Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.
This instalment: Jessica’s back! Two and a half years after Jessica Jones’ first season arguably set the high bar for the Marvel Netflix franchise (only Daredevil’s first season can compete), was the best comic book show of the season according to highly credible sources, and after being one of the highlights of last year’s slightly disappointing team-up, Jessica Jones finally gets her follow-up season.
Man. It’s good that Netflix has started cranking these things out faster, because that was too long a wait.
So how’d it turn out? Marvel Netflix hasn’t been doing that well since. Is Jessica Jones season two a return to form, or another Iron Fist?
Short version: It’s okay. Not as good as it was, not as bad as it could have been.
We rejoin Jessica and pals… ex-child star-turned-radio-host Trish Walker; Jessica’s assistant, ex-junkie Malcolm; and high-powered attorney Jeri Hogarth… a year after season one, and some unspecified and unknowable amount of time since The Defenders. This is the first show starring a Defenders lead to drop post-crossover, but if you’re hoping to see how the big team-up has changed life at Alias Investigations, you’re gonna be disappointed. The events of The Defenders and her temporary super-powered cohorts are never mentioned, even in passing. Other than cameo appearances by Foggy Nelson (mostly to acknowledge that he still works with Hogarth and would care about her plotline) and Manhattan’s most persistent black market gun salesman Turk Barrett, the other Defenders shows are utterly ignored. There’s not even a visit from Marvel Netflix’s number one utility player, Claire Temple.
And you know what, that’s basically okay. First off, Jessica was so annoyed to be involved in Hand-based shenanigans that I utterly believe her not even wanting to mention them now. I can picture a few annoyed “I don’t even want to talk about its” getting thrown at Malcolm and Trish the week after it all happened, and then everyone moving on. Second, there’s not much call for guest appearances. Daredevil’s still off the board until his third season (maybe later this year?); this show has enough hand-wringing over the ethics of killing as is that an appearance by Claire would have just been redundant; and no circumstance exists where Jessica would even consider calling Danny Rand for help. Or conversation. So really, it’s just Luke Cage that’s conspicuous in his absence, given what a key part of season one he was, but it’s still fine. There was only one point, in episode 12, when I thought “You know what Jess, maybe this is the moment you call your super-strong, bulletproof pal in Harlem,” but given everything that had just happened in episode 11, Jessica was in no headspace to trust other people or ask for help. So I’ll allow it.
Weirdly this is the most that any Marvel Netflix show to date has referenced the Marvel movies. Captain America gets referred to by name, not simply as “the flag-waver,” and a threat hanging over the season is the Raft, the superhuman prison introduced in Captain America: Civil War. This isn’t enough to get me to rethink my position on whether the films and TV shows actually co-exist. There are still far too many ways they don’t, and accepting that they’re separate just makes things easier. But hey, kudos for the effort.
That was a bigger diversion than I expected. Where was I. Right.
Premise (For Reals)
One year after season one (two and half years ago for us, Marvel timelines are messy), Jessica is still haunted by having killed Kilgrave with her bare hands–hand. That people consider her a “vigilante superhero” potentially willing to kill people for money isn’t helping. She’s as lost in booze and anger as ever, causing a rival to exclaim “Super? You’re the weakest person I’ve ever seen.” Malcolm, her ex-junkie neighbour, is now working as her assistant/apprentice. Jeri Hogarth comes back into Jessica’s orbit when some bad health news requires some drastic actions. And most notably, Trish, Jessica’s adoptive sister/best friend, feels that the solution to Jessica’s rage issues is to look into how she got her powers in the first place.
It turns out some people don’t like Trish asking questions about the company behind Jess’ powers. When bodies begin piling up, Jessica starts chasing her own past, confronting the death of her family… and digs up some things she hadn’t expected.
I could criticize this season for ensuring that their sophomore outing has all of the tired tropes of a first season, those being origin stories and reluctant heroes, but… the fact is, Jessica’s origin hasn’t fully happened yet. It might never fully happen. She’s a reluctant hero because she hasn’t decided to be one yet. Maybe she never will. That’s Jessica, folks. Love her or watch Legends of Tomorrow. Or both. Yes, both. That one.
The Killer, as they’re referred to… damn. “The Killer.” That is seriously the only codename they think up. Marvel Television needs a Cisco Ramon to think up better villain names in just the worst way. The Killer becomes Jessica’s dark reflection: not only created by the same company, The Killer is also possessed of incredible strength, also isolated from society, and also driven by rage they can’t always control, only more so in all cases. The Killer is what Jessica is afraid she herself might become, especially with Kilgrave’s death on her hands.
How does it work? Well… there are good points and bad points.
