2015 has been an interesting year for Marvel Studios and the MCU. The ever-expanding franchise's movie wing struggled this year, closing out the otherwise excellent Phase II with the overstuffed Avengers: Age of Ultron and the underbaked Ant-Man, two very different movies whose single shared trait is how definitively they demonstrate that Marvel isn't interested in--is, in fact, terrified of--letting women take center stage in its movies. The TV arm, meanwhile, premiered three very interesting--if, ultimately, imperfect--projects, all of whom gave more space to women and people of color than the movies seemingly ever will. Agent Carter finally gave one the MCU's most magnetic characters (and performers) her own platform, though the show struggled to find something to do with its protagonist, or, with one important exception, to surround her with equally interesting supporting characters. Daredevil is easily the most experimental--visually and structurally--thing that Marvel has produced, and features one of its best villains, even if it the show as a whole lacks a coherent, interesting story. And now, just as the year winds to a close, Marvel's partnership with Netflix delivers what is not only its best TV series thus far, but a work that would easily rank near the top of any list of the MCU's properties--Jessica Jones.
Based on the comic by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones's eponymous heroine (Krysten Ritter) is a hard-drinking, self-destructive private detective with (thus far unexplained) super-strength. In the pilot episode, Jessica is hired to track down a missing girl, and as she traces her footsteps she realizes that the girl has been taken by Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man with mind-control powers who held Jessica, compelling her to act as his girlfriend and commit crimes on his behalf, for months, leaving her shattered and suffering from PTSD. When Kilgrave compels his latest victim to commit a gruesome murder on Jessica's doorstep, she vows to hunt him down and stop him.
At its most basic level, the genius of Jessica Jones is that this is all it's about. This small, intimate, self-contained story, whose parameters are the polar opposite of the globe-spanning stories and world-destroying stakes that the MCU usually delivers. Kilgrave, a narcissist who cares only for his own pleasure, has neither the power nor, really, any interest in ruling or destroying the world. He's only a danger to the people unlucky enough to cross his path. For those people, though, he is a nightmare. In one scene, we see him order a man to "cross the street, face that fence, and stay there forever." The next time we see the poor man, hours later, he's still facing the fence, his face a rictus of horror. Jessica's goal, meanwhile, isn't to kill Kilgrave (which she is actually in the position to do, with relatively little difficulty, several times throughout the course of the season) but to prove the existence of his powers and thus the innocence of the people who have been left holding the bag for the crimes he ordered them to commit--chiefly Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty), the young woman Jessica was hired to find in the pilot. Most MCU movies and shows struggle to find a challenge worthy of their heroes, but by making the stakes of its story so personal Jessica Jones delivers something that strikes at the heart far more powerfully than the near-destruction of the planet in Age of Ultron. The evil that Kilgrave does, though localized, is viscerally horrifying. The fact that he will almost certainly get away with it, unless Jessica manages to outsmart him, is enraging. By the time its pilot episode ends, Jessica Jones has got us irresistibly on the hook--we need Jessica to defeat Kilgrave in a way that no other MCU story has managed.
It's a good thing that Jessica Jones has such an ironclad story, because on a technical level, it is rarely more than OK. It feels, in fact, like the exact mirror image of Daredevil, a show whose first season was misshapen and badly paced, but whose individual moments--scenes like Karen's confrontation with Wesley, Matt's conversations with Father Lantom, or the famous hallway fight--remain etched in memory. There are no moments on this level in Jessica Jones, but creator Melissa Rosenberg and her writers manage what Daredevil didn't, to structure their season in a way that is impeccably paced, never letting up on the story while still giving the audience room to breathe (unlike Daredevil, whose lopsided structure made it ideal for binge-watching, Jessica Jones would probably have worked just as well as a weekly series). Visually, too, Jessica Jones lacks Daredevil's flourishes, its use of repeating visual motifs, of color and texture, and of course its amazing fight choreography (this last one is somewhat justified, because Kilgrave is not a fighter and Jessica relies more on brute strength than skill, but it's still a shame that the show's action scenes are so lackluster). None of this is a dealbreaker--again, all this serviceable yet unremarkable writing is working to move the plot along, and does so perfectly--but in a year in which Netflix has repeatedly pushed the envelope in terms of what television is capable of, delivering not just Daredevil but also Sense8, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Master of None, it's a bit disappointing that Jessica Jones looks and sounds so conventional.
