Netflix is really killing it with its original programming. Daredevil is brutally brilliant, House of Cards is cunningly compelling, and now Jessica Jones has swept critics up in a storm of praise. I’m not normally the biggest fan of superhero stories, but JJ’s Veronica Mars + Buffy the Vampire Slayer formula grabbed me and refused to let go. I devoured the inaugural season, and I am happy to say that the show deserves every accolade it has received.
WARNING: MILD SPOILERS FOR JESSICA JONES FOLLOW
I was apprehensive at first. Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception and Netflix’s excellent track record, all the talk of how ‘mature’ the show was worried me. Controversy for the sake of controversy doesn’t appeal to me, which is why I stopped watching Game of Thrones and Family Guy and the legion of other ‘edgy’ shows wired for excess. Hearing that JJ dealt with rape, rough sex, and mental and physical abuse made me hesitate. As rapturous as the critical response was, maybe the show just wasn’t for me. I decided I’d give it a miss for the sake of my weak stomach, but my resolve crumbled when I saw the stylish header image on Netflix’s home page. One episode: I owed myself that much before completely writing it off.
Normally it takes a few episodes for a show to really suck me in, but JJ had me hooked from the get-go. Witty writing and a refreshingly pragmatic protagonist sold me on the show immediately, and a wealth of unanswered questions drove me to watch another episode, and another, and another. Intrigue and mystery spurred me on, and I soon forgot that JJ was ostensibly a superhero show. That is one of the best things about it: the supernatural elements take a back seat to more universal woes. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the X-Men movies, but it was an bombastic kind of enjoyment that lived fast and died young. For all the fantastical battles and expensive effects, there was little in the way of themes and conflicts that related back to real life. Sure, Iron Man’s an arsehole and Bruce Banner has anger management issues, but those foibles typically get swept under the rug in favour of alien artifacts and colossal explosions. It’s hard to empathise with someone who solves all their problems with an army of flying robots.
Iron Man: A bastard with billions of dollars and millions of fans. Something we can all relate to.
Jessica Jones isn’t like that. Where Thor and Iron Man are only too happy to slaughter hundreds of ‘bad guys’ without batting an eye, every single death in JJ carries weight. Violence is used sparingly, and when it is, accountability plays a prominent role in the aftermath. Even Kilgrave, Jessica’s psychopathic arch-nemesis, only kills when doing so serves a purpose. This grounds the show in a way no brooding billionaire or time-travelling alien can hope to achieve.
When the show does dive into the supernatural, it’s with a level of restraint seldom seen amongst its contemporaries. Fights are bloody but brief, favouring the psychological trauma of fear and guilt over flashy fisticuffs. Most importantly, superpowers are never abused as a rabbit-out-of-the-hat remedy for bad writing. Kilgrave’s mind-control abilities are exactly the sort of thing a lot of fiction would use to paper over plot holes and fabricate cheap solutions to character conundrums. JJ avoids this by defining hard limits to Kilgrave’s power and applying them consistently and indiscriminately. The true nature of his abilities is revealed over the course of the season, preserving their mystery while never exploiting it. Kilgrave’s capacity for evil stems more from his god complex than his supernatural talents. That only makes him all the more frightful; he’s not so different from the villains we face in our own lives.
By establishing a clear set of rules governing the reach of Kilgrave’s mind control, JJ ensures every triumph and every sacrifice hits with the appropriate impact. There are no last-minute loopholes introduced purely for narrative convenience; as the show explicitly states, it’s not magic. This stands in stark contrast to the timey-wimey exploits of Doctor Who and the cure-all crutch of The Force. Both are guilty of trivialising the travails of their characters by providing a cop-out solution to every problem. Death carries little weight in Doctor Who: characters have been resurrected time and time again with barely any explanation. The show even undid the destruction of the entire known universe with a last-minute pseudo-science explanation of no cost and no lasting impact. It’s the ‘it’s all a dream’ ending, cheap and lazy. JJ avoids all that deus-ex-machina hand-waving, and is much better for it.
The Sonic Screwdriver: AKA a writer’s get-out-of-jail-free card
Jessica Jones is not a superhero. She is a strong woman confronted by the limits of her strength in a cold, harsh world. Kilgrave is not a supervillain. He is a self-centred bastard accustomed to getting whatever he wants, and wanting even more what he can’t have. It is these human concepts, not the superhuman precepts, that make JJ such a compelling show. It’s dark and occasionally depressive, but not because it’s trying to be ‘edgy’; despair is at the show’s heart, central to each and every plot thread. It might not be a ‘fun’ ride, but it sure is a powerful one.