Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Jessica Jones, Season 3

The third season of Jessica Jones was released with little fanfare this weekend, bringing both the series and the Netflix MCU to a close.  It's not a very good season of television (and the things about it that are good were done better in the flawed but still quite interesting second season), but watching it can help clarify some points for those of us who have watched the Netflix MCU's experiment with "street level" superheroes, who have adult problems and psychologies, curdle into a mass of samey conversations, runaround plots, and indifferent visuals.  Put simply, the third season of Jessica Jones makes a powerful argument that we never really understood what this show was about.  And what it was actually trying to accomplish seems, in retrospect, not really worth the attempt.

The third season picks up some time after the end of the second.  Jessica is still estranged from Trish following the latter's murder of Jessica's violent, murderous mother Alisa, and from Malcolm because... well, mainly because he's a sanctimonious asshole.  Malcolm is now working for Jeri Hogarth as less an investigator than a fixer, who cleans up the messes of Jeri's rich, entitled clients. But he has a closet full of designer suits and an up-and-coming lawyer girlfriend, Zaya (Tiffany Mack), to make up for it.  Trish, as a brief moment at the end of the second season seemed to promise, has developed superpowers as a result of undergoing a similar procedure to the one Jessica did as a girl.  She has enhanced speed and agility, and wastes no time in remaking her life in her quest to become a crimefighter.  But as we see in the first of two episodes told from Trish's perspective, her judgment remains severely flawed.  She quickly gets herself in trouble for injuring a fleeing cellphone thief, and can't understand why Jessica won't just "get over" Alisa's murder (which she boasts about to Malcolm).  The sisters' paths only cross again when Jessica is stabbed by a masked assailant, an attack that turns out to have actually been aimed at her latest one-night-stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker).  Also an enhanced person, Erik has the ability to sense "darkness" in people who have committed horrible crimes, and uses it to blackmail them.  One of his targets, Gregory Sallinger (Jeremy Bobb), turns out to be a serial killer, who fixates on Jessica when she tries to protect Erik, becoming obsessed with the notion that she has "cheated", and doesn't deserve her fame and renown, because she hasn't done anything to earn her superpowers.

To give the third season its credit, it does something I really hadn't expected it to do.  As I wrote in my review of the show's second season, I thought Jessica's estrangement from Malcolm and Trish was entirely the correct decision on her part, given how unhealthy and codependent their behavior towards her had become.  I was concerned that subsequent Jessica Jones stories would hurry to reunite the trio and sweep under the rug the fact that the show's heroine deserves so much better than so-called friends who criticize and belittle her when she doesn't react the way they think she should to their (often extreme) behavior.  Instead, the season takes Malcolm and Trish's flaws seriously.  Malcolm finally takes a long look at himself and recognizes that the problems in his life are nobody's fault but his own.  While he and Jessica don't go back to the relationship they had (probably for the best given how needy he was with her; also, Jessica's new assistant Gillian (Aneesh Sheth) is not only refreshingly chill but a welcome instance of transgender representation) they do manage to forge a professional relationship with stronger boundaries and something like mutual respect.

Trish, meanwhile, ultimately becomes the season's villain.  Though she and Jessica do reach a detente in the season's middle stretch, teaming up to take down Sallinger, they find themselves increasingly at odds as that investigation derails and it becomes clearer that he isn't going to pay for his crimes.  The more she engages in vigilantism, the more fevered Trish becomes in her belief that she has the right to act as judge, jury, and executioner, and that her black-and-white morality is a foolproof moral guide--as opposed to Jessica, whom she comes to see as misguided, and even unheroic, for holding back on unleashing violence on "deserving" targets.  That conviction is bolstered when Sallinger murders her mother and then blackmails Jessica into destroying the only piece of evidence against him with a photograph that proves Trish is the vigilante who beat him nearly to death in response.  By the end of the season, Trish has teamed up with Erik to track down and "punish" his former blackmail targets, but ends up killing several of them, and then brutally murders Sallinger even after Jessica has secured proof of his crimes and handed him over to the police.  Jessica is finally forced to conclude that her sister is beyond saving, exposing her as the vigilante who has been terrorizing New York and squaring off against her when Trish tries to escape the city.  The season--and the show--ends with Trish being carted off to the Raft, the MCU's Guantanamo-esque prison for enhanced people.

