The first season of Jessica Jones is one of the best pieces of live-action storytelling Marvel and Netflix have ever put together, whether separately or in collaboration. It was a prime example of tight, thoughtful storytelling with a strong throughline. It didn't move fast, but it was unstoppable. After a few troubled shows from the Marvel-Netflix machine, I went into Jessica Jones' sophomore season with high hopes.
I left, however, disappointed by a meandering, confused, and plodding effort that left me wondering less about the future of Jessica Jones herself and more about that of Marvel and its ability to help creators usher these shows from paper to screen.
In most other reviews, I'd tell you to prepare for light spoilers ahead. But this time, they need their own section.
As I look back at Jessica Jones' first season, it's hard to think of any really nasty spoilers I could drop on people who haven't seen it yet. You meet Jessica's nightmarish antagonist Kilgrave almost immediately, and the story revolves around how he manipulates her. The stakes for that are set almost immediately, and from there it's a back and forth toward unmoving goalposts.
This second season, though depends so heavily on spoilers, that it's almost hard to talk about it in any detail. It feels like every episode has a moment where something is revealed and, were the show made 30 or 40 years ago, you'd get a pause to add in one of those dramatic stings:
This has the unfortunate effect of making the show a lot less watchable on subsequent viewings – not unlike an M. Night Shayamalan movie – because the twists powering the show are sapped of their strength on secondary viewings.
The first season, as I said earlier, unifies all its threads to push through a very basic, relatable story. Jessica was a woman recovering from a deeply abusive relationship, distracting herself with a daily race to the bottom of a whisky bottle, when the abuser reentered her life. We saw him manipulate her and people around her to control her behavior and isolate her. We saw well-meaning people try to turn the abuser's talents to their own needs, only to find that abusers, well, abuse.
With this second season, it's hard to tell exactly what the creators are getting at.
The unifying element seems to be that Jessica is forced to look inside herself and maybe doesn't exactly like what she sees when she really tears in, and then has to examine how that affects her relationships. That seems like a solid basis for a good story, especially with this character. But how the show goes about doing that and what it seems to come away saying is messy, to say the least.
At the core of the series is a relationship that even lone-wolf Jessica wouldn't turn down. Someone comes back into her life. But it doesn't happen the way she expected or planned. Meanwhile, her friend Trish is by her side as always – craving the rush of action she got in the first season, wanting something bigger than a lifestyle radio show for people to jive on. Through all that, recovering addict and new Alias Investigations employee Malcolm is trying to learn how to be an investigator, how to show his gratitude to Jessica for helping him through the toughest moments of his life, and also how to just keep his shit together while the world is trying to suggest he do otherwise. Also, an extremely hunky superintendent is in charge of the building now, and boy do sparks fly! I told you it was soapy.
From Jessica's relationship, the takeaways seem to simultaneously be that you can't choose your family, but also that the family that really matters is the one you choose. It also seems to suggest that Jessica doesn't know how to have a normal intimate relationship even as these people demonstrate they're not super healthy or ready to act like adults themselves. Except that hunky superintendent with his sad, gentle eyes and shady past.
The show harps on Jessica's alcohol problem, but while it's doing that, it's also suggesting that just about everybody (except Oscar the Superintendent) is addicted to something.
Jessica Jones: Origins
That this season is about Jessica's past coming back to haunt her in unexpected ways means that this arc acts as an origin story of sorts. It's not the full, linear origin story shown in something like Daredevil or CW's superhero shows, but it's close enough that it falls into some of the same traps.
Some characters don't need origin stories. Sometimes they work best in the present moment. Jessica is one such example. Krysten Ritter embodies the character so completely, and the writing fits her so well – especially in the first season – that she's all-consumingly interesting without having to read the card on the back of her action figure box.
Speaking of Ritter and her performance as Jessica, she remains the true highlight of the series, and the supporting cast isn't half-bad, either. My first experience with Ritter was the sitcom Don't Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, where she elevated an entertainingly bizarre but mostly one-note character. As Jessica, she starts from similar ground – Jessica is pissed off. All the time. That's kind of her thing. But Ritter finds tons of depth there, showing us the vulnerability behind her rage, the love, fear, and loneliness that fuel her more isolating tendencies. Even when what's happening in the show isn't interesting, Ritter does an immeasurable job of making the goings-on watchable.
Most of the rest of the cast helps with the heavy lifting, too. The characters that helped make season 1 so interesting are, for the most part, back. They've evolved in interesting ways and that makes for tons of interesting interactions between Jessica and each of these characters.
