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Jessica Jones – AKA Ladies’ Night (Review)

“New York may be the city that never sleeps, but it sure does sleep around,” explains grizzled private detective Jessica Jones, the first line of Jessica Jones.

The line establishes two key themes going forward, running through the first season of the show. The more subtle theme is that of New York itself. Like Daredevil before it, Jessica Jones is rooted in a particular vision of New York; in its imagery and iconography. While Daredevil was arguably rooted in a version of Hell’s Kitchen that no longer existed, Jessica Jones seems at least a little more modern and more relevant. In AKA Ladies’ Night, and across the season, street names serve as an emotional anchor to the eponymous private eye. They are real and tangible places.

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The second theme is more immediately pronounced. Jessica Jones might just be the most sex-positive aspect of the shared Marvel Universe. Although the usual limitations on nudity are in effect, Jessica Jones seems far more comfortable with human sexuality and sexual dynamics than any of the studio’s earlier output. AKA Ladies’ Night sets the tone for the season, opening with an awkward sequence of quick and grotty sex in (and around) a parked car. The show starts as it means to go on, embracing sex as a part of the human condition.

AKA Ladies’ Night does an effective job of setting the tone for what will follow. It is an effective introduction to the world of Jessica Jones.

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Jessica Jones is a departure from standard Marvel output in a number of ways. While Daredevil took advantage of the Netflix distribution model to amp up the violence and brutality, exploiting the extra runtime to flesh out its character arcs and dynamics, Jessica Jones has a bit more fun with the freedoms of releasing on a streaming media service rather than mass-releasing into theatres or broadcasting on a major American network. Jessica Jones takes a lot of what made Daredevil so intriguing and doubles down on that.

Inevitably, Jessica Jones and Daredevil are going to be compared to one another. Both are thirteen-episode television series released in partnership between Marvel and Netflix via streaming service. Both are designed to feed into the planned Defenders miniseries in a model analagous to the way that Marvel has built a shared universe between its cinematic properties. They clearly unfold in the same conceptual space, and unfold within the confines of a New York that is markedly different from the city featured at the climax of The Avengers.

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As Jessica Jones goes on, other camparisons suggest themselves in relation to various storytelling or structural choices. However, from the outset, it is the differences that are compelling. Daredevil was something of a pilot scheme for this new model of production and distribution. It definitely edged away from what was happening in the studio’s more mainstream output; there was a lot more violence and ambiguity, for example. However, the show itself hued reasonably close to the establish Marvel template. It was an origin story for a white male superhero.

Even the title of AKA Ladies’ Night seems like a statement of purpose. The primary cast of Jessica Jones is decidedly more diverse than the primary cast of Daredevil. The majority of the primary and recurring cast of Jessica Jones is comprised of women rather than men. Even the male characters are more diverse than the lead characters in most Marvel films. None of this is done in a distracting manner, or as a statement; it is all treated very logically and organically as part of the story being told.

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There has yet to be a single Marvel Studios film starring a female or minority superhero. To be fair, this is not a problem unique to this studio. There have only been a handful of female superhero films over the years, with only Catwoman and Elektra coming to mind. Although Blade helped to start the current superhero boom, minorities are also underrepresented in major superhero blockbusters. There are plans for upcoming Captain Marvel or Black Panther films, but the scheduling of those films suggests the company is not particularly confident.

(Indeed, Jessica Jones even offers something of a sly acknowledgement of how slow Marvel Studios has been in building up its cast of female characters. The television show is very heavily influenced by the comic book Alias, written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Gaydos. However, one of the most significant character changes between page and screen is the substitution of Trish “Patsy” Walker for Carol Danvers. Because Marvel has yet to establish its Captain Marvel, the character has be rewritten in the context of Jessica Jones.)

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To be fair television has done a much better job when it comes to offering diversity in the genre. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. offers a reasonably diverse ensemble. Agent Carter has proven to be quite the success. Supergirl has launched on CBS. At the same time, no production has been quite as elegant and effective as Jessica Jones. There is only a single straight white male character credited as a lead in AKA Ladies’ Night, and he is the villain. He barely appears at all, haunting the episode like a spectre.

AKA Ladies Night conscious foregrounds its female characters. Jessica Jones is the protagonist who lends the series its name, but the episode works quickly to establish Jeri Hogarth. Jeri is one of Jessica’s most reliable clients, a powerful attorney with a formidable legal practice. As if to emphasise the importance of these major female characters, Jeri is a gender-swapped version of the reasonably obscure Marvel character Jeryn Hogarth. There is also room alotted to Jessica’s best friend Trish, introduced via an advertisement on the side of a bus.

