'Marvel's Jessica Jones' Season 2: TV Review

Strong on theme, thin on plot.
3/8/2018

Krysten Ritter remains superb, but the new season initially lacks the narrative momentum brought by David Tennant's Kilgrave.

For at least two-thirds of its first season, Netflix's Marvel's Jessica Jones was a perfect blend of text and subtext, with David Tennant's mind-bending Kilgrave serving as an exceptional villain to stir up the themes of consent, sexual and psychological violence, and trauma. If the season felt perhaps overextended and repetitive, it was a product of the Netflix/Marvel "All shows have to be 13 episodes even if they don't have enough story for 13 episodes" edict.

As the second season begins, getting a rare Thursday Netflix premiere timed to International Women's Day, Jessica Jones remains a show with an impeccable sense of its desired themes and undercurrents. Where the first five episodes sent to critics stumble a little is in translating the subtext into the text, building a plotline so that what Jessica and company struggle against in the episodic and ongoing storylines is as compelling as what's going on in Jessica's head.

At least initially, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and the Jessica Jones scribes are making an intentional choice to keep Jessica's (Krysten Ritter) main conflicts fundamentally internal. It's the common superhero trope where after our hero faces the enemy without, they face the enemy within. Jessica is still smarting from her final showdown with Kilgrave and the events of The Defenders, and finds herself in a New York City in which residents are now aware that powered people walk among them. Jessica is having a crisis of self-identification. Is she a hero? Is she a killer? Can you be the former and still be the latter? She's back to working the streets as a PI, digging up dirt, catching cheaters and trying to avoid emotional investment of any kind. A run-in with a white-collar risk management specialist, Terry Chen's Pryce Cheng, puts Jessica in legal difficulty and forces her into an anger support group, putting her on the same level with fellow recovering addicts Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and Malcolm (Eka Darville) in season-opening chapters that focus heavily on the things addicts do to deflect and save themselves from their compulsive behaviors.

Malcolm, who I forget is part of the ensemble with some frequency, is trying to become more a part of Jessica's Alias Investigations team and filling time with a series of forgettable one-night stands. Trish has poured herself into a new relationship and into transforming her radio show into an ongoing investigation of powered people in general and Jessica's past in specific. Jessica wants nothing to do with Trish's poking and prodding into the accident that killed Jessica's parents and left her with  unwanted gifts, much less with the shady doctors and scientists behind the experimentation. Wouldn't you know it, though? A rash of crimes against powered individuals forces Jessica to begin poking around into her own origins and destiny.

"With great power comes great mental illness," a supporting character says, chiding one of the parent company's biggest names, and among Netflix's reluctant Marvel heroes, Jessica is the one more weighed down by the gap between what she physically can do and what she is emotionally and psychologically willing (or eager) to do. She'd rather drink and screw unpleasant misogynists in dingy bar bathrooms than embrace the things that make her special, because those things are tied only to layers of pain.

Jessica's a mess to start the new season, but one of the core truths of Jessica Jones is that even the characters who look like they're holding things together are actually hanging on by a thread — and that includes Carrie-Anne Moss' Jeri Hogarth, who takes an unexpected lead in the race for the bottom after she receives some bad news.

The new episodes make expanded use of Rebecca De Mornay as Trish's exploitative mother and introduce Hal Ozsan as Trish's news anchor beau; J.R. Martinez as Jessica's initially antagonistic new building super; and Janet McTeer, only beginning to be used in the episodes sent to critics, as one of several people who may know more about Jessica's past than she does.

The return of Jessica Jones is a welcome reminder, especially if you were chilly on The Defenders for Iron Fist-related reasons, of how great Ritter is at varying the pitch of her perpetually scornful deadpan and how many shadings she gives to the self-destructive streak that is, at times, all-encompassing for Jessica. TV has probably more than its share of superhero/comic book shows and Ritter's may be my favorite lead performance.

The friendship between Trish and Jessica, driven by Trish's aching need to be the hero Jessica doesn't want to be, was probably the most underrated aspect of the first season and has been smartly pushed to the forefront for the second season. Ritter's the show's star and we've established my respect for her, but Taylor gets to show more emotional range since Trish puts in the effort to create an appealing public persona, when we know and keep learning more about Trish's own dark childhood.

If the best version of Jessica Jones was the initial six Kilgrave episodes from the first season, the second best version for me might just be Jessica and Trish having Sunday morning brunch therapy with Trish drinking mimosas and Jessica drinking straight from the bottle. The version that starts the second season is a more conventional, less exciting PI procedural. It's a lot of Jessica and Trish poking around places they don't belong, looking for clues and either discovering shocking things or waiting to get caught. Sometimes Malcolm tags along with one or the other and I'm not kidding when I say that I completely forget he's part of the show every time he's not onscreen.

The procedural version of Jessica Jones is a completely viable TV series; it just happens to be the limitedly interesting version that ABC probably would have made. Kilgrave gave the series a bigger, darker purpose and Tennant gave Ritter a consistently strong foil. There was an urgency that Kilgrave forced upon Jessica and the plot, superseding her natural reticence. Jessica doesn't need a man to define her. She just needs an antagonist to force her to be a protagonist and these early episodes are Jessica being pissed off at having to play that role and doing everything in her ample power to avoid it. It doesn't help that "Hero explores the nefarious and repressed experiments that made them who they are" is such a common one for the genre. Making Jessica follow in the footsteps of Luke Cage and Wolverine and Jason Bourne and so many others doesn't yet feel like the best use of such a good character, though the shifting dynamics when a heroine undergoes this familiar hero's journey might have potential.

The fourth and fifth episodes start moving Jessica Jones in a direction that makes the turmoil of the plot better mirror the character's turmoil. Those episodes accelerate the action, orchestrated this season exclusively by female directors, and accelerate several characters toward crisis. Maybe this will be the rare Marvel/Netflix show that built the lag into the start of the season?

Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss, Eka Darville, Leah Gibson, J.R. Ramirez, Janet McTeer, Rebecca De Mornay

Showrunner: Melissa Rosenberg

Premieres Thursday, March 8 on Netflix.

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