Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Strong Female Characters: Thoughts on Jessica Jones's Second Season

It's a bit strange, coming back to Jessica Jones two and a half years after its first season.  When that remarkable, groundbreaking story dropped, it--and the Netflix MCU project of which it was only the second chapter--felt like a breath of fresh air, a genuine breakthrough in how superhero stories could function on TV.  If Daredevil's first season suggested how a long-form superhero story could combine psychological realism, an adult handling of politics and economics, and one of the MCU's first successful villains, but still struggled to wrap all those up in a compelling story, Jessica Jones's first season seemed to perfect the formula.  It delivered all those traits, and a story that was nearly impeccable, and a wrenching examination of rape culture, trauma, and the way that our system is designed to let abusers thrive and find new victims.[1]  With Luke Cage, the MCU's first black headliner, making a guest appearance on the show in preparation for his own series, it seemed clear that the Netflix MCU project would be a sophisticated, politically-aware, mature alternative to other superhero stories.

Two and a half years later, the bloom is decidedly off the rose.  It's been genuinely dismaying to watch Netflix squander the promise of those first two seasons, as each follow-up show has wallowed in similar flaws of poor pacing, dull writing, and a limited emotional palette that now feels less like a conscious stylistic choice, and more like a lack of imagination.  We've had Luke Cage (promising in points but undone in its second half), the second season of Daredevil (utterly forgettable), Iron Fist (misconceived from start to finish), and The Punisher (didn't bother to watch).  And all this was in service of the alleged culminating event of this entire project, The Defenders, which arrived like a damp squib on our screens last summer and disappeared from public consciousness almost as quickly.

So Jessica Jones's second season, the first offering in Netflix MCU's phase two, arrives burdened with the need to demonstrate this entire project's long-term viability.  And that's on top of the show's own burden of expectations.  As practically everyone--myself included--pointed out in 2015, the Kilgrave arc that gave that season its shape would be a tough act to follow.  It would be nearly impossible to come up with a villain who could have the same emotional resonance for Jessica, and the same metaphorical weight for the viewers, as David Tennant's mind-controlling psychopath.

Wisely, then, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and her writers decided not to try.  The second season of Jessica Jones is a much more diffuse affair than its first.  Each of its four main characters--Jessica, Trish, Malcolm, and Jeri Hogarth--gets their own storyline and character arc, and while the season's villain has a personal connection to Jessica that echoes Kilgrave's, it's also different in ways that end up being revealing of Jessica and her personal journey.  The result feels a lot less like a superhero story than a crime drama about people who have superpowers.  It's also a less explicitly feminist story than the first season, focusing less on the way that society and its systems enable the abuse of women.  Instead, the second season's feminism is expressed through its being a story that allows its characters--who are mostly women--to be fully-rounded people, who get to act and direct their lives, even in spheres where one rarely gets to see female characters.[2]  The result isn't as explosively great as the first season, and it suffers from some by-now familiar Netflix flaws.  But it's often quite good, and at points a rich, rewarding examination of its unique premise.

Picking up an unspecified amount of time after the first season[3], which ended with Jessica killing Kilgrave in order to protect Trish and many other victims, season two finds our heroine more or less where we left her: still a self-destructive, alcoholic mess, still taking cheating-spouse cases to pay the bills, and still resisting Malcolm and Trish's exhortations to more fully engage with the community, and use her powers and skills in a heroic capacity.  One complication is the fact that a lot of people now know that Jessica has powers, and that she killed Kilgrave in cold blood and got away with it.  In another sort of story this might make her a folk hero, but in Jessica Jones it makes her a marginalized figure, who is often greeted with fear or contempt.  When a client tries to hire Jessica to kill her cheating partner, she responds to Jessica's indignation by pointing to Kilgrave's death and arguing that Jessica is neither a hero nor a vigilante, but just a common killer.  Jessica's response--"a hero would have you locked up for soliciting a murder; a vigilante would beat the shit out of you.  Now, which one am I?"--establishes the core question she will spend the season trying to answer: who, and what, is Jessica Jones?  But it also establishes the show's own ambivalence towards strength and violence, an ambivalence that is fairly unique in the superhero genre.