This is, to be clear, not an inherently terrible idea, and especially as a story for Jessica Jones, who has been characterized almost from day one by her inability to give up on the people she cares about, no matter how far gone they are.  Given that the second season revolved around Jessica's refusal to hand her mass-murdering mother over to the authorities, even going on the run with her, it's obviously a sign of growth that she's able to let go of Trish and fights to bring her in.  But there are immense problems with the execution, first when it comes to Trish herself.  Janet McTeer gave an incredible performance in Jessica Jones's second season, conveying not only Alisa's volatility and potential for violence, but the depth of her love for Jessica, and her fierce desire to protect her daughter.  You could sense that Jessica got something out of their time together even as her determination to keep her mother out of prison became more unrealistic.  As Trish, Rachael Taylor has never found that depth of emotion.  She comes off as whiny and self-absorbed even in those moments when Trish might be excused for behaving irrationally, as when she finds the souvenir Sallinger has left her of her mother's dying moments.  Long before Jessica gives up on her, the audience will probably be over Trish and the two women's dysfunctional bond.

Sallinger himself is an even bigger problem.  It's hard to imagine why the show would have chosen to deploy yet another psychopathic killer with the memory of Kilgrave still so fresh in the viewers' minds, but Sallinger isn't even a particularly interesting example of the type.  He reads like a cross between Captain Marvel's Yon-Rogg and The Incredibles's Syndrome--someone deeply unimpressive who is convinced that he is entitled to the heroes' time and attention, and resorts to violence to get it.  But instead of sweeping him aside as such characters deserve, Jessica Jones gives him center stage.  We're expected to listen to his endless monologues about Jessica's unworthiness of the title "hero", and even to take them seriously (Jessica herself obviously takes them seriously, because of her deep-seated self-loathing; but this only makes her seem sad, rather than increasing Sallinger's malevolence). 

Even worse is the way the show makes Sallinger effectively untouchable by the police, possessed of a preternatural ability to avoid leaving any evidence of his crimes.  I was reminded of the way Daredevil's third season was eventually forced to posit that Wilson Fisk had infiltrated every level of government, law enforcement, and the legal system in order to justify Matt Murdock's dilemma over whether to kill him or allow him to get away with absolutely blatant crimes.  But without Vincent D'Onofrio's charisma to fuel the character, it's impossible not to notice the writers' finger on the scales.  We're meant to be frustrated that Jessica won't take justice into her own hands and kill Sallinger herself, as she ultimately did to Kilgrave.  But the character is so unimpressive that our frustration turns instead to the show's obvious manipulations--especially since, once the plot requires Jessica to defeat Sallinger, it has her entrap him into a confession with a tactic so obvious that the genius he allegedly was in the season's earlier episodes would surely have seen through it.

It is, in other words, a dud of a storyline, and what's most interesting about it is how it forces one to reevaluate what Jessica Jones was actually about.  Most of us--myself very much included--read the show's first season as a smart, horrifying parable about sexual abuse, how society enables it, and how victims struggle to recover from it.  Looking back, however, it's clear that already in that season there were signs of the show's real preoccupation, with toxic relationships and manipulative behavior.  Alongside obvious abusers like Kilgrave and Will Simpson, the show suggested that abusive behavior existed on a spectrum that also included people like Jeri Hogarth, who cheated on her wife, gaslighted her, and finally sicced Kilgrave on her in an attempt to get out of a pricey divorce settlement.  Or Trish's mother, who abused her daughter physically and emotionally, and left her vulnerable to sexual exploitation and a drug habit.

In its later seasons, Jessica Jones leaned into this theme, not only with storylines for Trish, Malcolm, and Jeri that stressed their tendency to form unhealthy, manipulative bonds with people they identified as vulnerable to such exploitation, but by repeatedly confronting Jessica with her own susceptibility to such relationships.  Kilgrave--an obviously unfit target for Jessica's affections, as even she was able to recognize--is replaced with Alisa, someone who loves Jessica and wants what's best for her, but who also requires a complete upheaval of Jessica's life.  And just as Jessica begins to accept, in the third season, that Trish's murder of Alisa might have ultimately been for the best, Trish attacks Sallinger and becomes exactly the kind of burden that Alisa was--the scenes in which Jessica whisks Trish away from the scene of her crime, cares for her, and starts to plan Trish's escape from the city, feel uncannily like a reflection of similar scenes from the second season, with Trish having become exactly the burden she claimed to have been saving Jessica from.  By the end of the season, a wiser Jessica extracts herself even from her burgeoning romance with Erik, recognizing that though he's a better person than her sister and mother, and is trying to become better still, he's also got a toxic past that she'd do well to steer clear of.

