“I’m not a killer,” Jessica Jones tells a client in the opening episode of the show’s second season. The client, a hard-working woman whose boyfriend, Jones reveals, is cheating on her, has asked Jones to murder him. “Oh bullpucky, you broke a man’s neck,” Jones’s client shoots back. “I heard about it on Trish Talk. Some guy does you wrong and you kill him, but now the vigilante hero is going to judge me?” Jones’s already familiar short fuse shows itself before she mutters, “I don’t kill people because I’m not a murderer,” and slams the door behind her.
Two years after Jessica Jones premiered to critical acclaim, grappling with sexual assault and the interplay of power, both cultural and physical, the second season finds Jones (the always wonderful Krysten Ritter) navigating the emotional aftermath. Jones struggles with her decision to kill Killgrave while searching for answers about both her past and the mysterious origin of her power. But if the first season of Jessica Jones felt like a revelation—especially in the often homogeneous world of Marvel—featuring, as it did, a moody, hard-drinking protagonist struggling to find justice, uninterested in traditional narratives of feminine redemption, then the show’s second season struggles to find such timely relevance.
It’s a surprise that Jessica Jones never quite finds the narrative depth that made its first season so compelling. The first season of the show, years before #MeToo, built on women’s discontent and anger, and Ritter’s Jones gave sardonic voice to the bleak mundanity of abuse, balanced by humor and a nuanced exploration of power. Kilgrave’s power was great, but he exercised it with the pettiness that particular power inspires; Jones’s power, meanwhile, teetered, physically potent but emotionally spent. But in the second season, that narrative tension is gone, replaced with an origin story of sorts, or at least, Jones’s search for her origins which, by the sluggish fifth episode, was still frustratingly opaque. (Netflix only made five episodes available for review.)
After pressure from Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), Jones begins to search for the reasons she has super strength; the answers are entangled with the car accident that left her entire family dead and mysterious medical experiments which Jones can’t remember. It’s here that the show attempts to find meaning, pairing Jones’s trauma with that of Walker and lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss). Each of the women carries trauma of some sort: Jones shies away from her past, Walker is working through her own sexual abuse, and Hogarth is unable to come to terms with her own mortality. But the narrative purposes of these traumas are, like Jones’s origins, opaque, and they often seem like endnotes meant to humanize difficult women rather than as a method to explore the alienation from self and society that such traumas often produce.
Instead, showrunner and creator Melissa Rosenberg and her writing staff (nine of the episodes were written by women) offer stereotypical depictions of coming undone. There is drug use, hard drinking, sex workers, and broken relationships. Those images are, no doubt, part and parcel of Jessica Jones’s noirish, anti-hero themes, but simply flipping the gender script seems like a shallow shortcut in a season that’s otherwise bogged down by an elaborate plot. The effect is disappointingly flattening, particularly since the first season was unafraid of complexity, something that still remains too rare for women on television.
There are moments that hint of future promise. The relationship between Jones and Walker remains one of the better plot lines of the show and, after Season 1's fallout, Jones’s relationship with Hogarth seems to be heading for a rocky reconciliation. We learn more about Walker’s backstory as well. Walker, a former child star, has a plot line readymade for the Time’s Up news cycle. She reluctantly confronts a director who abused her as a teenager in order to protect Jones. It’s a rare moment of exploration where that particularly messy mix of anger and hurt are allowed to simply exist in all of their contradictions. It affords Jones one of her better lines when, after confronting Walker’s abuser, she says, “I’m angry and I’m not sure there’s anything I won’t do anymore, especially to a prick like you who think you can whoever and whatever you want.”
At its heart, Jessica Jones is a show about women’s relationships, relegating men to secondary characters, even as Jones’s assistant Malcolm (the very good Eka Darville) gets more screentime. But the even chemistry between the actors, particularly Ritter, Taylor, and Darville, can’t quite save the show from its listless plot line. By the fifth episode, Jones was still in need of a villain who might (or might not) be an unnamed character played by the always wonderful Janet McTeer, who might (or might not) hold the key to Jones’s origins.
The first five episodes spent their time explaining, laying the foundations for an elaborate plot that may never pay off. But in the process of constructing a complex plot, the show forgot that its strength was never in the plot, but rather the complex women that made Jessica Jones’s first season so good.
The first five episodes spent their time explaining, laying the foundations for an elaborate plot that may never pay off. But in the process of constructing a complex narrative, the show forgot that its strength was never in the plot, but rather the complex women that made Jessica Jones’s first season so good.