Full disclosure: I loved the first season of Jessica Jones. In fact, I wrote in my review that Jessica was the best and possibly most original character Marvel had introduced to the public since Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man—and that I wanted to see her inserted into every Marvel property from now on.
I loved the themes of the show, I loved its commitment to dealing with trauma, I loved its hopefulness—that survivors can and will triumph, even if the cost is high—I loved how much Jessica seemed to be grown “organically” from the tropes which women in their twenties and thirties grew up on, rather than molded from a baseline male protagonist and adjusted as needed.
All of this is to say: I really, really wanted to enjoy the second season of Jessica Jones. I wanted it to fix the flaws of season one and double down on its strengths. But unfortunately, it seems like it did the opposite. For me, the first half of the season felt aimless and the second felt only half as good as it could have been, and throughout it all I felt like the show went back on a lot of what made it so fantastic in the previous season.
I wondered, as I began to contemplate my review, how much of this was due to the drastic changes in the superhero landscape that occurred between Jessica Jones’s first and second season. In 2015 the show was the first Marvel Cinematic Universe property to be centered on a protagonist who wasn’t a white man. And despite the show’s focus on white women, it was the first MCU story to address racism in the US directly, demonstrating how it affected everyone, including Jessica’s own biases. It also featured queer characters prominently, again for the first time. All of that felt fresh and interesting for a superhero story, and I wondered how much of my disappointment with season two had to do with Luke Cage and Black Panther and DC's Wonder Woman, stories that came out after Jessica Jones premiered and opened the gates of what superheroes were allowed to be a tiny bit wider.
So, in an attempt at “objectivity”—as much as any review can be objective—I tried to go back to my own review of that first season, to compare what I did and didn’t like about the show then.
The number one flaw of the first season, for me, was its focus on white women, a problem I hoped the show would address in S2—and instead the show doubled down on in its second season. To borrow from the title of Preeti Chhibber’s excellent article: Jessica Jones fails people of color. And not only are there still no significant women of color in the cast, the show also goes back on one of the first season’s greatest strengths.
Despite the violence of season one, visually the show almost felt like a “safe space,” where violence against women was never fetishized and women’s corpses were never turned into a spectacle. In fact, the only bodies that were brutalized on camera and allowed to bring visual “pleasure” to the viewer were the bodies of white men. This was an aesthetic that was almost unique to Jessica Jones not just among genre shows but among shows with a high body count in general.
In season two, on the other hand, we go back to TV business as usual. Women, and in particular women of color, are violently murdered in visually “appealing” ways, and used for shock value. A nurse, a police officer, a prison guard: side characters whose deaths are meant as visual entertainment.
In addition to this, instead of further exploring structural racism in the nuanced way the first season managed—through the character of Malcolm, for example, whose status as Kilgrave’s victim was utterly invisible largely because of the assumptions people made about him as a black man—the second season seems to “forget” how subtle and intrinsic systemic racism is, and how it affects the way in which people are able to move through the world. For example, in season two Malcolm’s main arc is that he’s trying to become a private investigator, like Jessica, and yearns for her to teach him the trade—but nowhere is it acknowledged that Jessica’s methods of acting dumb, innocent, and harmless to get into places where she shouldn’t be would not necessarily work for someone who looks like Malcolm.
Another thing I loved about the first season was how the women the show portrayed—often “unlikable” women who were selfish, weak, or greedy—were never truly in competition with each other. On the contrary, they fought and argued and pushed each other away, but when push came to shove they came through for each other, especially Jessica and her best friend/stepsister Trish Walker. Ultimately, that was the core of the show. In the final scenes, it’s what Kilgrave threatens to take away from Jessica, and it’s the reason and the method through which she defeats him.
Unfortunately, though we’ll talk about its official “villain” shortly, the true villain of the second season is … Trish. She’s charged with moving the plot at every turn by pushing Jessica out of her comfort zone and ultimately acting on her own selfish impulses and desires. While Season One Trish also did all of this, she knew when to stop, and prized Jessica’s wellbeing and friendship above all else.
In season two, on the other hand, Trish knows no boundaries. She pushes Jessica into bad decision after bad decision, and her ultimate motive is that she’s jealous of Jessica’s powers. While this was hinted at in the debut run, in this season it governs Trish’s behavior completely. She feels entitled to Jessica’s trust and support, even after she pushes her away time after time and puts her own priorities ahead of Jessica’s mental health.
