Jessica Jones is without doubt the best TV show Marvel has produced to date, and possibly the most original main character they've brought to the screen since introducing the world to Tony Stark as Iron Man. The show is not without flaws, but everything about it feels fresh, unusual, exciting. Partly it's because a show about a female superhero, especially one who drinks whiskey and crushes cockroaches with her bare hands without flinching, is tragically rare amid a sea of morally gray, superpowered men. But partly it's because Jessica Jones genuinely has an engaging yet disturbing story to offer.
I'll start by listing the show's flaws, because it's necessary to acknowledge them before reveling in the show's strengths. For me, the primary disappointment with Jessica Jones was the overwhelming whiteness of its female cast. The show clearly makes a conscious effort to engage with racism (which I'll elaborate on later) but when it comes to women, non-white perspectives are entirely absent. This severely limits the scope of the commentary Jessica Jones has to offer, and on a show that so openly deals with women and the patriarchy, and has so many fascinating, multi-faceted women, it's an incredibly disappointing creative oversight.
Less significantly, the season feels uneven as the show struggles to decide if it wants to be a story about a woman's solo journey into hell and back (in the style of Top of the Lake) or an ensemble noir show built around a single protagonist (in the style of Veronica Mars). As a result the show builds up fascinating characters like Jessica's best friend and adopted sister Trish, her traumatized neighbor Malcolm, and her morally gray employer, Jeri Hogarth, only to have them disappear for entire episodes, leaving Jessica to carry the weight of a 40-minute drama alone. This is partially because the secondary plots governing the lives of these supporting characters feel less polished than Jessica's main journey to defeating Kilgrave. Trish has to deal with her abusive stage mother who literally beat her when she was a child; Hogarth, a wealthy lawyer, is trying to leave her wife for a young secretary; Malcolm faces a familiar dilemma in superhero narratives—whether to stop caring or continue to fight for a world filled with death and ugliness. It feels like all of these characters stumble into clichés whenever their plots have to function independently of Jessica's, and even when the clichés have been subverted, they're still poorly paced and contribute to an overall structural problem.
Finally, although the show deals with material like addiction, rape, and suicide, I was left with the feeling that the creators tried to rein in the "darkness" instead of fully exploring it. Despite several characters having dramatic emotional journeys throughout the season, true peaks of emotion happen off screen (this applies to side characters who disappear right when their storylines reach their darkest points, but it also applies to Jessica, who's never allowed to fall apart quite as dramatically as the material seems to require). There's an overall polished quality to the show, visually, that contrasts with its subject matter at times. Jessica's apartment has broken cabinets and cockroaches, and yet it's the cleanest filthy apartment imaginable. Jessica wears hardly any make up, but we never see her waking up without perfect mascara. There's a sense that edges have been dulled a little, the worst of the unseemly messes tidied up, as if the established Disney-Marvel aesthetic wasn't designed for the kind of "grit" Jessica Jones relies on.
However, the true greatness of the show, something that far outweighs all but the first of the flaws I mentioned, is that it feels like a show written by and for women, an incredibly rare occurrence in the landscape of SFF television. Jessica herself, her fashion sense, her musical taste, her attitude, feel like they were fashioned out of the icons that geeky girls of the millennial generation grew up on, like Buffy, Daria, and Wednesday Addams, rather than broody male antihero tropes. Although the show relies heavily on noir tropes—the antihero private detective getting dragged into a larger conspiracy—the narrative doesn't feel like the traditional male PI has been replaced with a woman: instead, it feels like the tropes themselves, from the ground up, have been rewritten to fit a woman's perspective.
Unlike Peggy Carter, Pepper Potts, Black Widow, and every other MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] heroine, Jessica neither wears heels nor relies on her sexuality to gain information. And yet, the show doesn't look down on women who do—Jessica's adopted sister Trish wears heels and skirts and flirts to get her way, and is portrayed as being just as valuable, smart, dedicated, and flawed as Jessica. Women are never in competition on Jessica Jones. They protect each other, help each other, fight about things that matter, collaborate to save the world. Their choices are presented as valid and worthwhile whether they're manipulative lawyers or kind-hearted activists, or simply people who can't bother dealing with the world. Women are allowed to make mistakes, to be selfish and petty, rude and scared, without losing their value as people. It's unfortunate that women simply being people is a metric of a show being groundbreaking, but that is the landscape Jessica Jones inhabits.
