If, like me, you’re no fan of the superhero genre, then this is definitely the show for you.
To clarify: I don’t read comic books, I’m not a sci-fi enthusiast and I haven’t watched any of the Avengers movies or the Daredevil series. I would categorize Nolan’s phenomenal Batman adaptations (the only Batman movies I have actually watched) as action-adventure-thrillers; the only reason I watched the first instalment of Iron Man was Robert Downey Jr, and when my godson wanted a birthday cake featuring the Incredible Hulk I had to look up a picture for reference. I’m so uninitiated in the superhero genre that David Carradine’s monologue on Kill Bill: Vol. 2 incredibly insightful.
Before I pressed play on the pilot episode, I didn’t know Jessica Jones from a hole in the wall… but boy am I glad I took the time to make her acquaintance.
Although I’m a novice when it comes to the genre, I don’t think this is your run-of-the-mill superhero series. Every early review I read tended to point out how much this show strays from the standard superhero genre, apparently being refreshing for tired audiences bombarded with the recent superhero invasion, formerly strictly a nerd niche, into mainstream pop culture; the words ‘superhero fatigue’ came up quite often, but luckily it’s nothing I’ve ever suffered from. These reviews classify Jessica Jones as a neo-noir stylized action/drama show, where whatever super-powers the titular character possesses take a back seat to the story. And it’s starring Krysten Ritter, whom I simple adored on Veronica Mars and as Jesse’s junkie girlfriend on Breaking Bad. Sign me up!
My expectations were pretty high, which usually results in major let-downs, but this was not the case with Jessica Jones: the story is compelling, the characters are masterfully developed, the cinematography is striking and the pacing is non-stop, sitting on the edge of your seat, thanking your lucky stars this is a Netflix show that you can binge on over a weekend.
And binge I did. We don’t get much exposition right from the get-go, which is a pure delight; often shows tend to cram so much story into their pilot episode to transport us into their fictional universe, that it becomes tedious, boring and/or confusing. This is not the case with Jessica Jones: we see a young woman, tortured by whatever dark past she carefully keeps to herself, going about her business as a private investigator. She drinks, dresses sloppily, lives in a crappy apartment; she seems alone in the world and prefers to keep it that way. ,
We don’t even get to see her use her superpowers until episode 2. Her dark past is revealed to us slowly over the course of this first season, and with it we get not only Jessica’s back story, but also that of Jessica’s adopted sister (and initially estranged best friend) Trish.
What’s refreshing about the show is that the characters that complete the ensemble aren’t treated as sidekicks or incidental, two-dimensional characters only there to help push the plot forward.
Case in point: Trish is smart, resourceful, a loyal friend, and it doesn’t hurt that Rachael Taylor is stunning. She’s the one that keeps Jessica from going off the deep end, she provides perspective, and her envy of her friend’s powers acts as a valid counterpoint to Jessica’s denial of her hero status. Trish is absolutely essential to the story, which is evident not only in the events of season 1 but also heavily hinted at in the season finale, teasing us about what’s to come in season 2.
Equally significant to the story is Luke Cage, Jessica’s sometimes lover, whose back story is slowly revealed, and with it his link to Jessica’s own troubled past. Comic book readers were probably excited to see Mike Colter take on the role of Luke, who will be starring in his own spin-off series next year, and although I didn’t know him from Adam, I can’t say I minded the eye candy. Luke Cage is a compelling character from the moment he first appears on screen, right up until the finale.
Jessica’s neighbour Malcolm and her lawyer (and sometime client) Jeri Hogarth are both wonderful additions, each of them residing on opposite ends of the spectrum. Malcolm is fundamentally good, even when he’s being manipulated by the evil force Jessica is striving to vanquish. Jeri, on the other hand, is quite a vile human being: cold and calculated, her every move is driven by her own opportunistic nature, both in her personal and professional life.
But no other character is more compelling than Kilgrave, the villain – and Jessica’s own nemesis. Dr. Who fans were apparently delighted to see David Tennant, but to me – at first glance – he was yet another Brit playing the bad guy. Not so; not only is his performance gripping, but the character is so complex and expertly written, it takes the villain plot device to a whole other level. While Jessica and Luke try to use their powers for good, Kilgrave weilds his only in the most self-serving, descpicable ways.
Like I’ve said in my disclaimer above, I’m not knowledgeable in the superhero trope, and this lack of a frame of reference extends to the villains in the genre, so I’m probably not qualified to rate Kilgrave as a successful one or not.
However, here’s my two cents: as far as bad guys go, this one pretty much takes the cake. His look might not be frightful; nor is his demeanor in his ‘normal’ interactions. He’s just a regular-looking, albeit eccentrically dressed guy, and that makes him even more dangerous. Nothing about his appearance suggests super-villain; no one will run away screaming just looking at Kilgrave. He can get close to anyone and use his power to bend them at his will, which makes every person in his vicinity a potential victim. Everything about Kilgrave is captivating (literally) – and chilling.
