The Real Problem With “Jessica Jones”

“Jessica Jones” is a show I really liked when I first saw it, but it has joined that unfortunate category of works that I enjoyed the first time around and then disliked more and more the more I thought about them (also in this category: “The Force Awakens”). One personal issue I have with “Jessica Jones” is simply that I find the philosophy of feminism it happens to be promoting abhorrent; but this is something that not all will agree with me about by any means and is not a measure of the quality of the execution.

Another, politically neutral issue with “Jessica Jones” is that the plotting is deeply stupid. Episode ten of “Jessica Jones” is one of the stupidest episodes of television I have ever watched. Characters acted in wildly stupid ways, occasionally out of character, and certain things – like the way Kilgrave’s powers supposedly worked – were directly contradicted (something which, BTW, remained a major problem – if Kilgrave’s mind control works as a virus, then no matter how powerful he is a video of Kilgrave would have no effect on the watcher, and yet in later episodes there he is, mind-controlling people via video).

Now, the CONCEPT behind season one is legitimately excellent. An innocent girl has been forced to murder by Kilgrave, who can mind control anybody who hears his voice – and furthermore, the mind control is utterly absolute and almost impossible to resist in even a token manner. Jessica now must find and capture Kilgrave without actually hearing him speak, and upon finding him must prove he has the ability to control people’s minds without actually letting him do so. That’s a very strong concept!

The biggest problem of the series, even more than the bad plotting, lies in Jessica’s character development. It is botched, and badly. “Jessica Jones” starts the series in a very dark, low place: She is an alcoholic, she lives alone and shuns relationships with other people, and acts like a complete jerk to everyone around her. We learn quickly that she suffered extreme emotional trauma after being kept as a slave by Kilgrave for months before being forced to kill someone. This is a good place for her to start the series! When you start at the bottom there is a path forward from there: Up.

Jessica is ultimately drawn into conflict again with Kilgrave (who, by the way, is portrayed with a mesmerizing creepiness by David Tennant in the best performance of the show). In theory, Kilgrave is the source of her current status. The comics make this clear: Pre-Kilgrave comics version of Jessica was optimistic and upbeat. Then Kilgrave got to her and changed her into someone mean and cynical.

Part of the problem is that the show makes it clear that Jessica was ALWAYS an asshole. Even little child Jessica was an asshole. Orphan Jessica was an asshole. Sandwich saved me Jessica, when she first tries the superhero thing, was an asshole.

Jessica would have been a lot more sympathetic if Kilgrave turned her into this horrid person nobody wants to be around; what he actually did was turn her into a person who is both an asshole AND who tries her hardest to withdraw from the rest of the world as well. An issue that should have been solved with the end of her character arc in JJ.

But Jessica ends the series in exactly the same place as she started: A depressed alcoholic jerk who shuns contact with other people but will very reluctantly play the hero when really really pressed. She does not change. Why?

The answer is that “Jessica Jones” is a subtle but textbook example of placing your message above the needs of the story. Reviews and interviews make it clear that the director was trying to make a point: Just because you underwent trauma doesn’t mean you weren’t a jerk before that, and getting rid of your abuser doesn’t magically solve your problems.

This is a fine message, but “Jessica Jones” was telling a story. And because the showrunner had these pet issues she wanted to get across, the story was weakened. In fact, it wasn’t completed at all, which becomes even clearer when it is actually completed in “The Defenders”. The plot of “defeat the villain” was finished; the personal conflict, “Jessica overcomes her trauma” – which narratively makes the most sense if it is connected to Kilgrave, which it mostly is – is left dead in the water. The one should be intertwined with other, but they don’t affect each other at all. She ends the series in exactly the same place as where she started!

As a result finishing season 1 of “Jessica Jones” is a frustrating experience: You know how it should end, and it looks like the show is setting up for that ending, because it IS setting up for that ending…and then it doesn’t happen.

Because the showrunner was trying to make a point.

“Jessica Jones” had a lot going for it, including some really excellent episodes and great performances by both Ritter and Tennant, especially Tennant. But the show was undone by poor plotting and the sacrifice of the story in favor of the message.

Let it be a lesson to us all.

  • Overgrown Hobbit

    I wonder how TV will survive the “…Let’s see how stupid they’ll make it before I try season 1 phenomenon.”?