I have a new favorite show to recommend: Marvel’s Jessica Jones, just released in its entirety on Netflix. It’s technically a superhero show, but unlike any superhero show I’ve ever seen before.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a private eye living in the New York City neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. She doesn’t look intimidating, but she has superhuman strength: she can throw a man twice her size across a room, twist a padlock off a door with her bare hands, or jump so high and so far that people mistake it for flying. But she doesn’t have a code name or a colorful costume. She scrapes by on detective work, mostly trailing wealthy sleazeballs whose spouses suspect them of cheating, or serving legal papers on behalf of her off-again-on-again employer, an unscrupulous lawyer named Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss).
For all its superhero trappings, Jessica Jones has the moody atmosphere and gray-shading-to-black morality of classic film noir. Like other famously damaged protagonists, Jessica lives alone in a dingy apartment, drinks heavily, sleeps around, and is standoffish and rude to her few friends, especially the talk-show host Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) or the mysterious bartender Luke Cage (Mike Colter). But it’s not just an affectation; it soon becomes clear that it’s how she copes with a serious trauma in her past.
The nemesis of the series is a villain named Kilgrave (David Tennant), a chillingly debonair psychopath with the power to control minds. Anything he orders someone to do, they’ll do, without hesitation or resistance. Jessica was under his spell for a long time, until she escaped his clutches after an accident in which she thought he’d died. The things he made her do still haunt her, and it’s a chapter of her life she’d dearly like to forget. But a seemingly mundane case leads her to the discovery that Kilgrave is back. Worse, he’s obsessed with her, the only one who ever got away from him.
I’ll admit that I’ve been suffering from superhero fatigue, but Jessica Jones stands alone from others in the genre. For starters, it doesn’t have any of the tangled continuity that’s grown like kudzu on Marvel’s ever-more-complicated universe. Aside from a few passing allusions, the show stands on its own. What’s more, it’s psychologically complex and mature in the best possible way. It depicts Jessica’s PTSD realistically, without either fetishizing it or undermining her agency. Ritter gives a terrific performance: she’s vulnerable but not weak, hard to like but still sympathetic, and possessed of a well-hidden heart of gold beneath the calloused and sardonic exterior she presents to the world.
Something else I appreciated is that Jessica doesn’t make any of the impossible deductive leaps that are so common in fictional supersleuths. She solves problems with sheer dogged perseverance rather than chessmaster finesse, and the show lets her make mistakes and screw up. (Without too many spoilers, a major plot arc is Jessica’s attempt to capture Kilgrave so that she can prove his powers are real and exonerate a character imprisoned for committing murder under his control. The problem, which she never really solves, is that any effective means of containing Kilgrave would also make it impossible to demonstrate what he can do.)
And David Tennant may just be the best villain Marvel has ever put on screen. Even before he actually appears, Kilgrave is built up as a terrifying presence who casts a long shadow across Jessica’s life. When he does show up, he perfectly embodies the narcissism and sense of entitlement of someone who’s never needed to treat other people as anything other than playthings. But what I was most impressed by was how the show does the near-impossible: after introducing him as evil incarnate, it gradually reveals his background in order to humanize him, making it hard not to feel sympathy for him in spite of the awful things he’s done, then pivots yet again to reestablish him as a villain for the final act.
If anything put me off about Jessica Jones, it’s that there’s a lot of violence, some of it graphic verging on gratuitous, especially when it comes to the sadistic self-mutilations Kilgrave forces his victims to commit. However, there’s a refreshingly feminist sensibility that runs through it as well. Jessica is very much a survivor of an abusive relationship, and the show is fully conscious of that parallel. Kilgrave, for his part, is like a walking embodiment of privilege: he can go anywhere and do anything he wants, and his power makes him immune to consequences. (One of his signatures is ordering women to smile.) The show effectively uses him as a sharply drawn metaphor for responsibility and consent. And there’s a subplot about abortion that’s frank and free of regrets. After an endless parade of superhero shows that are one-dimensional, adolescent-male power fantasies, it’s a change of pace in the best possible way.