Superhero stories, after all, run on violence, on the assumption that it can be justifiable and even redemptive, and that some people have the right and moral authority to deploy it.  The Netflix MCU shows poke a little at these assumptions, but Jessica Jones goes the farthest, when it depicts violence as not just corrosive to the soul, but as something that can put you outside the bounds of normal society.  Unlike Matt Murdock, Jessica can't compartmentalize her capacity for violence and present a civilized face to the world (in part because she doesn't have a heroic alter-ego).  And unlike the Punisher, she is trying to participate in society, and is bothered when she's seen as unfit for that participation.

An early storyline in the second season involves Jessica clashing with a more polished, more professional private investigator, Pryce Cheng (Terry Chen), who unbeknownst to her was dispatched by Hogarth to get Jessica working for her indirectly.  When Cheng uses strong-arm tactics to convince Jessica to work for him, she initially tries to outsmart him, but it doesn't take him very long to provoke her into real, terrifying violence.  The narrative trains us to be on Jessica's side--especially because Cheng has been such an ass until this point--but the reactions of the other characters, as well as the consequences for Jessica (she gets probation and is sent to an anger management class, which as several characters point out is actually a very light sentence) remind us that this is not how people who want to be allowed to participate in society get to behave.  Jessica, meanwhile, is left to wonder whether she is, as Cheng and others insist, "an animal", which triggers her lifelong feelings of self-loathing.[4]

The themes of violence, the allure of power, and the self-loathing of those who exercise it recur throughout all of the season's character arcs.  Trish's storyline builds on the first season's suggestion that she envies Jessica's powers.  Though initially content to make a difference as a reporter--she starts the season pursuing the company that experimented on Jessica and gave her powers--it soon becomes clear that Trish's need for meaning runs deeper, and is rooted in her addictive personality and the abusive childhood that created it.  When last season's secondary villain Simpson bequeaths her a batch of his performance-enhancing drugs, Trish happily indulges in them, and in her fantasy of being a superhero.  But the show refuses to sugarcoat how she expresses her newfound capacity for violence--it shows her trolling city buses for "villains" to beat up, or slapping her (admittedly horrible) mother in the face.  By the end of the season, Trish's need to be the hero has her hurting herself--tracking down the doctor who gave Jessica her powers so that he can perform the same procedure on her--and others--lying to Jessica and betraying her trust, and attacking Malcolm when he tries to stop her.

Jeri and Malcolm's storylines are more subtle, but no less brutal in their exploration of how power can be abused.  Jeri starts the season by receiving a diagnosis of ALS, which she takes as cosmic retribution for causing the death of her wife in the first season.  When her partners try to use her health as an excuse to push her out of their firm, however, Jeri's instincts for survival and dominance kick in.  She starts out looking for blackmail material, continues by trying to find the experimental treatments used on Jessica, which she thinks could cure her, and ends by orchestrating a murder.

Malcolm, meanwhile, has always been held up as the show's one true innocent, but even in the first season there were hints that underlying his do-gooder persona there was a core of selfishness.  In the second season this is more clearly exposed, as in a scene in which Malcolm pretends to apologize to his ex-girlfriend for his toxic behavior when he was on drugs, but is really trying to steal her access card for a case.  Of course, selfishness isn't always an evil, and certainly not in a universe as rife with abusers and manipulators as Jessica Jones.  The person who first calls Malcolm out on his selfishness, for example, turns out to be a grifter who scams Jeri by promising to use superpowers to cure her illness.  Being able to protect yourself from people like that is an asset, but Malcolm's selfishness can also mean that his dynamic with Jessica very easily turns toxic.  He presents himself as her loyal, long-suffering assistant, but when she fails to reciprocate his attentions in the ways he expects, he lashes out in ways that can't fail to trigger her low self-esteem.[5]

And then there's the season's villain, Alisa (Janet McTeer), a fellow subject of the experiments that produced Jessica's powers, who starts killing the other subjects and doctors when Trish's investigation gets too close.  The first half of the season is spent in Jessica's pursuit of this woman, but the entire story is overturned when she turns out to be Jessica's mother, who also survived the accident that killed their family.  Like Jessica, Alisa is super-strong, and prone to outbursts of rage.  But she has no control over them, and commits wholesale slaughter several times throughout the season.  McTeer gives a magnificent performance--really, the opportunity to watch her and Krysten Ritter, hands down the strongest headliner in the Netflix MCU's roster, go head to head on everything from fights to philosophical debates to tender moments to exasperated mother-and-grown-up-daughter clashes is worth the price of admission all on its own.  But the writing is right there for her, crafting a character who is still all too rare on our screens--a strong, scary middle-aged woman who is still human and sympathetic.