As narratives of growth go, however, this is a rather limited--not to say depressing--one.  In the comics, Jessica Jones grows past her traumas, learns to trust again, finds a new community, and starts a family.  In the show, the best she can do, it seems, is rid herself of one level of abusers after another.  And as for any hope of doing better, it's hard to harbor it, given how completely the show associates toxicity and abuse with even the most rational of desires.  Trish wants to be a hero, and this leads her, one inevitable step after another, to becoming, as she puts it, "the bad guy".  Malcolm wants his own PI firm (and, more broadly, to escape from his past as a junkie and Kilgrave's henchman), so he agrees to do even the most depraved, immoral things Jeri demands of him in order to bulk up his reputation and skills.  And Jeri, still reeling from her ALS diagnosis last season, wants not to die alone.  So she tracks down her first love, Kith (Sarita Choudhury), and tries to detach her from her husband, using increasingly underhanded methods that eventually lead the man to take his own life.

Against all these immoral graspers and strivers we have Jessica, who wants literally nothing but to be left alone to drink and pity herself.  Even the one genuinely terrible thing Jessica has done over the course of the show's run--lying to Luke Cage about her role in his wife's death and striking up a romantic relationship with him--was a rare instance of her wanting something for herself.  It's hard to escape the conclusion that in the world of Jessica Jones, any desire to better your situation, have more in your life than you currently have, or even make a human connection, can only be sinister, and, if left unchecked, will lead to calamity.  The possibility that people can want things and work towards them without hurting others (or even learn from their mistakes and do better) is given almost no space in the show, and as a result the only form of growth available to Jessica also ends up isolating her from everyone who cares about her.  The series's ending is meant to be triumphant--Jessica packs her bag and prepares to leave town, but then she hears Kilgrave's voice praising her for "giving up" and decides to stay in New York instead.  But to me, it seemed like a fresh start in a new city was exactly what Jessica needed, and it's hard to imagine how New York could still be good for her when literally everyone she knows there is toxic to her in one form or another.

It would be one thing for the show to make this argument if I thought it realized just how bleak and depressing it was.  But it feels more like a reflexive echo of the MCU's general hostility towards change and growth.  I've spoken in the past about how films in this universe tend to devour themselves, and personal growth is often a casualty of that tendency.  Tony Stark destroys his suits as a sign that he's ready to be more than a warrior at the end of Iron Man 3, but the Avengers movies still need him in armor, so he stays in it until the bitter end.  Steve Rogers forges new friendships and makes a home for himself in the future after the loss of his world at the end of The First Avenger, but Avengers: Endgame sends him back to the past, to be with a woman who has missed the last decade of his life.  The Netflix shows are the only MCU stories that have had a similar kind of longevity, not to mention being far more character-focused than other MCU TV series.  So it's notable how they repeatedly prevent their characters from achieving growth.  Matt Murdock is still spinning around the same simplistic, nonsensical "can I murder my enemies (henchmen don't count)?" dilemma he was struggling with in 2015.  Luke Cage can only change for the worse, going from hero to mob boss.  And Jessica Jones can't make meaningful improvements in her life, because... well, because apparently someone thinks that if she did, she wouldn't be Jessica Jones anymore.