This is not to say, however, that Jessica Jones is only conventional. If the show lacks its own style, it more than makes up for it by having a very definite point of view--that of a show by, about, and for women. This goes all the way down to the smallest details, such as the fact that bit parts that in almost any other series would have been filled by men almost as a matter of course--roles like a courier delivering a package, a guest on a radio talk show, or a drug dealer--are here played by women. Or the fact that the show casts many of its recurring and guest roles with middle-aged characters actresses like Carrie-Anne Moss, Robin Weigert, Jessica Hecht, and Rebecca De Mornay. Or the fact that it features three gay women. Even closer to the core of its story, the show continues to prioritize female characters and female relationships. Its central relationship is between Jessica and her foster-sister Trish (Rachael Taylor), and though both women have romantic subplots--Jessica with handsome bar owner Luke Cage (Mike Colter, whose own MCU Netflix series will debut next year); Trish with police officer Will Simpson (Wil Traval), another of Kilgrave's victims who tries to join Jessica's fight against him--ultimately both of these men are treated as sideshows to the season's main love story between the two sisters.
And then, of course, there's the thing that everyone has been talking about, the fact that Jessica Jones is explicitly, unabashedly, a show about rape, abuse, and recovering from them. In the original comics Kilgrave was a supervillain who used his control of Jessica to get her to betray the Avengers. The show quite wisely gives him a more personal, and thus more revolting, motive. Kilgrave claims to be in love with Jessica, but really he wants to possess her, and the things he does to get her attention--from sending Hope to destroy herself in front of her, to placing a spy in her building, to targeting the people she cares about like Trish and Luke--are designed to isolate her and play on her feelings of guilt and self-loathing. The real danger to Jessica throughout the season is not that Kilgrave might kill her--which he does not want to do--but that she might buy into his toxic worldview, become convinced that his "love" for her is real, or at least the best that she could ever hope for after everything he's done to her and made her do. Kilgrave's power becomes a metaphor for the entitled narcissism of an abuser, who sees other people only in terms of what they can do for him, and is incapable of recognizing that they are real people with real feelings.
As brilliant as Kilgrave is as a portrait of an abuser, what's even more brilliant about Jessica Jones is that he is not the only abusive character on screen, and that unlike him, the others are less obviously monstrous even as they cause tremendous damage. Moss, for example, plays high-powered attorney Jeri Hogarth, who is leaving her wife, Wendy (Weigert), for her secretary. When the divorce turns acrimonious, Hogarth enlists Kilgrave's help in getting her wife to back down from her demands, with predictably horrible results. Unlike Kilgrave, Hogarth is not a sociopath, and yet when she's confronted with the consequences of her actions, she retreats into the same justifications that Kilgrave offers. "You told me to handle it," she tells her mistress, who was forced to kill Hogarth's wife in self-defense. "I didn't do anything. You chose to pick up that thing and crush her skull."
Even more interesting is the story the show gives Simpson, who nearly kills Trish under Kilgrave's orders, and is then driven by his guilt over this to join Jessica's campaign against Kilgrave. On another show, Simpson might be the hero. His actions while under Kilgrave's control are just bad enough to make him seem dangerous, but not so bad as to make him look unattractively vulnerable (in other words, he hurts other people, but he never compromises his own masculinity). He's driven by guilt over hurting a woman, but this doesn't stop her from embarking on a romantic relationship with him. But because the show is Jessica and Trish's story, Simpson's determination to redeem himself, while understandable and even sympathetic, comes off as pushy and entitled, and as the season draws on he keeps throwing up red flags that, on their own, can be explained and excused, but which taken together paint a picture of a man who is driven primarily by the need to protect his own brittle self-image. It's understandable that Simpson would want to apologize to Trish, but the fact that he insists that she allow him to do this, camping out on her doorstep for hours, is more worrying. It's understandable that Simpson would feel that his special ops background makes him uniquely qualified to fight Kilgrave, but the fact that, once Jessica refuses him, he starts badmouthing her to Trish behind her back feels like a deliberate tactic. It's understandable that Simpson would disagree with Jessica about whether it's more important to kill Kilgrave or help his falsely-accused victims, but the fact that he tries to sabotage her attempts to do the latter feels like it's more about satisfying his needs than doing the right thing.