Trish forces Jessica to dig into the past she’d rather keep buried. She then blames Jessica for reacting poorly to that past, and offers no support or understanding for Jessica’s desire to keep her “problematic,” revived, and previously thought dead, mother around (all while Trish gets closer to her own problematic, abusive, manipulative mother). Finally, she sacrifices Jessica’s carefully laid, and dearly paid for, plans to keep said revived mother safe. Trish does all this merely in an effort to obtain superpowers, and yet I hoped even after all of it that the show would dedicate its final part to a reckoning and reconciliation between the two sisters. Instead, Trish is never forced to account for her actions, for her violations of Jessica’s trust, for her acts of condescension and selfishness, for not respecting Jessica’s boundaries and forcing Jessica to pull away.
In fact—spoiler alert—Trish ultimately decides she should be the one to kill Jessica’s monstrous mother, a decision born out of pure hubris and entitlement. But instead of reckoning with all of this, the season ends with Jessica being mad at Trish merely for pulling the trigger—an act Jessica planned for one person or another to commit anyway. Jessica is left more alone and hurt than ever, while Trish walks away with the superpowers she always wanted, a renewed relationship with her estranged mother, and the understanding that Jessica will get over her irrational grudge against Trish at some point.
And so, in effect, the core of the show, the backbone of its plot, becomes Trish’s jealousy of Jessica, and her willingness to sacrifice Jessica’s wellbeing for her own ends. There are things that did work for me in this second season; but, despite these, there is perhaps no greater betrayal of everything that worked in the first than to make Trish the villain of the piece, especially in this way, which feeds into every tired trope of how women can’t work together because of jealousy.
But let us address the season’s “official” villain, the woman whom, unlike Trish, the show actually intends us to see as monstrous: Jessica’s mother Alisa. While the first half of the season feels unfocused and meandering, around episode six we are finally introduced to Alisa, who, as it turns out, survived the car accident which we were told in season one killed all of Jessica’s family—and became a victim of the same experiments to which Jessica herself was subjected and which gave her superpowers. Alisa paid for her life more profoundly, however, gaining greater powers but also very poor control of them, as well as occasional fits of uncontrollable rage, which made her too dangerous to live as part of society.
An episode or two after her re-introduction, we learn through flashback that, following a lot of plastic surgery and introducing herself to Jessica as a stranger a few years after the accident, Alisa accidentally killed Jessica’s then boyfriend; realizing she couldn’t be part of the world, she went back to the scientist who experimented on her in the first place. He agreed to take care of her, and they spent their lives together, eventually—in Alisa’s own words—falling in love.
In itself, the idea of replacing Kilgrave with someone who also has an intense emotional effect on Jessica—but who elicits mostly love and longing instead of hatred and fear—is brilliant. The idea of making the season’s central conflict revolve around Jessica and Trish’s tortured relationships with their respective mothers is also wonderful and fresh, building on the complicated dynamic of Jessica, Trish, and Trish’s mother Dorothy that was established in season one.
But while the Kilgrave plot in the previous season felt to me like it was utilized at ninety-five percent effectiveness or more, hampered only by the show’s reluctance to let Jessica truly fall apart on screen before picking herself up again, the season two plot of “My Mother, The Monster” feels like it’s utilized at maybe fifty per cent of what it could be.
Partially, it’s that Jessica’s mother is such a one-note character. The show never pushes hard on the fact that this woman gave up on ever seeing her daughter on the one hand, but lived in close proximity to her on the other. Where is the lifelong longing and sadness Alisa felt for giving up her daughter because of her own inability to live in society? Or, where is the thought process that allowed her to rationalize that loss and move on so completely? In the absence of these notes, Alisa feels like a character unaffected by her own backstory.
Ultimately, Alisa is part character and part metaphor. While Kilgrave symbolized violent misogyny and rape culture, she symbolizes the quiet, intimate violence of women’s lives, the people women can sometimes become when they follow the path patriarchy sets out for them, the traditional femininity that’s supposed to be fulfilling and satisfying for women. In turn, Jessica’s encounter with Alisa symbolizes the coming-of-age some women experience when they become aware of how patriarchy has shaped the lives of their mothers and grandmothers, how insidious and ancient it is, how the very foundations of society are built on it—how political kindness and motherhood and caretaking can be.