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Jessica Jones is also notable for being one of very few Marvel Studios properties overseen by a female creative force. Patty Jenkins was fired from Thor: The Dark World. Ava duVernay declined to oversee Black Panther. Although Jeph Loeb is overseeing the entire slate, Jessica Jones is entirely overseen by Melissa Rosenberg. This makes quite a departure from the first season of Daredevil, when oversight was passed from Drew Goddard to Steven DeKnight in the middle of production. (And the second season has been handed to Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez.)

It is no surprise that Rosenberg has stuck with Jessica Jones across the entire season. Rosenberg has been attached to an adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias since December 2010. She oversaw the project when it slipped into development hell at ABC, falling “between the cracks of the seasons.” As such, Rosenberg has had amble time to develop and expand her vision of the show. Rather than being improvised as it went along, or forced to adapted to changing circumstances, Jessica Jones has been years in the making.

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This is not to suggest that the show broadcast on Netflix bares any truly resemblance to the ABC source material in any real fashion. As Rosenberg has explained, moving the project to Netflix resulted in a fairly significant re-write:

I was so hoping that it would just be adjusting to the network. It was a page one do-over. They’re such different mediums that it’s completely different storytelling.

This makes a certain amount of sense, as Netflix projects tend to be viewed as an extended thirteen-chapter film rather than an episodic television series.

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At the same time, it does explain how the characters introduced in AKA Ladies’ Night all feel so perfectly formed and very much of a piece with the show around them. There are no stock “strong female characters”, but complex and multifaceted (and flawed) individuals who all have suggestions of rich inner life. Jessica is, to quote Rosenberg, “an incredibly damaged, dark, complex female character that kicks ass.” Trish is a woman maintaining a perfect exterior to avoid her own bruises. Jeri Hogarth is having an affair with her secretary.

The show’s themes bleed through from the start. It is instructive to compare and contrast Jessica Jones and Daredevil. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones are essentially stories about trauma and memory, how best to process pain and how those scars come to shape and define the people we are today. As with Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, the primary cast of Jessica Jones all come with their own baggage and their own troubled histories. When Jessica breaks the glass front to her office door, she papers over it with a cardboard box. “Fragile. Handle with care.”

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The early part of the season plays with the idea of hiding as a coping mechanism to deal with trauma. Although Jessica might laugh of Spheeris’ threats in AKA Ladies’ Night, it is quite clear that she wants to operate under the radar. Trish locks herself away inside a fortress, while Luke Cage conceals his abilities from those around him. Even Kilgrave has spent time recovering from his near-death experience by sequestering himself away, faking his own death to avoid the spotlight. That is why the violations of Jessica’s privacy in AKA It’s Called Whiskey are so striking.

Director S.J. Clarkson plays into these themes well. Jessica’s camera becomes a metaphor for the voyeur; Jessica spies on the outside world much as Kilgrave spies upon her. Throughout the first two episodes, there is a recurring sense that Jessica is being watched and followed, as the camera trails behind a parked car or peers through half-open doors in AKA Ladies’ Night or peering around corners in AKA Crush Syndrome. Hiding and seeing become major recurring metaphors across the first season.

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Introduced to Luke Cage, Jessica detects something of a kindred soul. She acknowledges the connection that he clearly feels to his own (exceptionally tidy) dive bar. “There’s history here,” Jessica observes. “Memories. Something personal, but private – so no photos or memorabilia.” Jessica’s trauma manifests in the mess of her apartment; in the broken glass front, the unmade bed, the glasses discarded on chairs, the lack of toilet roll. Luke’s trauma reflects in the order he imposes on the world around him.

All the characters in Jessica Jones seem trapped by memory, whether Trish’s strained relationship with her mother or Jeri’s awkward attempts to recreate her marriage through an affair with a younger woman. Even Kilgrave himself is obsessed with memory. The first time that the script really acknowledges the identity of the mysterious man behind the abduction of Hope Slottman is when Jessica realises that Kilgrave has been attempting to grimly reenact his past relationship with Jessica.

