Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Jessica Jones

(SPOILERS) 

So why does this work so well? Partly it's due to Kristen Ritter's screen presence. She was superb in  Breaking Bad, and here her lanky toughness perfectly matches a character forever walking down dark cold streets, drinking to forget and taking  photographs of people screwing in alleyways. One of the first shots we see of her is after a client has just been punched through her office's glass door. "And then there's the matter of your bill," she says over his stunned body. It's a frame straight out of the original  comic book, but Ritter really sells it.

Secondly, it's due to its genuinely horrific villain. David Tennant as Kilgrave is the personification of male entitlement and delusion. This is a guy who insists on two kidneys from a donor instead of one because he wants to feel whole. The sheer inadequacy as well as the arrogance of toxoc masculinity is caught so well by Tennant and the scripts. Anyone who's dared look at the "Gamergate" hashtag, or read tweets by the sort of men who complain "when is International Men's Day?", can recognize it. Ultimately this is a show about rape which is unflinchingly honest yet never salacious or graphic. We don't actually see the rape scenes, yet we feel the rape in all its horror and stark injustice, and see how utterly ludicrous is the stalker's belief that he is entitled to be his prey's lover. On one hand, the show is strong enough to be openly non-metaphorical: as Jessica says, what Kilgrave did was rape, pure and simple. Yet on the other hand, by that one fantastical twist, we see it in an original yet horribly familiar and true light. This is what all good fantasy does: as GK Chesterton observed, it takes the commonplace and simply adjusts the angle at which we see it. What this show makes us feel so profoundly is that men are not entitled to women, and a man can never understand a woman if she doesn't love him, however much he may convince himself otherwise. However much harm Kilgrave causes Jessica, he can never possess her, or know who she is.

The metaphor works so well because it is kept simple: unlike the villains in Heroes, Kilgrave has just one superpower, yet by selecting this and following it down the line, this show makes us realise that a man always getting his own way would be the most frightening superpower of all. The various  moments in which this power manifests itself - as characters are forced to cut each other 99 times, detonate suicide bombs, cut their own heart out, shoot their parents, throw hot coffee in their own faces, impale themselves upon garden shears - are all the more frightening as a result: part of a single, relentlessly approaching foe.

Perhaps the crucial factor in why this show works is its feminism, which permeates it at all levels. There are deftly gender-swapped takes on the usual stereotypes - Hogarth, the tough lawyer trying to get a divorce and start a new life with a younger woman is played by the steely Carrie-Anne Moss - and the obnoxiousness of patriarchy is seen in its more everyday as well as diabolical manifestations, such as the odious guy who tries to chat up Jessica and Trish in a bar. The sex scenes tend to show the female characters in control, and it's the female gaze rather than the male gaze that's catered to, with Mike Colter being the only person to strip and male-on-female oral sex is depicted rather than vice versa as is more common on television.

Just when it looks like Jessica Jones is going to suffer the same brief lapse as Daredevil and bring torture and rendition  into the Overton window - mentioned as part of the techniques Simpson acquired in his military background - it interrogates them more successfully than in Daredevil because Simpson is no hero, but a portrayal of the inadequacy of the patriarchal military mindset. Jessica's capture of Kilgrave, use of an electrified cell and her killing of him at the end never really becomes offensive because the show wisely avoids allegory: the threat posed by Kilgrave is never compared to a war on terrorism, and Simpsons's attempts to approach it in that way are rejected: this is purely about Kilgrave and Jessica, and she tackles him the only way she can.

This show, like Daredevil, has picked up a valuable technique from a Breaking Bad: keep changing the stakes. We think that Hogarth will settle into a familiar role: providing legal backup and plenty of letter-of-the-law vs Jessica's Way sparks, but then she releases Kilgrave to suit her own ends, leading to the death of her estranged wife and the arrest of her lover. We think Simpson will either be a well-meaning dunce or will die heroically, but he turns murderous. The writers make it impossible for themselves to fall back on clich├ęs: after what unfolds in each episode, they can only move forward. Another aspect it may owe to Breaking Bad - again used to similarly great effect in Daredevil - is that while the stakes change, the antagonist remains the same over the season, which makes the show almost unbearably taut as we start to despair of the protagonist ever gaining the advantage over him, and by avoiding overcomplicating the narrative allows the writers to explore the effect the conflict has on the protagonist's sanity, sense of morality and on those around her.

Jessica Jones is also a show in which the supporting characters are as memorable and three-dimensional as the main players. Eka Darville as Malcolm goes on a remarkable arc: first he's the heroine addict whose role seems to be just to wander confused into Jessica's apartment without realising it isn't his, and who we assume will serve no other purpose in the narrative, like Jessica herself when she rather callously exploits the way people see Malcolm and uses him as a decoy when robbing the hospital. Then, when it's revealed he's another one of Kilgrave's pawns, we expect he'll go the way of the rest of them. When he's forced to go cold turkey, however, he turns out to be stronger than anyone thought. He does his best to help Jessica during a crisis when Reuben's body is planted in her flat, then puts his energy into the Kilgrave Survivors Group. He finally starts to lose patience with this, and starts to wonder if his degree in social care is being put to any real use, but ultimately decides that superheroes like Jessica need friends to pick up the pieces. The closing scene of the series, in which Jessica arrives back at her apartment to find Malcolm there cooking, and when she ignores the phone and deletes messages he unexpectedly picks it up and says "Alias Investigations: how may we help you?" is a wonderfully touching, funny moment: a character finds a path for him himself which is unexpected and yet makes perfect sense. Robyn, marvellously played by Colby Minifie, is another masterclass in how to write and play a supporting character. Her characterisation never goes down the conventional path: she never loses her temper or her tendency to say the wrong thing, yet we feel her pain at losing her beloved twin brother Reuben - her confession that she is lost without Reuben because he was the one everyone liked is a wonderfully moving moment - and see she is capable of her own skewed version of warmth and empathy when forgiving Malcolm.

Trish is less interesting. Rachael Taylor is the only weak piece of casting, lacking the distinctive presence of Ritter, Mike Colter (so strong here as Luke Cage, and enjoying some explosive chemistry with Ritter, that I look forward to covering the upcoming Cage series) or Moss and the quirkiness of Darville and Minifie, and the character is somewhat rote: a former child star turned successful radio talk show host (the host of a show no-one likes would have been more interesting). She performs her role adequately, but it remains a challenge for later seasons to make her as compelling as Jessica, Hogarth and Luke. Rosario Dawson as Claire, despite not appearing until the final episode, demonstrates more chemistry with Jessica than Trish does in the whole season (in fact, her appearance might be the most successful example of a crossover I've ever seen, adding character depth and increasing our emotional connection to the idea of a shared world, rather than a reference for the sake of referencing.)

So that's Jessica Jones: the kind of show everyone always says Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars are, a piece of pop culture that actually reflects the concerns of a generation instead of other pieces of pop culture, and reminds us that superpowers are no barrier to quality drama. It's the best show out there.