The season avoids the too-common pitfalls of strong female characters--Alisa isn't sexualized (though she does have a love interest who clearly finds her strength very attractive) or fetishized.  Her power isn't made cool just because she's a woman.  The show is very clear on the fact that she's an unrepentant killer who often can't control her rages.  But it also makes clear that much of Alisa's anti-social personality comes down to the person she was before she got powers, and that she and Jessica share a certain caustic, abrasive personality that has nothing to do with their powers or traumas.  At points, it can become hard to tell where the prickly woman ends and the killing machine begins.  In one delirious scene, Alisa relentlessly upbraids a cab driver for texting while driving, becoming, in an instant, the epitome of the opinionated, self-righteous suburban mom she once was.  When Jessica, frantic that the cabbie is going to get his head torn off, gets out of the car, Alisa refuses to apologize, insisting that "I was in the right".

In the middle of the season, Jessica spends several episodes trying to protect Alisa from the world, while simultaneously protecting the world from Alisa.  It's interesting to compare these episodes to a similar arc in the first season, in which Jessica agreed to live with Kilgrave and try to reform (or at least control) him--a comparison that Jessica makes herself in the season finale.  In both seasons, these arcs are the fullest expression of the core contradiction of Jessica's character--it's never clear whether her decision to shackle herself to mentally-unbalanced killers is rooted more in her innate heroism and sense of responsibility, or in her deep-seated belief that she doesn't deserve any better.

As we keep seeing, Jessica is capable of profound compassion and forgiveness.  There is hardly a single fuck-up or loser she meets whom she doesn't try to understand and extend sympathy to, whether it's gently trying to break the news to Hogarth that the cure she'd been pinning her hopes on is a scam (and urging her to believe that "you don't deserve this", even though any reasonable person would agree that Jeri probably does, in fact, deserve it), or reassuring a mother whose custodial kidnapping she's just thwarted that she'll always come first in her son's life.[6]  But she can never extend that compassion to herself, and it finally becomes unclear whether her kindness isn't just a facet of her self-loathing--does she forgive others because she doesn't feel worthy of judging them?[7]

In the first season, it was easy to dismiss Kilgrave's offer of an outlet from Jessica's feelings of guilt and unworthiness--in the guise of self-actualization, what he was actually urging Jessica to do was give up on herself.  Alisa, however, makes a more complicated offer.  Besides not being a sadist, she clearly cares about Jessica as her own person, not just a reflection of herself, and does her some real good when she, for example, insists that Jessica wasn't responsible for the accident that killed their family.  So when she finally insists that Jessica abandon her rigid, and perhaps unsustainable, moral code for one that allows her to forgive herself and live her life--"I do what I have to, and the only way to live with it is not to wallow in it"--it's hard not to feel that she might have a point.  We've spent the season watching the entire cast spiral into cycles of self-loathing and abusive behavior, which leads to more self-loathing, which leads to more abusive behavior because after all, they're already such horrible people.  It's hard not to feel that at least some of Alisa's give-no-fucks attitude might do Jessica, and the show's other characters, a lot of good.

What's interesting is that Jessica actually listens.  It's easy to miss this, because she remains, as I said, a self-destructive drunk who does some really stupid and in some cases unforgivable things, but over the course of the second season Jessica is the most stable, right-thinking member of the cast, and the one who makes the most progress towards recovery and well-being.  She listens when Alisa tells her that she isn't to blame for her family's deaths.  She seeks a detente with Cheng and with her new building supervisor, Oscar (J.R. Ramirez), where in the past their accusations that she is nothing but a source and magnet for chaos might have sent her straight to the bottle.[8]  There's a plot twist late in the season where Jessica starts looking into a prison guard who has been abusing Alisa, and ends up killing him when he finds her in his house and attacks her.  It's a rather poorly done story, too quickly introduced and then gotten rid of, and quite possibly existing solely in order to give the season an excuse to bring David Tennant back as a voice in Jessica's head telling her that now they're the same.  But it's still gratifying to see Jessica realize that this is wrong, that unlike both Kilgrave and Alisa she is capable of choosing not to kill, even if she sometimes falls short of that standard.