It's hard to know how to sum up a show that started out being hailed as a major feminist accomplishment and ends with its two female protagonists at one another's throats, or with the argument that its title character is better off without any of the interesting, complicated female characters the show had previously surrounded her with in her life.  Jessica Jones became a victim of the Netflix MCU's identity crisis.  Neither a character drama nor an action story, it ended up doing neither one particularly well.  If it doesn't quite lose its heroine in the process, this is only because of Krysten Ritter's performance, increasingly the only thing keeping the show grounded.  But as the screen fades to black for the last time, one can't help but feel that this is for the best--this character deserves better than her writers were ever going to give her, and now we can imagine that she will get it.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Black Mirror, "Striking Vipers"

It feels strange to talk about Black Mirror reinventing itself. Even if you leave aside the fact that this is a show in its fifth season (plus two specials), a point where habits tend to be firmly fixed, what would be the impetus for it? From its scandalous premiere in 2011, Black Mirror has always been lauded for being exactly what it is. Even the people who have criticized it—for its cynicism, for its nastiness, for its reflexive distrust of technology—have helped to cement its brand, our idea of what a Black Mirror story is like and can accomplish. And yet, when you finish watching the three episodes of the just-released fifth season, there is no other way to describe them than as a departure. It's probably the strongest season the show has fielded since its first, but it's also the least Black Mirror-ish.

Some people might describe the season as optimistic. This isn't entirely inaccurate—the third episode, "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too", is basically a YA story about two sisters who help a pop star evade the clutches of her nefarious manager, along the way repairing their own fractured relationship. On the other hand, the second episode, "Smithereens", is a hostage drama driven by the hostage taker's suicidal depression, and which ends ambiguously but, it is strongly implied, tragically. But even in this episode, there is a sense of benevolence, of a world that mostly travels along well-established and well-intentioned grooves. The people who accumulate around the hostage crisis—police officers, hostage negotiators, SWAT teams—behave with caution and professionalism, working hard to secure the best possible outcome. The corporate officers at the titular social media company, whose CEO the hostage taker demands to speak to, similarly act responsibly, sharing information with authorities, prioritizing the life of the hostage even though he's just an intern at their company. Even the people who behave like assholes—the onlookers who tweet confidential details about the crisis that scotch the cops' plans, the company's legal advisor who doesn't want to let the CEO know about the situation—are being assholes on a relatable, human level, and with obvious limits on their behavior. It's a moderation that is entirely atypical of the show.

What it comes down to, I think, is that in its fifth season Black Mirror is much more focused on character and plot than on technology. You see this, for example, in the way that none of the episodes feature technology that is new to the show (or even to reality—"Smithereens" could take place in the here and now). Instead, they mix and match previously-established technologies—the personality-modeling "cookies" from "White Christmas" and other episodes; the VR gaming interface from "Playtest"—and imagine new uses for them.  One effect is that for the first time in its life, Black Mirror can just tell stories, rather than pointing at tech and urging us to beware. It's not an entirely successful experiment—all three episodes are a bit weak in their endings, the need to service an actual plot stretching creator Charlie Brooker (who wrote them all) to his limits—but it's still an exciting one for a show that had seemed to run out of stories to tell (to the point of trying to leave the actual storytelling to its audience).

The emphasis on story also means that Black Mirror's more annoying, preachy tendencies are toned down. "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too", for example, peddles the eye-rolling, tired trope that tween-oriented pop is shallow and worthless and that cool girls should only like rock (by sheer coincidence, I'm sure, the type of riot grrl rock that was at the cutting edge when Brooker was young). But it's also too busy with its story for that message to get much space, and for the most part it is possible to ignore it and enjoy the episode's more positive themes of female solidarity and sisterly support. The emphasis on story also means that the fifth season of Black Mirror has the least to say about technology's interaction with capitalism, a topic on which it has sometimes managed to be quite probing. When we meet the CEO of Smithereens, for example, he's a good-hearted dweed who complains that his company has "gotten away from him".

The episode I want to talk about, though, is the season's opener, "Striking Vipers". It is, to my mind, a strong contender for one of Black Mirror's all-time great episodes, and easily its most interesting. It's also the queerest story the show has told in some time, perhaps ever, though not in the more straightforward way of "San Junipero". Instead, "Striking Vipers" is a story that challenges us, and its characters, to figure out its variety of queerness as it goes along.

