Who is Jessica Jones?

Jessica Jones sets out to redefine the superhero genre. At heart, every hero rendition aims to explore what it means to be human. At least the good ones. Yet, Jessica Jones also pursues other themes. What is guilt? How to think about personal responsibility? How can one let go of grief and overcome personal tragedies? These are all great questions, and novel ones for the TV screen. The problem: Jessica Jones is so sloppily made it ultimately fails to connect the threads.

The titular character Jessica Jones, gifted with superhuman strength, is working as a private investigator in a city roughly resembling New York. She is coming off of a violent relationship with a similarly gifted man who has complete control over others through the power of his voice. This is a neat and interesting premise. Quickly, however, the show runs into problems. It is almost definitely too long, with very low pacing. The storyline is too thin and linear to carry thirteen hour-long episodes. Part of the problem is the lack of character development. This, in turn, is due to bad casting. Rachael Taylor as Jessica’s best friend and Mike Colter as the love interest are particularly unconvincing. Their performances are so one-note it borders on parody at times. Taylor’s put on American accent is a real distraction, and Colter just is not able to display any charisma whatsoever.

Jessica Jones: A show that fails to live up to its promises.

The supporting cast’s performance is a problem, because it leaves Krysten Ritter as Jessica to carry the show mostly on her own. Ritter seems to be struggling with handling this burden. Because she needs to do so much, she doesn’t quite manage to convey the complexities in the Jones character that would make the show more interesting. Some directorial choices don’t really help in that regard. The show has a habit of hitting the viewer over the head with symbolism. Jessica is broken, so we see her chugging bottles of whiskey. Jessica is vulnerable, so every episode has to remind us of her unlocked apartment. Jessica is independent, so she blows off every offer of help. A little more subtlety would have gone a long way. The Jones character is also incredibly unlikeable. The show would have us believe that, in order to avoid guilt over sending someone to prison, Jones would accept the deaths of several people. She is just incredibly self-centered. While that is a palatable direction to take, it really requires a careful consideration of how to make viewers identify with her. Jessica Jones, unfortunately, doesn’t find a way to do that.

Jessica Jones

Photo credit: Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.0/Krysten Ritter 2011/ MyCanon/ 10 December 2011

The plot, frankly, is ridiculous. While, of course, this a show about people with superpowers, it makes a concerted effort at maintaining a sense of realism. Only on rare occasions do we actually see the characters’ special powers being deployed. In a world that gives us a new superhero on the screen seemingly every other month, that is refreshing. Yet when it comes to the plot, all vestiges of realism are thrown overboard. Some of the plotlines are so contrived it’s preposterous. At the same time, Jessica Jones is one of those shows which has its characters explain every plot point, lest the viewer needed to make any effort on her own. Some of these plot explaining conversations require us to suspend disbelief. That said, the show does do a particularly good job with cliffhangers. They are genuinely unexpected and are one of the main reasons why Jessica Jones does work in stretches.

What the show lacks most is a sense of humor. What makes shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Wire in particular so good is that, even amidst very heavy themes, they manage to sneak in just the right amount of humor. Jessica Jones is heavy all the time, with the exception of David Tennant, who is playing the show’s antagonist Kilgrave. Tennant, as usual, is mesmerizing. He manages to lend his character a scintillating quality. His Kilgrave is a true maniac; delusional, grandiose, braggadocious, but also petty, deeply dissatisfied and short-tempered. In relatively few scenes, Tennant is able to convey all of these character traits. When paired with the lesser actors on the show, it almost seems as if he’s overacting, given the monotonous deliveries of his counterparts. Paradoxically, Tennant’s presence both elevates the show while also highlighting its deficiencies.

Jessica Jones wants to be more than entertainment. However, its social commentary is a little off. There is a particular scene that seems to suggest that rape is primarily the product of mental disorders developed as a result of rough childhoods. This could be read as absolving perpetrators of responsibility, having been conditioned to become abusive at an early stage. They don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know any better. Other explanations of abusive behavior focus on drug abuse. At best, these notions are incomplete. At worst, they are evasive. The accounts of abuse in Jessica Jones have little to say about rape culture, or the general way women are treated in society, about the role media plays, or how public policies can and cannot influence the prevalence of rape and abuse. Jessica Jones cannot cover all of these themes, and we should not expect it to. It is, after all, a Marvel show. However, it’s fairly unambitious about giving a nuanced account of the central subject it deals with, the violent subjection of women in society. In one episode, a female character is assaulted and almost killed by a man, and then inexplicably falls in love with him the next day. He then takes on the role as her protector. This serves entirely to drive forward a specific plot point. Choices like these demonstrate that, beyond making the lead character female, the creators haven’t put much thought into lending the show any sense of complexity. In general, men in the show are portrayed either as violently abusive or as the protector type. In some instances, they even change from one to the other and back. There is little in between. Ultimately, Jessica Jones works with fairly conventional gender roles.

Jessica Jones

Photo credits: Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.0/ Jessica Jones 2015 NYCC panel/TriiipleThreat/ 10 October 2015

Jessica Jones is a show that fails to live up to its promises. There’s always something missing, whether it’s casting, plot, or message. Maybe a future show can pick up on the show’s premise and deliver a better product.


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Tim Pfefferle

Tim Pfefferle

Tim is currently a graduate student in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford, and has previously worked for the German government in promoting the global energy transition.