I don’t think it’s any secret at this point that the first season of Jessica Jones is by far my favorite season of Netflix/Marvel television. They took a truly terrifying villain and made the entire season about Jessica battling both him and her inner demons. The threat was clear, terrifying, and terrifyingly real – Killgrave is basically an amped up rapist who is so charming when he isn’t raping people that people who haven’t survived his abuse find it hard to believe that he could commit such atrocities. The story never wavered or lost its way. It featured a cast of a wide variety of strong women characters that had their own flaws and views. The acting was phenomenal. It really did a terrific job putting a spin on drug abuse, parental abuse, and rape in ways that were a bit unique and hopefully reached a wider portion of the audience with how terrible those things can be and helped them become more sympathetic.
Season 2 doesn’t do any of those things. But it shouldn’t necessarily be knocked for that, because it wasn’t trying to be season 1 again. It wanted to be something different. I know this is bordering on becoming a broken record at this point, but remember last week when I said that one of the cool things about anime was that they had the freedom to try different kinds of story-telling techniques? It really feels like Netflix used its unique position as the kind of platform and industry leader it is to try to do something a bit unique as well. Most serialized shows, books, and movies are written with a story and characters in mind and developed in a way such that the two fit together. Sometimes you’ll see them written in a way where the story takes such a priority that the characters are forced to change and act out in order to continue it. Jessica Jones season 2 appears to have been written with the idea, “Here are the characters. Here are their circumstances. What happens next?”
However, unlike The Melancholy of Haruhi I’m not entirely sure this was done well. The writing was both particularly good and appallingly lacking and left me feeling a bit bemused when I completed the season, Sunday afternoon. Nothing the characters do seems weird or abnormal for them; in fact, everything they do seems to be 100% in character based on everything we know about them from both seasons of television. But there is no cohesion, no driving force. The plot just ambles around until its time for the season to end. SPOILERS will follow for Season 2 of Jessica Jones.
Unlike every other Marvel TV show so far, there is no set “villain” who is totally evil and wants to commit evil that must be stopped. The closest we get is Alisa, Jessica’s mom, who is sympathetic in that she has what amounts to a mental illness she cannot control. The next best choice would be Dr. Karl Malus who saved both of their lives with illegal experiments. But so far as I can tell, he really, earnestly wanted to help and honestly didn’t know that Alisa was going out to murder people to protect him.
Jeri’s story is only tangentially related to the rest of the characters but takes up huge chunks of the runtime. Trish’s story might end up being the most interesting – she starts out just really wanting to help people, including Jessica, but does some very bad stuff as she convinces herself more and more that the ends will justify the means. However, we only follow her enough to keep track of her impact on Jessica’s story. Jessica’s story is well written in the micro – as I said before everything that happens and that she does makes perfect sense – but doesn’t seem to have a point. The show starts out showing her a bit out of control with her anger which might have made sense to tie into Alisa’s own issues with rage and show Jessica who she might become if she doesn’t get a handle on it but Jessica’s own anger problem is dropped pretty early on; the last I can even recall seeing it was also the first time which occurred in the second or third episode. There’s a smaller plotline involving Malcolm’s ultimate goals
The writing isn’t perfect and there are a handful of weird plot holes and poor writing decisions: Jeri’s partners want to kick her out even though she’s the best thing their firm has going for them. Pryce Cheng somehow figures out that Alisa and not Jessica killed his friend midway through the season. Early in the season, Jessica informs Malcolm, factually, that she can’t judge him for having indiscriminate sex because it’s also part of her method of dealing with things. Then, later in the season, she chews him out over it. Yes, people can be inconsistent and hypocritical, but it doesn’t usually go unaddressed in shows. Plus Jessica is supposed to be a straight-talking protagonist, so it’s a bit odd she just does an about-face like that without it being acknowledged at all. And, of course, Jessica and Alisa use their super strength to stop a bus and reunite Jessica’s season 2 beau with his kid. Even though adding the mass of two people to the back-end of a bus with no leverage is not going to stop it no matter how strong they are.
Technically the plot is resolved when Alisa and Karl both end up dead which means they won’t be able to conduct further experiments. But they were not really a direct danger to people outside people directly investigating them. We learn more about Jessica’s history but it doesn’t change how we perceive her. Speaking of changes, the season does very little to change the characters at all. Jeri is the same person she was at the beginning; she just helped someone else commit murder. Jessica is the same person she was at the beginning except maybe she understands how lonely she was? But she acts like that was an epiphany the entire journey taught her even though she clearly wanted to be spending time with Oscar and Vido before, she just didn’t have the time. Malcolm changes a bit from a guy who will do anything for Jessica and wants to do good and help out to a guy who decides he wants a bit more respect and a better paycheck. Trish changes the most and that’s where a second rewatching, focused primarily on her, might pay off. When I had but one episode to go I saw someone else watching the first episode and being informed with Trish’s ambitions allowed a much deeper interpretation of her early actions and casts a more sinister light on her attempts to get Jessica to investigate her past.
In the end, the moment-to-moment writing is just too good for this season to be a complete train wreck. The roles are also entirely too well-acted. But the lack of a coherent end goal for the plot and the shallow character growth of most of the ensemble means this season was a disappointment compared to the first. The best way I can describe it is that the plot was structured like a slice-of-life anime – a genre defined by its complete lack of stakes – but isn’t charming enough and doesn’t do enough with the characters to make it work. In the pantheon of Netflix/Marvel shows, I’d still put it above the rookie efforts of Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and The Defenders but it’s no better than season 2 of Daredevil and doesn’t even really approach the quality of the first seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, or even The Punisher.