It’s hard to live up to perfection.
Let’s be real here. Jessica Jones had a perfect first season. It was intensely paced, beautifully acted, and had a strong writing behind it. It won a freaking Peabody award. Critics and fans praised it. It was a game-changer in the superhero genre. It was also a truly female story. It was perfect as much as television can be perfect. That’s a tough act to follow.
So I went into Jessica Jones’ second season with the certainty that it wouldn’t be perfect. It’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle twice. Most critics pretty much agree that it wasn’t as good as season one. I can agree with some of their criticisms of the first five episodes (which were screened for press). The were pacing issues. Things ended on an anti-climax with the antagonist. It meandered in the beginning, but…I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
To me, Jessica Jones season two is more of a character meditation on Jessica. The central question for the characters this season centers around “Who am I?” For Jessica, we get the answer in a lot of different ways. We see how the world at large defines her. We see how those closest to her defines her. Most importantly, we see how Jessica defines herself. The plot, I feel, is secondary to this exploration of the show’s lead. Expanding outward from Jessica, the show also explores how her existence affects those around her in their lives and in their identities.
It is fascinating to watch how the world labels Jessica. Over the course of the series, she is called: hero, vigilante, super-lady, asshole, trouble, freak, freakshow, sister, daughter, boss, friend, monster, coward, competition, bitch. I’m leaving things out, of course. These are all labels for Jessica, who looks at herself through them. These are how others see her. Part of them also lead into how she sees herself. Let’s be real, we see ourselves as the world sees us.
How Jessica ends up seeing herself is the central question to the series. It is explored and examined through the 13 episodes. She wears all of these identities. She scares even herself. She wonders about her limits. She questions the kind of life that she wants to lead. She treats people kindly and badly. She treats herself like shit. As she puts it, the line keeps moving and she keeps crossing it. She needs to…redefine herself. The life she was living before, it can’t be sustained like this. Over the course of this season, Jessica does grow. We even see her make the attempt to try with others.
Jessica is a kind person in a world that made her hard. The incidents in her past that broke her are numerous and almost comically tragic. At this point, it almost seems like this was the only life Jessica could have led. Her fear holds her back, but, at times, those around her don’t help matters much. We’ll get to that in the moment.
Krysten Ritter shines as Jessica. Jessica Jones is her show. Ritter utterly inhabits the character to the point where any other character she plays just…falls away. She is Jessica. Yes, I’m still pissed that she was never nominated for an Emmy in season one. Her performance is nuanced as she moves from moment to moment. Ritter had a lot of input with showrunner Melissa Rosenberg on Jessica’s arc and character this season. It only serves to make the role feel even more lived in. If this season is a meditation and exploration of Jessica, then it feels right that Ritter had a hand in that. Those pacing issues? They disappear as Ritter commands the screen and effortlessly captures our attention. Ritter’s performance only challenges those around her to up their game.
Now back to how those around Jessica don’t help matters much. As I said before, the impact of Jessica’s mere existence is felt in her relationships. To strangers, she is a hero or a menace. Some see her as a force of good in the community. Others see her as a threat to their masculinity, to their way of life, to the city. They respond according with fear, condescension, and violence. To her friends, she’s a complicated figure in their lives. This is especially true for Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville).
Without going into spoilers, Jessica’s powers and hero status seem to ramp Trish up even further. Trish desperately wants to be a hero, wants to be special. Part of her sees Jessica wasting her powers on her life. Another part of her loves her sister. Her ambitions and her desire to be more than a faded child star, however, send her a journey that almost kills her and wrecks her relationship with Jessica. It’s not a bad thing to want to be more. Trish, however, is too black and white for the world of gray that Jessica inhabits. Hopefully, in future seasons, Trish will learn that hard lesson all too well. Right now, she’s almost smug in her self-righteousness. It’s only through Taylor’s performance that makes me not hate the character. Deep down, we know something in her is broken.
Poor Malcolm meanwhile continually gets the short end of the stick. He struggles for equality in a relationship that increasingly feels one-sided. Jessica continually pushes him away, but he’s still determined to help others. At one point, a character calls him the worst kind of person for his desire to do good, a sort of hypocrite that wants to feel special. Honestly, it feels like something more suited for Trish this season. Malcolm just wants something steady. He wants steady work. He wants schedules and order. He keeps Jessica on track. He doesn’t want to backslide into addiction. Don’t get me wrong, Malcolm is kind of mess. I think, however, that he’s self-aware to own his mess. That’s something that is really nice to see with a character.
As for the rest of the cast, Carrie Anne Moss is still coolly controlled as Jeri Hogarth. At times, however, her plot can feel very separate from the main action of the story. It’s still a very fascinating exploration. Like everyone else, she is trying to figure out who she is when she gets devastating news. In the aftermath, Jeri has to reconcile her life, her choices, and her legacy. It’s fascinating how far someone can go when they have nothing to lose.
The rest of the cast, especially Janet McTeer, are also on their A-game. Jessica Jones has no bad actors in the bunch. All of their chemistry is belivable and grounded. It feels like a real world that the characters inhabit. Unlike the other shows at times, Jessica Jones expands the MCU from back alley power surgeries to the first mention of the Raft in the Marvel/Netflix shows. It makes it feel like part of the world that we know, intellectually, it inhabits.
More importantly, the show reflects our real world. It was written before the explosion of #MeToo and Time’s Up, but it resonates in every corner of the show. I’m certain that Jessica Jones will spark a lot of social conversations about women who deal with the aftermath of trauma. I hope that this show can continue looking at and talking about those subjects in the meaningful way it has been.
All in all, Jessica Jones season two isn’t perfect. It is, however, a very strong second season. It’s more cohesive than Daredevil season two at least. Hopefully, this sets the tone for what follows in the other properties.