Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)
A brilliant, mature, dark show that investigates the personal cost of abuse, violence, and notions of justice, and clearly demonstrates the range the superhero genre can encompass, all wrapped up in compelling drama populated by fascinating characters. Well worth watching.
A TV show about the survivor of an abusive relationship who is a hard-drinking, bitter, and emotionally scarred private eye trying to take down her abuser, seems at odds with much of the public perception of superhero television, and in a number of ways Netflix’s Jessica Jones is as far from a traditional superhero series as you can get, and is all the better for it.
Jessica Jones, a Netflix Original series, is the 13 episode, live action superhero show based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos Marvel comic series, Alias. Like its sister show Daredevil, and two planned future shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Jones is set in the same New York as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and occurs after the events of Avengers (2012). But Jones eschews the grand, epic battle of heroes against countless nameless and disposable minions, and focuses intently, and uncomfortably, on the personal human cost of living, and surviving, in a world of superheroes and villains. Make no mistake, this is not a children’s show, nor is it a rip-roaring excitement filled adventurous romp with no emotional consequence, this is a powerful show that examines the darkest parts of the superhero genre and the human condition.
Jessica Jones and Kilgrave
Krysten Ritter plays Jessica Jones, a hard-bitten, cynical, PTSD-stricken, alcoholic, running a shady one-woman PI firm in a dilapidated office situated in a grubby, and well realised, section of New York city. Eking out an existence serving subpoenas, photographing cheating spouses in the act, and the occasional missing person’s case, in order to keep a roof over her head and her liquor supply constant, Ritter’s Jones is a far cry from the costumed heroes we are perhaps far more familiar with, yet the strength of her performance is that Jones feels more real, more substantial and more believable than even the grittiest superhero portrayed thus far, even if she has super-strength. While Jones drops barbed comments and snarky come-backs like a jaded stand-up, Ritter imbues her performance with a vulnerability and fragility that highlights the character’s struggle to hang on and survive as a victim of extreme abuse. Her very humanity and brokenness give the story its touchstone and allows for the tension, horror, and sense of threat to feel palpable rather than nebulous or cartoony.
Ritter manages to convey the complexity of Jones’ character with consummate ease and makes her portrayal seem both effortless and natural. On the surface Jones appears crude, cold, callous and pragmatic, distancing herself from the world and those around her. She is tough as nails and a no nonsense survivor ready to face down any physical threat and isn’t shy of a verbal put down or a judgemental swipe. But underneath that calculated swaggering exterior Jones is a bundle of contradictory emotions and feelings, including guilt, self-loathing, fear, and extreme pain. Despite this Ritter manages to convey that in her heart Jones is driven by a need to help and save people, that she is loyal to and protective of those she loves, and that she is a true hero doing the best she can to survive. It is an impressive feat, and one that allows the audience to feel for Jones, to forgive her mistakes, and to become deeply invested in Jones’ development arc.
The main story is launched by a missing person’s case as Jones is hired to find Hope Shlottman by the worried young woman’s parents, but soon focuses on the re-emergence of a shadowy and abusive figure from Jones’ past, the despicable Kilgrave. Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a master manipulator with the insidious ability to absolutely control people’s minds and actions, and possibly the most sinister and frightening of any Marvel villain thus far portrayed on screen. While previous villains have had the ability to blow things up, wreak havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the invasive and disturbing power wielded by Kilgrave is far more intimate, and far more devastating on a personal level. While other villains destroy buildings and bodies, Kilgrave destroys the mind, the soul and the heart of his victims, leaving them scarred, broken and screaming in his wake. He calls into question their sanity, inspires paranoia, and rips apart their ability to trust anyone ever again. He uses people as disposable puppets, and exhibits no compassion, remorse, or even an iota of guilt about his rape of their minds, and their bodies, and his destruction of their lives, even if he lets them live.
As the series delves into Kilgrave’s past with Jones the audience gains new and horrifying insight into what he is, what he did and what he continues to do to Jones. A result of this is building admiration for Jones’ strength of will and huge amounts of sympathy and empathy for her struggle. If we were perhaps hesitant at first to forgive her more egregious behaviour, seeing the monster of her past puts it in perspective. As the extent and horror of Kilgrave’s plans and manipulations become more and more apparent, Jones’ paranoia, fear and trust issues become profoundly understandable and we gain insight into how destructive Kilgrave can be. The more people he manipulates, the more twisted and sadistic his games, the greater the fear and paranoia of Jones’ character is translated through the screen and we soon start questioning the actions of every character, feeling tension every time someone knocks at the door or approaches Jones.
An amazing strength of the show, the writing, and Tennant’s acting, is that despite Kilgrave’s clear villainy, despite his sheer disgusting, depraved and evil nature, he is made understandable, watchable, and even entertaining at times. Similar to how Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) was portrayed in Netflix’s Daredevil, the audience is invited to understand Kilgrave, to see his motivations and to get into his head, without ever once excusing his abuse or absolving him of his guilt. Kilgrave has motivations and reasons that run deeper than the standard villainy for villainy’s sake, and it is refreshing to see comicbook adaptations produce genuinely disturbing villains whose evil is traceable, believable, and recognisably possible. It is a fine line to walk, and Jones accomplishes it effortlessly.
