Why Jessica Jones Season Two Doesn’t (Quite) Work
I didn’t write about the first season of Jessica Jones. There were lots of reasons for that, but the biggest one was because the show felt so personal to me: as I wrote about Lady Bird a few weeks ago, it’s hard to really take a critical look at something that feels as though it’s so tied up in you as a person. And that’s a compliment to the show. It’s hard to think of the last time a run of episodes felt so gallingly specific, to the point where I just can’t take a look at the show on it’s strengths and weaknesses because it felt like jamming a finger into some raw part of my own brain and sloshing it back and forth a bit.
But this second season, as released a couple of days ago on Netflix? Not so much. It’s not just that it feels less personal, because I can’t criticize a show for not catering directly to me (unless it’s Riverdale, but considering I’m probably the only person still watching that I feel like I’m allowed), but it’s not nearly as good. With an opening run as unarguably strong as Jessica Jones had, a second season is never going to live up to the status quo set by the first. But for all the good stuff that this season had on offer, and it wasn’t insignificant, it also struggled to regain the sheer quality that first season had, even beyond the basic personal connection that I had with it.
I think it’s right to get out there straight up that the best thing about this season is the supporting cast. Like all good second runs, Jessica Jones focuses on expanding it’s world and leaning it to the arcs for it’s supporting characters: the most successful examples of this coming in the form of Jeri (Carrie Ann Moss) and Trish (Rachael Taylor), both returning as main cast from the previous season.
If there’s a running theme for Jessica Jones as a whole, it’s the notion of confronting your past – for Jeri, as she is diagnosed with a degenerative illness, she must face up to the karma of all the unarguable evil she’s done and how it has alienated everyone around her, while for Trish, it comes in the form of her grasping and frustrated attempts to gain the kind of power she believes necessary to mete out the justice she wants into the world at large. Both women put in brilliant performances, especially a gutting, exposed-nerve Carrie Ann Moss shining a light in those dark corners that Jeri can no longer hide from. There’s a deftness to the handling of their plots that really helps move their characters into a new territory, giving the show a sense of dynamism that is sorely lacking from much of the rest of the show.
One of the biggest problems of The Defenders universe, as I have written before, is that, as a series of shows, they don’t seem to know how to balance plot with character. For this season of Jessica Jones, it’s almost painfully obvious that this wants to be a real exploration of the various rich characters the first season set up, but they’ve also got to deliver on some kind of mystery-comic-book-whodunnit thriller that visibly strains to fill the thirteen-episode run (that could easily have been sliced down to ten with some ruthless but much-needed cuts).
The best moments of the season have nothing to do with the actual plot at hand, but the character beats that colour them, whether it’s Kilgrave curdling Jessica’s recovery inside her own head or Trish spiralling out into addiction in a character arc that deftly explores how obsession doesn’t vanish but simply mutates (can you tell that Trish is my favourite thing about this season? Because she’s my favourite thing about this season). One of the things that made Jessica Jones season one so compelling was the way plot informs the character work and the other way round; this season, the plot and the characters sort of dawdle along next to each other. There are no gasp-worthy twists that you don’t see coming a mile away, no sense of driving forward momentum. Things dawdle about between the interesting plots (Trish, Jeri) and the intently boring ones (everything to do with that godawful love interest, everything to do with that godawful rival PI, everything to do with that dire flashback episode). The story comes in fits and spurts and never really convinces, not helped by the overlong episode count that forces them to stretch out the potentially interesting plot points into something that frequently drags.
And while we’re on the subject of comparing seasons, something else that separates this season and the last is the presence of a truly brilliant villain. It’s almost unfair to compare David Tennant’s exquisitely evil Kilgrave to anything this season has to offer, but we have to – and there’s nothing in the way of an antagonist who feels nearly as fully-formed or intriguing. I understand that the show is trying to delve into Jessica more deeply as a character and that means putting her in conflict and contact with the people who made her who she is (literally and less so), and I appreciate that (even if I found a lot of the writing for the sensational Krysten Ritter as Jones strained).
But part of the reason this season feels so stop-start is because there’s no driving force in the form of a solid antagonist, despite some of the stuff that deals with Jessica’s mother and their relationship functioning as an interesting if often blunt tool to explore the nuances of a mother-daughter relationship. Kilgrave gave the story for season one a solid beginning, middle, and end, where this run never really feels as though it gets going. I’m all for moving outside traditional superhero storytelling, but not when the show feels like it’s grinding it’s gears to get going the whole way through as a result.
In fact, maybe that’s the biggest problem with this season – for all the fun double-act stuff with Trish and Jessica, for all the interesting exploration of addiction, mental illness, and familial bonds, it feels more like an origin story than anything else. Delving into Jessica’s past was necessary to some extent, but focusing the whole season around how she became who she was is far less interesting that spending time with the person she became because of it. The first season felt anarchic and new, not just because it was about a woman or because it dealt with heavy themes of trauma and recovery in a way we hadn’t seen before, but because it was focused on the Jessica of the here and now; this one stops to linger on the past, and feels backward-facing as a result. It’s less personal, more broad – we’ve seen this kind of backstory handled before. And it’s that nosedive into the traditional superhero origin story that keeps this season from reaching the heights it occasionally glimpses at.
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(header image courtesy of superherohype.com)