Oh, what's a poor critic to do, when the demands of reviewing conflict with the pleasures of enjoying?
I've been looking forward to the Netflix series Jessica Jones since I heard it was coming. I was a big fan of Brian Michael Bendis's comic series Alias (2001–2004), which introduced the hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-to-get-along-with ex-superhero/private eye. I am an even bigger fan of Krysten Ritter, who first impressed me on Veronica Mars, and with whom I fell in love during her run on the vastly underrated (and criminally short-lived) Don't Trust the B— in Apt. 23. (It was only last year that I finally caught up with Breaking Bad, something I might have done sooner if I'd known Ritter had a recurring role.) Additionally, Daredevil, the impressive debut of Netflix's collaboration with Marvel Comics, suggested that it was safe to have high expectations for this follow-up.
So I had been eagerly awaiting the November 20th release-date of Jessica Jones. And I knew that I would probably want to write about the show, both on its own merits and because I have resolved to do a better job of supporting and promoting quality, female-led properties in geek culture. (I am still deeply regretting not writing about last year's excellent Agent Carter, a mistake I don't plan to repeat when Season Two of that show premieres in January.) The buzz around Jessica Jones is good enough that I don't flatter myself that it needs my small site to boost its numbers, but—if the show was anywhere near as strong as I suspected it would be—I knew I wanted to give it serious attention. And that, for me, means writing about it.
The problem, now, is that Jessica Jones, unsurprisingly, is good. So good, in fact, that what I really want to do is sit down and binge the entire thing in one sitting, without having to stop to write about it. Everybody else gets to do that. Why can't I?
And it's not just a question of whether to deny or indulge my desire for instant gratification. It's an indisputable fact: the new trend of releasing entire seasons all at once creates a conundrum for TV critics. Do we watch and review one episode a week, the way we're used to doing with traditionally distributed shows? (That would mean I'd still be writing about Jessica Jones two months from now, long after most of you probably binged it in its entirety.) Do we watch and review the entire season as a whole, the way we would a novel or a movie? (That would mean writing one really long post, which could take weeks and might be longer than anyone was likely to want to read.) Or, do we watch the entire season, but then review the individual episodes one at a time? (And, if the latter, do we discuss each episode with reference to the entire season, or do we avoid spoilers and pretend we don't know what's coming next?)
Like many review sites, I guess I'm going to split the difference. As I write this—full confession—I have watched the first three episodes. (I couldn't quite help myself.) But I'm going to stop and discuss each of those before I proceed any further. My plan is to review the pilot episode here, and then write about the remainder of the series, two episodes at a time, as quickly as possible. (I'll resist the urge to watch ahead, and hopefully my desire to binge will inspire me to write fast.)
As usual, these posts will assume you've watched the episode(s) in question first, and be appropriately spoiler-filled. So, if you haven't watched the first episode of Jessica Jones yet, go do that now.
"I don't have any goddamned friends." — Jessica Jones
The first time I watched it, I enjoyed "AKA Ladies Night," the first episode of Jessica Jones. It was on second viewing, however, that I really began to think about what an unusual and impressive debut this really is.
For "Ladies Night" has a lot of work to do. More than any Marvel character who has yet debuted on screen, Jessica Jones is an unknown quantity. (Ant Man and the various Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may be obscure characters to those who don't read comics, but I know longtime comic book aficionados who have never heard of Jessica Jones.) Alias, the book that introduced her, was published under the MAX imprint, a niche corner of Marvel Comics producing R-rated material. (The very first word of Alias #1 is "fuck," a word that is still verboten in most mainstream comic books.) I don't know how many people read Alias when it was first published—though it became a critically acclaimed book—but I think it's safe to say that Jessica Jones doesn't land on mainstream America with a lot of name-recognition.