Trish (Rachael Taylor) was deeply affected by the trauma of the first season's events. As a celebrity and ex-child star, she's used to the spotlight. Through Jessica's powers and story, she sees another path to the spotlight that her radio show can't offer. She struggles to balance her ambition with a seemingly healthy relationship and the compulsive, attention-seeking behavior she's tried to put behind her. Taylor makes Trish's evolution from a frightened woman to a creature of desperate ambition feel organic.
Meanwhile, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), a person so familiar with power that she's made a career of her invincibility, immediately has her mortality shown to her in stark relief. We watch how she copes with that, getting sad, needy, vulnerable, and mean as she struggles to stay on the bull.
Jessica's neighbor Malcolm got through his withdrawal symptoms in the first season, but anyone who has dealt with addiction knows that that's something that stays with you forever, and Jessica Jones doesn't shy away from that. That part of his history seems to factor into just about everything Malcolm does, and that will likely feel very real to anyone who has dealt with or knows someone who has dealt with addiction.
Wait, she's doing THAT?!
One of the biggest downfalls from moment to moment is the way characters choose to respond to events happening around them. I think the show is trying to suggest that the traumas it deals with make us vulnerable, but it seems like the characters in Jessica Jones make the dumbest possible decisions at virtually every juncture. Characters are constantly leaving doors and computers open and unlocked, leaving dangerous or volatile people unattended, ignoring phone calls, and forgetting to look over their shoulders despite having every reason to do so.
These gaffes by themselves are near-mortal sins. The show is trying to put its characters' emotions on a pedestal higher than their actions, but the way they respond to and cope with things tells us everything we need to know about them. And what we end up finding out is that a lot of these people are dumb and mean. Except for Oscar with his criminal past and hobby of being an extremely talented painter. He responds to situations like a rational adult, apologizes for his mistakes, and puts other peoples' needs ahead of his in a healthy way. He's so good and well-adjusted that he feels out of place in this show. And that he looks like a transfer from the set of a soap opera doesn't do anything to decrease how soapy the show feels at times. Oscar does not belong on this show.
Oscar: Basically the Worst
I do have to call out one good thing. In world where comic book characters are inventing flying AI robots like it's no big deal, hacking time travel, and listening for the heartbeats of secret ninjas from two floors away, Jessica Jones is refreshingly realistic about its technology. We watch two characters track a third down by looking at the geotagging information on a picture automatically uploaded from the person's phone and into their cloud account. Another triangulates a character's location by using GPS information of their former sex partners on a Tinder-like app. That one reaches a little bit, but the character is using plausible data and a paper map to plot it out. She even tells the guy that turning off Find My Phone isn't going to save him.
But everything else is inexplicably dumb. So many of the things people do in this show feel like nonsense, like the character should be doing the exact opposite and would be doing that. This isn't the kind of foolish stuff fueled by addiction or grief. It's just idiot plotting.
Jessica Jones season 2 is a mess and a disappointment. If you asked Marvel fans which Netflix show was their favorite, you'd get a few different answers. Some might say that first season of Daredevil. Others might say the first half of Luke Cage. For me and many others, though, it was that first season of Jessica Jones. Those 13 episodes showed that the Marvel Netflix Universe was capable not just of putting comics into the upper tier of premium serial storytelling, but of making actual art from them.
Since then, the brand has been on a steady decline. While Marvel's movies seem to be experiencing a second renaissance, the shows can't seem to hold on to the success they once had. Luke Cage's second half was a far cry from the complex, nuanced first half. Iron Fist was nearly unwatchable thanks to Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist, Protector of K'un-L'un, Sworn Enemy of the Hand. Daredevil's second season and the Defenders both had merit but were brought down by heavy reliance on the secret organization called The Hand as a source of conflict. How those shows (and Iron Fist managed to make secret ninjas boring is a puzzle I might never solve.
Jessica Jones, though, stood on its own, delivering an artful story that unified acting, dialogue, storytelling, and restrained visual effects to make an incredibly compelling show. This season doesn't seem to know where it wanted to go. It retreads lessons of the first season and comes away with contradictory conclusions. It abuses its characters and leave us wondering if it loves them like it seemed to the first go-round. Great performances keep an otherwise uninteresting show afloat, and good performances aren't enough on their own.
If not even Jessica Jones can hold the Marvel Netflix shows up in a positive light, is there any hope for the upcoming seasons of Luke Cage, Daredevil, the Punisher, and yes, Iron Fist?