Ripping off the bandaid, “They’ve finally fixed their habitual pacing problems” is not on the list of strengths. It took the film branch nearly a decade to finally start writing decent villains, who knows how long it will take the Netflix branch to learn about pacing or episodic television?
That said, there is one improvement. In the back half, where Daredevil‘s second season and Luke Cage fell apart, Jessica Jones season two actually picks up speed. Instead of collapsing into Hand or Diamondback related nonsense in episode nine, they actually find their footing in episode seven. Sure it’s not all smooth sailing from there, but we’ll cover that below. This right here is the good stuff. And the first and most obvious strength of the show should go without saying, but here it is anyway…
Krysten Ritter is goddamn phenomenal.
She was always good with the anger and the one-liners, but she gets some heart-wrenching material this season and she absolutely crushes it. Even when her material was weak or inconsistent, her performance never was. Someone give her an Oscar movie while we’re waiting for season three, because she is an incredible talent.
Also on that level this year? Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth. The early episodes drop some heavy stuff on her, and damned if she doesn’t rise to the occasion. And a good thing, too, because if not, her entire story would be under “weaknesses,” on account of it being only slightly connected to anything else that happens. Jessica is off dealing with mad science and the monsters it creates (and whether she might be one of said monsters), Jeri is confronting mortality and deciding who, exactly, gets to take anything else away from her (spoiler: it ain’t a long list), and sure the two stories share some common characters but they’re basically in their own worlds. Fortunately, thanks to Moss, Hogarth’s story is consistently one of the best parts of the show, connected to the main story or not.
Other strengths… Trish Walker isn’t her best self this season, but Rachael Taylor is still nailing it playing her. Jessica’s new love interest ultimately works as an arc, even if it starts with that old chestnut of “They dislike each other immediately, and we all know where that goes in the long run.” (Paraphrased quote courtesy of the late, legendary Terry Pratchett)
Good news: This is the first Marvel Netflix show to have Asian characters who aren’t part of or connected to a ninja death cult! Bad news: they are both still assholes. So… not a huge win for Asian representation.
I won’t tell you much about The Killer here, ’cause you should let the show tell you if that’s something you care about, but… they made some really interesting choices, and they pay off in Jessica’s arc. Also the “mad scientist” is an interesting ethical grey area. He’s not exactly doing ethical science, but he’s not a bad person. He’s authentically trying to do good, there are just a few shortcuts he really shouldn’t be taking but is anyway.
And seriously, I can’t remember the last time I ended episode nine of a Marvel Netflix show and didn’t think “Jesus, four more hours?” So good job putting all the bad pacing up front.
On that note.
There is so much goddamn padding on this show. I want to say “If you can’t fill 13 episodes, don’t write 13 episodes,” but Defenders was only eight episodes and it was still badly paced, so honestly I don’t know what it would take at this point. Let’s take a quick tour of pointless subplots they stuffed this season full of in order to fill 13 hour-long episodes.
- Trish’s storyline is about a recovering addict’s desperate need to feel as powerful as her adopted sister, and how it drove a relapse into addiction. So why did we spend so much of the first five episodes with her boyfriend, the impossibly noble journalist Griffin, only for him to be wished away to the fucking cornfield just as her story is hitting its stride? Did they think we needed to see her lose a boyfriend to understand her life was spiralling out of control due to addiction? Because we didn’t. Trish’s life had plenty going on to lose to addiction without creating and almost immediately tossing out a love interest. He was such a big deal and then he was just gone in an instant with no payoff whatsoever. Waste of time.
- Also introduced this year is Pryce Cheng, a rival PI trying to push Jessica out of business. He eventually creates two inconveniences, one of which convinces Jessica she should work with the police, and the other of which is the third of at least four times that Jessica thinks “You know what, I take it back, The Killer does belong in jail,” and that is it. That’s not enough plot to require four episodes of building up a character and his go-nowhere conflict. He’s a main-credits regular, by the way, while the scientist who gave Jessica her powers is a “Special Guest Star,” despite being in exactly as many episodes and being far more important to the story. Which might be mostly about Callum Keith Rennie’s agent figuring “Special Guest Star” gives more status than being, at best, fourth-billed as a regular, but it suggests they plan to bring Pryce back next season, which… BOO. Pryce Cheng would lift right out of this season and nobody would miss him. He is dead air. Only worse.
