Monday, December 21, 2015

TV Review: Marvel's Jessica Jones

When Netflix announced it's deal to bring a bunch of Marvel Superheroes to it's service in the form of four "street-level" stand-alones followed by a "Defenders" series, one of the more interesting aspects was the choice of characters they were using. Sure, Daredevil is a reasonable name, and Power Man and Iron Fist (currently also appearing in the Ultimate SpiderMan cartoon) are names you might be able to pick of a line-up, but Jessica Jones? Thats pretty obscure. Not that that is in itself a problem, of course - a clean slate in terms of wider perception can be a great opportunity - but there was definately an audible sound of journalists rushing to Wikipedia to try and work out who she is, and what the story would be. And Daredevil came and went, and was a great meditaion on the morality of violence, and guilt, and power, and brought us the stand-out villian that the MCU in any form has been desperately lacking (give or take the occasional Loki). But now we have Jessica Jones, which is about something entirely different. (Warning: Spoilers) 

So I've not read the original Alias: Jessica Jones comic book series, although I understand that many of the TV versions core themes are present there. Some things change - her best freind is now former child star Trish "Patsy" Walker rather than Carol Danvers, for instance, and she's no longer an ex-superhero. But right at the centre is the same villian - Kilgrave, The Purple Man, one of those c-list villians with a power thats actually far more dangerous than it's often made out to be. Here, down at street-level, in the detail of people's live, it's extremely dangerous. 

We meet Jessica working as a fairly archeypal PI in Hells Kitchen; narrating her cases in growly voice-over with moody music, a camera in one hand and a bottle in the other. There are definately moments where the show tries too hard with it's noir inflections; they drop out fairly naturally for much of the running time, but they flare up into a little too "on the nose" at varying points all the way to the end. The big thing that Jessica faces isn't so much the work however, but the trauma she suffered at the hands of Kilgrave, a man who used his power to control her, use her, love her, even, before she was able to breakaway, leaving him, she believed, for dead. 

So there is a lot of things going on here. For a start, Kilgraves mind control power is explicitally used an analogy for rape, even when he's not using it for literal rape - which he does a fair bit. If Daredevil was about power expressed through violence, Jessica Jones is about power expressed through sex, consensual or otherwise. It runs through so many of the characters arcs - Jeri Hogath (a gender flipped character on an arc that could have played out identically with a male character, and feeling fresher because of it) expressing her power by "trading up" to a younger partner, which in turn makes her vunerable, for instance. Trish and Simpson, and Jessica and Luke, both express their internal dynamics in the bedroom. 

Kilgrave is, of course, the ultimate controlling ex-boyfreind. He whines, and needles, and manipulates. He believes - seems genuinely to beleive - that he is in the right, that he does know what is best for Jessica, and that he can make her happy. He even goes through little "self sacrifices" to prove this - an impressive level of self-absorbtion and arrogance, even as the bodies drop around him, almost unnoticed. There is no attempt to humanise him here - he's a monster, always a monster, and the show rightly has no sympathy for him. It's other villianous man is a slightly different story. Officer Simpson is a portrait of wounded masculinity slowly turning toxic and whilst he too ends up way over the line he feels more of a tragic figure, someone who may now be beyond redemption but someone for who other paths were available, if only he could have seen them. 

Before anyone thinks this is some sort of crazed, man-hating show, I should observe that, unexpectedly from the first couple of episodes, it's Malcolm, Jessica's junkie neighbour, who becomes one of the most human voices on the show. Between Malcom and Trish you have the two more positive reactions to all the pain around them, the people that don't run away from that, that try and hold onto others for mutual strength. Trish is, of course, closer to Jessica and the main action, but it's Malcolm who ends up facing real choice, and his ultimate decision to not just walk away was heartening in the midst of a pretty dark finale. 

Finally, a note on the end. For all the good work done early in the series, especially with pacing enough to breathe, the actual final episode felt a little anti-climactic. At least one big pay-off (about Albert and his potential immunity) never actually paid off, and the final confrontation wasn't anything - emotionally or dramatically - we hadn't seen before. The fantastically staged fight in the nightclub the episode before felt like it should have run into the finale a little more, perhaps? I'm not sure. Kilgrave being undone more by his own hubris, rather than Jessica and Trish out-manipulating or out-witting him, felt a little un-earned to me. 

But all that said, Jessica Jones is really excellent.  It's visual design is fantastic (I mentioned the night club above, but right down to the characters costuming, which stays realistic but still clean and iconic) and the performances are top-notch. It also manages to introduce us to Luke Cage, and tee-up whatever their planning for his series next year, without him feeling clumsily tacked into the story. It's really a "must see" piece of work. So y'know, go see it.