The first season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones was a refreshing and surprising tilt at the genre. Rather than follow in the footsteps of its predecessor Netflix series, Marvel’s Daredevil, and give us a female vigilante out beating up New York’s criminal underclass, it was instead a feminist deconstruction of the entire superhero genre. Want to dress up in a suit and fight criminals? There’s probably something wrong you – maybe power issues, maybe toxic masculinity. The use of power to control others is something to be avoided by the individual, as it leaves both user and used damaged and changed by the experience. Combined with its use of the female gaze, in short, it was probably the first superhero show both by women and for women.
Since then, of course, we’ve had the underwhelming, rushed Marvel’s Defenders, which saw our Jessica team up with Daredevil and the rest of the Netflix Marvel crew to fight a scary new enemy. But while Defenders certainly was able to use our Jessica’s sarcastic PI ways with alacrity, it somewhat missed out on all that feminist subtext, turning her into a reluctant but still punchy advocate of extreme violence, murder et al. Was this character development, you might have wondered, with Jessica changed by her murder of arch-enemy and rapist Killgrave (David Tennant) into a different kind of heroine? What would season two of Jessica Jones be like? Would it be our Jessica in a costume at last?
Nope. It’s more of the same – at least as far as Jessica is concerned. The other supporting characters? That’s maybe a different story. A short, non-spoilery review after the jump, followed by a full review for those who don’t mind spoilers or who’ve already watched it.
Plot (not very spoilery)
We enter the second season with Jessica Jones still running Alias Investigations and still reluctant to help losers and the emotionally damaged, since they’re not too likely to pay the bills. However, it’s a changed world. She’s out on probation for Killgrave’s murder, something for which she’s received only limited thanks, and everyone now knows Jessica is ‘gifted’. That means she’s attracting a different type of client, as well as interest from the wrong kind of people.
That includes a super-fast someone who claims to have been on the receiving end of the same kind of experimental medical treatment that gave Jessica her abilities. He thinks someone’s out to get him and when someone super-strong – perhaps even stronger than Jessica – drops a heap of scaffolding on her would-be client, Jessica decides he might be right. And they might be after her, too.
Is it any good (not spoilery)?
It’s okay. It’s essentially a less interesting retread of season one’s themes, with a little more depth and a little more reference to the larger Marvel Universe, but without the power of David Tennant’s acting or anything much new to say.
SPOILERS AHEAD. HERE’S A NICE PICTURE OF DAVID TENNANT TO KEEP YOU FROM LOOKING TOO FAR AHEAD.
What’s it all about (very spoilery)?
For the most part, everything involving Jessica is the same as in the first season. She’s still buried in a bottle and is self-abasing. She still wants to avoid the limelight. She still wants to do her job and get paid for it. She’s witty and fun. We like Jessica. Usually.
But we also have a new big bad: her mother (Janet McTeer). Rather oddly, we spend the first six episodes of the show not knowing it’s her mother, which means we largely spend the first half of the season slightly bored as Jessica investigates, sees a bad woman, then sees the bad woman leave. Rinse, lather, repeat, until all is revealed. It’s some good PI work, but after six hours, you do wonder why you should care – indeed, Forbes’s review of the show is headlined “Don’t quit halfway through Jessica Jones season two”, which I imagine quite a lot of casual viewers might do.
After that, we have firstly, the origin story for Jessica Jones that season one never gave us. Problematically, it’s basically Luke Cage’s origin story at heart, right down to the experiments on sea creatures with DNA. Poor old sea creatures.
The one real difference is that Jessica’s origin story reveals she was always a bit moody – there is no real cause for her misery – so it’s also an anti-origin story. It’s a moderate and enjoyable piece of deconstruction, true, but it’s not exactly season one-level.
Secondly, we also get the Killgrave storyline. Again. Jessica’s mum is a rage monster who’s been going around killing everyone who could cause her new boyfriend (Callum Keith Rennie) problems. He’s the scientist whose illegal experiments saved both Jessica and her mum’s life and give them superpowers. However, Rennie isn’t bad – rather, he’s been trying to help heal people and the superpowers were an accidental side-effect of Jessica’s family genetics. Mum’s rages? Possibly side-effects, too, but also possibly brain damage from the accident that nearly killed them, given that Jessica seems fine despite the same treatment. So, she’s an accidental killer rather than a true killer, but what does that even mean?
This gives us the Killgrave quandry… again: are there really monsters? Can super-powered bad guys be treated? Do they need to be killed or are there other ways round the problem they present? How many people do they need to kill before they have to be killed themselves? The first season already came to a conclusion, Defenders suggested Jessica had embraced her power, but now we seem to be back to square one again.
