“You are a hard-drinking, short-fused, mess of a woman,” Luke Cage (Mike Colter) tells Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter). “But you are not a piece of shit.” Private Investigator Jessica disagrees, as she continues to harbor the pain of her actions during the mind-controlling torture of a man named Kilgrave (David Tennant). This triangle — the pull of the past versus the chance to do right in the present and future — is the main tension that drives Netflix’s excellent new Marvel series, Jessica Jones. But the particulars of how it all unfolds is what makes the show exceptional.
In its first episode, Jessica Jones is visually reminiscent of Daredevil. It’s dark, both visually and tonally. But as the series progresses, it very much comes into its own, and presents its material in a vastly different way (for one, with a lot more humor). Still, Jessica Jones is unabashedly a noir story, with Ritter’s occasional narration picking up its beats from hard-boiled detective novels, plus a jazzy soundtrack that flows through these stories of booze and violence. Though that violence is gritty and grounded, it’s not as brutal as Daredevil. Her powers make her strong (the same is true for Luke, who gets some fantastic fight sequences of his own), but she uses it sparingly, and with precise efficiency. Jessica works day and night, and though she’s not focused on hiding her abilities, she’s also not into advertising them. She’s not living a double-life like Matt Murdock, but she’s also not fully living the life she has.
The reason is Kilgrave, a terrifying figure from her past who has the ability to make people do anything he wants. (In this way, Jessica Jones is perhaps even more twisted than Daredevil). The show expertly builds up Kilgrave’s horror long before we actually meet him, and Tennant (who is often best when he’s playing villains), relishes in the role while keeping himself frightfully restrained. Like the horror film It Follows, Kilgrave’s presence in Jessica’s life can take on the form of any human, and one of the biggest tensions for viewers is seeing a child or other innocent person used for those purposes — particularly since Kilgrave finds most of his minions disposable.
For Jessica and for the show, Kilgrave is both a villain and an obsession, and in that, it’s another way for Jessica Jones to distinguish itself from other Marvel universe stories. (In the comics, Kilgrave is known as The Purple Man, and there are many visual and stylistic references to this. Color is as important to Jessica Jones as it was in Daredevil). When it comes to Jessica herself, Ritter is perfectly cast as the acerbic but likable Jessica, channeling a darker version of her character from Don’t Trust the B—. She carries a chip on her shoulder that became exponentially magnified in the wake of her connection with Kilgrave, but she can’t kill him — not yet. She wants him to suffer, sure, but she also needs him alive in order to help someone get out of prison for a crime they committed while under his control.
In Jessica Jones’ world, most super powers are muted. Super strength, invincibility, the ability to “jump pretty high,” are nothing compared to “the big green guy and his pals,” (as one of the requisite Avengers references in the series puts it). Ordinary people are still skeptical — and sometimes violent — against those with powers, especially ones that seem, like Kilgrave’s, particularly unbelievable. Kilgrave represents both Jessica’s prison and her freedom, and it’s fascinating to watch her navigate that. She doesn’t want to be a hero or a vigilante, she just doesn’t want to do anyone else any more harm. And part of that is neutralizing Kilgrave, which of course, makes her a hero.
One of the greatest things about Jessica Jones, though (having seen 7 of its eventual 13 episodes) is how deeply it explores its small world. Every character has a meaningful arc (even Tricia, played by Rachel Taylor, one of the weaker elements who ultimately has an intriguing trajectory). Relationships form, break away, come back, and reform in new and unexpected ways. Almost no one enters the scene without having a role to play later, but the show’s main cast — including a shark-like Carrie-Anne Moss — are each fascinating enough to have a series devoted just to them (and in Luke’s case, he will).
Though two men, Kilgrave and Luke Cage, have a huge impact on Jessica’s life, Jessica Jones is a series that makes its women powerful and in control. From the badass fight scenes and dominating personalities to the series’ most intimate moments, the women are on top (often quite literally), and it gives the series a unique sensibility. It’s never trying too hard to position its women in power; rather, it does so naturally.
But Jessica’s extremely complicated emotions towards Kilgrave and Luke Cage make their interactions the most dynamic, particularly her chemistry with Cage. (As he would say, “sweet Christmas!”) And while Jessica Jones can be dark and tortured and very sexy, it never feels gratuitous. That’s a huge success for a series that could have easily — like so many others on subscription services, both on TV and streaming — slipped into the pitfalls of excessive vice for its own sake. Jessica Jones’ power comes from its restraint, but also its clear direction. Its exposition is sometimes extraordinarily delayed, and its reveals take time, but they do so in organic and meaningful ways. It is a show meant to be binge-watched, and then watched again. Coming out of the shadow of Daredevil’s success and the pressure of being a female-centric superhero series is not a problem for Jessica. She’s a hard-drinking, short-fused, mess of a woman indeed, but she’s also strong-willed and a very likable badass. No wonder Kilgrave is obsessed with her. Who wouldn’t be?
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material
All 13 episodes of Jessica Jones will be available on Netflix starting Friday, November 20th.