Jessica Jones season two debuted yesterday on Netflix. I found the first five episodes pretty underwhelming, with the usual Netflix/Marvel flabbiness on display, and without the presence of David Tennant as Kilgrave to compensate.
Now I’ve watched the whole season, and I have a lot of additional thoughts on it — starting off with an overall assessment of things for those still on the fence, followed by spoilers galore for those who’ve watched it all — coming up just as soon as I steal you a pony with an annoyingly cute name…
DOES IT GET BETTER?
To my pleasant surprise, this turns out to be the first season of any of these shows to have a stronger second half than a first — albeit within limits.
In time, something is revealed about Janet McTeer’s character that significantly complicates her rivalry with Jessica, and the interaction between McTeer and Krysten Ritter is at times even more interesting than between Ritter and Tennant, because there are many more layers to the thing that links them. The season is still absurdly padded, with nonsensical plot twists to stretch things out, and/or tedious character arcs about the supporting cast, but the Ritter/McTeer scenes cover for an awful lot of it by the end.
(Full season spoilers follow, so bail out now if you haven’t finished, or even started.)
LIKE LOOKING IN A MIRROR
The first few episodes with McTeer suggest she’s playing a botched early experiment by the same people responsible for giving Jessica her powers — a pretty familiar supervillain origin.
At the end of the sixth episode (the first one Netflix didn’t give to critics, no doubt to preserve this twist), she’s instead revealed to be Jessica’s mother Alyssa, who didn’t die in the car accident that killed the rest of the family. The core idea is the same — Alyssa is a less stable, less presentable version of our heroine (which, considering Jessica’s usual behavior… yikes) — but now with the enormous complication that this is the mom Jessica has been grieving for years, and whom she’ll therefore cut an extreme degree of slack.
Jessica’s roller coaster of emotions about her mother (not to be confused with the Ferris wheel on which they spend their final moments together) improves one of season one’s biggest weak spots. Last time out, the trend of “Jessica has finally captured Kilgrave! ZOMG, he got away again!” grew tired very quickly, despite how good Ritter and Tennant were together. There are definitely some contortions this season has to go through to keep Alyssa in play as long as it does, but most of them are driven by character (Jessica changes her mind about turning in her mom) rather than plot (like the support group charging into Jessica’s office and inadvertently setting Kilgrave free), and those tend to be more effective.
More importantly, Alyssa being Jessica’s mother gives vastly more dramatic heft to Jessica’s season-long concern about having executed Kilgrave. The hero — or even the ordinary-ish person — who doesn’t want to think of themselves as a killer isn’t an unreasonable character arc, but the use of it in the season’s early episodes suggested it wasn’t enough on its own to carry 13 episodes. But when you layer recognizable mother/daughter issues on top of that — almost every child worries about inheriting some trait from their parents — then it starts to feel real and powerful in the same way that turning the Jessica/Kilgrave rivalry into a rape survivor story did for season one.
There are plenty of moments where Melissa Rosenberg and company lay the ideas on really thick — Alyssa’s stolen clothes in the last couple of episodes looking straight out of Jessica’s wardrobe, the Jones women getting a chance to rescue a family from a car accident exactly like the one that literally tore apart their family — but on the whole, Jessica reuniting with, and then losing, her mom made the season much more effective emotionally than the early episodes suggested.
Kilgrave did come back — in the only way he should have.
Superhero stories have a long tradition of death being meaningless for pretty much everyone but Spider-Man’s uncle Ben (even Bucky eventually came back). Though Jessica Jones takes place in the same universe as all the Avengers movies, it aspires to a more realistic tone (or a realistic as you can get when super strength and mind control are involved), so bringing Kilgrave back to life after Jessica snapped his neck would undercut an awful lot of what makes the show work and matter. (Alyssa’s resurrection is allowable because her “death” took place long before the show began, and also exhausts the series’ license to bring back the dead.) So the only way for more Kilgrave would be either a flashback to the awful period when he had Jessica under his control (which season one already covered), or doing what the season’s eleventh episode did, and bringing him back as a negative voice in Jessica’s head, tormenting her about the latest terrible decision she’s made.
Making him a figment that Jessica knows is a figment allows the show to dramatize her damaged, self-loathing psyche — and the way the horrors he inflicted on her will never entirely disappear — in a more entertaining way, and also gives the viewer more license to take pleasure in Tennant’s performance and all the nasty dialogue the writers give him, since he’s not really there and Jessica ultimately has full control of the situation: he pops up when she doesn’t want him to, but she’s eventually able to banish him from her thoughts(*). And delaying his entrance until the season’s nearly over prevents him from overshadowing the Jessica/Alyssa relationship too much.
(*) Tennant’s so good, I wouldn’t mind if season three turned into a version of The Leftovers season two, where Kilgrave keeps following Jessica around, no matter what she tries.