TV: Jessica Jones (Season 1)

jjDespite my unabashed Marvel fandom, I worry they’re over-saturating the market. That was certainly my immediate reaction to the Netflix deal announcing Jessica Jones. Who, I thought, is Jessica Jones? It felt like going way off the board in an early round of the draft. But surprise, suprise, Marvel’s done it again. Jessica Jones is superb television, and easily my favorite MCU series to date: a different kind of superhero story, with a brilliantly sustained thematic vision.

Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a hard-drinking, sarcastic private investigator eking out her living from the dingy Hell’s Kitchen office of Alias Investigations. Secretly she also has super powers: enhanced strength and jumping abilities that led her briefly down the path of superheroism. But those days are behind her—until she takes a missing persons case from the parents of Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), a young NYU undergraduate who’s fallen off the radar. Jessica’s search for Hope, however, leads her to Kilgrave (David Tennant), the man whose mind-control powers shattered her superhero career and left her with PTSD. A fraught, last-minute decision to rescue Hope from Kilgrave’s grasp leads her inexorably into full-on confrontation with her traumatic past.

Structurally, Jessica Jones is a refreshing change of pace from the standard Marvel superhero beginning: an origin story after the fact. It’s less interested in pyrotechnics than psychology, chipping away at Jessica’s rough surface to reveal who she is underneath, and how she ended up that way. Indeed, it’s sort of a re-origin story, flashing back to her failed superhero beginnings to illuminate the depths of her current struggle, which makes it that much more emotionally investing. This nonlinear story plays out over an infectious neo-noir PI vibe; as a detective, Jessica Jones slots in nicely with fictional sleuths Jim Rockford, Veronica Mars, and Dex Parios, tough, hard-luck gumshoes working the hazy zones between respectable society and the criminal world. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jessica’s ringtone sounds an awful lot like the pre-credit Rockford Files phone just before the answering machine picks up; an amusing touch!)

But where Jessica Jones really stands out is thematically. Kilgrave is as much a viciously abusive ex-boyfriend as a supervillain, his powers a terrifying metaphor for the evil mindfuckery of “loved ones” who leverage their hold over others with gaslighting and victim-blaming stalkerism. His callous manipulation of Jessica has dramatic physical and external repercussions, of course, but the show focuses more on the psychological scars and emotional brutality inflicted. It’s not just the escalating war between Jessica and Kilgrave that examines this theme; it persists through subplots involving Jessica’s step-sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), an embroiled police sergeant named Will Simpson (Will Traval), Jessica’s high-powered lawyer connection Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), and others. In this area, Jessica Jones is charting new ground, breaking from the cookie-cutter mold of world-saving spectacle to focus more on inner apocalypses.

Through it all, Ritter holds the lead role charismatically, while Tennant is outstanding as the despicable Kilgrave, the MCU’s most convincingly monstrous villain. The show gradually builds a fine network of supporting allies for Jones, chiefly from the perfectly cast Mike Colter as Luke Cage, and Taylor’s Trish Walker, whose arc through the season charts her own unlikely path to superheroism. Students of the Marvel universe will find plenty of entertaining easter eggs and lore warps, as well as an inevitable intersection with the world of Netflix’s previous Marvel series Daredevil, for which Jessica Jones is something of a feminist flip-side. (Indeed, Netflix’s Marvel series are building much like the Phase One movies, and far more interestingly: a dark, gritty underside to the MCU, taking advantage of the extended story-telling rhythms and freedoms of non-network television.)

The show does possess imperfections, alas, chiefly in regards to pacing. Later episodes do feel padded with overlong scenes for inessential subplots. On some level, the Daredevil crossover feels inorganic to Jessica’s journey, tacked on to satisfy Marvel’s strategic world-building momentum. But overall, it’s an uncommonly powerful season of television, bringing welcome emotional depth and structural variety to the MCU.

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