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.

5 comments:

Chris said...

"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)."

It occurs to me that this is by far the most plausible outcome of a person "becoming a superhero," i.e, not only falling backwards into some supernatural abilities, but deciding to use them to Fight Crime [without oversight or accountability or even any training]. Much the same way that the people who want to take on a career using nightsticks, tasers, guns, and tanks to maintain order tend to be the very last people most of us should want doing that, which is why we continue to see that steady stream of cops pointlessly abusing the citizens in their care. In "real life," Trish would be the norm, not the exception.

(I suppose you could argue that she IS the norm, and that people like Tony Stark, Matt Murdock, even Scott Lang in his goofy way, are in fact people with seriously compromised judgment who cause no end of problems for the world around them. But that's not how the MCU wants us to see any of them, except Trish).

Chris said...

Based on your description, that does sound like a depressing wrap-up. I'd hoped that the relationship with Oscar in Season 2 was an indication that she was starting to surround herself with healthier people and that they'd continue to build on that afterwards, but that doesn't seem to have lead anywhere. (IMDb tells me Oscar only shows up in one episode this season).

Supposedly, Hollywood writers have a (stupid) rule of thumb that people can't be in happy relationships because happy relationships are boring. By the sound of it, JJ's taken that principle and applied it to literally every possible relationship, not just the romantic kind.

David said...

Great review Abigail, you always bring a unique POV to culture, pop and otherwise. I do agree that with Season 3, the main theme of Jessica Jones has been re-contextualized from being about rape culture and general misogyny in the U.S. to being more about how trauma can (often negatively) affect its recipients long after the cause of the mental pain is gone. Jessica still can't hold down a good romantic relationship and drinks way too much because of Kilgrave's effect and Trish's feelings of inadequacy and paternalistic responsibility towards Jessica and later all of NYC.

It feels like how Trish and Hogarth ended up built pretty well off of last season. Trish's conviction she was justified in everything she did turned towards its most logical conclusion that she'd eventually go to far and start killing people. This is the same woman who seemed legitimately confused that Jessica was mad at her for shooting her mom in the head and that lack of empathy is carried over into Season 3 where she gets mad at Jess that she hasn't forgiven her. Unlike other "victims who become villains" in the Netflix MCU (Mariah, Kilgrave, Kingpin), Trish realizes 3x13 that her actions were evil and accepts her punishment of going to super Gitmo and even affirms Jessica's choice to send her there. Hogarth has skated past career and life-ending consequences twice with her letting Kilgrave go just so he could force her wife to sign divorce papers and again in tricking a woman to kill her boyfriend so it was nice to see her scheme to get Kith work and fail at the exact same time and bring down her firm, her legacy, along with it. "I know you don’t want to die alone, but you’re going to." That line, along with Dorothy saying "Maybe I did too much damage [to Trish]" hit the hardest.

Unknown said...

Abigail, in the past you've talked about Cloak and Dagger. I would love to see some of your thoughts on that show.

With Jessica Jones and a few other shows I've been following, I've gotten the feeling that the way the contracts for actors are and have been traditionally drawn up is running up against the demands of serialized television. With there being so many character arcs and audiences clamoring for that, eventually some characters come to the end of those arcs and no longer have a purpose on the show, but they're on the cast so they stick around anyway. There always have been those characters who stick around past their point of usefulness to a story because audience popularity/their contract (Spike in Buffy, Chang in Community), but it seems more noticeable now. It makes story sense for Jessica to move on from Trish, but in a real sense she can't because Rachael Taylor needs to be on the show and so the plotline needs to involve her. I don't want to blame the actors, who should absolutely get paid for their labor and have the security of long term contracts, but you can't really do a show about escaping toxic relationships if the reality of production is that you can't move to a new city and try to make new friends because we have the old actors under contract and can't afford a new cast.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chris:

Oscar appears briefly in a flashback to clarify that he and Jessica broke up, albeit amicably (and she seems to still have a good relationship with his son). It's very clear that he was written out in order to make room for Jessica's romance with Erik, but as you say that has unintended implications given how much of the season is about Jessica detaching herself from unhealthy bonds with no better alternatives in sight.

That said, I definitely preferred Erik as a love interest. Oscar was so non-specifically nice that I spent most of S2 convinced that he would turn out to be a villain. Erik has things in common with Jessica - not just the fact that he has superpowers, but the fact that he's responded badly to them and self-medicates with addictive habits (in his case gambling). Plus, he's very quickly bowled over by Jessica, and it's nice to have someone in her life who is uncomplicatedly fond of her (and not like Malcolm, who gets angry and possessive when she doesn't respond in kind). As I said, it's still probably a good idea for him and Jessica to break up, but I enjoyed their relationship a lot more than Oscar and Jessica's.

Unknown:

I enjoyed C&D's second season, but haven't felt inspired to write about it. Right now I'm mainly waiting nervously to see if it gets a third season.

I'm not sure the problem of keeping actors around past the end of their characters' storyline is new or specific to serialized television, but I do think it has something to do with the way a show like Jessica Jones tends to tell self-contained stories within its seasons. You see this also in a show like Legends of Tomorrow, where every season sees the characters squaring off against a different villain and defeating them. In the recently-concluded S4, it was obvious that there were too many main characters, many of them being kept around because they'd been introduced in previous season where they had a role in the plot, and now couldn't be removed without firing the actor.

That said, Legends of Tomorrow has close a dozen main characters, and Jessica Jones has four. There's no excuse for not finding new things to do with such a small number of characters that would allow them to play a role in the season's overarching storyline. As I wrote, I think the choice to move Trish in a villainous direction makes sense. I just didn't care for how it was done.

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