And the first thought is wow.
And the second thought is: I didn’t think the Marvel Cinematic Universe was allowed to make anything this good. Or this female-focused.
The first season of Jessica Jones dropped on Netflix this past Friday, November 20. At thirteen episodes, each just under an hour long, it’s based on the Alias comic book series by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydo, and credits Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight, Dexter) as its creator and showrunner. (Its executive producers also include Liz Friedman, whom some of us will remember, before her work on House and her Emmy for Orange Is the New Black, for her work on Xena.) Several of its directors and writers are also women. This might explain why, watching it, I enjoyed the novel experience of watching a superhero show that didn’t punch me in the face with how much of an afterthought it considered me as part of its audience.
It may be the best thing ever to come out of Marvel for the screen.
There’s no real point to discussing the plot, at this point: it feels like everyone knows the outlines. (Editor’s note: But if you do need a plot refresher, check out Tansy Ranyer Roberts’ review of episodes 1 and 2.) And what makes this new superpowered setup come to life is, after all, the characters: Jessica Jones, fatalistic, alcoholic, really very noir private investigator, whose speciality is pushing people away and pissing them off—although she can deploy social skills to get the job done—haunted by several different kinds of guilt and trauma; Trish Walker, the best friend who refuses to let Jessica push her away but also calls her on her bullshit, radio talkshow host whose perfect image conceals a troubled childhood; Jeri Hogarth, the shark-in-a-sharp-suit lawyer who’s fallen in love with her young beautiful secretary and is divorcing her doctor wife; Hope, the young woman compelled to commit a horrific act whom Jessica is determined to save; Malcolm, Jessica’s addict neighbour who turns out to have hidden depths; Simpson, a cop with a mission and a very black-and-white worldview; Luke Cage, bar owner, man with impenetrable skin, man with a past occasionally hinted at—and even Kilgrave himself, a very human selfish monster.
There are five things I really liked about this show, aside from the characterisation, dialogue, and really excellent narrative tension.
1. There are so many “unlikeable” women—like Jessica and Jeri and the other participants in her divorce drama. But they’re people, not shallow caricatures: they’re allowed the virtues of their flaws, and it makes them more interesting, more compelling, as human beings.
Jeri Hogarth: You need to pull yourself together. You are coming across distinctly paranoid.
Jessica Jones: Everyone keeps saying that. It’s like a conspiracy.
2. Abusive behaviour is never treated as unexceptional. No one suggests that what happened to women under Kilgrave’s control wasn’t rape. When a particular character becomes threatening and controlling towards another character, she’s not shown as somehow overreacting to want to avoid him, or draw a boundary where he doesn’t get to pretend everything is all right. No one, not even Jessica, suggests that some of the shit Jessica pulls on the people around her is okay.
3. The sex shown on this show actually looks sexy. Like the kind of sex humans might actually want to have and might enjoy having. (Also, is television allowed to show a man going down on a woman? That is sort of unprecedented in my television-watching experience.)
4. Jeri Hogarth, Wendy Ross, and Pam: the lawyer’s disintegrating lesbian marriage and her relationship with her secretary normalises queer relationships in a way that SFFnal television (hell, television in general) usually shies away from. The characters in question are all fully-rounded human beings, and though the viewer knows acrimonious divorces rarely end well, they end badly in ways that aren’t uniquely queer tragedies.
5. Female friendship. The core emotional relationship in this show is the friendship between Jessica and Trish. The trust. Trish is the only person to whom Jessica shows more than drunk and guilty emotional vulnerability. Trish is the person Jessica goes to for help. And Jessica, in turn, is the person Trish trusts with more than her life. Their friendship plays a key role in the show’s climax—and I confess, I crowed at the screen, quite literally whooped, when it paid off.
That’s what you call narrative payoff, people.
Jessica Jones made me cry, because I expected it to let me down, and it didn’t. It’s a hell of a show. Well worth watching.