Which makes it all the more daring that Netflix took a chance on it, and makes this pilot episode—written by series creator Melissa Rosenberg, and directed by S.J. Clarkson—such an impressive piece of work. Because "Ladies Night" doesn't rush to endear itself: it offers virtually nothing in the way of exposition, it is delightfully stingy with its reveals, and it takes its own sweet time in setting the plot in motion. The plot, when it does get going, is a gripper, but by then Jessica Jones has announced itself as an engine that will run on character and mood, not on incident.
It helps, of course, that Jessica Jones—though eschewing nearly all superhero conventions—brings a different set of familiar trappings: those of film noir. The shadowed, threatening grit of dilapidated neighborhoods; the neon glare on the windows of shitty offices; and the cynical, hard-boiled voice-over all establish this as a milieu with which we're well acquainted. (One of the things that impressed me most about this pilot was how convincingly rundown Jessica's world is: her crappy office/apartment is not "TV-shitty"—which still usually involves a fabulously large space that the character could not realistically afford—but actually shitty. And this woman does not have a wardrobe mistress: her clothes—most of which she wears over and over again—are threadbare and full of holes.)
So—though the character is unfamiliar—we recognize the world Jessica lives in, and we recognize the genre she's occupying, and we recognize the type she is playing: the tough, loner, hard-drinking private-eye. What makes this unusual is not that she has super-powers—we don't discover that until fairly deep into the episode, and then only by suggestion—but that she is a woman.
Hearing noirish, private-eye voice-over from a beautiful young woman instantly evokes—for me, at least—the show that gave Ritter her first major role, Veronica Mars. But the similarities end there. Where Mars used its voice-over to reveal the protagonist's inner thoughts—and, in early episodes, a truly staggering amount of necessary back story—the protagonist of Jessica Jones is no open book. She is closed off, from everyone, including us, and perhaps most importantly from herself. I usually resist voice-over narration, but here—in its very cliché-ridden familiarity, and its refusal to actually reveal anything about her—it becomes part of the mask Jessica wears to fend off the world.
"Do I look like I'm hiding?" — Jessica Jones
So the very familiarity of the genre—and the apparent familiarity of the character type—plays in marvelous tension with the suspicion that there is much more to Jessica Jones than meets the eye. And it plays in marvelous tension with Krysten Ritter's performance, which is simply stunning. Jessica has the tough, wise-ass, stoic personality of any number of noir private-eyes, but it does feel like a mask. Ritter is charged with conveying—mostly through facial expressions and body-language—that what's hiding behind is a deeply damaged young woman, one barely holding on after some unspecified—but fairly recent—trauma. Was she always so prickly and isolated? How much of this what we see is really her, and how much is post-traumatic stress, and how much is fresh guilt and anger and distrust of the world? We don't know yet, but we believe that Ritter knows: she plays the layers of Jessica—alternately aggressive and defensive, vulnerable and bold, scared and scarred—like she's been inhabiting the role for years.
And again, what's amazing about this is how little help she gets from dialogue—and that's not a criticism of the script. There are a few secondary characters around to comment on her personality: attorney Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss) tells her she is erratic and volatile; addict-neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville) points out, unnecessarily, that she uses sarcasm to distance people. But I can't remember the last time I saw a pilot episode in which the main character spends so much time alone. Screenwriting 101 would have our protagonist's personality drawn out in conversation with her intimates, but Jessica has no intimates right now: she is deliberately, determinedly alone, and she spends a staggering amount of the episode sleeping and drinking by herself. Rosenberg and Clarkson trust Ritter to convey a full and complex woman without a lot of expository dialogue, and Ritter pulls it off in spades.
