Jessica Jones Failed to Follow Through in Season 2 And Missed Who the Real Villain Was

Posted on March 15, 2018

The second season of Jessica Jones continued the first-season emotional arcs of all its main characters, to its credit. What could have been simply another “And now we start a brand new adventure” approach in the wake of the lead character literally conquering her demon last season, was instead an examination of how broken and angry said lead character is, and how she has surrounded herself with similarly broken people. Like season one, the second season of Jessica Jones was about trauma survivors. Unlike season one, it wasn’t about them facing off against a foe but about tearing each other apart because of their own lack of coping skills. It was a story about people trapped by their own rage, addictions, obsessions and  – underneath it all – their virulent, toxic self-loathing. Jessica hates herself for her perceived lack of humanity, Trish hates herself for not being stronger, Malcolm hates himself for being weak (which is a different thing from hating yourself for not being stronger), and Jeri hates herself for ever allowing anyone control over her life. It’s powerful stuff for a superhero TV show. The problem? It’s not always all that entertaining. And possibly worse (depending on your perspective), it muddled the very messages and themes it was trying to get across by making some questionable creative decisions.

But let’s pause here for a second and discuss the fact that, despite its issues, the second season of Jessica Jones is highly bingeable and watchable, due mostly to the performance of its lead Krysten Ritter. We don’t quite know how she does it, but she manages to make a character who literally never has a nice thing to say about anyone or anything into someone vulnerable and even likable. In fact, Ritter’s inexplicable ability to make you root for a super-powered misanthrope who abuses herself whenever she’s not abusing everyone around her may be at the heart of the show’s problems. Not every actor can do that, and we suspect it may be why Trish’s arc came off much, much worse than we think the show’s creators intended.

Make no mistake, Trish is a villain this season. She’s a villain who walks away largely unscathed except for a ruined friendship, but she assaulted, dosed, kidnapped and committed murder, all while telling herself it was for the greater good; all of it fueled by her own damaged psyche and a feverish attempt to become something she’s not. We’re supposed to be thrilled for her when she seems to discover her own superpowers in the final seconds of the season, but we found ourselves kind of angry about the whole thing. After all, in any other story in this genre, the person who goes around destroying and ending lives in a quest for greater power is ALWAYS the supervillain. Rachael Taylor gave a fine performance as an increasingly desperate woman spurred on by her addiction, trauma, and feelings of inadequacy, but she simply wasn’t able to take the character on the page and make her someone worth rooting for. Quite the opposite. She became more and more disturbing as the season went on. There’d be nothing wrong with making the hero’s step-sister into a villain. In fact, it would have made a devastating second act for the series. But the show never quite seemed like it was willing to denounce Trish’s behavior. This is probably our entire issue with the season in a nutshell; its unwillingness to follow through on characters’ actions, sometimes dropping storylines completely or having them fizzle out.

Jeri’s story in particular came off weirdly uneven and seemed to have little point to it. Given how her diagnosis and fear of her loss of power could have easily dovetailed into the IGH story, it just seems odd in retrospect that it never really went there. Instead it became a story about how she was conned out of her possessions and partnership by losing sight of what makes her powerful, or whatever. She came out on top at the end, but there was nothing about her story that felt satisfying, let alone necessary. It happened entirely parallel to the main story, only touching on it briefly. She got her revenge on the people who did her wrong, but it happened off-screen, with no sense of the repercussions or fallout. There was nothing particularly emotional about her arc. It just played out, behind glass, away from the other characters.

To be fair, this season was never going to be a laugh-riot, once the decision was made to continue to place the effects of trauma at the center of the story and the defining aspect of most of the main characters. Still, There’s something just a little disturbingly off about a show examining the long-term effects of trauma by having two white women verbally, mentally and physically abuse a black male ally with very little examination of their actions. Sure, Malcolm got to get a few things off his chest and seek out employment elsewhere, but when Jessica wasn’t verbally abusing him, Trish was using him for sex, dosing him with drugs, knocking him out and stuffing him in a trunk. There was no real reckoning for any of this; not even an emotional one. Just Jess and Malcolm coldly passing each other in the hallway at the end.

There’s also something strange about a show that wants to explore the theme of female anger by positioning at its center a Hulk-like figure whose anger is scientifically imposed on her. Alisa was abused and manipulated, sure, but we’re told again and again that the source of her rage issues are, in fact, her powers. She was meant to give Jessica someone to compare herself to; a cautionary tale about where she was heading. But it never quite came together for one very good reason. Jessica may have a lot of rage at her core, but it manifests itself mostly as self-abuse, with a heavy dose of emotional abuse for anyone who tries to get close to her. She’s never been shown to have the kind of uncontrollable rage her mother suffered from, so none of this ever really felt like the cautionary tale it was trying to be. The very fact that Jessica tortures herself over the few lives she was forced to end belies any sense that she was in danger of becoming like her mother.

In fact, the entire Alisa story, like the Trish and Jeri storylines, never quite came together as well as it should have. Putting aside the idea that the very question it was trying to pose (Will Jess become her mother?) had little chance of coming true, once Alisa was revealed to be her mother, a lot of the tension drained out of the story. It went from “What’s going on with this crazy She-Hulk ripping people’s heads off?” to “Oh, it’s her mother, who will die in the final episode of the season.” Are we wrong here? Was there ever any doubt, from the moment the reveal was made, what Alisa’s fate was going to be? It was merely a matter of waiting for her death and wondering how it was going to come about. The tension drained out of the series completely, especially when it gave Jessica multiple chances to do the right thing and she whiffed it each time. The ending (Trish killing Alisa because Jessica couldn’t) was drearily inevitable.

To be fair, literally every problem we have with season two has to do with how the final three or four episodes were handled. The first two-thirds of the season were engrossing, a little sexy (that Super wasn’t hard to look at, nor was Trish’s long-suffering boyfriend), mysterious, and stylish in that way we’d come to expect from this series, easily our favorite of the Marvel Netflix offerings. But like every one of its sibling shows, Jessica Jones suffers from Netflix bloat. All of the storylines of the season could have been told much better and more efficiently, with a much higher level of tension and even a better chance of resolving well, if the season was at least three episodes shorter. Alternately – and we think this is the better option – these shows can stop insisting on one long arc for an entire season. She runs a detective agency. While we wouldn’t want to see the show become a strict procedural, there’s no reason why we can’t walk through a couple of entertaining cases – with resolutions – while the emotional arcs of the characters play out over the season. This insistence on making the show solely about the emotional arcs – and then not resolving any of them in a satisfactory manner – turned our favorite Netflix Marvel show into something of a slog, we’re sorry to say.

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