The episode begins by introducing us to a trio of friends: protagonist Danny (Anthony Mackie), his girlfriend Theo (Nicole Beharie), and his roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The trio live the carefree lifestyle of the young, going out to clubs, doing drugs, and playing video games all night. Eleven years later, Danny and Theo are married, live in the suburbs, have a young son, and are trying for another baby, while Karl is still living it up as a single man in the city, dating women ten years younger than him. At Danny's 38th birthday party, Karl gives him the latest version of Striking Vipers, the Mortal Kombat-esque fighting game they used to play in their younger days, along with a VR extension that lets players inhabit their chosen fighter. Later that night, the two men meet in the game, Karl playing his favorite character from the old days, Roxette (Pom Klementieff), and Danny embodied as Lance (Ludi Lin).

(You could raise issues about the fact that the two in-game characters are Asian—and, unsurprisingly for this type of game, have exaggerated, stereotypical styling and personas—but one effect of that choice is that all five of the episode's main characters are POC.  In fact, every speaking character, and most of the background ones, are non-white, a first for the show.)

What's most surprising and fun about "Striking Vipers" is how it repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag. Most Black Mirror episodes, even the ones with twists, tend to establish their starting conditions and story types fairly early on. But "Striking Vipers" leaves you guessing for most of its first act, uncertain about the story it's telling. And once that story materializes, it's a shock. The basic premise—two men on the cusp of middle age, both with good lives that nevertheless leave them vaguely unsatisfied—is a familiar one, and raises certain expectations. We expect Danny to have an ill-advised affair. We expect the two men to become entangled in one another's lives (perhaps through a body-switch?). We do not expect Roxette and Lance, after a few minutes of trading blows and admiring the game's full range of sensation, to turn a mid-fight tussle into a hot-and-heavy makeout session.

After a bit of perfunctory denial, this turns into a regular thing, with the two men forgoing any pretense of using the game for its intended purpose and instead meeting in it solely in order to have increasingly acrobatic, cinematic sex via their avatars. One thing that Black Mirror has been relatively slow to address is the way that technology is only rarely used in exactly the way its creators intend. The show loves to talk about how technology will pull us in unseemly, inhuman directions, but it rarely addresses the reverse, the fact that, as William Gibson put it, "the street finds its uses for things". That a game like Striking Vipers might be used for sex feels both inevitable, and like a refreshing avenue for story that the show has thus far failed to explore.

It doesn't take long for the audience to figure out what the characters are denying—that this isn't simply a form of masturbation, but an affair. Both men start neglecting their partners—leading to a lovely monologue from Beharie, whose character type is after all a thankless one but who the episode leaves space to be human, thoughtful, and sexual. More interestingly, the sexual relationship between Danny and Karl deepens their friendship. Early in the episode, Danny complains that he and Karl can't really talk anymore beyond the surface level of small talk. But in the game they have true intimacy, even beyond the sexual, all while Danny keeps a huge secret from his wife that damages their own ability to be intimate.  Ultimately, Danny is forced to choose his family over his personal satisfaction, leaving Karl genuinely bereft in a way that he can't even put a name on.

Another way in which "Striking Vipers" defies the expectations we might have developed for its story is the fact it refuses to put a label on what Danny and Karl have. One very plausible reading of the episode—which I've already seen—is as a metaphor for closeted homosexuality, and specifically life for closeted black men on the DL. But within the episode itself, that doesn't seem to be the answer. When Danny and Karl try to see if their connection exists in real life, they feel no heat, even as their in-game encounters become more intense. Nor does Karl seem to be questioning his gender identity. Though he insists that he enjoys sex more as Roxette than in his own body, in every other respect he seems happy with life as a man.

To me it feel like "Striking Vipers" is less about sexual identity than it is about kink. Danny and Karl have hit upon something that really works for both of them, that deepens their relationship, but also complicates their lives. Which is delightful, because most of the time, when pop culture discusses kink, it does so in a way that is prurient, or mocking, or pitying. "Striking Vipers" treats its characters with respect and sympathy, and their proclivity as something that emerges naturally from their humanity. It's a rare case of Black Mirror reversing the arrow of its anti-technology hectoring. For once, instead of technology bringing out the worst in us, it allows us to discover things about ourselves, and our capacity for pleasure, that we never knew.

It's at this stage, however, that the episode finds itself in a bind, because there is no way to proceed from this point that leaves all of its characters happy, as they clearly deserve to be. Danny loves his family, but he gets something out of his relationship with Karl that he can't get from Theo. And neither Karl nor Theo are happy with him being only half-present in their lives. He ends up leaving one of them, and then the other, but being unhappy with both choices.