Perhaps the most important sign of growth on Jessica's part is that she ends the season cutting Malcolm and Trish out of her life.  I'm not entirely sure that the show intends me to see this as a positive step--pop culture, and superhero stories in particular, are obsessed with the notion of "the team", whose members forgive each other all sorts of codependent, manipulative behavior.  But for Jessica to have enough sense of her own worth to draw boundaries with both of the people closest to her feels like a huge step forward to me.  I don't doubt that Malcolm and Trish will be back in her life sooner or later, but for the time being it feels very encouraging that when Jessica realizes, at the end of the season, that she's left herself completely alone, her response isn't to reach out to Malcolm or Trish, but to go upstairs to Oscar's apartment, and try to forge a new, healthier connection.

If I have one substantial complaint about the second season of Jessica Jones it is that all this fine character work is wrapped in a plot structure that is shapeless, and storytelling that is perfunctory at best.  The second half the season, after Jessica learns the truth about Alisa's identity, starts out like gangbusters, and devolves into tedium as the show keeps repeating the same plot points over and over in an attempt to run out the clock.  One can almost see the writers realizing that they've run out of plot with three more episodes left in the season, and piling on additional complications that feel pulled out of nowhere.  In the last two and a half years we've spilled barrels of virtual ink about the problems of the Netflix MCU shows' structure, the way it encourages bloat and discourages effective plotting.  But Jessica Jones is precisely the show where these problems should have been easiest to avoid.  The looser, more character-focused structure of the season would have lent itself perfectly to a more episodic format with a strong emotional throughline, something along the lines of Elementary.

It's staggering to realize that Netflix has delivered a female-oriented detective story in which two actresses at the top of their game are given nuanced characters and a rich, complicated mother-daughter bond to play, and hardly anyone is going to pay attention to it, because the plotting was so very mediocre that a lot of the audience will have been too bored to notice.[9]  In its first season, Jessica Jones used the Netflix format to its fullest capacity.  In its second, it challenges that format but ends up being undone by it.  Let's hope that in their third season, Rosenberg and her writers continue to give their heroine space to grow, and that Netflix has enough wisdom to do the same for the show.





[1] It was also only the second MCU story to star a woman.  In 2018, it is the only such story, Agent Carter having been cancelled in 2016 and Captain Marvel being still a year away.

[2] Which is not to say that the show doesn't still wear its feminism on its sleeve.  As has been widely reported, all of the directors, and nearly all of the writers, for the second season are women.  One interesting reflection of the show's feminism is its willingness to allow its heroines to look unglamorous.  In particular, it's interesting how unsexy the scenes in which women are shown in their underwear tend to be, and makes you realize how ubiquitous the male gaze is in every other aspect of the culture.

[3] The events of The Defenders are never mentioned, and as the season draws on it seems increasingly implausible that Jessica was recently involved in leveling a city building.

[4] There is, to be clear, a dark underbelly to the way Jessica Jones questions its violent heroine, and that is the fact that as much as pop culture loves violent women when they're safely ensconced in fantasy, in the real world women who exercise violence, even in their own defense, tend to arouse a disproportionately violent reaction.  Women who kill their abusers face harsh sentencing, while male abusers who kill their victims are often more lightly punished.  Especially in a universe where Daredevil gets to drop people off buildings without facing any serious condemnation, and the Punisher is considered capable of redemption after emptying a magazine into a crowd at a hospital, the fact that Jessica, who killed her rapist and stalker after the authorities proved helpless to stop him, is met with condemnation and revulsion could easily be seen as an extension of this tendency.  But this isn't an interpretation the show is interested in exploring.

