Television reviews can be prone to hyperbolic statements, but let me just get this all out anyway: Marvel’s Jessica Jones is the best Marvel-related television series, it is better than every single comic book adaptation on the air (including ratings smash The Walking Dead, the gritty and prestigeous Daredevil, and my beloved The Flash), and it will definitely end up on my list of the ten best shows of the year. And, if we’re being honest, I don’t believe any of these assertions to be hyperbolic in the least.
In its first seven episodes, Marvel’s Jessica Jones is an amazing feat of television — and I can imagine it getting even better during the rest of the season. A perk of being a TV critic is getting to see a new series before everyone else; the downside is when the screeners you’re given for a show like Jessica Jones end on such a tense, surprising, and urgent note that the 36 hours you have to wait to see the conclusion feel like a decade.
Based on Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos (the four volumes are currently being reissued; two are currently out, and I highly suggest rushing to buy them), the series follows Jessica Jones (perfectly embodied by Krysten Ritter), a superhero turned private eye who fights hard and drinks harder. There’s a distinct noir feel to the series, which takes place in Hell’s Kitchen, in everything from Jessica’s booze-swilling, hard-ass persona to the music choices. But this is no Veronica Mars-like P.I. series. It is darker than any Marvel story I’ve ever seen, with Jessica fighting her demons and her PTSD far more often then she fights villains. Smartly, the series doesn’t attempt a case-of-the-week format, with Jessica conducting a different private investigation in every episode while an ongoing arc plays out. Instead, it focuses mostly on a few “cases” that develop slowly.
The biggest of these surrounds Kilgrave (David Tennant), another “gifted” person who has the ability of mind control. When a worried couple shows up at Jessica’s door asking for her help finding their missing daughter, Jessica stumbles into Kilgrave — again, and by no accident. He is responsible for Jessica’s traumatic past (I don’t want to give anything away by going into detail, but it gets brutal), and now she has to face not only him, but the endless trail of death and destruction that follows him.
Still, the Jessica vs. Kilgrave storyline isn’t the only thing that makes the show great (though, holy shit is this narrative conflict played out in such a brilliantly slow way until the two characters are face-to-face again and your heart stops). There are so many elements that come together to heighten the series, to make it more than just a comic adaptation, to make it something truly special in the Marvel universe. It’s a superhero series that puts Jessica’s trauma above her superpowers.
She’s super strong, yes, and she occasionally uses that power to throw a dude through a window for not paying a bill or pick up a slow-moving car to prevent the driver from getting away when she’s trying to serve him papers. But somehow these set pieces fade into the background when set against Jessica’s internal battles. She’s been on both the giving and receiving end of some truly troubling stuff, and it’s stuck with her. It causes her to drink enough to be literally thrown out of a bar, to alienate everyone around her — her friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), her freelance sort-of boss Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), her eventual hook-up and smoldering hot superhero Luke Cage (Mike Colter) — to choose to live in solitude, and to suffer from a few rage issues. Yet she doesn’t let that trauma completely define her. At one point, when she encounters a woman who lumps her in with the “incident” that killed her mother (like Daredevil, Jessica Jones makes sometimes-clumsy references to the Avengers movie), Jessica refuses to indulge that woman’s demand for sympathy. “You take your goddamn pain and you live with it, asshole,” Jessica practically growls.
What’s particularly interesting is the power of the show’s Big Bad. The reason why Kilgrave works so well is because mind control is a terrifying superpower, but also one that remarks on mental illness and the abuser/victim dynamic. Living with a mental illness — from bipolar disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple others — can often make you feel like you have no control over your own mind; when Jessica’s PTSD symptoms pop up and interfere with her own life, it’s like she can’t control what her mind remembers, thinks, and fears. And Kilgrave is certainly an abuser, first of Jessica and now of the missing young girl, Hope (Erin Moriaty). His literal mind control mimics the way that abusers can “control” their victims through guilt, gaslighting, Stockholm Syndrome, and just plain terror. There are layers and layers underneath everything happening in Marvel’s Jessica Jones and the further you get, the more devastating — but amazing — the show becomes.
And then, lest it all get too dark, there’s the sex! Without a doubt, Marvel’s Jessica Jones is the Feminist Superhero Show we’ve all been craving, and one of the ways it proves this (besides, you know, having a woman lead who mostly hangs out in a leather jacket and jeans and gender-swapping Hogarth’s character) is through largely woman-dominated sex scenes. It’s also sex that is actually sexy, not pornographic or clinical or just plain boring like what we see on a lot of TV dramas. Of course, it helps that both Luke Cage and Jessica Jones have superhuman strength so their sex tends to be inherently interesting. There are three prominent lesbian characters (Hogarth is one of them); a character who pronounces her marriage over with the confession, “We don’t even do oral anymore”; a scene in which Jessica is very direct about what she wants in bed; and even a good ol’-fashioned cunnilingus scene — a first for Marvel, I assume.
It’s wonderful that Marvel’s Jessica Jones is primed to generate discussion, not for its action (the fight scenes are sort of subdued, casual, and purposely sloppy, as Jessica is more of a drunken street brawler than a trained assassin), but for its sex, the character-driven nature of the series, and the curious ways in which trauma plants bombs in your life, and you don’t know what will set them off — or when it will happen.
Because, in the end, this show is all about Jessica, and all of her erratic, volatile, twisted, depressed, sexy, brawling, and beautiful ways. She’s a person defined by her experiences and her personality, not by her powers. She’s a fucked-up hero who knows that “people do bad shit,” and she doesn’t exclude herself from that assessment. She takes her goddamn pain, and she lives with it — for better or worse. And that’s what makes Marvel’s Jessica Jones one of the most compelling superhero narratives ever.
The full season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones debuts Friday on Netflix.