Beware my fellow geeks, if you enjoyed Jessica Jones you just might be on a slippery slope to being a Lifetime channel fan. It has, after all, rightly been called an allegory for an abusive relationship. Given at least one monologue by the main character, this is certainly true. To be fair, the relationship was abusive in a way that no real life relationship ever could be. If this makes the series sound a little melodramatic and depressing, it certainly can be. But don’t worry, there are far too many explosions, superpowered fist fights and sex scenes in Jessica Jones for it to be a Lifetime movie.
As might be expected, the series focuses on the title character, a woman who, from the beginning is broken and haunted, trying to make her way through life while hiding and running away from her past. It is only as the series progresses that we find out why she is so broken and haunted though we very early get a big hint and find out it largely involves a man named Kilgrave, though the tragedy in her life goes back even further. Oh, and she just happens to be super strong.
It is not long before we are introduced to this boogey man. Kilgrave has, potentially, the most frightening power in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is definitely one of the creepiest. Forget being able to throw around lightning or toss around tanks, Kilgrave can make a person do whatever he wants just by telling them to. This includes killing other people, killing themselves and even forgetting about him or why they’re doing the things he’s telling them to do. These commands go beyond simple orders and can be rather complex, hinging on any number of contingencies. Worse great responsibility has not come with this great power and Kilgrave leaves a string of broken, ruined and destroyed lives in his wake.
Jessica, who took some comfort in thinking Kilgrave was dead after their last interaction, finds out very early on that he is still alive. This is very much akin to learning that the monster that lived under your bed when you were kid was just taking a break all those years you’ve been an adult and is looking to pick up where he left off.
The rest of the series is a game of cat and mouse that eventually becomes a game of cat and cat. The two opponents each wield abilities capable of one hit kills and it is just a matter of who can maneuver their weapon in place.
Along the way, Jessica picks up a number of allies, either people who have also been touched by Kilgrave who want as badly as her to stop him or people who care about her enough to face his power to help her or both. The most prominent and stalwart of these allies is no doubt Patricia “Trish” “Patsy” Walker, a name familiar to anyone steeped in Marvel lore, though it took me a while to put together who she was. Trish’s existence in the story and her character’s history was both a nice throw back to the character’s origin in the comics (she was a romance comic star who was turned into a super hero later there, too) and a nice set up for another super powered character in the universe. Her connection with Jessica goes back much further than this story and the two are childhood friends and adopted sisters. Much like Jessica, Trish is terrified of facing Kilgrave but finds she can’t run away because she can’t let him hurt someone she cares about.
Perhaps a more interesting ally, though, both within the story and from a meta-story point of view is a relative newcomer in Jessica’s life, Luke Cage. I never read the Alias comic book series (it involved too much retconning for my tastes) so I don’t know how closely the cinematic universe story follows what was in the comics, but in the show, Luke and Jessica have an impressively twisted and intertwined (if short and somewhat one-sided) history. They also have an impressive amount of sexual and romantic chemistry. From a meta-story point of view, it has already been announced that Luke is getting his own series so this can be considered a sort of preview and introduction to the character in the cinematic universe. It’s also a good preview of how Mike Colter will do in the role.
And it is a comforting preview. Colter’s Cage is smart, confident, largely quiet and a little bit haunted and conflicted but, in the end a stand up, brave, loyal guy. There’s nothing particularly flashy about him and he is very much a working man’s hero just the way Luke Cage should be.
Actually, the overall casting is brilliant, starting with the lead character. Krysten Ritter is no stranger to television and, as often as not has played characters who were jerks at best. In fact, it’s written into her titular role on her last big show Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. Unlike these other characters, though, who have often been vapid and shallow, though never really dumb, Jessica Jones has some clear depth behind her jerkiness. Whereas she’s played characters who were self-centered and cruel, she just portrays Jessica Jones as hard and crusty. Even this has depth though because it is clearly just a shell and she has a soft, caring core underneath. The simple fact that she doesn’t run for the hills but remains to face her ultimate fear to protect others demonstrates the depth of her empathy. This makes Jessica a hero in the truest Marvel tradition. She doesn’t want to save the day but she knows she’s the only one who can and she can’t stand by and watch things happen without doing something about it.
