Surviving is her superpower

January 14, 2016

Laura Durkay reviews the new Netflix TV series Jessica Jones.

JESSICA JONES is the second installment in the fruitful Netflix-Marvel TV collaboration. Like the fantastic Daredevil before it, it is ruthlessly grim, dark and bloody, superbly well-acted and gorgeously produced.

While the gore and thematic material may not be for everyone, viewers who've been looking for a dose of Daredevil's grittiness with compelling, complex female characters at its center have found their poison.

Ostensibly a neo-noir, Jessica Jones uses the conventions of that genre to its advantage without being overly bound to them. The show's cinematography constantly positions us as a voyeur, looking at characters through windows and doorways, spying on them the way its protagonist does for money and its villain does out of obsession.

Jessica, an ex-superhero turned private investigator, speaks to us in voiceover and works/lives in an apartment with an old-school frosted-glass "Alias Investigations" sign on the door. But she's not so much hardboiled as she is broken.

If Daredevil is, at its core, a show about doing violence, Jessica Jones is about surviving it. Central to the first season is the relationship between Jessica (a brilliantly caustic Krysten Ritter) and her superpowered abuser Kilgrave (David Tennant, phenomenally creepy), a villain whose mind control abilities allow him to compel anyone to do what he wants. That what he wants is not world domination, but domination over an individual woman with whom he's obsessed, is in itself part of the show's commentary on the nature of evil.

Krysten Ritter stars as Jessica Jones
Krysten Ritter stars as Jessica Jones

Numerous reviews and commentary pieces, many written by survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, have already commented on the unsettling, or perhaps refreshing, accuracy the series brings to its depiction of abuse, stalking, rape and post-traumatic stress. Kilgrave is himself the product of an abusive childhood, full of confinement and bodily violations, and while the show allows us to understand how he got to be the way he is, it never tries to excuse his behavior.

As with all the best speculative fiction, the superhuman in the show works as a metaphor for the human. Kilgrave's power is the literal embodiment of extreme male entitlement--being able to bend the entire world to his will while still feeling sorry for himself. He keeps Jessica prisoner in an abusive relationship, then stalks her when she escapes his control, but reacts with genuine outrage when she calls him a rapist. In his mind, this is true love, and Jessica is the one hurting him by refusing to return it.

And while Jessica is strong enough to stop a car (at least a slow-moving one), she found herself powerless to disobey Kilgrave's commands, and is still dealing with the psychological aftermath. It's precisely the fact of her superhuman strength that throws into high relief the self-blaming thoughts of many survivors of violence--I should have been stronger; I should have fought harder; I can punch through a wall so I should have been able to get away from him.

Review: Television

Jessica Jones, starring Krysten Ritter, David Tennant and Rachael Taylor.

Ultimately, what makes Jessica strong isn't her superpower, but her willingness to track down and confront her abuser when she realizes he has hurt someone else.

WHEN WE meet Jessica, she is clearly struggling with PTSD. She's traumatized, angry, fearful, guilt-ridden, self-isolating and probably an alcoholic, barely holding together a life as an underemployed freelancer, working at night or getting blackout drunk because she's afraid to go to sleep.

A large portion of the series centers on her quest for proof that Kilgrave's mind-control abilities are real--literally, the quest to be believed. It's only when this project fails with the most spectacularly horrific consequences toward the end of the season that she decides she must try to kill him.

Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones is not shy about depicting violence (although the sexual violence that underpins so much of the story is left off-screen). But while Daredevil's fights took place in dark alleys and abandoned industrial spaces--the places we're taught to expect crime and violence to be lurking--Jessica Jones repeatedly stages its set-piece fights in domestic spaces, particularly characters' homes.

Arterial blood splatters penthouse apartment walls; a stereotypical suburban neighborhood becomes the site of a grisly bomb blast; and Jessica's apartment gets trashed beyond any hope of reclaiming her security deposit by the time the season is finished.

The perpetually broken state of Jessica's apartment door is both a running gag and a commentary: she doesn't care about it, because the threat of violence is not "out there," and a locked door won't keep her safe.

The fights in Jessica Jones are styled to look messy and unchoreographed, and they have a relentless quality that makes them downright terrifying to watch.

An early fight, between Jessica's best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor) and an NYPD cop who's been sent by Kilgrave to kill her, is an important tone-setter for the series, even though it doesn't involve Jessica until the very end. Trish has been trained in self-defense and has a weapon, but her attacker is just bigger and stronger than her and refuses to stop.

Jessica herself is stronger than a normal human, but she's not invulnerable. She can get shot, stabbed, bruised, knocked unconscious and just plain overwhelmed--and she does. The net result is a show in which multiple characters have superpowers, and yet you still feel genuinely scared for our protagonists in a fight.

THERE ARE plenty of other refreshing nuggets in the way the show treats its female characters. Arguably the most important relationship of the season is a female friendship, that between Jessica and Trish. A plotline involving abortion is handled with enough unapologetic aplomb to make you cheer.

By gender-swapping a character from the comics, cutthroat lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Cary-Ann Moss), the series gives us another female character and two lesbian relationships, which are handled pretty much exactly as they would be if Hogarth were a man.

The show's women have a lot of sex, much of it casual and none of it portrayed as shameful by the show's creators. Jessica's relationship with fellow superhero Luke Cage is not exactly healthy--but what's unhealthy about it is not that their idea of romance is getting cart food between rounds of bed-breaking coitus.

It's the emotional masochism Jessica puts herself through due to an entanglement in their pasts only she knows about at the beginning of the series, and the fact that she keeps this information from Luke when revealing it would have dramatically changed the way he interacted with her.

And it's to the show's credit that the tension in their relationship is not neatly tied up by the season's end--if you get to an episode where it looks like it's going to be, just wait for the twist.

Speaking of twists, this is a show that commits to some truly wild ones. The show's writers embrace chaos and unintended consequences in ways that few shows do. At multiple points, secondary characters who seem like amusing (or annoying) distractions suddenly end up interacting with the main plot in unpredictable and sometimes shocking ways.

A particular character chooses, of their own free will, to aid Kilgrave at a key moment, setting in motion a horrific chain of events that comes back to haunt them. A random interaction with a side character who mostly seems there for comic relief leads to Jessica not being in the right place at a key moment.

While some of these twists are more effective than others, the overall effect is a tremendous amount of destructive instability that radiates out from the key conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave and touches every recurring character on the show, and plenty of unlucky bystanders.

The first season of Jessica Jones is a true origin story, about a character overcoming her demons in the most literal way after a life-altering trauma. With Daredevil gearing up to drop season two in March, and Luke Cage getting his own spin-off series that can explore his character in more depth, let us hope Jessica Jones gets a second season to explore where her character can go next.

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