[5] Or, as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend puts it, "After Everything I've Done for You (That You Didn't Ask For)".  In general I think there are more similarities between Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jessica Jones than you might imagine.  They're both about a remarkable but emotionally unstable heroine who is surrounded by people who turn out to be a lot less put-together than they'd like to pretend.

[6] The exception, of course, are people who hurt Jessica's loved ones, especially Trish, and more generally those who victimize the innocent and helpless.

[7] Further complicating the matter is our recollection of how the first season glossed over Jessica's betrayal and abuse of Luke Cage, something that was only lightly discussed in The Defenders and which doesn't even come up in this season.  In general, race continues to be a frustrating blind spot for this show.  There are only a few small roles for women of color, and most of them end up dead or dismissed by the end of the season.  (In particular, the two most prominent black women in the season are both killed by Alisa, which doesn't affect the show's expectation that we will sympathize with her and with Jessica's desire to have a relationship with her.)  And though men of color fare better, their storylines rarely take into account the role race could play in their lives.  Malcolm, for example, doesn't think twice about getting into fistfights with white men, which in the real world would probably be something that a tall, athletic black man would be hesitant about.

[8] I haven't said anything yet about Oscar, who is a good idea in principle, but whose execution leaves a lot to be desired.  Initially suspicious of Jessica because of the violence she brings to the building, he comes around after she saves his son's life.  But both his initial suspicion and his later embrace are too sudden to be believable, and when Oscar and Jessica became romantically involved soon after, I found myself looking for a catch.  For a show whose entire cast is stacked with manipulative abusers to introduce a love interest who is so uncomplicatedly on our heroine's side felt like a trap, and I had no idea how to feel about Oscar until the very end of the season.

[9] In addition, Netflix's belief that the best way to promote a series is to dump the entire season in a single day keeps coming up short.  Just look how well The Handmaid's Tale parlayed weekly episode releases into months of cultural conversation, whereas the buzz about Jessica Jones is already starting to fade.

4 comments:

Foxessa said...

I care not for comics, whether on the page or on screen. When JJ's first season appeared I didn't even know she was a comix super, and didn't know it about Luke Cage either -- until the last episodes' arcs etc. truly gave it away -- the same episodes where I lost interest.

For me, Jessica Jones's second season was in every way superior and much more satisfying watching (except, maybe for Trish), than the first season. I was never bored, or even close to it.

Among the many elements that made season 2 so satisfying is how seemingly effortlessly and plausibly JJ reflected the true diversity of the city where she's living -- without any self-conscious, self-congratulatory, self back-patting, complacency of so many on screen and print offerings these days.

Retlawyen said...

I don't think the second season measured up to the first, but honestly that would have been really hard. I thought it did the best it could.

The Netflix series seem to rise and fall with their villains (DD season 1, JJ season 1 are clearly the best of the lot, and lo and behold they both have compelling villains. LC is good right up until it swaps villains, and then it goes downhill. Every show with 'The Hand' as the bad guy has been garbage.), and this season didn't seem willing to its antagonists.

Spoilers follow:

If I had to put it in a sentence, I'd say that they needed to pick either Trish or Alisa to be the problem, but instead we got a resolution that resolved nothing. JJ doesn't triumph and is not defeated. She is a witness who disapproves.

T Ahmed said...

Excellent review! I was truly baffled by some of the choices the showrunners made in the second season of JJ (why they decided to do what they did to Trish will always confuse me) and your writing crystallized my concerns perfectly. I loved the first season of JJ and struggled through this one, even fast-forwarding past some scenes in the last few episodes. Like you, I hope the showrunners can course-correct in the next season!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't actually have a problem with the Trish storyline - as I said in the review, it feels like a natural extension of issues she had brewing already in S1, and ties into the season's theme of people craving power without understanding what it means to exercise it over others.

In general, I don't think the show needs to "course-correct" next season. I think most of the storytelling and characters instincts on display in S2 were spot-on, and took the characters in interesting directions. The show's problem is one of structure, both the unwieldy 13-episode length and the continued reticence to tell standalone or self-contained stories, even though the detective premise lends itself naturally to that approach. And that feels to me more like Netflix imposing a structure on the show than a choice by Rosenberg, which is why I write that I hope she's allowed to take the show where it needs to go next season.

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