This review contains spoilers.
This reviewer has very little prior knowledge of Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, although he is familiar with the Purple Man from early-era Daredevil comics. As such, these reviews are against the material as presented on television. And on that note, Marvel’s knack for turning little known heroes and heroines into amazing small screen series cannot be understated.
Like its movies and series before, Marvel’s success continues to hinge upon top notch casting decisions. Krysten Ritter stars as the titular character, a former super hero turned private investigator with a tragic past. Ritter perfectly captures the essence of a woman tired of the altruism of the superhero gig, and has nothing to show for it but scars caused by the violent shattering of good intentions. Foul mouthed, sardonic and utterly jaded, Ritter successfully blends her comical wit and slyness from Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 with the dramatic talents she proved to possess in Breaking Bad.
Most of Jones’ work involves the typical, misanthropy-inducing sleaze that comes with the occupation; gathering dirt for clients to ease their divorce proceedings. Jessica’s lowness is further highlighted by her more successful associations. These include her adopted sister, famous talk show host Trish Walker, and high-powered-high-profit Attorney Jeri Hogarth who is the source of most of Jones’ dubious clients.
However, Jessica haunts her past as much as it haunts her. She all but stalks Luke Cage, the owner of a local bar, for reasons of her own. And the rest her time is spent as inebriated as possible. Yet her path changes trajectory when she’s charged with locating a missing girl named Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty).
This chase eventually crosses paths with Kilgrave, better known as the Purple Man, a sociopath from Jessica’s past with the ability to control minds. Determined to hurt Jones’ for the pain of her abandonment, Kilgrave uses his powers to frame the kidnapped Shlottman for the murder of her parents.
David Tennant plays the role of Jones’ tormentor and nemesis Kilgrave. While Marvel’s movies seldom possess the time to carefully cultivate their villainy, their small screen work truly makes their bad guys amazing to behold. Just as Vincent D’Onofrio did with the Kingpin, Tennant makes the Purple Man shine with his warped sense of morality and refusal to accept responsibility for the actions partaken by those under his control. Driven by injured pride and obsession, Kilgrave returns from Jones’ past to try and reclaim what is “his.”
One of the best elements of Jessica Jones has to be the unorthodox approach to handling the origin story. Too many comic-derived works take the Fantastic Tales approach of laying out the source of a protagonist’s abilities and heroic drive very early. And often rehashing it again and again whenever a new print starts or whenever a fresh introduction is required for new and expanding readership.
Rather, series creator Melissa Rosenberg wisely chose to wrap Jones’ past in two layers of mystery at least; the origin of Jones’ powers (to be discussed later) and Jones’ sordid history with Kilgrave and Cage, which is the center stage of this season.
For Jessica, Hope and a cast of other characters (including Eka Darville as Jones’ drug-addicted neighbor Malcolm), being a Kilgrave-survivor is a point of psychological intrigue. Kilgrave’s abilities raise unspoken questions regarding the nature of free will, as his victims are conscious and aware of their disturbing, involuntary actions, often voicing regret and remorse even as they obey. Yet the most horrible aspect of it is the sense of relief some of Kilgrave’s victims feel, assigning responsibility for their acquiesce to the man in charge. This psychological phenomenon is a carefully explored hypothetical that fairly puts the series in the realm of true science fiction.
Indeed, Kilgrave’s influence is felt absolutely everywhere and by everyone, no matter how much they try to elude him to deal with their own subplots. Those threads are a point of brilliance for the show. All the major characters are luckless enough to be caught by the Purple’s Man’s entangling web, which no one passes through without injury or consequence. And every subplot save one ties back into the centerpiece. Chekhov’s gun is observed and obeyed but the results aren’t without twists that shock and surprise.
Of those subplots, perhaps the highest praise could be paid to Mike Colter as Luke Cage. Like Jones, he is haunted by his past; a dead wife (at Jones’ hands and Kilgrave’s command), which led to a stint in prison where he achieved his powers of indestructibility. The original character is often classified as part of the blaxploitation era of the 70s, but care and vision had been given to the role’s reconstruction since then to stand above and beyond stereotypes.
Cage appears in roughly a third of the series, but his application moves the plot forward without overshadowing or distracting from Jones, while imparting depth and intrigue on his own. Colter’s passion for Cage has inspired this reviewer’s increased interest in the character’s forthcoming series, effectively selling it long before production finishes.