In a nearly unprecedented move, Jessica Jones is a noir show where prolonged, graphic violence is committed almost exclusively against white men. Although a variety of characters die on the show, only white men's bodies are lingered over, dissected, tortured, and treated like objects of comedy and horror. It's difficult to think of another genre show with such a high body count that's managed to avoid making a spectacle out of the corpses of young women. It's notable that Jessica Jones doesn't strive to treat men and women "equally" on screen—it strives to center women, to give them a space they're rarely afforded, where their perspective matters and their preferences are taken into account. It's difficult to describe a show so thoroughly committed to confronting rape and portraying things like needles going into eye sockets and living people having their arms sawn off as a "safe space," but nonetheless the term feels appropriate when it comes to the way women's bodies are presented on screen. This even extends to bodily functions—Jessica is shown making a call while sitting on the toilet and twice female characters are shown to lose control of their bladders. Details that rarely if ever appear on screen on shows written primarily by men.
The show also offers something unique in the MCU so far, in engaging openly and directly with systemic racism, despite the lack of non-white female characters. Jessica's drug-addicted neighbor Malcolm turns out to be a victim of Kilgrave, just like Jessica. The difference is that because Malcolm is black he's subject to far more mistrust and harassment. The show makes a point of repeatedly underscoring this—Jessica uses Malcolm as a distraction at a hospital specifically because she knows people will assume the worst of him. Simpson, a white police officer with whom Jessica reluctantly collaborates, assaults Malcolm on first sight. In fact, Jessica herself, it is implied, was blind to the suspicious circumstances of Malcolm's addiction because she too bought into societal bias. Malcolm's storyline is unprecedented in the MCU but is also rare more broadly in SFF, in terms of engaging with systemic racism in the U.S.
Perhaps the biggest theme the show explores, however, is abuse, and more specifically the way that misogyny and patriarchy create a climate where the abuse of women can flourish. It's unfortunate that female heroes so often have sexual assault as an origin story, when almost no male heroes do, but Jessica Jones does treat the subject with the respect, nuance, and importance it deserves. The show portrays a villain who hits every bingo square when it comes to insidious misogyny—he feels entitled to Jessica's time and affection, refuses to see coercion as rape, and blames his own unfortunate childhood for the atrocities he commits. It's significant that Kilgrave is white, wears a suit, and appears cultured and sophisticated. He capitalizes on the same societal structures that adversely affect Malcolm. He, like many abusers, projects respectability, status, and privilege to deflect suspicion. The metaphor is extended further when Jessica faces the difficulty of getting people to believe her story—the show uses mind control to suggest at real-life victim blaming and the general distrust towards women's words. Even people like Luke Cage, invulnerable and supernaturally strong, even people who witness aliens attacking New York, doubt Jessica's story about a man who can force people to do his bidding through telepathy.
Perhaps the most brilliant scene related to confronting patriarchy and abuse, however, is when Jessica realizes Kilgrave's powers can be harnessed for good. A powerful telepath, he could prevent crime and murder, maybe even bring about world peace. All that would be required is for Jessica to give up her life, her very self, and stay as his nanny forever, forcing herself to relive her traumatic experiences every day, handholding her abuser through being a productive member of society.
The show implies that some people might choose this path, but Jessica doesn't. Jessica chooses her own life, her own happiness, over whatever hypothetical, uncertain good Kilgrave could bring to the world. It's a powerful statement to make—survivors don't owe their attackers forgiveness or self sacrifice. Ultimately, neither Kilgrave's childhood trauma nor potential usefulness changes the fact that he's a rapist and murderer many times over, and since the human justice system isn't equipped to handle someone with his abilities it's up to Jessica to end his life. The show struggles with this over and over—Jessica attempts to fill the traditional hero role, to abstain from killing, to leave justice up to the system. But the stories of superheroes weren't written for the "real world" Jessica Jones is set in, where patriarchy and racism exist, and they weren't written for women, on a broader level, and so Jessica has to finally accept that the mold wasn't meant for her, and she'll have to figure out for herself what justice looks like.
In summary, Jessica Jones is an important, overdue show for the MCU. It's not without flaws but it brings something new and vital to the table: a heroine who doesn't feel very heroic, who struggles every day, whose world includes real-world oppression and no easy answers. I was barely familiar with Jessica Jones before the show, but now I'd like to insert her into every Marvel property, because there isn't a story that her presence wouldn't improve.
Marina Berlin grew up speaking three languages in a coastal city far, far away. She holds degrees in Film, Sociology, East Asian Studies, and several other subjects that make her resume seem completely made up. She currently spends most of her time working on her first fantasy novel. You can follow her on Twitter or email her to say hi.
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