It’s unclear who’s physically stronger between her and Luke Cage, but the title character of Jessica Jones is creatively the strongest hero Marvel has introduced across its six Netflix dramas. More powerful than a city cab and able to leap tall fire escapes in a single bound, she’s also hopelessly damaged from a lifetime of pain and loss, including the lengthy period of rape and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of mind-controlling supervillain Kilgrave, the big bad of the show’s first season.
“What are you?” a bewildered stranger asks in the second season after watching Jessica put her fist though his engine block.
“I’m angry,” she tells him. Really, it’s all you need to know.
But though the writing by Melissa Rosenberg (adapting a character created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos) and the performance of Krysten Ritter made Jessica into a riveting character, the show’s first season was — while easily the best of the Netflix Marvel shows, which unfortunately at this point is like saying the best Knicks GM of the 21st century — deeply uneven. Jessica was great, David Tenant’s Kilgrave made a terrifying opponent, and Rosenberg and company’s decision to turn their story into a rape parable (and at times a straightforward rape survivor story) suggested a thrilling new world of possibility for TV superhero dramas. But the “our season is really a 13-hour movie” approach served the show very poorly, with the Jessica vs Kilgrave story running out of steam well before the show was done trying to push it forward, leading to one of the dumbest plot twists in recent memory: Jessica has just defeated Kilgrave, but the season still has several episodes to go, so members of a Kilgrave survivor support group improbably turn into a vigilante goon squad that busts into Jessica’s office and sets their tormentor free.
All the Marvel Netflix shows suffer from this problem of having more episodes than story to fill them with — Luke Cage after six episodes? Wonderful. Luke Cage after 13? Oy. — but it was particularly frustrating with this one because the good parts were so very good while the dumb parts were so very bad, and also because Jessica’s day job as a private detective should have lent itself easily to doing some standalone episodes or shorter arcs to prevent Kilgrave fatigue.
The first season got everything it could out of Kilgrave, and then some, ending with Jessica breaking his neck to prevent him from continuing to hurt her or anyone else. While his arc ultimately ran too long, he was a superb nemesis, and such a deeply personal one that it was hard to imagine other villains living up to him.
Jessica finally returns to solo action (after a brief stint as the liveliest part of the mostly sluggish The Defenders, which isn’t referenced here because she was a tangential part of that story at best) with a second season that debuts next Thursday, and Kilgrave’s absence from the five episodes given to critics proves to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, that story had exhausted itself, and there was something too oppressive about him and his powers after a while, and season two feels a bit more relaxed without him. On the other, though, he was such an important part of her life — arguably its most defining figure other than herself — that the new episodes struggle to fill the emotional void left by his death.
Rosenberg and company try to compensate by focusing on the other great tragedy in Jessica’s past: the car accident that killed her parents and brother when he was a teenager, and which left her in a coma from which she emerged with super strength. Her best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) keeps pushing her to look into the circumstances that led to her powers, insisting Jessica has other reasons to feel hurt.
“I think there’s more to it than just Kilgrave,” she argues, when all Jessica wants to do is drink, insult people, and have meaningless hookups at the end of the night.
It’s one thing to say other parts of her past are as important as Kilgrave, and another thing to show it, and the early parts of season two mostly fall down on that part. It’s a more meandering stretch of episodes, resembling parts of Daredevil‘s second season (which also struggled to move beyond a debut arc involving that character’s archenemy), slowly — verrrrry slowly — unraveling the mystery of what happened while Jessica was in the coma and why other people with powers are turning up dead, all while leaning even more on supporting characters like Trish (whose toxic relationship with her stage mom, played by Rebecca de Mornay, resumes), imperious lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), and sidekick Malcolm (Eka Darville) than is advisable.
The great British actress Janet McTeer turns up playing essentially Dark Jessica — or, given our heroine’s self-destructive streak and manner of speaking (“Go beat off in the corner,” she tells a rival, “’cause I don’t give a dead moose’s last shit”), Darker Jessica. Pitting heroes against a fractured mirror version of themselves is a pretty common comic book trope (see Black Panther, which also features a villain with “kill” in his name), but — perhaps overcompensating for season one’s excessive Kilgrave focus — her character and Jessica cross paths so little that it’s hard to judge if she’ll be an effective replacement, or even the season’s true villain at all. (Remember when The Defenders utterly wasted Sigourney Weaver as a red herring? Good times.) Where season one was very clearly about control, consent, and moving on after trauma, season two seems to be casting about for a unifying idea beyond the notion that damage doesn’t just go away when the root cause of it does.
Ritter is so charismatic, and so good at toggling between sarcasm and outright pain, that a lot of this is more watchable than it should be, given the glacial pace at which the plot moves and the amount of time spent on lesser characters and filler stories. But the overall trend for this cluster of shows is worrisome. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage all burst out of the gate strong before fading later in their debut seasons. Iron Fist was a miscalculation on every level, while Defenders, The Punisher, and now this new Jessica season haven’t even managed the strong start.
This is now the eighth season of this collaboration between studio and streaming service. Anyone expecting some kind of radical change in approach and execution at this point is like one of those saps who kept being surprised when Frank Underwood stabbed them in the back on another Netflix drama. But these shows, and this one in particular, are good just often enough that it’s hard not to feel like they should be capable of that more frequently. In both the comic books and the TV show, Jessica Jones is held up by her friends and enemies alike as a textbook case of wasted potential; it would be a shame if the TV show named after her ends up the same way.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.