between living like you’re fearless and living like you’re afraid of everything.
Ritter’s performance defines Jessica as someone who’s constantly watching, looking, seeing, vigilant; her big, round eyes are always flitting around and fixing on the world around her. Jessica is afraid to close those eyes—she’s afraid to sleep unless she’s drunk. When she can’t sleep, she watches people through their apartment windows or photographs them when they don’t know she’s looking. She’s chosen a career that’s all about spying on people—seeing the worst in them.
As a private eye, Jessica’s powers of observation are also her strength. She solves crimes. She detects the “history, memories” in Luke Cage’s bar, and perceives (unconsciously, at first) just how much they have in common.
But perception is also a burden. Jessica notices bloodstains on the ceiling of an elevator, the aftermath of a terrible crime. She panics on the subway because she can’t stop watching the people around her, wondering who might be brainwashed by Kilgrave.
Like Luke, Jessica is uncomfortable being seen—she doesn’t want to look him in the face while they have sex. While being questioned at the police station, she glances uncomfortably at the one-way mirror. She finds a picture in Luke’s medicine cabinet—there’s an ongoing pattern of photographs (physical reminders or repetitions of the past) that keep cropping up and getting Jess in trouble or causing her pain.
In the awesome cliffhanger ending of Episode 2, Jessica and Luke finally recognize each other for who—and what—they are. “I saw you,” says Luke. “I saw you and you saw me.” Jessica Jones is all about Jessica’s gaze—a weird paradox, the power of seeing versus the vulnerability of being seen.
Although her first instinct is to run, Jessica ultimately makes the pivotal decision to stay behind and face Kilgrave. She’s inspired in large part by her (former) best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor)—who, incidentally, is also struggling for a sense of control over her traumatic past. Jessica commits to saving Hope—even if her quest seems hopeless.
“I was never the hero that you wanted me to be,” she tells Trish. And she’s not exactly wrong. Jessica Jones’ heroism is sad, small, and dirty. It’s the nasty, everyday business of finding a way to be stronger than the thing that hurt you. And it feels very, very real.
Image courtesy of Netflix