Kilgrave, Luke Cage, Nuke, and more: 'Jessica Jones' season 1 in review
Last week, I reviewed the first seven episodes of "Jessica Jones." Now that I've seen the full season, I have some more specific thoughts — with lots of spoilers for everything — coming up just as soon as they have free express shipping in Heaven...
For the most part, my opinion's unchanged from the review based on the series' first half: Krysten Ritter and David Tennant were both great, Mike Colter has me eager to see him in the Luke Cage series, and this is easily the best of the Marvel TV shows so far, taking advantage of the creative freedom of Netflix to tell a really dark and unflinching story that did right by the source material. But certain things I was worried about became slightly more worrisome by the end, while other things wound up impressing me more than they did early on.
There weren't really 13 episodes of story here. "Alias," the comic series that introduced Jessica Jones, took its time putting Kilgrave on stage, letting Jessica work other cases for a while so we could get to know and understand her before the chief cause of her misery came back into the picture. The TV show dove right into the Purple Man of it all, which I can appreciate as a narrative hook, but which meant the season had to spend a bit more time than was entirely sustainable with the cat and mouse game between our hero and her personal nightmare. As a result, we had to occasionally witness really stupid things happening, like the awful coffee shop scene in episode 10 where Robyn somehow incites the Kilgrave support group into invading Jessica's apartment, with Robyn freeing Kilgrave so he could unleash mayhem for three more episodes. Melissa Rosenberg was head writer on "Dexter" for a while, and that show also induced eye rolls on occasion to make sure Dexter couldn't kill that season's big bad until the finale. But "Dexter" also took more of a slow-burn approach to its arcs, keeping Dexter busy with unrelated opponents early in each season so that the larger game didn't feel overplayed by the time the finale arrived. With the exception of that story with Jessica Hecht as the client who wanted to kill Jessica as revenge-by-proxy for her mother dying during the alien invasion in "Avengers," virtually every episode was driven entirely by Jessica vs. Kilgrave, when there were maybe 9 or 10 episodes worth of material in there that had to be stretched out.
Speaking of which...
There's a lot of Kilgrave cruelty in those 13 episodes. Again, the show needs to establish what an absolute monster Kilgrave is so we'll fully appreciate what he did to Jessica, and why she ultimately has no choice but to kill him. But seeing him casually destroy so many lives again and again and again, in episodes watched over a very short span, was tough to take. After he ordered the two kids to stand in the closet in episode 3, I spent the next couple of episodes having difficulty focusing on the actual story, because all I wanted to see was Jessica turn up at that apartment to save them before they starved to death. Instead, the show just moved on. The writers were certainly creative in the many different horrible things Kilgrave could make people do to themselves and/or their loved ones, but like a couple of other elements of the show — the Will Simpson mini-arc in particular (more on that in a minute) — it's one that felt better-suited to a show meant to be consumed weekly, where periodic reminders of the level of Kilgrave's evil would have more value and more potency.
The fight scenes got much better. Early on, it seemed that the show was less concerned with the action scenes than "Daredevil," which seemed fine. This was less a superhero show than film noir with occasional bursts of super strength or mind control, and the characters and stories were compelling enough that we didn't need elaborate choreography or flashy shots like the "Daredevil" single-take fight scene. But in the season's back half, once Jessica started dealing with opponents around the same power level as her, everyone involved seemed more free to cut loose and demonstrate what kind of damage could actually be caused when two people this strong fought each other. The brawl with Simpson in Jessica's apartment and her fight with Cage at the club were impressive in their ugly brutality, and the wreck that the former left of the office (including a continuation of the running gag about Jessica's office door) was a nice metaphor for the state of Jessica's life in general.
The supporting characters were mostly excellent. Cage made a great romantic foil for Jessica in all her damage — Mike Colter's nauseated delivery of "You let me be inside you" after Luke discovered he'd been sleeping with his wife's killer was one of the season's most powerful moments — and Rosenberg and company did a great job of taking various Patsy Walker elements from the comics (click here to see her very first appearance, waaaaay back in 1944, along with the comics debuts of Jessica, Cage, Kilgrave, and others) and turning her into Jessica's compelling friend/sister/ally Trish. Hope, Malcolm, and Jeryn waxed and waned at times between being interesting characters in their own right and just being plot devices (see Jeryn arranging to free Kilgrave from the soundproof booth), though Erin Moriarty, Eka Darville and Carrie-Anne Moss all gave good performances.
