Thoughts on Jessica Jones

So a week ago I read the complete run of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s Alias comic, which is the series where Jessica Jones debuted as a character.  It was really good, and it got me excited about the Netflix series, so over the Thanksgiving break (woot for a whole week off from work!) Rachael and I watched it.

I think the TV show is a superior work to the comic.

Now, there are certain things that just don’t translate, like the incorporation of flashy superheroes like the Avengers (the problems of budget and scheduling limitations keep the show from having Chris Evans do a guest spot as Steve Rogers where the comic just has to draw Captain America in a couple issues and boom! instant crossover), but in areas like story and characterization, I think Jessica Jones wins out.

The central plot for Jessica Jones is that Jessica’s a private investigator in New York City who happens to have superpowers, and unexpectedly she finds herself being stalked by Kilgrave, a man who can make people in his vicinity do whatever he tells them to do and who abducted Jessica for the better part of a year after he witnessed her powers in action.  This plot was the subject of the final arc of Alias (and that version was pretty out there, as it involved a Kilgrave who had become aware of his status as a fictional comic book character), coming up only after readers had had over twenty issues to get to know Jessica as a character.  The TV show gets right into this plot, and spools it out in interesting ways over the entire thirteen episodes.  The early part of the season focuses extensively on the way Jessica’s trauma has affected her life, giving the audience small glimpses at how she employs coping mechanisms for her PTSD (mostly alcohol, but also a mantra listing the streets near her childhood home) and the random inconvenience of being triggered when she’s just trying to go about her day to day life.  Kilgrave’s a presence from the first episode, but he doesn’t fully appear on screen until the fourth episode.  The middle run of episodes focus on Jessica’s attempts to navigate Kilgrave’s reappearance and explicit threat to her life before shifting in the last third to her asserting that she’s going to face the problem directly.  The trauma doesn’t ever disappear from Jessica’s character, but her gradual change from anxiety to fear to anger towards Kilgrave is a really satisfying one, and provides a lot more dimension than what’s presented in the parallel arc from Alias.

It’s a good show. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The side characters are generally more interesting as well.  Alias did a good job characterizing Jessica and presenting the world from her highly suspicious perspective, but the other characters left something to be desired.  Carol Danvers, whom Trish stands in for in the TV series, is ostensibly Jessica’s best friend, but she feels like a flimsy version of the established character from other comics whose interactions with Jessica never seem entirely above board (part of this is again Jessica’s perspective in the comic, which is suspicious of everybody), and Malcolm, who strikes me as a pretty significant emotional anchor for Jessica in the show, is just an annoying teenager who fanboys over superhero stuff and has latched onto Jessica because she’s a superpowered person in his proximity (also, he’s white, because the comic was written fifteen years ago and besides Luke Cage the entire cast of the book is white).  Even Kilgrave has more depth in the show than what we see in Alias (in the comic he’s generally just a sociopath who lucked into some particularly dangerous powers, while the show’s backstory for him makes the character come across as more of a petulant child who’s able to superhumanly always get his way), though for my money both versions are pretty terrifying.

The single biggest standout of the show is the way it addresses issues of trauma and harassment, particularly for women (by the season’s end, virtually everyone is a Kilgrave victim, and he is the quintessential abusive ex-boyfriend).  I was really amused by the interplay between the show’s casting and its story, since everything is set up in a way that the most dangerous, untrustworthy characters are white men (Will Simpson’s a fascinating character because his victimization by Kilgrave drives him to cope in ways that are extremely dangerous and destructive to the people around him, which I think is a commentary on the way patriarchal systems inflict harm even on men who benefit from them and perpetuate violent, misogynist behavior).  Beyond that, you have simple creative choices like completely avoiding the use of rape for audience titillation and depicting all instances of sex between characters as focused on the women’s experiences that announce clearly that this is a show pushing back against prevalent narrative trends in television that normalize violence against and objectification of women.

Also, there’s a moment when Kilgrave does something heroic and immediately demands that he be rewarded for his good behavior with sweets (it’s a cookie-begging joke!).

There are a few missteps in the show, like the fact that Kilgrave’s powers rely on his targets being able to understand him, which suggests that earplugs should have been a really easy workaround, and the extreme turnaround of Simpson from unreliable ally to crazed villain (that character gave off a knockoff-Captain-America vibe from his introduction, and in retrospect I suppose that’s intentional since the comic character he’s based on, Nuke, is pretty much a deranged knockoff of Captain America).  Like in Daredevil, we get a subplot centered around an older black man who has the potential to be a major ally, but who gets killed off instead as a way of elevating the perceived threat of a villain.  The tension of the show’s early episodes before Jessica learns how to combat Kilgrave’s powers fizzles a little in the last few (there’s a subplot where Kilgrave begins researching how to boost the effectiveness of his powers which reintroduces some tension, but it’s only a marginal improvement in comparison to the sense of constant dread that the story’s beginning is infused with), and the higher frequency of action scenes as the show approaches its climax pales compared to the excellent interpersonal drama.  This is a detective show, and it’s at its best when there’s a mystery to be solved rather than a villain to be punched, and necessarily the mysteries diminish and the villains proliferate as the plot approaches its resolution.

Overall, Jessica Jones is absolutely worth the watch, despite a few odd flaws.  Also, that cookie joke is still pretty stellar.

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