It’s Hard to Be a Hero
Spoiler warning for all of Jessica Jones Season 2 below.
I think we can all come out of Jessica Jones’ second season agreeing that it really sucks to be Jessica Jones. (Although it does give Krysten Ritter the chance to play the hell out of the role). The atrocities that she details in her anger management class only scratch the surface of her tribulations, thanks to a strange but ultimately effective twist at the end of Episode 6. What made Jessica Jones Season 1 so affecting was that Jessica was fighting both an actual villain and the PTSD caused by him. He — Kilgrave — does make an appearance in Season 2 (Episode 11, where it reminded me just how much the show really misses him and David Tenant), but he was mostly replaced by a new ghost from Jessica’s past: her mother.
Yes, the meat-faced uber monster that lurked around the first five episodes of Season 2 as a kind of id version of Jessica (stronger, angrier, a true killer) turned out to not just be a metaphorical comparison but a familial one. And like Jessica, her mother Alisa (a terrifying Janet McTier) was being controlled by a man who made her a killer. She wasn’t mind controlled in the way Jessica was with Kilgrave (when she was forced to kill Luke Cage’s wife), but Alisa’s relationship with Dr. Malus is in no way a healthy one. Even if you can forgive him in some way, it was his influence and corruption of her DNA that made her into a death machine (RIP Whizzer). Jessica has to come to terms with that, along with the revelation that her mother killed her boyfriend (who was a lil skeezy but didn’t deserve to die in an ally). And just as she starts to process having her mother back in her life, her best friend and sister murders Alisa. Things are complicated. But most importantly, they’re personal.
The twist of the monster being Mrs. Jones was both highly soap operatic and very comic book-y (even though it was not lifted from any Jessica Jones comic), but I think ultimately it worked. It took me a few episodes to really be sold on the choice, but all of the scientific mumbo jumbo aside for how this happened, the conflict came down to Jessica choosing between her two natures, rather than a question of family loyalty. Alisa was almost like the Mr. Robot version of Jessica’s Elliot, a fused force within her that pushed towards chaos and death. Even though her mother claimed to have altruistic desires in the end, the show proved over and over again that she could never control herself or be controlled. For Jessica, it was the example of a choice that she has to make regarding power and control, and does make, over and over again in the series.
All of this tragedy and horror led to a truth that Jessica has been struggling with for 26 episodes (plus The Defenders). What does it mean to be a hero, and is she one? And if so, how does she define that and reconcile it with her daily life? In the first few episodes of Season 2, she was plagued with the thought that she had become a murderer, something that returns once she does kill her mother’s abusive guard (and Kilgrave returns to egg her on). But the show also makes sure that the people Jessica fights or has killed while not until Kilgrave’s control are really awful. It tried absolving Alisa a little bit in this way too by showing a trigger for her wanting to kill Stirling (thinking he was “pimping Jessica out.”) But it complicates their path to absolution in the wrong ways — the point is not to give them righteous justification for wrong choices, but to explore the consequences of doing what’s right.
For Jessica, that manifested the most clearly in her relationship with Oscar and his son Vido. Letting down her walls to be honest and even vulnerable with him was an important step in making those right choices and having a reason to want to. The power of Episode 7 (the flashback episode) was not just in connecting Alisa to Jessica’s story, but seeing what Jessica was like before Kilgrave. Her relationship with Stirling was essentially happy and carefree, and it showed that Jessica has been molded by, but not broken by, the string of extraordinarily awful things that have happened to her. The bravest thing she achieves, in the end, is a willingness to stillnot let herself be broken, but to hold on to that part of her that sees hope and love.
That’s not an easy thing with your “sister” kills your mother at the site of your childhood happiness, but such is the life of Jessica Jones.
As for the rest of the cast, Malcolm, Trish, and Jeri Hogarth all had much more to do in this season than they did previously, but it didn’t always work. Malcolm’s story was by far the most compelling, as the former addict worked hard to not just impress Jessica but to keep himself busy and sober. His ultimate alliance with Cheng and going to work with Hogarth surely won’t last, though. As foul-mouthed and abusive as Jessica can be as am employer, she has a strong moral code. Cheng doesn’t, and that’s something that Malcolm might not be able to stomach.
