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.
Episodes Watched: Jessica Jones Episodes 1-6
My first thought is that my memory of this show is significantly different than my second watching. In my mind, Jessica Jones was a very heavy show. It was a bit like Saving Private Ryan. “That was incredible and I’m glad I’ve seen it, but I’m not sure I want to sit through it again.” In some ways that memory holds up. The themes of abuse and rape are hard to process. Kilgrave’s tactics are a mixture of super powers and then just ordinary manipulation that sadly happens to millions of people every day. The rewatch has been easier, however, because the show is actually rather funny. Krysten Ritter‘s sarcasm is pitch perfect. It doesn’t break the tension because she is obviously using sarcasm to hide personal pain, but it does provide some unexpectedly funny commentary. So often as the viewer gets wrapped up in the drama, a well placed verbal snipe or punch by Jessica provides an id-pleasing release that keeps the show from hanging on you so heavily.
Marvel TV and Marvel Studios have gotten a lot of credit for their casting, but Ritter truly is one of their best decisions. Like the two actor pantheon of Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., Ritter is the definition of this character now. She fits within the tone of Brian Michael Bendis‘s material in Alias but since this series most other comic versions of Jessica seem wrong. She never looks or talks as much like Ritter as I want. In particular, the character has an amazing ability to not give a rat’s behind about anything, but also care deeply. What Ritter has created is an obvious facade to a deeply caring heart. Jessica is more appealing than perhaps any other Defender because she wants to be a hero more than any of the others. Despite her protestations, Jessica rarely needs that much provoking to get up and do the right thing, particularly for Hope Shlottman. At times in Luke Cage I am annoyed at his reluctance (like with the Hulk, who wants to watch a character who doesn’t want to hero about, ostensibly the reason anyone is watching), but Jones doesn’t fall into the same trap.
Another main question I had upon returning to Jessica Jones was how consistent the characterization of various players is with other shows in which they appear. In particular, are Luke Cage and Jeri Hogarth the same people they are in their follow-up appearances? I’ll leave the more problematic one for next time (Hogarth), but, generally, Cage is consistent with the character in his solo show. Luke has a personal moral compass that is strong throughout. His love for his wife stays steady as well. If I had any complaint it is that he is far more stoic in this version than in Luke Cage. While I like him a little quieter and more composed, it also makes sense that the star of 13 episodes of TV can’t keep that approach.
Jessica and Luke’s relationship is at the core of this half of the season. I cut off the division at episode six because this is the point Cage and Jones have their confrontation over Reva’s death. The mini-reveals of that backstory are important punctuation pieces throughout the show. They make the viewer feel like a PI themselves, figuring out from the crumbs left behind exactly what is happening. In retrospect, the biggest question is if Jessica and Luke ultimately end up as a couple in future seasons. Their chemistry in this show is obvious unlike some of Cage’s other later flings (cough Claire Temple cough). The relationship starts as largely physical, but as the episodes unfold it is satisfying to see their need for one another. Both are people who feel alone and different and, frankly, toxic to others. Given how many people in their lives have been harmed or killed, they need someone who they can love without fearing for their safety. Neither is as vulnerable as Reva or Jessica’s parents, which is necessary for heroes that can’t take one more loss on that level.
Speaking of love, a whole lot of it is made in this show. Sex is used by the writers in an interesting way. Often when actors say that sex scenes are ok “if they are necessary for the story,” I roll my eyes. Hollywood, particularly premium TV, seems obsessed with sexuality and nudity merely to appeal to 13-year-old boy sensibilities. In Jessica Jones, however, the emotions revealed beween the sheets are incredibly well written. Sex for Trish Walker is obviously about her need to be in control after the trauma of her mom. Jessica and Luke show their deep loneliness and their developing trust. Hogarth’s understanding of power plays out via her romantic relationships. At the very least, the sexual content of the show is startling. At the time I figured we’d see more of it as Netflix progressed, but none of the following shows have come close to the explicitness, nor the frequency. Marvel clearly wants to keep the MCU in certain boundaries (violence is fine, but no f-bombs), and Jessica Jones pushes those most.
As to the plot, Jessica Jones shows the value of procedural elements in a show, as does Daredevil before it. In both series, the “case of the week” can be an important feature of the story. Instead of merely taking up time, they actually move the plot along. They serve as catalysts for revelations and personal growth needed for the characters. As such they are the little engines that move the show along. Daredevil season 2, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist all suffer in some way with inconsistent pacing and plot. I now believe that is because all three accepted the idea of serialized storytelling and over-arcing plots whole hog. On reflection, the procedural stuff, giving your characters a status quo, is important. When that falls away, as it does in the second half of Jessica’s story, it helps the pacing because it is a sign of increased tension. She isn’t taking cases now because things are getting too crazy. Too crazy too fast becomes a problem in later shows. There are reasons why films are only two hours or so and why TV shows use certain conventions. The ability to binge watch 13 episodes doesn’t fix the challenges of making a serialized plot compelling over 13 hours.
Overall, I found the tone and genre of the show much clearer on second viewing. I’ve always loved the old film noir style of movies like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep or Double Indemnity. Just a few weeks back I thought, “Marvel should do something in that idiom.” They have and it’s Jessica Jones. (I think I missed it the first time from focusing so much on the psychological thriller aspects which lesson when I know where a plot is going.) From the pace and tone of Jessica’s narration to the seedy secrets in people’s lives to the slow devolving of moral character in various players, this is a noir in almost every way. One of the most subtle ways the show communicates this vibe is via the establishing shots. They do this effect where part of the image is in focus and then the focus shifts, blurring the clear parts and revealing the previously obscured. This technique is an incredible way to communicate a major theme of the show. Morality can be ambiguous, the “right thing” isn’t always clear. Nothing is trustworthy or what it appears to be. This consistent development of a classic genre in a new setting is making me like Jessica Jones even more than I did the first time through.