Does Krysten Ritter Save ‘JESSICA JONES’ From the Sophomore Slump?

David and Brian have a spoiler-filled discussion of the new season of what’s still Netflix’s best comic series, but that might not mean much.

DAVID:  When Jessica Jones debuted two years ago (yikes, it’s already been two years), it was noteworthy for a few reasons. First, like Daredevil, it brought comic book stories down a ground-level view, with localized villains, smaller stakes, and an emphasis on character. Second, Jones distinguished itself with its neo-Noir style, complete with hard-boiled voiceover and a jazz-driven score. And third, it was a thematic goldmine, as the Kilgrave saga allowed creator Melissa Rosenberg to tell a story of empowerment and streetwise feminism long before #MeToo was a movement. All three of those elements are present in the second season of Jessica Jones, which does improve on its first in a few key ways, most critically in story structure. So why does it feel like a letdown?

Season 1 had to find increasingly implausible ways to keep Kilgrave in play over 13 episodes, where here the main events play out more organically — just excruciatingly slowly. So as intriguing as I found the central mother-daughter relationship, and as brilliant Krysten Ritter and Janet McTeer were, I found the season more dull than not, with some ludicrous arcs for its supporting cast and few moments that reached above what we know these series are capable of. But what did you think, Brian? Am I being too critical, and a little Ritter goes a long way? Or has it been B-grade material all along, and the novelty’s just worn off?

BRIAN: I think the most remarkable thing about the second season of Jessica Jones is how it’s the only 13 episode Marvel Netflix series that doesn’t get demonstrably worse during its last four episodes. The upsetting thing is how boring that makes it feel, on the whole. I’d argue that while there’s nothing that makes this second season feel as exciting as the first (or the first season of Daredevil), it’s overall a better product.

I must be the only person on the internet who likes Malcolm (Eka Darville), if only because he’s usually the only rational person in the room. His arc this season sets him up as a secondary antagonist for Season 3 without ever making him the bad guy in any of his dealings with Jessica or Trish (whose arc is much more questionable and ineffective). The best subplot during this entire season is Jessica’s fear that she’s just as much of a monster as her mother, that she instinctively pushes people away and ruins their lives. For Malcolm, this is at least sort of true, and he rightly got fed up with her bullshit and struck out on his own.

That being said, a lot of the season’s other subplots felt particularly useless. The stuff with Oscar (J.R. Ramirez) and his son felt starkly manipulative, while the completely out of nowhere “Jeri has ALS storyline” started interestingly, pulled a bunch of superhero nonsense into the middle of it, and ended perplexingly. It was either mawkish or insulting, and I can’t decide which. Carrie-Anne Moss is a great actress, so the moment to moment stuff felt OK, but on the whole it was probably a bad choice. Would you agree with my assessment of the side characters, or is this show like The Punisher in that any time the main character isn’t on screen, no one should care?

DAVID: I don’t fault any of the performers here. Everyone in the cast is quite good (if irrationally hot). I even liked Callum Keith Rennie as the most chill evil scientist of all time, and Darville and Rachael Taylor did the best they could what they were given. I was very much pro-Malcolm in the early going. He had a nice redemption arc and deserved a chance to actually be a part of the story instead of being stuck as Jessica’s minder, which is an insult to both of them. I felt for him when he realized he’d fallen off the wagon with Trish’s Super Inhaler, and gasped in consternation when he cut his hair.

But if Malcolm deserved better, Trish went through a straight-up character assassination, forced into one terrible decision after another. Her backstory (a child star basically pimped out by her mother, jealous of the adopted sister who would have been able to resist instead of becoming a drug addict) is compelling, and her IGH obsession makes sense on an intellectual level, but man was it tough to watch. Playing the “here’s your family’s ashes” card? Jumping Malcolm’s bones, then trying to hook him on her combat enhancer? Magically appearing to shoot Alisa in the head on a moving ferris wheel? Cray-cray.

I wasn’t ever interested in the Jeri story, either. That dead-end plot stuck out in a season that surprisingly didn’t have many. I would have been perfectly happy if it had just been all Jessica, all the time, because Ritter is so good and so magnetic and got to stretch her range the further she was pushed to her breaking point. It was really a season about taking this character who has spent her entire adult life isolating herself, and making her realize what isolation truly is, and I found that interesting in how Ritter played these beats, if not for the actual events on screen.

My favorite idea, however, was bringing back Kilgrave in Episode 11, right when we needed our own respirator to drag this thing to the finish line. Not only was “AKA Three Lives And Counting” the most electric to watch thanks to the gloriously hammy David Tennant, it was also the most visually distinctive — Jones deserves a lot of credit for hiring 100% female directors this season, but Jennifer Lynch was the only one who really stood out. This series doesn’t have the one-take fight scenes of Daredevil or the loaded iconography of Luke Cage, so there’s nothing to make up for the dullness of the writing, even when the foundational ideas of agency and nature v. nature are strong.

BRIAN: I’ll definitely agree about the writing, which sometimes veered into comically ham-fisted, Hideo Kojima-style incongruous statements. I still think this show deals with themes much more interesting than anything the other Marvel Netflix shows do (especially considering how Luke Cage, the character, handles blackness), but Season 3 probably needs a much stronger and more cohesive direction from the top down. As you said, very few of the all-female directorial cast seemed to stand out, and while that’s certainly partly due to Marvel’s notorious house style, it’s not the case for Daredevil or The Punisher, which are often gorgeous looking.

It’s commendable that Season Two didn’t even try to outdo Kilgrave, instead changing course entirely and turning the core theme of the show into how trauma shapes every facet of one’s life. Losing her family ruined Jessica far before Kilgrave did, and it’s at the core of her fundamental unhappiness. They didn’t quite stick the landing (I was truly looking forward to Season 3 trying to work Alisa’s imprisonment into Jessica’s life, before that entire Trish plot happened), but I still think this ranks above the median as far as these Netflix shows go (and definitely better than the moribund Iron Fist or the extremely forgettable The Defenders).

Where would you rank this season, David?

DAVID: “Above the median” sounds fair. Behind the first seasons of Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage (in that order), but ahead of everything else, which isn’t really saying that much. I was amused that this season never acknowledged the lackluster Defenders at all (even when Jess and Alisa’s talk about “teaming up” provided a the perfect lead-in), and the only crossover was a one-scene cameo from Foggy that just wasted everyone’s time. We have to ask ourselves what we want from these series, because it’s not going to be spectacle, and it’s not going to be a sprawling, interlocking, Wire-style portrait of a city in decay, either. Unfortunately. The opportunity is there, but the writing just isn’t at that level.

What I keep coming back to is the brilliance of Ritter, who we’ve already praised a lot, but not nearly enough. Jones just doesn’t work without her, and she was at her best not when hurling sardonic witticisms (I love how the writers have been using Jessica as a mouthpiece to take down cliched female insults, one by one), but when she was at her most vulnerable. Her reaction to her mother’s death, her terrifying fury then her shivering helplessness, will stick in my mind long after I’ve forgotten the how and the why. I hope a third season brings Jessica back to what she does best: cracking cases and busting heads (and maybe let Kilgrave hang around in hers), without bending over backwards to layer on more misery and trauma. She doesn’t need it. Let her be a hero again. I’m pretty ambivalent about Hellcat, though.

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