TV: Jessica Jones (Seasons 2 & 3)

The Netflix/Marvel collaboration is over, and while I wouldn’t exactly call it a failure, it definitely didn’t live up to expectations. The first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones gained my enthusiasm early on, but it was downhill after that, and The Defenders team-up ended up being pretty underwhelming, leading me to nearly abandon the “MTU” entirely.

I came back for Jessica Jones. One lure was my memory of its stellar first season; another was its dedicated focus on female characters, something so rare in Marvel’s live-action properties that I felt it deserved to be further supported. I’m definitely glad I saw it through, for while I think both seasons were overlong and made questionable storytelling decisions, overall I found it a strong, refreshingly messaged addition to the genre.

Hard-drinking, super-powered private investigator Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) begins season two coping with the notoriety of her recent murder of psychotic, mind-controlling villain Kilgrave. She’s still a controversial figure in the city, however: a hero to some for ending the Kilgrave threat, but a vigilante menace to others. Meanwhile, the mystery of Jessica’s past—the tragic accident that killed her birth family and gave her her powers—hasn’t yet been solved. Jessica wants to put that behind her, but her adopted sister Trish Walker (Rachael Hunter) has other plans. Tired of her frivolous talk radio show career, Trish wants to transition to investigative journalism. The story she’s determined to pursue involves IGH, the underworld mad science organization that empowered Jessica and others in a series of unscrupulous experiments. Jessica gets reluctantly dragged into Trish’s pursuit, which ultimately reintroduces Jessica to her unexpectedly alive birth mother Alisa (Janet McTeer)—with emotionally explosive results. If season two wallows in the past, season three looks to chart a new way forward. A chance encounter with roguish ne’er-do-well Erik Gelden (Benjamin Walker) puts Jessica and Trish on the scent of a despicable serial killer named Gregory Sallinger (Jeremy Bobb). The complicated pursuit of justice against Sallinger has devastating consequences for Trish, but helps Jessica discover her long-spurned inner heroism.

Seasons two and three definitely don’t match the inaugural season, but they build on it entertainingly enough, and maintain an air of noir mystique and thematic consistency that set it apart from its fellow (pun intended) Netflix shows. Unfortunately, both seasons have that padded, awkward pace endemic to the MTU, and extend an episode or so longer than is good for them. There are also problematic character elements. Removed from the trauma of the Kilgrave case, for example, Jessica’s thorny, shut-down nihilism verges on abusive at times, particularly in her behavior towards her earnest assistant Malcolm (Eka Darville). The scripts also bend over backwards to deliver Trish and Malcolm down dark, out-of-character paths in service to the story.

Even so, something about Jessica Jones really works for me. In my review of season one, I referred to it as “the feminist flip side of Daredevil,” but having completed all three seasons I’m tempted to re-assess it as more of a thematic cousin to Angel. Like Angel, Jessica Jones is a series mixing superpowers with private investigations, and it’s populated by deeply broken heroes: alcoholic, PTSD-afflicted Jessica, abused former child star Trish, recovering addict Malcolm, ethically compromised and increasingly disabled power-lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss). These protagonists, like Angel’s, are difficult to like at times, but hard not to sympathize with at others. They are damaged people who keep spinning into and out of each others’ orbits, and part of the draw is rooting for them to finally come together and find happiness. That never quite happens, of course, except in fleeting moments of relief. But ultimately, in context, that seems right.

Another similarity: Angel and Jessica Jones are both steeped in toxic masculinity. Angel’s take on this  wasn’t always self-aware, however; in that sense, Jessica Jones is a vast improvement. It mindfully leverages toxic masculinity, primarily in its villainy, addressing issues in a healthier way. Season three is the more successful season largely because of this; it mirrors the themes of the first by presenting a similarly emblematic villain. Like the gaslighting Kilgrave, Sallinger is a villain who stands in for the mundane, everyday evils of contemporary life. He’s a walking superiority complex of “men’s rights” activism, a twisted personification of an internet troll. Bobb does fine work making this despicable mastermind convincing and formidable, and he’s just one of several new characters who add nice texture to the series’ landscape over the later seasons. Leah Gibson, for example, caught my eye in season two as troubled former nurse Inez Green, who provides key leads in the IGH investigation. Rebecca De Mornay etches a memorable niche as Trish’s problematic stage mother Dorothy. And Walker’s Erik is a welcome addition to the cast, a rakish, funny foil who complements Ritter’s cold, implacable restraint perfectly. Jessica has her share of flings over the years, but with Erik the chemistry feels natural.

I wasn’t always a hundred percent thrilled by Jessica Jones, but I always admired it: a superhero show that delved into the ethics and psychology of the genre, and commented interestingly on sociopolitical issues along the way. It didn’t resolve all its threads, and I’m not sure Trish deserved the grim fate that was charted for her. But overall, especially for Jessica, the series ends in a satisfying place, its whole greater than the sum of its parts—even though some of those parts are frustratingly flawed. Not many shows are as confident in their thematic mission as Jessica Jones, and for that especially I’m going to miss it.

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