When it comes to Hogarth, well, a lot of her story felt like meandering when compared to the electricity of Jessica’s plot, but there were some interesting things there. There was no real or lasting transformative experience for her; once Jessica outed Inez, Jeri enacted a horrible revenge strategy, brushed herself off, and then went back to amassing her wealth and power. It was a reset for her, in a way, if not a progression. But the character work in between is what Jessica Jones is so good at, and Carrie-Anne Moss places Jeri with such beautifully icy precision. The most interesting scene, though, came with her tears the moment she thought she was healed. Were those tears of joy? Regret? Surprise? There’s still so much about Hogarth we don’t know.
And then there was Trish … what a mess she was. While I’m all for exploring the complicated dynamics of female friendships, Jessica and Trish’s just feels increasingly toxic. Trish was also basically the impetus of everything going south plot-wise this season. Her investigation set Alisa off on her killing spree, her reckless use of Simpson’s poisonous inhaler ended up hurting her relationships with Malcolm, Jessica, Griffin, not to mention her career, and her kidnapping Malus foiled Jessica’s plan to keep her mother calm. She also, of course, killed Jessica’s mother. All of this (debatable on that last point) was caused by selfish motivations. Trish, despite having everything and every possible resource available to her, coveted Jessica’s powers, convinced that they somehow would be the key to her happiness. That obsession made Trish a villain, in a way. She wasn’t helpful or supportive like the two have been in the past — she was jealous, manipulative, and destructive. It’s something that we’re shown goes back a long time between the two women, and it’s a shame to break the connection that seemed so instrumental and formative to Jessica in Season 1 just so Trish could serve plot points. (And don’t get me started on the 26+ episodes-in-the-making minor Hellcat reference we got to end this season).
That last point brings me back, of course, to pacing. It’s bad. It’s not as egregious as some of the other Marvel/Netflix shows (which I wrote about in my review of the first five episodes), but the lags were keenly felt. Still, the end of Episode 6 in the Episode 7 twist of the monster being Jessica’s mother did revive things enough to propel us through the back half of the season. Ultimately though, everything works because of Krysten Ritter. Her difficult and beautiful portrayal of this complicated character paints over a multitude of other sins. It’s incredibly hard to make series like this, that really focus on just one character, continue to work, but I never get tired of spending time with Jessica and being in her world. That’s because of Ritter.
It’s worth noting also that, as predicted, no other Defenders came out to play. It seems like Netflix is not looking for any more team-ups to happen again, which is a shame. It also indicates that any comics-based romance that Jessica and Luke were destined for is also not likely in the cards. I like the relationship that developed with Oscar and Vido, so that’s mostly fine. At the same time, it’s a huge missed opportunity for Netflix to better consolidate its other Marvel heroes with more compelling storylines. But Jessica Jones Season 2 also proved that being “super” doesn’t mean squat. She barely uses her powers except to better defend herself against men and petty criminals, and to break the occasional lock or door. What matters more is the she uses her other skills — her street smarts, her ability to strategize and multitask, and more — along with a wary compassion, to help instead of harm. “If it had been me, I wouldn’t have hesitated,” Trish tells her after Jessica’s mother escaped again. But that’s the difference between them, and why Jessica is a hero while Trish keeps bumbling her way into disaster. She hesitates to make sure she’s choosing the right thing.
Ultimately Jessica Jones Season 2 didn’t light the same kind of fire or was as game-changing as Season 1, but that was almost an impossible ask. Still, it was a worthy follow-up, and one that sought to keep things personal for Jessica, which is where the show shines. It took it a little while to find its footing this time around (oddly enough), but its cast and commitment to statement storytelling mostly saved it from a bloated format and some clunky writing decisions. For those who loved the first season, it remains the most taught and compelling of Marvel’s Netflix series. Jessica isn’t a regular hero in almost any sense, but that’s what makes her great. She’s flawed, messed up, damaged, but she’s not without a heart. Season 2 balanced that really beautifully in her dilemma with her mother as well as with Trish. Jessica fights for what she loves, without apology.