Welcome back to a feature I’m doing this summer called “The Road to The Defenders.” The concept is pretty simple. Between now and August I am going to be watching the Netflix MCU shows a second (or third) time through in the build up to the monumental team up hitting Netflix on August 18th. I won’t be reviewing the shows per se, more just reflecting on the way the episodes feel with the full scope of the first two and a half years of the project now in view. In particular, I want to explore what feels different in retrospect from the first viewing. For those who haven’t watched these shows yet, I will give a SPOILER WARNING that I’ll be talking about the shows without concern for revealing anything that happens in the story lines. This week we are looking at Jessica Jones. If you would like to catch up, scroll through The Defenders tag on the site.
The second half of Jessica Jones continues to develop the story in surprising ways. One of the more enjoyable parts of the show is the ways that the writers explore Kilgrave’s powers and how to subdue them. It is satisfying to see Jessica attempt so many different ways to take him down, none of them ever fully working. Too many superhero shows are about who can punch the hardest but the dynamic here is much different. By making Kilgrave a mental challenge more than a physical one, Jessica’s resourcefulness comes to the fore. Many have complained about the same powered hero/villain pairs in the MCU (Iron Man/Iron Monger, Ant-Man/Yellowjacket, Hulk/Abomination, Captain America/Red Skull) and this show is a great break.
One of the things that make Jessica Jones so compelling to watch is the atmosphere that pervades. A constant feeling of unease can permeate an episode, much like a Hitchcock thriller. Nowhere is this more palpable than when Jessica and Kilgrave are in her childhood home together. Every flashback and encounter feel like they could erupt at any moment. Kilgrave’s power is such an incredible tension building device because it can happen in a moment. It is supremely creepy the way he reconstructs her childhood home.
Kilgrave is arguably the most interesting villain in all of the MCU. The worst villains lack complexity, are merely monsters bent on destruction. Better written villains have compelling back stories that make them more ambiguous and relatable. But the best bad guys begin as terrible, become relatable, but then turn again into horrible behavior. Much like Kingpin and Loki, this is the story of Kilgrave. It was important that the writers not create a flat villain, but they also don’t want to portray a rapist, kidnapper, and murder as doing such things for “understandable reasons.” So the move from a monster to a hurting child to a monster again is a delicate and important one in the show. His tension with his parents is never fully resolved. That allows us to empathize a little, but still question if they really should be culpable for what he has done. There is an important message in his character: the victim of abuse who abuses themselves is not morally defensible, despite their suffering.
Last time I mentioned how I am watching for compatibility between characters in Jessica Jones and in other shows. The most problematic for me is Jeri Hogarth. While I generally love Hogarth’s cut-throat ways, I find her character here and in Iron Fist to be dissonant. Due to the film noir style of Jones, the writers have purposely had Hogarth devolve into chaos. Some of her decisions are atrocious (the keeping of Hope’s aborted baby and enabling Kilgrave’s release) and the results are a hollow person by the end. The final scene with Pam shows just how soulless Hogarth has become, pushing away everyone who cares about her. It is a perfect arc for this show but then is largely ignored in Iron Fist. In that show, she has the same sharp tongue, but she also has a soft spot for Danny. Her character is all gruff exterior but teddy bear interior. Simply said, I don’t believe that the Hogarth of Jessica Jones would give Danny Rand a minute of her time, regardless of what a cute kid he was back in the day.
This time through I appreciated Trish Walker a lot more than last time. She provides a balance that the show needs. At no time does she fall into the role of being Jessica’s savior nor the damsel in distress. Their relationship is a healthy(-ish) one where they both have seasons where they need the other to carry them for a period. He optimism inspires Jessica but Jessica also helps ground her. With so many themes of abuse in this show, the way her mother treated her as well as the turn of Nuke provides other windows into a multifaceted and difficult topic.
Speaking of Nuke, his place in this show felt a lot more reasonable on a second watch. The first time through it felt a bit forced to have his character added in. Like a plot element to set up a second season more than anything. Wil Simpson, however, fits in a couple of important ways. He provides another insight into how people cope with life post-Kilgrave. His relationship with Trish also provides an interesting compare/contrast with Jessica and Kilgrave. His IGH connections with Jessica (and presumably Luke at some point) are interesting and allow that origin story element into the show. But mostly he provides a thematic exploration. His inability to cope with his experiences in war is another look into how people handle trauma.
Overall the ending is satisfying. While it would be great to see Kilgrave again, that power set would probably have grown tiresome. The “everyone in this room will kill themselves” bit is brilliant and terrifying, but it probably played out as many times as possible on the show. Jones as a character needs to have an arc, and it would be nice to see some of her wounds start to heal. That can never happen as long as Kilgrave is still looming over her. I’m excited to see her mix with the Defenders, particularly to see how she and Cage get along. Jessica Jones as a series is some of Marvel’s best work. It is a tight thriller with an engaging protagonist and antagonist that also respectfully delves into heavy important issues. I’m ready for that second season already.