Unlike the first season, though, season two is more aware of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It knows there are other superpowered beings. It knows there’s a special prison for the super-strong (‘the raft‘) that mum could be dumped in.
This gives the show a somewhat schizophrenic feel as a result. Just as Defenders only gets a cryptic reference about how super-powered people like to join teams, the show is happy to name-drop the likes of Captain America, but not to modify its plots to deal with this change in the world. Jessica and her cohorts feel perpetually required to do everything themselves, without recourse to a quick email to the Avengers or even SHIELD, and Jessica’s mum feels ready to call herself and Jessica ‘the most powerful women in the world’ – something I imagine Captain Marvel, Lady Sif and about 51% of those pesky Inhumans might have something to say about.
Indeed, first season regular Luke Cage doesn’t even get name-checked, despite presumably being a handy bloke to have around at this point. You can probably make arguments about whether Jessica is so disconnected from everyone or so hung up by the return of her mother not to make the call, but you’d think her friends might at least raise the possibility.
To be honest, the show would have been better off pretending the rest of the MCU didn’t exist, so it could treat its easily solvable concern as though it were far more insoluble.
However, while Jessica’s storyline is basically more of the same, everyone else has a slightly more varied experience in season two. Here, again, it’s still all very familiar, as it’s basically the Daredevil season two roadmap of taking our close-knit pals and spiralling them off on different trajectories by making them all hate one another by season’s end.
That said, it’s through the supporting characters that the show ultimately explores the corollary themes of Jessica’s: is all power bad; if it is, what happens if you get it and try to use it; if it isn’t, what is good power? This at least is new, and a follow on from the first season, rather than simple repetition.
You could probably plot a three-dimensional graph of ‘power over others’ versus ‘self-control’ versus ‘desire for control’ for power-lawyer Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), Jessica’s adopted sister Trish (Rachael Taylor) and her friend/assistant Malcolm (Eka Darville) as they oscillate to different extremes over the course of the show, as it explores how they affect people. It would then be easier to spot that the writers are ultimately siding with the idea that power over others is bad, while power over oneself is good and the only path to true happiness.
Malcolm, of course, is always at Jessica’s beck and call, but it’s only when he seizes control over his own life, instead of trying to help others, that he’s able to find any real happiness. Hogarth thinks she has it all, including power over others, but when she’s diagnosed with an incurable degenerative illness, she no longer has power over herself (she thinks). She then tries to manipulate the world to her benefit and is ultimately undone by her choices, until she once again regroups and restores self-control.
Meanwhile, former junkie Trish is relapsing, thanks to using her ex-boyfriend-turned-stalker-turned-guardian-angel’s asthma inhaler full of combat steroids. She’s tired of not being special and when she tries to become special to control others – even to defend the oppressed – she loses self-control and falls apart. Ultimately, it’s only when she’s free of Jessica and in control of her life again that she starts to become happy. And perhaps even Wildcat, by story’s end.
All these supporting storylines are actually quite interesting. The trouble is they’re weighed down by Jessica’s repetitious storyline. On top of that, the fact it’s all largely an intrinsic, rather than extrinsic struggle for Jessica – there’s never a real chance she’ll hurt her mother and her mother’s violence is more accidental than malicious – means that the stakes are far lower.
Lastly, Janet McTeer is a good actress, but she doesn’t have the charisma of David Tennant – a fact made abundantly clear when Tennant cameos towards the end as a voice in Jessica’s head, urging her on to do terrible things, before ultimately showing her the path to true happiness. You wish he’d appeared in every episode to serve the same function, since there’s a flatness to the other episodes, but it feels like he had a couple of days free to film everything so they took what they could get.
All of that means is that this second season feels like more of a slog, covering old territory without really doing anything too new. Sure, it’s nice to see a mother-daughter relationship in a comic book sea of father-son relationships; sure, it’s good to see the supporting cast getting things to do. But when your show is called Jessica Jones, it’s really Jessica Jones who needs some thrilling things to do.
While it does move all the characters on, season two feels like a wasted opportunity. While it’s smartly written and has a reasonable number of positives, it’s nowhere near as radical as the first season, is somewhat confused and offers far fewer rewards for the viewer prepared to make it through all 13 episodes. It’s not the disaster season 2 of Daredevil was, but it burns through the goodwill the show earned in season 1.
But the season does at least end on some positives that suggest a third season might actually do something different. Everyone seems moderately happy for a change. At the very least, there might even be a new plot.
Best of three, everyone?