Even the few significant personal encounters she has with other people are notable more for what she is guarding than for what she reveals. For example, she picks up Luke (Mike Colter), the owner of her local bar whom we have already seen Jessica stalking. (We don't know, yet, why she is stalking him, or even whether her interest is personal or professional.) Colter and Ritter are both ridiculously attractive people, and they share real chemistry here, but both their verbal and carnal exchanges demonstrate a thin, surface openness over deep layers of defensiveness. They have noticed each other, they probe each other, but neither really reveals anything, their banter just a playful presenting of each other's masks. When they have sex—raw, powerful, Olympic-level sex—they do not kiss: when Jessica finds herself staring intently into his eyes—with the danger of intimacy that implies—she deliberately flips over to be taken from behind while she hides her face in the mattress. There is so much going on here emotionally—some of which won't be revealed for another episode or two—but the show has the restraint to evoke far more than it explains. (That's the sign of a showrunner who knows her plan, trusts her stars, and respects the audience. And it's one of the things that makes me most excited for Jessica Jones.)
"He's back." — Jessica Jones
The first half of "AKA Ladies Night" is such a slow-burn character study that we are lulled into believing it will be little more than an introduction to this world. Jessica has two cases during this first hour: the first is the simple serving of a summons to a despicable strip-club owner, for Jeri Hogarth; the second is a missing-persons case, involving a girl who may not really be missing, for some overly protective parents from Omaha.
The first case turns out to be more or less exactly as simple as it appears, and—since this is the first episode—we are already wondering if Jessica Jones will be a one-or-two case a week show, with clues about a larger arc eked out stingily over the thirteen episodes. We are unprepared, then, when the second case turns out to be the case of the season, and the one that will bring all of Jessica's carefully guarded backstory and emotional trauma right to the forefront.
It's an exhilarating turn when Jessica realizes that Hope Schlottman (Erin Moriarity) has been taken by someone called Kilgrave (David Tennant). Comics readers may have already suspected this—and they know what it means—but by this point the episode has done such a good job of foreshadowing Jessica's trauma that even newcomers are feeling the importance and dread of this discovery. Again, the show is remarkably restrained with its reveals: we still don't know exactly what happened to Jessica—though we've been given brief, revelatory flashes of memory and hallucination—and we are left to understand who Kilgrave is and what he can do without anyone spelling it out for us. (This is show-don't-tell storytelling at its best and most confident.) But we all know at this point that the "slow-burn" of the episode's first half was just the fuse for the explosion that's about to happen.
"He's back," Jessica says to Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), a talk-show host who is Jessica's estranged best friend. It is from Trish that we learn it has been a year since whatever trauma Jessica Jones went through, and that it was only after this ordeal that Jessica became a private-eye and shut herself off from everyone close to her. And it is in the conversation with Trish that we realize—without it's being articulated—that Jessica did this, in part, out of fear for the people she cares about. (Jessica panics at Trish's use of the word "we." "We?" she protests. "He's coming after me, not you.") Jessica is not heartless: she's just pretending to be, to protect herself, and because she doubts her ability to protect the people she loves. "You're still the person who tried to do something," Trish says, when she encourages her to help Hope Schlottman. "Tried and failed," Jessica says. "I was never the hero you wanted me to be."
And we see her struggling to balance her traumatized need for ruthless self-preservation with the rich layers of human decency that flow beneath the surface. She tries to flee the country, but halfway through the cab ride she realizes she can't leave Hope alone with Kilgrave. At the hotel, when she finds the young girl paralyzed by Kilgrave's influence, their extended struggle is notable for the kindness that plays behind Jessica's tough practicality. (Jessica, after all, has super-strength: the only reason this is a struggle at all is that she cannot bring herself to hurt this already-violated woman any further.) Later, in her office, she tells Hope what Jessica herself most needs to hear, what she herself obviously does not yet believe: "None of it is your fault."
It is a heartbreakingly sweet moment when Hope, reunited with her parents, hugs Jessica and tells her she has saved her life. Jessica, we suspect, was not a hugger even before she met Kilgrave, but there is a microscopic, blink-and-you-miss-it smile on Ritter's face that conveys—for an instant—that Jessica might actually feel like a hero. That she might have found, at the end, at least a little redemption, and at least a little—the name is intentional, of course—hope.
And then, just before the elevator doors close, we see Hope pull out a gun. And we know this is not that kind of show.
