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.