The episode finally comes up with a solution that feels like walking back some of its previously-established assumptions. Danny goes back to Theo, but gets occasional nights off when he's allowed to meet Karl in the game. In exchange, Theo gets a night away from her marriage, free to pick up a handsome man for a one-night stand. But this feels rather unconvincing. For one thing, we've never gotten a sense that Theo wants an open marriage—though she speaks about her frustrations with monogamy, it doesn't feel like a deep desire so much as the sort of vague frustration that all married people sometimes feel without wanting to act on it. For another thing, a one night stand simply isn't equivalent to the emotional affair that Danny and Karl were carrying on, and Theo should still be concerned about how that might endanger her marriage. Finally, what about Karl? Is he really content with having Danny to himself for a few nights a year, despite previously having claimed to be in love with him?

I found myself wishing that "Striking Vipers" had been a little less character-focused, a little more Black Mirror-ish. What if instead of focusing on this trio—whose dilemma is ultimately irresolvable without hurting someone—we instead took a wider view of the community that develops around the game and its off-label use for sexual encounters? Karl tells Danny that he explored this community and concluded that no one satisfies him as much as Danny-as-Lance, but what if instead of that, he found someone in it who shared his kink and was available for a real relationship? What if Theo tried her hand at the game? As I wrote, endings are the achilles' heel of Black Mirror's fifth season, and this is especially noticeable in the case of "Striking Vipers", which until this point was such a strong, interesting story.

Still, even a weak ending doesn't completely undermine the episode. Between its compassionate approach to its characters and its open-minded approach to technology, "Striking Vipers" charts a path for how Black Mirror could evolve and grow. I hope that more people discover it and embrace its message of treating kink respectfully (while still respecting people who might not share it but also have claims on you). But I also hope Black Mirror learns from it about how it can be a better, more interesting show.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Roundtable Discussion: Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner, at Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons has resurrected its book club feature, and the inaugural discussion features me, Zen Cho, and Charlotte Geater discussing Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1977 collection Kingdoms of Elfin, reprinted last year after many years out of print by Handheld Press.  Though I haven't read much of her writing, I've found Warner, an early 20th century fantasist as well as one of the inaugural voices of the New Yorker's fiction department, a fascinating writer, and Kingdoms of Elfin has been a particular obsession of mine ever since I first read about it, and learned that it was unavailable.  In these stories, written over a decade after the death of Warner's partner Valentine Ackland, Warner visits various fairy kingdoms around the globe, imagining their customs, court intrigues, and scandals.  This naturally creates the expectation of a light, frothy book, but as the roundtable reveals all of us found the stories cold and challenging.  There's a chilliness to the collection that seems to speak to the essence of what Warner was trying to do with them--not a frivolous escape, but a hard-headed look at how life can turn empty and meaningless when love is gone.
AN: I think Zen makes an interesting point when she questions the description of the stories as “inhuman.” A lot of the cruelty in them struck me as related to class in a way that is surely quintessentially human. Think of the way that Elphenor in “Elphenor and Weasel” is basically abandoned after having failed in his diplomatic mission. He’s not important enough to send people after, and having failed the court he’s probably better off not returning. It’s tempting to treat this sort of behavior as inhuman, but it’s at best an exaggeration of the way that low-class people—and even lower-ranking high-class ones—are chewed up and spat out by stratified, aristocratic systems. You see it also in the setup to “The Mortal Milk,” where the deaths of the court’s prized werewolves and, if I’m remembering correctly, the lower-class fairy helping to care for them, are basically brushed aside, or in the treatment of changelings in all the stories. And you see it especially in “The Blameless Triangle,” where the fairy free-thinkers, despite claiming to have abandoned the corrupting influence of court life, try to browbeat their youngest member into prostituting himself so they can all live in comfort.
I worry, though, that people will come away from this roundtable feeling put off or intimidated by the book.  As challenging as I found it, I absolutely do recommend it, if only because I've never read anything else like it.  It's an important, overlooked corner in the history of fantasy, and a thought-provoking meditation on loss, and the insufficiency of glamor and luxury to make up for it.