Make no mistake, Jessica Jones is dark. It should be dark. It's willingness to be dark is one of its most exciting elements. Along with Daredevil, Netflix is establishing itself as the adult end of the ever-expanding Marvel Universe, where ideas that began in childish four-color fantasies can be explored to their full ramifications. What would it mean to really live in a world where people have extraordinary powers, with which they could do almost anything? What would it mean if some of them were evil—genuinely evil, not comic-book evil—and what would it mean if some of the "superheroes" were flawed, and fallible, and painfully human?
Most of all, I'm excited at the darkness of Jessica Jones because it feels earned, and because it telegraphs the show's willingness to deal with its subject matter with the maturity and emotional complexity it deserves. While we don't know all the details yet—and though the word has not been used yet—this is, at its heart, a story of rape. Sexual trauma to female characters has a long and ignoble history in comic books and other fantasy genres, too often used for shock-value, titillation, or as convenient motivation for male characters. Jessica Jones is the story of a rape survivor, told by a female creator clearly determined to treat the subject with the weight it deserves, and embodied in a star who can bring the survivor to rich, complicated life as a fully realized character.
It's a daunting, perilous job Rosenberg and Ritter have undertaken, but it's a worthy one. And, from what I see in this confident, character-driven debut, they are more than up to the task.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- It's a simple thing, but there is a recurring thematic motif of doors in "AKA Ladies Night," that begins with Jessica's sudden defenestration of a client. (An unhinged door with a broken lock, jammed shut but barely keeping the world out, is a pretty good metaphor for Jessica herself.) Throughout the episode, the opening, closing, and breaking of office doors, restaurant doors, apartment doors, car doors, hotel room doors, cabinet doors, and elevator doors is always important: each one hold secrets behind it, but more importantly each one signifies an opening to vulnerability. From the cabinet door she opens revealing a photo in Luke's bathroom, to the restaurant door where her current case crosses over with her past, to the hotel entrance opened by a doorman who recognizes her, each door is an opening to the world, and the emotions, Jessica has tried to keep at bay.
- Speaking of doors, I loved the throwaway-but-accurate observation Barbara Schlottman (Deborah Hedwell) makes to her husband (Ian Blackman): "She doesn't have a level, Bob." Deeper meanings aside, it has taken Mrs. Schlottman about two minutes to recognize that Jessica is not the sort of person who is likely to own a level. She doesn't even have toilet paper.
- Speaking of doors, redux: I've watched the episode three times now, and the door that won't shut properly after Jessica casually leaves Mei's apartment made me laugh—every single time.
- My intention in these posts is to mostly avoid bringing in knowledge from the comic book world, or even external knowledge about characters that the show has yet to reveal. Yes, of course, I know who both Luke and Trish are, and I know more about Kilgrave than I've let on. Let's let the show play things out at its own pace.
- I will say, however—I don't think it's a major spoiler or anything—that Kilgrave is known in the comics as "The Purple Man," and I'm loving what the show is doing with the color palate in his scenes.
- Though I spent most of my time raving about Ritter, there are excellent performances all around here: the major characters are all very good—with particular kudos to Taylor, Colter, and (in a ridiculously difficult role) Moriarty. I'm also impressed with how the show is managing to make sure all of the minor characters seem like actual people, not types. The show's focus on character seems to permeate even the one-and-done people we meet, like Hope's former roommate (Ruibo Qian) and the maître'd in the restaurant (Jon Norman Schneider). (And how much do we understand about the Schottman's marriage, just from their brief scenes here?)
- Speaking of guest stars, it was only on second viewing that I recognized Jeri Hogarth's wife as Deadwood's Calamity Jane herself, the indescribably brilliant Robin Weigert. I hope she gets something to do here worthy of her talents.
- As I said when I began, my hope is to review the remainder of Jessica Jones, in two-episode batches, as quickly as possible. My long-time readers, however, will know that quickly is a relative term for me, so I'm not committing to a precise schedule. (If I had to guess, I'd say I'll post every two or three days.) Hope to see you back here.