A lot of people try to slap labels on Jessica Jones. If you’ve watched the first season of Netflix’s Marvel show, you know that’s a bad move if you want to keep your limbs intact. In the series’ sophomore season, which starts streaming today, our detective with the strength of 10 men and the massive chip on her shoulder gets called a “vigilante superhero.” A “freak.” A “murderer.” A “ticking time bomb.” “Keep telling me who I am. I dare you,” she says finally, officially hitting her fed-the-hell-up capacity.
“Fed the hell up” is, in fact, the very trait that makes Jessica one of the more captivating – and cathartic – characters on TV right now. As played by Krysten Ritter, she’s a perpetually pissed-off private investigator with a wry wit, a drinking problem and enough super strength to deadlift a car or leap to the top of a fire escape. Not Captain America levels, but enough juice to be able to do some serious damage.
Most importantly, she’s angry, all the time, courtesy of some very deep wrongs that have been done to her and the people she loves – repeatedly, brutally and committed mostly by men. And it’s the ways in which she copes (or doesn’t) with her rage, drinks it away or punches it out, avoids it or is shaken awake at night by it, that’s turned her into such a compelling icon for the #MeToo age. It’s no coincidence that the show’s long-awaited second season is dropping on March 8th, which is International Women’s Day. We are legion, and we are fed the hell up.
Jessica Jones is part of Netflix’s stable of Marvel superhero shows, sharing a fictional Manhattan with Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher and the team-’em’all-up crossover series The Defenders. Adapted by Melissa Rosenberg from Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ comic book series, Jones stands out from the rest. Jessica is a hardboiled P.I. in the tradition of Sam Spade and Rick Deckard (and, more vitally, Veronica Mars). She takes cases for money rather than any high-minded moral reasons, and she’s only interested in her superpowers inasmuch as they help her to do her job. No spandex bodysuit or high-concept alter ego for this gal – just a beat-up leather jacket and a defiant sneer. As for the show itself, Its visual and narrative aesthetics derive less from typical superhero blockbusters and more from 1940s film noir. It isn’t afraid to go dark.
In the show’s first season, Jessica faced off against Kilgrave (Doctor Who‘s David Tennant), a mind-controlling supervillain who raped her and forced her to commit murder while she was under his influence. She was aided by a small but loyal band of allies: her adoptive sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor); her neighbor Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville); her erstwhile lover Luke Cage (Mike Colter); and her morally gray lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss). Flush with power, crippled by insecurity and literally able to bend the world to his will, Kilgrave served as a chilling avatar for toxic masculinity. He did his level best to unravel Jessica’s world (talk about gaslighting); the only way she could be free of him in the end was to snap his neck. Kilgrave set out to possess and destroy her. In some ways, he succeeded.
That was back in November 2015, when Donald Trump’s campaign for president was but a distant cloud on the horizon, Harvey Weinstein was still quietly ensconced in power and threats to women’s welfare, at least superficially, seemed a lot less dire than they do now. With Jessica Jones, Rosenberg tapped into that aquifer of women’s very real rage and anxiety bubbling just below the surface. Now, in 2018, it’s become a roiling sea, whipped into frenzy by naked sexism at the highest levels of government and the exposure of sexual predators and inequality at every level of society. In other words, it’s the perfect moment for Jessica to come roaring back to the screen, fists swinging and bullshit meter set to “fuck right off.”
Rosenberg (who’s also an executive producer) is committed to telling feminist stories both onscreen and behind the scenes. Pointedly, all 13 episodes of Season Two are directed by women, a bold and inclusive move that follows in the footsteps of Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar. The impressive roster includes Uta Briesewitz (The Deuce, Orange Is the New Black), Minkie Spiro (Better Call Saul, One Mississippi) and Rosemary Rodriguez (The Walking Dead, The Good Wife).
If the first season was about surviving deep trauma, Season Two is about what comes after: namely, anger. Rosenberg examines feminist rage from a variety of angles, through Jessica but also through the women around her. The big bad is less clear than it was in Season One, because it’s everywhere and nowhere. Our heroine must delve into the murky origins of her super strength, which she’d rather not know about; and Trish reckons with a figure from her days as a teenage TV star, an all-too-real monster straight out of a #MeToo exposé. Meanwhile, Hogarth grapples with dire news that causes her question everything about her life.
All three women wrap themselves in armor – Jessica via detachment and alcoholism, Trish via her reputation and sense of control, Hogarth via wealth and power – that will feel familiar to any woman coping with simply trying to exist in a world that fears and marginalizes them. Jessica Jones asks the complex question of what happens when the coping mechanisms we build up over time, like thick skin growing over a blister, stop serving us.
What makes Jessica such a riveting character is that she wears her damage on her sleeve, something that many “strong female characters” aren’t allowed to do. Rosenberg and Co. very purposefully co-opt the tropes of film noir, a genre that classically traffics in closed-off male heroes – and puts a woman in the tarnished-white-knight role instead of the femme fatale slot. Like those hardboiled private dicks before her, Jessica is tough, narrating her cases in grim voiceover, headlights through venetian blinds casting striated shadows across her face. She’s also a mess, and doesn’t care who knows it. Jessica has the grace to be brittle, and to fall apart. This lady performs for no one, including the viewers. And right now, that’s a story we need to see.