By the season's final stretch, it becomes clear that what's driving Simpson is his inability to accept that he was made to lose control of himself. Which is, again, understandable and sympathetic, but his method of dealing with this is to cede control--to the scientists who experimented on him in the army, giving him a drug that turns him into a monster of rage and adrenalin. This is important, because the image that a lot of abusers project--and which the public discourse around abuse often buys into--is that they are slaves to their own rage. This is how Simpson excuses his behavior after the drugs he takes lead him to attack Trish and Jessica. But the truth is that Simpson gave himself permission to lose control when he chose to take those drugs, and that he continues to make that choice even after seeing its destructive consequences, all because he can't face up to the fact that he might be powerless before people like Kilgrave--and Jessica.
What makes Jessica Jones worth watching, however, is that it's not just a show about fascinating but horrible people. Hogarth, Simpson, and Kilgrave exist, in part, to offer a contrast to the main story of the show, which is about people who are trying to overcome abuse without becoming abusers themselves. This they achieve with varying degrees of success--indeed, it's one of the show's smartest choices to feature a wide variety of abuse survivors, with varying coping strategies. They range from the seemingly together (yet perhaps not so stable) Trish, a do-gooder who has the heart of a superhero even if she doesn't have the strength; to Jessica's neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville), who wants to continue to believe in people's goodness but struggles with the effects of Kilgrave's influence on him, and with the question of whether he chose to obey his orders; to Hope, who descends into nihilism after Kilgrave makes her out to be a monster, but is galvanized by Jessica's belief in her to keep fighting. And then of course, there's Jessica herself, whose responses to Kilgrave's abuse are deeply conflicted and self-contradictory, never purely good or bad. She self-medicates with alcohol, engages in risky behavior, and refuses to get treatment for her PTSD, but her destructiveness is only ever pointed inwards--even in her darkest moments, she rarely loses enough control to hurt others indiscriminately. And while her determination to fight for Kilgrave's victims seems admirable, it is also clearly an act of projection. Jessica is so determined to prove the innocence of Kilgrave's other victims, and to convince them that they are not responsible for what he made them do, because she holds herself to too high a standard to ever forgive herself for doing the same.
That Jessica's reaction to abuse is so multifaceted--and rarely purely heroic--feels important given the fraught history that the superhero genre has with trauma and abuse. Most superheroes, after all, originate in acts of abuse, trauma, and violation, from Batman's murdered parents to the human experimentation that produced Captain America. And many supervillains are, equally, victims of abuse or experimentation who have reacted violently and vengefully to their violation. Superhero stories thus often fall into the trap of fetishizing abuse, usually while ignoring its systemic causes, and even more disturbingly, of drawing arbitrary and unrealistic distinctions between the "right" and "wrong" reactions that victims have to it. That Jessica does not respond to being raped and violated in the correct way, while still behaving heroically and selflessly, is an important reminder that there is no "good" way to respond to abuse, and more importantly, that abuse is not a means to an end, as too many superhero stories end up implicitly suggesting. And the fact that Jessica is struggling to find a way to overcome her experiences without losing herself to them lends moral weight to her words when she chastises others for not doing the same--as opposed to other superhero stories, in which deeply privileged heroes lecture traumatized victims about the need to let go of their anger.
In fact, if there's a single problem with the show's handling of Jessica, it is that it doesn't go far enough in depicting the ugliness that would almost have to result from the trauma she's endured. Ritter is more than game, but Jessica Jones seems a little afraid to make her into the anti-hero that it keeps telling us that she is. Despite her self-destructiveness and bad attitude, Jessica is a deeply compassionate, selfless person, who spends most of the season trying to help near-strangers, and who never quite seems to earn the disdain and exasperation that so many of the show's characters direct towards her. Even Jessica's alcoholism, which is referred to frequently throughout the season, feels like an informed trait. We keep seeing her down drinks, but at no point does her supposed addiction get in the way of her quest. (It doesn't help that Ritter simply does not look like a woman who has been living at the bottom of a bottle for the better part of a year.)