- There is a major reveal just before the halfway point but in order to ensure that it was at the halfway point… of a 13 episode season… they make getting there so convoluted. They reveal that Trish was sexually abused by a director so that they could threaten him into pressuring a hospital he donates to into giving them some information (what?) that points them towards a homeless ex-nurse that directs them to a mentally handicapped convict who gives them a name that leads to an encounter which points them to a university which sends them to a lawyer that can be pressured into sending Jessica to a house that finally leads to the reveal… what the hell. That journey takes six episodes. That is the very definition of padding. And every single thing that happens along the way (save for the homeless ex-nurse being tossed into Jeri’s arc) is basically meaningless to the back half of the show. I’m not saying that giving Trish a “Me too” story about an abusive director from her child star days was a bad idea, if they’d stuck with it then maybe it could have informed her need to feel powerful, but only including him to be one rung in a convoluted ladder then dropping it immediately is a weird choice.
- A flashback episode at the midway point introduces an old boyfriend of Jessica’s who was apparently a pivotal figure in her early 20s, yet was never mentioned before that episode. And only once since. Kind of tacked on, there. (I will give the flashback episode this… for a spot-on satire of empty, insipid, top 40 pop music, Trish’s big hit “I Want Your Cray-Cray” is kind of a jam.)
Now, besides all of that, there are a few things beyond the padding that just don’t really work. To wit:
- There’s a whole thing about prejudice against powered people. It doesn’t really work. Do you know why it doesn’t work, Marvel Television? Because you’re not the X-Men. Do not try to be the X-Men. The Gifted is kind of cornering the market on being hated and feared by the common people, don’t try to steal their bit. The Inhumans aren’t replacement X-Men and neither is Jessica.
- Also, every person who’s prejudiced against the powered is a POC. Every single one of them. I don’t love that. There aren’t a ton of major POC characters on this show as it is, do they need to be the only bigots? Does the only black woman on the show for more than one scene need to use the phrase “you people?”
- Jessica flip-flops back and forth over what’s to be done with The Killer (what I would not give for a better codename) constantly. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if they’d handled it well, because she should be conflicted over this person, she should be torn as to what they deserve, but it doesn’t play out as being conflicted. It plays out as swapping back and forth as to which side she over-commits to. I should turn you in, I should help you escape, you need prison, you need help, you’re going to the Raft and that’s good, you’re going to the Raft and I’ll help you escape, nothing can redeem you, only I can redeem you… never grey area. Either she’s willing to do whatever it takes to bring The Killer to justice or she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect The Killer from the police, and the change happens on a dime. One noble act changes Jessica’s mind instantly and utterly, even though last season Kilgrave proved that one noble act doesn’t change who a person is. It doesn’t play as Jessica being conflicted, it plays as Jessica being inconsistently written.
- How is it that addiction and substance abuse are such a key element for two characters on this show, yet Jessica’s obvious alcoholism never comes up. Save for one moment where she admits she’s not the best person to be around when you’re an addict who’s fallen off the wagon.
So in short (too late, I know…), while there is a lot of good stuff in there, the first half is mostly filler and the second half forces Jessica’s arc to go in circles in order to fill enough time.
Stop doing 13 episode seasons. You don’t know how to fill 13 episodes.
AKA Three Lives and Counting. Jessica begins to unravel as her friends screw up, the line between her and The Killer begins to dissolve, and a familiar face is all too willing to push her over the edge. Absolutely their best hour.
AKA Pork Chop. “So we need Jessica to cross a line on behalf of The Killer. Let’s introduce someone unambiguously evil so that her crossing the line isn’t so bad.”
“But we’re playing it as being super bad–”
“Yeah, sure, fine, but the audience should think he had it coming. We have all this cake, we just need to eat it, too.”
Krysten Ritter. She even makes Jessica’s third trip through the “You’re irredeemable, no wait maybe not” loop-de-loop mostly work.
Though props to Carrie-Anne Moss for selling Jeri’s arc so hard that it didn’t end up on the list of filler arcs that served nothing. That it was the most consistent and well-written arc of the season helped, but a lot of it was her.
Tips For Next Season
Look… are you married to this whole skeevy, power-hating-rival Pryce Cheng thing? ‘Cause I’m not loving it. Could he just shuffle off to whatever island for discarded supporting characters you sent Trish’s boyfriend to? Please? And maybe, in general, avoid having characters and plotlines with no payoffs. Write as many episodes as you need, but use them wisely.
Aside from that… I think Jessica hit rock bottom where “pushing away the people in her life” is concerned, only to end the season by reaching out and trying not to be isolated anymore. You need to build on that next season, not just regress. I wouldn’t normally think that was an issue, but you just did a second origin story for Punisher, so who knows.
And maybe in addition to repairing her relationships with her core cast, she could also try being willing to consult with Luke Cage or Matt Murdock or… nope, can’t think of a third person for that list.
Overall Grade: B
I thought it would be higher, but the season just takes so long to get out of first gear, and Jessica’s flip-flopping bugs me enough that it kind of blew the ending.
Next time: I’m probably finishing at least one of The Gifted, The Tick, and Runaways this week.