Jessica Jones is perhaps the smallest story Marvel has ever told. It’s not about saving the world, or New York, or even Hell’s Kitchen. The villain isn’t a megalomaniac bent on world domination, or an arms dealer bent on controlling battlefields. In the world of Jessica Jones, the battles are intimate, but the struggles are monumental. Jessica Jones isn’t fighting to save the world, but to salvage what little of her soul is left.
WARNING: Spoilers for the full series ahead.
Jessica Jones has superpowers, but she’s not a superhero. Jess ekes out a living as a PI in Hell’s Kitchen, mostly by following cheating spouses. Her superpowers help her investigations; Jess can jump high, lift cars, and punch like a truck. But her greatest battles are internal. Past tragedies have left Jess’ psyche fractured. She’s haunted by the ghosts of her past shame, and always has a bottle of whiskey nearby to chase them away. Jess aspires to be something bigger, something better than herself, but her self-loathing and PTSD keeps her emotionally paralyzed, afraid to let anyone get close lest she hurt them. The main drama of the series is Jess’ internal struggle between being a self-loathing victim, or being the hero she doesn’t believe herself to be.
I’m a big fan of Krysten Ritter from her work on Breaking Bad and (especially) Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23, but I’m not sure she’s wholly suited to Jessica Jones. Ritter looks about five years younger than her age, when she should look five years older. Ritter’s porcelain skin and big doe eyes often clash with Jessica’s cynicism and weariness. Ritter packed on muscle for the show, but I wish she would’ve put on some flab; in the comics, Jessica Jones is no waif, and the hard drinking takes a toll on her body. Instead of getting absorbed by the action scenes, I kept thinking how tough it would be for those larger male stuntmen to throw themselves across the room every time Ritter landed a fake punch. Ritter has an odd physicality, and I can’t quite place what makes her so strange to watch. I feel bad highlighting this, because she’s is actually quite good in the role, especially when playing opposite her immensely talented supporting cast.
Jessica finds comfort and camaraderie in the arms of Luke Cage, the owner of a Hell’s Kitchen dive bar. In the first few episodes, Luke is undoubtedly the best part of the show for me so far. In the same way that I want to see Charlie Cox’s Daredevil rubbing shoulders with Iron Man, I need to see Mike Colter sharing the room with Captain America, both competing for nobility. Colter inhabits the role like he just stepped right from the comic page, and his warm eyes and charming face hide the rage that Luke keeps hidden. But though Luke is the best part of the first six episodes, the show doesn’t truly come to life until he leaves. Once Luke is gone, Jessica loses her last bit of humanity, and falls fully under the thrall of Kilgrave’s evil.
Jessica’s oldest confidant is Trish Walker, her adopted sister played by Rachael Taylor. Trish is everything Jess is not; rich, charming, successful, beloved by audiences. Trish does bear her own scars; as a teenager, Jess used her superpowers to draw the line between Trish and her abusive mother. But Trish has no superpowers to help Jessica after her own torturous past. And even if Trish did, she can’t stop Jessica from pushing her away while she slowly drinks herself to death. Like most siblings, there’s no reason that Jess and Trish should be friends, or even like each other at all, but the two have seen each other in their darkest moments.
But Jessica’s most important relationship is with Kilgrave.
Kilgrave’s is not just Marvel’s best villain, he might be their best character full-stop. That sounds hyperbolic, but Kilgrave is loaded with the sort-of rich, thematic weight that people will be dissecting for years. I’ve seen folks compare Kilgrave to the Joker, but I’d like to posit he has far more in common with another DC villain: Darkseid. Both accomplish their own objectives by preying on the worst instincts and impulses of a person. Almost unknowingly, he finds a person’s greatest weakness or insecurity and amplifies it until it consumes her.
But the way Jessica Jones establishes Kilgrave’s villainy is astonishing. The show has a full set of auxiliary story lines and characters, many of whom are superfluous and grating. I doubted every one of these subplots at one point, but in the end they all come together, but not the way you think. Unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Lost or other mystery shows, these stories aren’t connected by a far-reaching conspiracy or complicated plot; instead, we watch in real-time as Kilgrave systematically destroys their lives. Malcolm is an academic and idealistic young man, but Kilgrave turns him into a shambling drug addict. He literalizes Wendy’s impotent rage against ex-wife, forcing her to cut Jeri into a thousand tiny pieces. After losing her brother to Kilgrave, Robyn’s antisocial mistrust turns into manic paranoia. We don’t just see these people’s lives in ruins, we see the full timeline of how Kilgrave utterly destroys them.
And nowhere do we see this better than Jessica herself. After Jessica’s entire family died in a car accident, Jess is left with survivor’s remorse. That guilt becomes Jess’ defining emotion, coloring the way she sees the world, and it’s something that’s amplified by Kilgrave. While other characters are able to recover after surviving Kilgrave’s influence, there’s no such hope for Jessica. Before she met Kilgrave, she viewed herself as broken, irredeemable, unworthy of love. Kilgrave came into her life and, by forcing himself on her, occupied a blind spot. Though Jess knows Kilgrave is responsible, she blames herself for the death of her family, and therefore blames herself for every person that Kilgrave has tortured, killed, and raped.
And the show makes no bones that Kilgrave raped Jessica. It’s actually the subject of a lengthy argument between the two, with Kilgrave insisting that Jessica wanted it all along. I’m of the mind that the devils we create represent our collective societal fears. Kilgrave’s evil comes from fears of social regression, of rolling back time to a point when a woman’s husband could violate and abuse her with no recourse or escape.
But he’s bumbling! Kilgrave is the devil, but he’s not omnipotent. He makes so many mistakes, has such poor judgment, and underestimates Jessica repeatedly. David Tennant doesn’t give Kilgrave the signifiers of traditional Hollywood creeps. Kilgrave doesn’t disturb us by talking slowly, or staring without blinking, or smiling with his nose tilted down. Kilgrave is, for all intents and purposes, a normal guy, someone who has a favorite booth at his favorite restaurant, who yells at soccer matches, who resents the way his loving parents raised him. What makes Kilgrave a great villain is that he’s unrestrained by conscience. Kilgrave’s victims aren’t created as part of a great cosmic balance; they’re created because of petty, selfish, human desires.
But after tragedy, people find the strength to move forward. Robyn forgives Malcolm for hiding Ruben’s body. Jeri is alone and broken but ready to prove she’s the best damn lawyer in this city. Trish is undeterred from life as a hero, delving into the shady history behind Jessica’s powers. Jessica Jones is a show mired in the day-to-day life of endless trauma, but the show manages to find some brightness at the end of the tunnel.
That is, for everyone except Jessica herself. Jessica snaps Kilgrave’s neck, but finds no satisfaction or closure. Like Sam Spade, Jake Gittes, and so many noir gumshoes before her, Jessica Jones story ends between drinks with nary a friend in the world. The remarkable final shot finds Jessica sitting at her desk, the phone ringing off the hook as people want to hire the superhero private eye. Jess is frustrated and angry, deleting voicemails before she can listen to them.
Can Jessica eventually put her baggage behind her and find happiness? Probably not. But for once, Jessica knows that she’s a hero, that she changed the world for the better. If she doubts that, there’s a whole city of people who need a hero and are leaving her voicemails.
5 out of 5.
No One-Shots in this review! We’re reviewing each episode of Jessica Jones and go into a little more detail there. The estimable Doug Herring is overing the first six episodes, while I’m taking the back seven. Check out our reviews here!