Paradoxically, the moments when Jessica does do things that are beyond the pale are underplayed and minimized by the show. In a moment of crisis, she attacks and nearly kills Wendy Hogarth, but she also saves her life at the last minute, and anyway this attempted murder feels less important after Hogarth's own actions get Wendy killed. More importantly, early in the season we learn that the thing that most haunts Jessica about her time with Kilgrave is the fact that he made her kill a woman, who turns out to be Luke's wife. Obsessed with this guilt, Jessica begins stalking Luke, and finally embarks on a sexual relationship with him without telling him about their connection. When Luke learns the truth, he voices his disgust in terms that seem deliberately reminiscent of the accusations of sexual abuse that Jessica makes to Kilgrave: "You slept with me. ... You let me be inside you. You touched me with the same hands that killed my wife." And yet for the rest of the season, the fact that Jessica chose, of her own free will, to commit this violation against Luke is never discussed, and everyone behaves as if the thing Jessica has to feel guilty about is the act she couldn't control, killing Luke's wife, and not the one she could. At the end of the season, Claire even encourages Luke to give his relationship with Jessica another shot.
It's hard to escape the feeling that Jessica Jones is afraid to let its heroine be truly bad and off-putting. The things that supposedly make her an anti-hero are actually extremely sympathetic traits, while the actual wrongs she commits are not sufficiently acknowledged. This feels particularly important because next season, the show isn't going to have Kilgrave to kick around any more. Without that brilliant, deeply resonant story, Jessica Jones is going to have to rely more strongly on its title character, and I'm not convinced that it has enough faith in her--or in the audience's willingness to accept her as a protagonist even if she does things that are ugly and un-heroic. If that happens, we'll still have this brilliant first season, and the fact that it finally found a strong, compelling story to tell within the MCU, but I'd like to believe that the best show Marvel has produced has more life in it than just one story.
 In fact, the only real problem with the show's premise is that it inadvertently makes SHIELD look completely useless. Kilgrave, as we learn by the end of the season, has been leaving a trail of dead bodies and broken lives behind him for decades, and yet the organization whose job it was to deal with people like him never even noticed he existed. Given my growing disgust with SHIELD, however, I'm inclined to view this as more of a feature than a bug.↩
 The show is also good at filling its street scenes and backgrounds with a mix that reflects the actual New York's diversity, and two of the main characters are played by black men, but women of color fare less well. Only one female character of any importance is played by a person of color--Daredevil transplant Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson)--and she only appears in one episode.↩
 Tennant is unsurprisingly excellent in the role, but it's hard to shake the conviction that Rosenberg cast him as Kilgrave primarily because of his status as a beloved geek icon, the better to puncture certain toxic habits of thought in that community, such as the tendency to excuse and apologize for the entitled, self-absorbed behavior of white, male characters.↩
 Another important aspect of the Simpson subplot is the fact that Trish continues to buy into his self-presentation as a good man who was made evil by drugs. The show positions Trish as the stable, healthy counterpoint to Jessica's self-destruction, someone who has processed and gotten past her own history of child abuse even as Jessica remains trapped by her various traumas. But the fact that she falls for Simpson's manipulations suggests that she's just as damaged as Jessica--and reminds us of how pernicious those manipulations are.↩
 It also helps that Jessica's powers are not the result of Kilgrave's abuse, though the season strongly suggests that they originate in illegal experimentation, another kind of abuse to which Kilgrave was also subjected.↩
 In a way, Jessica Jones is a victim of its timing. In any other year, it would be revolutionary simply for being female-focused and for touching on issues of trauma and abuse. But in 2015, which also gave us Mad Max: Fury Road, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and UnREAL--all female-focused works that touch on similar topics as Jessica Jones--it's easier to notice that its execution, though still very fine, falls short of the others.↩