Your Winter Break Assignment: Watching Jessica Jones

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Krysten Ritter in Netflix’s Jessica Jones.

The Golden Globe nominations came out last week and I’ve barely survived finals, so I’m almost positive its December. Critics’ columns for December tend to be split into two camps: The first casts a critical eye over the year as a whole to determine the best and worst in entertainment. The second makes one last plea to get viewers caught up on a particularly beloved show, often one low-rated and innovative and lacking in viewers. Recent examples The Leftovers and You’re the Worst, which have both inspired a lot of laudatory critical takes, were just picked up for third seasons.

I don’t have to reach very far back to find the show I’m alarmed to discover hasn’t yet been confirmed for a second season: Jessica Jones on Netflix. Through its unconventional heroine, irredeemable villain, and handling of minority characters, Jessica Jones creates a world rarely glimpsed in conventional drama, much less the kind dominated by superheros. Because television needs another season of the expectation-defying and genre-trope-subverting Jessica Jones, if you only get around to one show this winter break, make it this one.

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The version of Marvel’s Jessica Jones who appears in the show is the latest descendant in a particular lineage of young, female, ass-kicking television characters, best exemplified by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars. In all of these eponymous TV shows, wise-cracking, problem-solving, and enemy-underestimation-of-girl-power go hand-in-hand-in-hand. Although Jessica belongs to this family of characters, and since the noir tone of the show leans much more towards Veronica than Buffy, a better example of a current character in this mold is iZombie’s Liv, whose sharp one-liners keep her moving through problems personal and professional. No matter how many times her family and friends have complained that Liv seems different – no longer the plucky striver she was pre- zombification – it still seems like hanging out with her and Ravi in the morgue would be a hoot.

Rose McIver as Liv in the CW's iZombie
Rose McIver as Liv in the CW’s iZombie

Krysten Ritter’s Jessica, on the other hand, isn’t particularly likable. By that I don’t mean that she has sex and drinks and does the sorts of things that men do in shows without receiving lectures from other characters. Rather, she genuinely seems like a sometimes difficult hang. Flashbacks to before her trauma at the hands of Kilgrave, the mind-controlling villain who raped her both physically and mentally and whose stalking of Jessica drives the first season, show that Jessica was never the kind of popular, happy, well-adjusted girl that Veronica, Buffy, and Liv were back in the day, before their lives were upended. That lost status made them characters who were still fun but possessed of empathy and the fighting spirit of underdogs.

Instead, after a childhood characterized by loss and abuse, Jessica is an underachieving adult, working jobs she hates and blackmailing coworkers into severance so she can continue to do nothing but drink and grumble at her best friend and adopted sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). Jessica’s super-strength is a matter for showing off at bars and putting jerks in their place, not for saving lives, and it’s only through Trish’s altruistic pushing that she tries out the superhero life at all, only to be nearly immediately abducted by Kilgrave when he sees her use her powers in public.

One of the things that allows characters to get away with bad behavior on these kinds of shows is their basic competence: Veronica can throw around as many insults and put-downs as she wants because we know by the end of the hour her plan will have succeeded. She’s right, she knows it, and if having her on your side means putting up with a little bit of flak, it’s probably worth it.

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One of the more intriguing character beats of Jessica Jones is that she isn’t very good at the job of being a superhero. She’s a perfectly standard P.I., helped out by the fact that she can physically intimidate people for information, but we never see her pull any crazy Veronica Mars double-crosses. Her efforts don’t actually tend to work out or only work out through some combination of luck and well-timed backup from the supporting characters. And yet, almost every character on the show respects Jessica’s ways of dealing with Kilgrave for the simple fact that her victimization at his hands makes her voice the most important one that needs to be heard.

Kilgrave
David Tennant’s Kilgrave
is terrifyingly competent

It’s a powerful statement for victim’s rights, which is in no way compromised by the handling of the character of Kilgrave. David Tennant’s Kilgrave is competent – terrifyingly so – and her fear is what fuels Jessica’s interactions with him. I was afraid myself that Kilgrave’s character would prove redeemable, particularly when he declared that Jessica was that one special someone to him because of her defiance. It’s a solid trope of the genre, leading to the nauseating Spike and Buffy pair-up [WHEDONITES: DO NOT EMAIL ME!], ex-boyfriend Logan’s redemption in Veronica’s eyes, and the plot twists that allow a character like Blaine DeBeers to stay in Liv’s orbit – even after he turned her into one of the living dead.

Shows like Jessica Jones hate to lose such chemistry-fueled match-ups between characters, but it is to the credit of the writing team and actors that the tension between Jessica and Kilgrave never reads as sexual on her side and never descends into a comfortable dynamic, no matter what we learn about Kilgrave’s motivations. He may become more human to the audience as the season progresses, but he never becomes less of a rapist, a word the show uses with startling frequency.

Jessica Jones is also the first show that I can ever remember not specifically framed for a minority audience that has so many non-white people onscreen at any given time (in the way that Empire is clearly marketed as a show about black people that’s not watched only by black people). Eka Darville gives a touching performance as Malcolm Ducasse, and his character arc from barely upright junkie to moral conscious makes him the hopeful antidote to Jessica’s downward spirals. Even when the camera pans a hospital, office, police station, or a restaurant, receptionists, waitresses, cops, doctors, and nurses of multiple ethnicities are not only visible but interact with Jessica when she needs information. Jessica does not live in a New York City inhabited only by white people, and the storytelling works to make that clear.

EkaDarville
An NYC not just inhabited by white people.

Jessica Jones is not a perfect show. Thirteen episodes were too many for the amount of plot presented, making more than one of them feel like wheel-spinning. The admirable commitment to world-building through minor characters still results in a couple of lemons, particularly the creepy neighbor twins, and I wish that Carrie Anne Moss‘s Jeri Hogarth hadn’t been saddled with such a sour, repetitive story line, although she does as much as she can with it. Hopefully, enough people will watch Jessica Jones in the next few weeks that Netflix will prioritize bring it back. Hint, hint. That’s your cue.

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Liz Laurie

Liz Laurie is getting her Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama at Northwestern University after receiving her MA in Theatre from Hunter College. She enjoys hats of all shapes and sizes, has a soft spot for fictional sociopaths and can smell a warm baked good at a hundred paces. She is definitely what a feminist looks like. Follow her on Twitter: @LizzyLaurie