I recently binge-watched Netflix’s Jessica Jones. It was terrific. The recent renaissance of superhero movies and television shows has mostly passed me by. This is not out of any principled objection to them, but my comic book days were the 1980s, and I am in a different place now. I clicked on this one in an idle moment, based on vaguely having read good things about it.
The show is centered on a Marvel character from the 1990s, which means I was unaware of this incarnation. Looking at the Wikipedia article, the comic book version seems to have been a fairly standard superhero, teaming up with other superheroes in the Marvelverse in fairly standard ways. The current television version is far more interesting.
The thumbnail setup: Jessica Jones is a private investigator from Oklahoma City, of the classic hard-boiled noir sort but with a more goth affect. She also has superpowers, but these are almost incidental, at least superficially. Her powers run to strength, ability to take and recover from physical punishment, and pseudo-flying (jumping, and safely landing). In all three cases the limits are not fully clear. As superhero powers go, these are fairly modest. (I wholeheartedly approve of superheroes of modest power. I am in the “Superman is boring” camp.)
We need a supervillain, of course, and this is where the show really shines. Kilgrave is an absolutely wonderful villain. His power is mind control. It too has limits of range and duration, but within those limits it is nearly absolute. Kilgrave isn’t a take-over-the-world villain but he is selfish and emotionally stunted, completely lacking empathy. He isn’t going to take over the world, but he will casually leave a trail of death and destruction behind him, barely taking notice..
The setup is completed by the show beginning in media res, with Kilgrave obsessed with Jessica for reasons that are revealed gradually. Wackiness ensues.
The acting is generally solid to excellent. The standout is the sheer brilliance of casting David Tennant as Kilgrave, essentially reprising his role as The Doctor, but as a sociopath with mind control powers. I get tingly all over just thinking about this. Speaking of reprising roles, the only other actor I recognized is Clarke Peters, who played Lester Freamon on The Wire. I am sure that my not knowing any others is mostly a reflection of my limited viewing habits.
I have two critiques, neither major.
SPOILER ALERT The next two paragraphs discuss stuff that is revealed mid-season.
Kilgrave’s powers are explained as being due to a virus, with it being at least strongly implied that the virus goes from him to his victims. This is taken more seriously than the usual hand-waving about reversing the polarity of the plasma phase inducers and the like. Plot developments are based on this. But how is the virus spread? Presumably airborne, but wouldn’t that mean that someone standing upwind of him should be unaffected? And his orders are invariably transmitted verbally. How would this work with a deaf person, or someone who doesn’t understand English? No one in the show seems to wonder about this, while it seems to me a pretty obvious dodge to try. That being said, in practice the show treats his power pretty consistently, which is the important thing. It seems to follow rules, even if these rules aren’t really in line with the explanation.
Then there is the question of why Jessica doesn’t simply take him out with a high powered rifle midway through the season. She is given a motivation to reject this solution, but the motivation is sadly lacking, given even a weak sense of utilitarianism. In fairness, everyone around her agrees with me. So it isn’t that the writers haven’t thought of the problem. It is more that their workaround doesn’t seem really in character for Jessica.
END SPOILER ALERT
Emily Nussbaum wrote a review of the show in the New Yorker where she compares it with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and specifically season 6. Reading that review made it click in my head why I liked Jessica Jones so much. It shares many of the same virtues as Buffy.
In Buffy the metaphor famously was made literal. High school is hell? Sunnydale High is literally atop a hellmouth. Rape is sex without consent, but short of physical constraint, consent turns out not to be an entirely straightforward concept. In Jessica Jones Kilgrave’s mind control usually acts as constraint, but not always. Gray areas slip in. As with Buffy, this can make for gripping television.
We also get an answer to the question about the common juvenile fantasy of controlling the world through sheer mind power. How would that work out? Poorly, it turns out. Who knew?
A second season is in the works. The first season gives ample hints that the second will further explore the origins of Jessica’s power. I look forward to this, but I suspect a missed opportunity. I would love to see her get Kilgrave’s mind control powers, and how she would deal with it. Apart from large quantities of alcohol, of course. That part is understood.