There was something undeniably special about the debut season of Jessica Jones. It was so distinct from the many other Marvel properties being offered, and not simply because it centered on a woman, though that was certainly notable. Its atmosphere and characters were magnetic, its pacing and dialogue had energetic rhythms, and the entire narrative had this kind of electric current running through it. Despite its dark, often quite bleak, subject matter, Jessica Jones had an intrinsic spark. And while Jessica returns to us in fine form at the beginning of season two – still kicking ass, drinking heavily, and firing scathing one-liners in the direction of anyone who deserves them (and some who don’t) – the show itself lacks some of that spark during its first five episodes.
Part of the problem is the absence of Kilgrave (David Tennant.) Not necessarily his character, though Tennant was fantastic in the role, but more as a worthy driving force for the plot. Jessica’s history with the villain was at once deeply personal and almost universally relatable. The show’s decision to explore themes of consent, rape, abuse, and trauma, and its subsequent nuanced, honest treatment of those themes, felt incredibly refreshing in terms of what we’d seen prior in other superhero stories. Jessica’s decision at the end of the series premiere, to stay in New York and stop Kilgrave, was emotionally engaging and took no effort to invest in. The second season’s main plot, which revolves around the investigation into IGH, the shady organization that’s (probably) responsible for Jessica’s abilities, has thus far felt forced and lacks real impetus. It’s just an origin story, which is a trope that, in this genre, is as generic as they come.
For this aspect of the season to work, whatever horrors took place during the 20-day gap in Jessica’s memory should be equally as personal and pressing as her time spent in captivity with Kilgrave. She has every right to restore those memories and learn the truth, but Jessica is so resistant to the idea that it’s tough to get on board. If Jessica doesn’t care, why should we? It’s not as though she wasn’t deeply reluctant to fighting Kilgrave, but she made an active decision to do so, which demonstrated to viewers how significant it was and offered a solid reason to get invested. When it comes to IGH, we’re merely being told – mainly via Trish – why this should be important to Jessica, but her character doesn’t seem sold. It’s not until partway through episode 3, when the investigation into IGH has already been underway for more than an episode, that Jessica finally makes a similar active decision. It was an unfortunate misstep that makes it seem as though the character wasn’t truly connecting to a script being written around her.
The other, albeit much smaller, part of the problem is the lack of focus with certain secondary characters. Pryce Cheng (Terry Chen) is, at first, presented as an interesting foil for both Jessica and Alias Investigations. It doesn’t take long for it to become clear he’s just a man who dislikes being bested by a woman though, and his presence becomes too annoying to be anything resembling a worthy antagonist. Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) is a similarly frustrating character. It seemed Jessica Jones was unsure of what exactly to do with her in these first few episodes, and how it wanted viewers to feel about her. One moment the show is looking for sympathy – by giving her an irreversible illness, which feels like an incredibly lazy way to kick off a redemption arc – and in the next it’s giving us ample reason to, at best dislike her, at worst not even care. A bit of clarity in her plot starts to shine through during episode 5, but, so far, it doesn’t seem worth the wait.
Overall, though, Jessica Jones season two is shaping up to be something that was worth waiting for. It’s been more than 2 years since the show first debuted on Netflix and it’s great to be back in its gritty, sardonic world. Even with some of its dynamism missing, there’s still a lot to praise and be excited for. This season features an all women directing team, which feels like it should have already been in place for this kind of show, but at least it is now. (Much credit to Ava Duvernay and Queen Sugar for pushing that idea further into the mainstream.) Jessica Jones has never been a slouch in the visuals department and these five episodes are no different. The women behind the camera have made everything from a dingy bathroom stall to an underground prison cell, just as pleasing to the eyes as something that requires less polishing, like Trish’s lush apartment set.
In front of the camera, Krysten Ritter is as captivating as ever. She’s somehow become even better at delivering Jessica’s signature cynical quips – the stand out so far being, “how rape-y of you.” Ritter consistently nails her portrayal of Jessica’s eternally angry state of being. She adds such dimension that we know precisely when the character’s anger has turned from being simply sarcastic, to coming from a place of genuinely deep-seated pain and trauma. While her investigation into IGH is a bit shaky plot wise, the themes it’s beginning to explore for her character are fairly compelling. Jessica is still struggling with the aftermath of killing Kilgrave, wrestling with what it means about who she is. To viewers it may be clear she isn’t a monster; to feel remorse over what happened to someone as vile as Kilgrave, should clue us in that Jessica does have a conscience. But when a fellow IGH patient starts murdering people, at least one in the exact way Kilgrave died, it’s not hard to understand Jessica’s self doubt. It’s a shame these personal connections hadn’t been the focus from earlier on. Still, there’s lots of time to rectify the misstep and strengthen the overall themes going forward.
Elsewhere in the cast, both Eka Darville as Malcolm, and Rachael Taylor as Trish, are certainly bringing their A-games this season. It’s been particularly enjoyable to see a livelier, non-addict side to Malcolm. The damage Kilgrave caused him hasn’t been erased, though; the character discusses how staying busy and continuing to help people are essential to his ongoing recovery. We’re slowly learning more about the real Malcolm, and though the character’s development is smaller in comparison to someone like Trish, it’s still very much present. Darville makes it easy to want more.
Taylor has been equally entertaining, despite Trish’s annoying insistence to investigate IGH in the first two episodes. A sequence during episode four, where Trish is riding high off the effects of a performance-enhancing inhaler, was especially moving. Taylor altered Trish’s entire behavior and mannerisms in such a subtle yet entirely visible way. Because we know about Trish’s past with substance abuse, and how it involved her mother, it’s particularly distressing to watch her sober up with Dorothy’s (Rebecca De Mornay) exploitive, obnoxious presence looming over her. Trish’s new love interest, Griffin (Hal Ozsan) has had a fairly predictable arc so far, but his character works very well as motivation for Trish to further her career. In a world where too many narratives still use women a tool of inspiration for men, this gender swap is more than fine by me.
Rounding out the cast so far this season are J.R. Ramirez as Oscar, the new superintendent in Jessica’s building, and Janet McTeer as the mysterious monster from IGH. Both characters push Jessica to contemplate her identity, in much different ways. The home and family life Oscar has allows Jessica to consider an alternative to the way she’s living. It’s not explicitly discussed, but rather something we can infer from the longing look she gives them as they’re sitting down to dinner, and she’s heading out for another long night of investigating and drinking alone. McTeer’s currently unnamed monster holds a figurative mirror up to Jessica, as alluded to earlier, forcing her to meditate on what makes her more than just a murderer.
While I’m willing to bet good money on Jessica not settling down anytime soon, I predict we’ll see a more balanced version of her by the end of the season. I mean, she’ll still be angry – and for damn good reason. But hopefully this investigation will lighten some of her self-loathing, and help her direct her anger in more productive ways. There’s still plenty of time for Jessica Jones to amp up the emotional investment, and find and reignite that missing spark.