All this, again, makes Alisa a brilliant character to use, in line with the show’s commitment to drawing on complex tropes specific to the experiences of women: Jessica discovers that her mother, who always seemed happy and carefree and competent in everything she did, is in fact the opposite. Instead of being happy to live in a house in the suburbs and raise children, her mother found the house stifling and the work of raising children not nearly challenging or satisfying enough. Instead of being in a happy marriage her mother was in the process of divorcing Jessica’s father, feeling unheard and unsupported in their relationship. Instead of being happy with the choices she made and the life she’d built, Jessica’s mother yearned to go back to a career she felt she’d given up too early and for the wrong reasons.
But while there is horror in losing the vision of happy women fulfilling their traditional roles, there can also be liberation. Jessica has always felt unfit, incorrect, fundamentally flawed for being her hard-drinking, black-wearing, detective self, but, in realizing that her mother was never happy being a more “traditional” woman, Jessica is allowed to realize that there is no one way to do womanhood, and that there’s nothing wrong with her own life and choices. Or at least, she should be allowed to realize that—but as with most things with Alisa’s plot, the show hints at this but never quite gets there.
Alisa is a monster because she symbolizes the violent, destructive underbelly of a woman who let herself be guided into a role she feels doesn’t fulfill her and has stolen the best years of her life. This is such rich, fertile ground for exploring Jessica’s relationship with her own assumptions about femininity, with Trish’s or Dorothy’s attitudes; instead the show introduces Alisa as an idea but then engages with her more as a plot device. Instead of having one coherent narrative, Alisa goes from believing she can never live around her daughter, and fashioning her own life with a new romantic partner, to being convinced that she can absolutely lead a normal life alongside Jessica. Although Alisa’s violent fits occur for brief periods of time and the rest of her life is unaffected by them, she for some reason believes murder is justified to keep the secret of her powers safe, even when clearheaded.
Perhaps the messiest and least coherent aspect of this is Alisa’s relationship with her scientist boyfriend. While Jessica sees him as an evil genius who experimented on people, Alisa sees him as a kind man who only tried to do good, and has certainly paid for whatever crimes he committed by giving up his life to take care of Alisa. There’s no room in the confines of the season for the debate on whether life-saving experiments done in secret that give people superpowers are justified, so instead this plotline comes off as Alisa favoring her second husband over her daughter’s wellbeing, which again doesn’t feed into any of the larger themes Jessica Jones tries to explore.
Like with Kilgrave, Jessica spends the second half of the season going through a cycle of denial, grief, bargaining, and finally acceptance that her mother cannot be allowed to live in the world. Like with Kilgrave, the final answer is that Jessica’s mother must be killed, and Jessica herself must have a hand in it. In itself, this repetitive cycle isn’t a bad thing. It’s interesting to see how similarly a narrative can play out for a monster Jessica hates and a monster she loves. But the show never quite manages to push the same emotional buttons it could access in season one, perhaps because pushing them again really would make the show feel excessively repetitive, and so instead of Jessica’s journey into hell and back we get a half-hearted story in which Trish has to push Jessica every step of the way, and the characterization of Jessica’s mother is sacrificed to make the plot add up.
The supporting characters on Jessica Jones remain what they were in the first season—mostly incoherent, occasionally entertaining, unfortunately clichéd. Particularly disappointing this season was Oscar, the superintendent in Jessica’s building, who goes from an ex-con desperate to maintain custody of his young son by staying out of trouble to engaging in criminal acts to help Jessica because of their fleeting romance. As a human antagonist, perhaps one with whom Jessica had sexual tension, he was a good character. But he’s turned into an ally too soon, and without solid reasoning, and it renders his character incoherent.
It feels wrong to write a critique of a show like Jessica Jones and list all the things it did wrong in not treating women or people of color well enough, when the majority of its fellow comics adaptations are immeasurably worse. It’s weird to talk about the subpar plotting or pacing when shows like Iron Fist are written horribly and still get multiple seasons—and on a much quicker schedule than Jessica Jones. When there’s only one show in the MCU starring a woman, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it has to be perfect, or at least be ten or fifteen times better than all the other shows, to get the same rating.
The fact is, while Frank Castle can get a season of television after being a supporting character on Daredevil, Misty Knight doesn’t have and might never have her own TV show. Neither does Black Panther’s little sister, Shuri; Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson, similarly doesn’t have a narrative focused mainly on her. So, instead of comparing the second season of Jessica Jones to the first, then, we should briefly compare it to some other Marvel properties: this season is better written, both in terms of themes and execution, than Iron Fist, The Punisher, either season of Daredevil, or The Defenders. In other words, even when Jessica Jones is mediocre instead of brilliant, it’s still fresher, more interesting and more entertaining than most of what Marvel puts out.