And what of his power? Nevermind evil plans to blow up a building or destroy a city: this guy can make anyone do anything – and he doesn’t even have to get his hands dirty. You can’t go near him long enough to fight him, because he can instantly thwart your plans via mind control; you can’t try him in a regular court, nor incarcerate him in even the most secure prison. As long as there’s even one person around, he has a way out of any jam. Using his powers for good is not an option, as evidenced in the show, nor is keeping him locked up in a sound-proof cell: he is the ultimate master manipulator, exploiting human emotions and weaknesses long enough to be granted access into your mind, and from then on, it’s game over. If that doesn’t make him a super-villain, I don’t know what does.
The conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave was fascinating to watch. We learn bits and pieces of their history, enough to understand the cause of her PTSD and her subsequent obsessive need to stop him, all the way to the resolution in the season finale. While the final confrontation could be characterized as anticlimactic, I actually thought it was a clever choice. Beating Kilgrave was not about revenge, nor was killing him about the satisfaction of seeing such an evil bastard die before our very eyes. By giving Jessica immunity to his powers, any one-on-one battle would have been an easy win for her. His unceremonious death turns the focus onto Jessica’s own feelings about the showdown, and the world’s perception of her as the hero who saved the lives of everyone he mind-controlled into almost killing eachother at the docks.
[By the way, I realize this is my second Kill Bill reference in this post, but I can’t help but be reminded of its finale when discussing Kilgrave’s death scene: almost a superhero in her own right, The Bride goes through several dozens of opponents in her quest to track down and kill Bill, all of whom fall in spectacularly choreographed battle scenes. When she finally has her stand off with Bill, his death is sudden, swift, and felt somewhat anticlimactic, considering the two-movie long build up, yet it was entirely fitting and satisfying].
Although it was sad to see such a strong character go (strictly from a story standpoint), it was a necessary conclusion: getting rid of Kilgrave doesn’t just save Jessica from her own demons, but also the entire world from any number of potential disasters waiting to happen. It also propels the story into the next season, which will presumably follow Jessica’s journey into becoming a reluctant superhero again, almost by popular demand. [We’re meant to assume that she tried her hand at doing the hero thing before but gave that career up before we first meet her in the pilot episode, so we might yet learn more about her superhero stint in coming seasons].
I suppose what helped seal the deal for me along with the actual story is that this is definitely not a PG-rated superhero show.
We don’t get any F-bombs, but we get pretty much everything else: lots of swearing, lots of sex, lots and lots of disturbing and violent scenes. But none of it feels gratuitous. The sex isn’t shot in the usual stylized, fade-to-black manner we’re used to, with careful shots of body parts glossed over to look more like a titillating commercial than the actual sex act: it’s realistic and raw, without ever crossing the line into pornographic. It’s nothing more or less than it actually is: two people enjoying themselves.
If the sex scenes are there to remind us that these characters, like everyone else in the world, are hot-blooded human beings with an active sex life, then the violent scenes are only there to make a point. We never get over-the-top buckets of fake blood flooding our screen or scenes out of a torture-porn B movie. It’s there to serve a purpose, and that’s simply to portray how evil and despicable Kilgrave and his mind-control powers are. The fact that it only takes a few softly-spoken words on his part to turn anyone into a homicidal maniac would not be as effective if we didn’t get to see the results first hand.
The pros definitely outweigh the cons when it comes to critiquing Jessica Jones, but I have to mention my two (minor) gripes:
- Sergeant Will Simpson’s character switch felt a bit off; we first meet him he is under Kilgrave’s influence, but soon endears himself to us as the mind-control wears off and he proves to be a pretty nice guy. And then, suddenly, he takes these combat-enhancing drugs and becomes a dick, hellbent on killing Kilgrave, and even Jessica, when she gets in his way. The shift was too abrupt and not very convincing; the entire Dr. Kozlov/drug subplot was bizarre as well, and only served the story when Trish ingested a pill and momentarily gained ‘superpowers’ – not a big payoff to justify the subplot.
- Robyn was too annoying. From the first time we met her, as Jessica’s noisy neighbor, to her frantic search for Reuben and later her involvement in the Kilgrave support group, she was more a nuisance than anything else. Tragic though Reuben’s death may be, we had already seen plenty of evidence to Kilgrave’s crimes and the feeling of loss and devastation those left behind to warrant Robyn’s growing role in the series.
These two characters were either inconsistent (in Will’s case) or irritating (Robyn), both taking away – or at least distracting us – from the main plot instead of adding anything substantial to it. But it’s still a very small complaint about what is largely an incredibly enjoyable to watch, well put-together show.
Verdict: 8.5/10, easy.