Grounding the entire story are the relationships with and around Jones with a host of beautifully flawed characters. Rachel Taylor plays Jones’ foster/adopted sister Trish Walker, a former child star (with all the drama that entails) and now popular talk-show host, who also happens to be estranged from her manipulative, unscrupulous mother and former manager and agent, Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay). The dynamic between Jones and Walker is brilliantly realised, and the chemistry between Taylor and Ritter is fantastic to watch on screen as we slowly get deeper and deeper into their relationship and backstory, with all the complications and messiness of sibling love, exacerbated by the introduction of superpowers, child fame and an emotionally abusive parent.
Yet another of the complicated and flawed supporting characters is Jones’ main employer Carrie-Anne Moss’ calculating, cruel, yet polished and brilliant lawyer, Jeri Hogarth. Easily viewed as villain, (she is a defence attorney after all) Hogarth is morally compromised due to being embroiled in an office affair with her secretary Pam (Susie Abromeit), while lying to her wife Wendy (Robin Weigert), she is willing to take risks at other people’s expense, is ambitious and wants to win at any cost, and yet, she is not all bad. She takes on a pro-bono case at Jessica’s urging, and despite Jessica’s less than professional attitude, continues to hire her because she gets results. Like so many of the characters on the show Hogarth has her demons and flaws but we are continually invited to understand her, even appreciate her. The show is at pains to paint the characters as real people, warts and all.
Jessica’s life is made a little more complicated by bar man and fellow super-powered character, Luke Cage (Mike Colter). While Cage acts as a love interest for Jones (or at the very least a lust interest), his character and relationship with Jones are deeper, more interesting, and certainly more involved than that. A minor quibble, and something that rang as a little too neat and trite, is the convenient overlapping of Jones’ and Cage’s backstories and key events. Despite this, Colter and Ritter have good chemistry on screen, and their halting exploration of a potential relationship, secrets and all, rings true, and seems far more believable and honest than most of the superhero fare out there.
The last two major supporting characters are Jones’ drug addicted neighbour, Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville), and tough cop Will Simpson (Wil Traval). Providing something of a mirror of each other characters over the course of the show, Malcolm and Will explore the redemptive and destructive aspects of character development over the series, and how people deal with trauma, abuse and the aftermath. How they each react to their experiences with Kilgrave is telling and provides a brilliant support structure to the main narrative. (Personally I found both of their arcs a little too rushed with each character changing fairly dramatically over a short space of time, but this may be a side effect of binge watching the show and therefore not having the gap between episodes that would ease the transition.)
The greatest strengths of this show are the attention paid to character and the care with which realised, flawed and broken characters are portrayed on the screen. No one person is without blemish, and those defects are genuine, deep, heartfelt scars, rather than glib or artificial flaws superficially grafted in an attempt to create slightly rounded characters. Each of the characters on screen feels like a real person, and when the world portrayed contains super-powers this adds a huge element of believability and authenticity to the endeavour. There is an honesty and integrity in how they are portrayed that grounds this reality and makes the tension palpable and resonate. It is through the characters that the horror of the situation, the stakes, and the repercussions of the story find purchase. Their misplaced guilt, their fear, the conflicting impulses of revulsion and desire, the self-loathing and blame, all these things become powerful hooks imbedded in each character that grab hold of the fictive reality and turn their characters into people. People you care about. People you are invested in.
As I said above, the setting is New York city, but rather than the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple Jessica Jones keeps its attention on the back streets, the alleys and the grittier side, much like Daredevil. Given the detective noir beginnings it is also unsurprising that many of the scenes occur at night, or in seedy, slightly dilapidated surroundings. The view is of the personal New York, the real New York, the lived in New York, and the people and individuals that create the story. While there are moments when the bigger landscape swims into view, and some glimpses of famous locations, most of the time the show stays grounded in the characters and the importance of the people. This is a story all about the individual and most of the locales are in keeping with this.
Jessica Jones is a superhero story, but it is one that uses the medium to do something more than recount a tired tale of derring-do or over the top action. It uses superpowers and this modern mythic form to provide a lens to examine, explore, and understand the ramifications of abuse, to place the focus on how victims survive and the desperate plight that is created after the instigating event, and to illustrate the strength and heroism of survivors of trauma. It does all this by providing a story set in an exaggerated world where allegory and symbolism take some of the shocking, debilitating horror away from a real world issue so that we can bear to look at it instead of turning our heads away with a sense of overwhelming helplessness.
Jones is great television, compulsive viewing, powerful and meaningful storytelling, and wonderfully demonstrates what a grounded superhero story can do. Shows like HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos took unflinching looks at real life issues to produce compelling dramas, and Netfilx’s Jessica Jones joins their ranks, shoulder to shoulder. This is a show to watch and bodes extremely well for the future of Netflix and for superhero television.