And at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to self-sacrifice is the villain, Kilgrave, played brilliantly by David Tennant. His character has a ridiculous amount of power and takes no responsibility for anything he does. Kilgrave has the potential to be cartoonish as a villain, but Tennant brings a nice subtlety to the character. He’s neither the jolly prankster nor the mustache twirling world conqueror. Rather, he’s the psychopath with the capacity to get and do almost anything he wants who has no guilt over getting it. You never empathize with him, he is a terrible person after all, but you do understand how he can be the way he is. After all, it is revealed that he got his power as a child and any child who can get whatever he wants is going to have a hard time learning right and wrong. As time goes on, and Jessica gets closer and closer to him, he grows ever more desperate as he realizes that he could, actually lose. Like Jessica, he is unable to simply cut his losses and run, but for completely selfish and egotistical reasons rather than her selfless ones. Tennant does an excellent job playing up this subtlety, and if he keeps it up, and takes more roles like this, he just might develop a following in the geek community.
Rachael Taylor as Trish Walker makes me look forward with eager anticipation to a Hellcat series. Or at least hope Hellcat makes an appearance in the Defenders series. There is one brief moment in the show where we get a glimpse of what that would look like. Like so many other characters in the show, Trish is haunted by her past, though, in this case, it is not one that has been touched by abject tragedy. It is more like misery as she tries to outgrow and move away from her status as a child star and the mental and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother in the process of shaping her into a child star. She proves to be Jessica’s most stalwart ally throughout the series, however, standing by her adopted sister through even the worst that Kilgrave can throw at them.
Eka Darville and Wil Traval each play characters that are simultaneously quite similar and completely divergent. Each is made to do something completely out of character by Kilgrave and each is forced to decide what that means about themselves and their place in the world and how they are going to live their lives. The choices they make are what make them different. Both try to help Jessica, but one does it through peaceful means trying to heal Kilgrave’s victims while the other tries to beat Kilgrave at his own game by seeking out his own superhuman power and less than ethical means of dealing with the situation.
Speaking of being less than ethical, Carrie-Anne Moss plays Jeri Hogarth, a powerful, ruthless lawyer who is a big fish in a big pond. In fact, she plays just the kind of character who could be a Kingpin level and style villain in another story. In this story, though, she finds all her self-confidence, skill and intelligence means nothing in the face of the superhuman powers she’s dealing with. Of course, she doesn’t understand this and, even though she’s been warned and seen evidence of what Kilgrave can do, when they eventually, inevitably meet, the results are predictable.
In fact, this lack of understanding is a running theme of the show. Even people who’ve been told of what Kilgrave can do or have seen or experienced it for themselves continually underestimate his power. Time and again, he is able to escape a trap or forward his agenda because the people he’s dealing fail to conceive what he can do and what that means for them.
This isn’t just a plot device and the resonant part of this theme is that it seems imminently believable. It is almost impossible to imagine a person who can make anyone do anything he wants with only a few words so it is only to be expected that no one involved really understands exactly what that means. Jessica Jones, more than any other story in the Marvel cinematic universe, explores the powerlessness of normal humans in the face of people with these extraordinary abilities. Again and again, people who know how dangerous Kilgrave is do foolish things around him because they simply cannot fathom the danger he truly represents. It is only Jessica who constantly keeps the proper respect for his abilities and acts accordingly.
In some ways the grittiest of the stories in the cinematic universe and in some ways one of the most fantastic, Jessica Jones, like all of the really great stories that Marvel has put out through their movies and TV shows, is really just a story about people. While the powers that some of the characters have play an integral part in the plot, it is how the people involved react and behave that seems so true and interesting. The show stands head and shoulders above Daredevil and bolsters my faith that the Netflix portion of this universe is just getting better and better.