Simpson was the major weak spot. He's based on Nuke, a villain in the greatest Daredevil story of all time ("Born Again"), but his transformation from Kilgrave victim to secondary hero to secondary villain induced major whiplash, particularly that last one, as he became yet another obstacle to the inevitable Jessica/Kilgrave confrontation. (Also, he murdered poor Det. Clemons! RIP, Not-Lester Freamon.) I imagine the show has more plans for him in the event Netflix decides to do another season (as opposed to just shifting Jessica over to "The Defenders"), but his arc didn't work at all, and not just because — in a universe with far fewer superpowered characters than in the various Jessica Jones comics — the odds on Kilgrave just happening to employ a cop who was once part of a secret super soldier program felt pretty long.
That was Rebecca De Mornay?!?!?! I spent Mrs. Walker's early appearances racking my brain to figure out if I recognized the actress playing her. Then I saw this tweet, and suddenly it was blindingly obvious that it was the former "Risky Business" star. It hasn't been that long since the last thing I saw De Mornay in ("John From Cincinnati"), but the hairstyle (and color) completely threw me.
Thank goodness someone finally thought to use headphones. If the villain has the power to control minds with the sound of his voice, blasting music or otherwise trying to block out noise would seem an obvious defense mechanism. I'm glad they deployed it in the finale, when Trish was briefly impersonating Jessica, but it's odd that it didn't occur sooner to anyone, given all the trouble they went to to lock the guy in a soundproof chamber.
Claire Temple's cameo was interesting. Last week, a few people asked me if they needed to see "Daredevil" before watching this. I said no, that while the shows took place in the same neighborhood, and had characters who would be teaming up down the road, there wasn't anything in the story that depended on knowledge of events in "Daredevil" season 1.
That changed slightly in the "Jessica" finale, which featured a whole lot of Rosario Dawson as Matt Murdock's personal nurse and sometime lover Claire Temple. Dawson was one of the best parts of "Daredevil," and given the medical crisis that Luke Cage was in after Jessica shot him in the head at the end of the penultimate episode, I can see why the creative team would want to bring in a character who not only has experience treating superhumans, but where they didn't have to waste any time explaining where she got that experience. But if you were someone who hadn't seen "Daredevil," the prominence of this character at the latest possible hour — where she got to not only help save Cage's life (by plunging a needle into his eyeball, "The Knick"-style), but offer career wisdom and relationship advice to both Jessica and Cage (and a bit to Malcolm) — probably felt odd.
Still, the finale did a better job than most superhero shows set in a shared universe of explaining why other heroes don't turn up to help out with a particularly nasty villain: given what happened with Cage, Jessica was absolutely right to not want to risk another powerful person falling under Kilgrave's control.
Jessica and Kilgrave's final showdown was everything it needed to be. Ultimately, the show nailing the twisted, disgusting relationship between those two is all that matters, even if there were some of the aforementioned bumps along the way.
One of the interesting deviations Rosenberg made — and that I haven't seen discussed in any of the interviews she's done — is to make the rape aspect from "Alias" literal rather than a metaphor. In the comics, Kilgrave controls Jessica for months, but never touches her, and this wasn't a case of a comic book having to soft-pedal explicit material, because it was Marvel's first adults-only series. Brian Michael Bendis made that choice, and Rosenberg made a different one. Neither is right or wrong, and making Kilgrave's assault of Jessica physical as well as mental allowed Rosenberg to more directly address the issues of rape, control, consent, and the aftermath of trauma that are at the heart of the story.
Episodes 8 (Jessica and Kilgrave play house together) & 9 (Kilgrave imprisoned in the CDC cell) were the series' peak, because they forced extended interaction between the two main characters that simply wasn't possible when he was running away and/or trying to kill her. The scene in episode 9 where she beats up Kilgrave but fails to get videotaped proof of his powers was especially great: what should have been catharsis, with her in control and making him hurt for once, instead was only more frustrating for her, because she wasn't getting the thing she really needed, and was acting more like him in the process. (That episode also ends with my favorite Krysten Ritter moment of the season, when Jessica allows herself the slightest of smiles when she realizes she's become immune to Kilgrave's power.)
And the climax at the docks was terrific. We already knew that Kilgrave's fixation with Jessica gave her at least a small measure of control over him, and she exploited that perfectly, forcing him to make the civilians stop fighting and baiting a hook so that he'd get close enough for her to finally end him. That he first insists on having her smile (Rosenberg talked about the larger meaning of his "Smile" commands with the LA Times' Libby Hill) — and that Ritter plasters such a creepy, unnatural smile across her face — only makes it more satisfying when she delivers the "I love you" to Trish (paying off the coded phrase idea from earlier) and then shuts Kilgrave's mouth once and for all.
Kilgrave's death means a hypothetical second season won't have a villain who's as fundamentally tied to Jessica. But he was also a tricky character to keep in play this long. Ritter's enough for me to want to see a lot more of her take on the character, whether solo or whenever "Defenders" rolls around, and maybe a second season can do an ever so slightly more gradual ramp up to its major arc.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org