Then there’s Jeri Hogarth, portrayed by Carrie Anne-Moss. While the role was originally that of a man, Anne-Moss engaged the character with a sense of powerful rottenness that makes Don Draper of Mad Men look utterly meek in comparison. Hogarth’s story involves a tricky divorce from her wife for the love of her secretary, the strains of which grow until they are masterfully woven into the main plot. Her self-interest veers on the edge of antagonism even, such as preserving a sample of Kilgrave’s DNA for future study, even as the consequences turn karmic. Despite the tragedies that are inflicted on Hogarth, these traits are unlikely to have been erased, and one cannot help but wonder if she may become a villain.
While Cage provides a complicated love interest for Jones and Hogarth the professional and legal expertise, emotional support stems from her sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). Grateful for Jessica’s help in escaping the clutches of their overbearing, fame-oriented mother, Trish’s attempts to aide her sister invoke the ire of Kilgrave. It’s here that Walker’s story interlaces with Officer Will Simpson (Wil Traval).
Turned into a pawn for the Purple Man, Simpson regrets his attempt on the life of the popular talk show host, and he and Trish eventually begin a relationship while the try to help Jones. A former soldier, Simpson has applicable experience for such situations. But Simpson’s extreme methods prove frictional for the women, who need Kilgrave alive to prove Shlottman’s innocence. The polarizing situation eventually drives Simpson back into the arms of a group known as TGH, who supply him with drugs that cause his combat prowess to match the intensity of his increasingly unstable demeanor. Walker’s research into this issue casts light on the mystery of the origin of Jones’ powers, hinting that TGH was responsible.
The remainder of the main plot proceeds as follows. Kilgrave’s attempts to manipulate Jessica fail, despite trying to exploit her past and Jones’ temptation to convince Kilgrave to use his powers for acts of decency. Kilgrave is eventually captured, and Jones discovers that she’s immune to his powers. Homework reveals that Kilgrave’s parents, inadvertently responsible for his abilities after trying to save his life from a disease, have been monitoring the situation from afar. Jessica involves them to build her case to the police.
Kilgrave escapes by exploiting Hogarth’s desire for an amicable divorce, but only after he slays his mother. Simpson appears later and destroys the gathered evidence, believing it folly to involve the law. Hogarth leads Kilgrave to her wife, who is a doctor, in order to treat a wound. Through Hogarth, Kilgrave learns of the fetus (of which he is the father) that was taken from Shlottman and preserved for study. Disgusted, Kilgrave leaves Hogarth to face the vengeance of her wife, but is saved by her secretary. Freeing Shlottman by coercing a DA, Kilgrave offers the girl in exchange for his father Albert. However the deal goes sour for Jones. Shlottman takes her own life as Kilgrave escapes with his father.
Let’s pause in the recap for a moment. If there was any weakness in Jessica Jones, it was here in the tenth episode. Kilgrave’s final escape risked being one chase too many, one dangerous step beyond the limits of audience’s interest, fractured by the wasted efforts of Jones, Hogarth and Trish to prove Shlottman’s innocence. And for many viewers, the scene was nearly as heartbreaking as a murder in Game of Thrones. Although the final three episodes rebound the desire to continue, this particular episode felt prolonged and almost needlessly tragic. These two factors made the tenth episodes “AKA 1,000 Cuts” the most difficult to watch.
The skills of Kilgrave’s father are harnessed to improve his son’s abilities, while Simpson’s volatility proves too dangerous. Trish and Jessica are forced to subdue Simpson, who disappears. Kilgrave proves the depth of his new-found power by deeply programming Luke Cage to lure Jones into his trap.
After rendering Cage dangerously unconscious with a shotgun blast to the face, Jones enlists Nurse Temple (Rosario Dawson) to keep her friend alive while Jones and Trish pursue the Purple Man. With no choice and no one left to defend, Jessica tricks Kilgrave into getting close before snapping his neck. Hogarth uses the implausibility of the circumstances to get Jessica off the hook legally. After regaining consciousness, Cage flees. Jones is alone again with only Malcolm, while Trish, given aide by her mother, begins researching TGH…
However, the plot line involving TGH was the aforementioned mystery that remains unresolved for now. The second season hasn’t been announced as of yet as Marvel’s The Defenders likely takes priority. However, it’s not impossible that Jones’ may make appearances in Luke Cage or the second season of Daredevil between now and then.
Compared to Daredevil, Jessica Jones feels the more superior show by a few increments. Daredevil was somewhat handicapped by the sheer number of villains it was saddled with, and had many faces and story lines to introduce or at least hint at, both for its own sake as well as setting up the forthcoming miniseries. Jones was more free to explore the character and her yarns against 1.5 villains, and as a result handled its material slightly better.
If the first season of Daredevil has taken care of all the heavy lifting, and Jessica Jones is any indication of what to expect from now on, then we have a lot to look forward to from Marvels’ television studios.