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It doesn’t matter that it is physically impossible. Kilgrave tries to turn Hope into a surrogate for Jessica. In AKA Crush Syndrome, Hope recalls how Kilgrave would urge her to jump higher and higher as if to emulate Jessica’s leaps and bounds. It doesn’t matter that the restaurant has changed from an Italian restaurant to Asian cuisine, Kilgrave insists on taking Hope to dine at the same place he would eat with Jessica. “I can’t imagine why he came to an Asian fusion restaurant to order classic Italian pasta amatriciana,” observes the waiter.

Memory and trauma play across the first season of Jessica Jones, from Luke’s difficulty getting past the death of his wife in AKA You’re a Winner! through to the Kilgrave’s choice of home in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. This provides a nice thematic mirror to the same themes that rippled across the first season of Daredevil, perhaps reflecting the realities of the New York in which these shows take place. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones occur in the wake of The Avengers, itself an allegory for the horror of 9/11. AKA 99 Friends renders the comparison almost literal.

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The biggest difference between Jessica Jones and Daredevil lies in how the two shows approach this core theme. Daredevil is very much informed by a masculine (and Catholic) sense of trauma and guilt. Jessica Jones is explicitly feminist. Rosenberg tends to avoid the label “feminist” in her discussion of the show:

“She herself wouldn’t consider herself a feminist. Or not! I approach this character not from telling a female story. Gender is not the first character aspect that defines her.”

This perhaps reflects how heavily charged the word “feminist” has become in public discourse and debate, particularly in relation to popular culture. It ignores the fact that “feminism” is rooted in the rather simple (and unobjectionable) premise that women’s experiences are just as valid as those of men.

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Nevertheless, it seems like a lot of prominent women strain to avoid the term in interviews and press coverage. Meryl Streep can appear in a movie titled Suffragette, but will clarify that she is “not a feminist.” As film maker Mary Dore reflects:

“Basically, it’s the ‘f’ word,” laughs the veteran documentary producer. “In the States in particular, feminism has been a dirty word for a really long time. It was really hard to get funding because nobody thought it was an important issue. The women’s movement is largely seen as a lot of negative stereotypes. Even now, there are people I admire who shy away, saying things like ‘I’m really more of a humanist.’ By the time I came to make this film, the term feminazi had become more prominent than the term feminist.”

Regardless of the larger debate about the use of the “f” word, Jessica Jones is rooted in the idea that the stories and experiences of its female characters are just as unique and valid as the male characters on Daredevil. It makes sense that a show featuring a female lead and populated by a predominantly female cast would have a unique perspective.

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Actress Rachel Taylor has talked about how the show resonated with her own experiences of being in abusive relationship:

“The show does have synchronicity in terms of things happening in my life and things I care about,” Taylor said. “I care about gender equality, I care about violence against women.

“So yes, there is a nice sense of synchronicity between this show and me.

“While I don’t set out for the alignment between my work and the character I am playing, it is nice when it happens.”

Jessica Jones is particularly interested in the question of how its predominently female cast reacts to (and lives with) trauma.

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This is not to suggest that Jessica Jones offers its female characters a monopoly on trauma or that male characters hold a monopoly on abuse. Barring the central dynamic between Kilgrave and Jessica, the most toxic relationship on the show is that between Jeri and her soon-to-be-ex-wife. In fact, the twins living in the apartment upstairs suggest that it is possible for a female partner to be abusive even in a non-sexual relationship. Jessica Jones is not dated in its gender politics.

Similarly, characters like Luke Cage and Will Simpson offer glimpses of how male characters deal with trauma. Still, these male narratives of trauma are largely secondary. Will Simpson is very much a tertiary character in the narrative, his own trauma stemming from an accidental repeat of Trish’s own long-buried trauma; his response to that trauma exists in sharp contrast to that of Jessica or Trish. Luke Cage is a guest star here who will shortly be launching his own show. He is also a character with unbreakable skin.

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Indeed, quite a lot of the discussion of threat and trauma in Jessica Jones is explicitly gendered. The broken door to Jessica’s apartment becomes a recurring motif across the first season, with Mister Slottman very concerned about it. When his wife asks him to forget about it, he responds, “Leave a woman living alone in this city? With no lock, no door? It’s not safe.” It seems quite likely that Mister Slottman would feel more comfortable leaving a male private investigator to take care of himself.

One of the recurring ideas throughout the first season of Jessica Jones is the idea that Kilgrave embodies a particularly insidious form of misogyny. He has the capacity to make female characters bend to his will, to force them into competition with one another and to act in their own best interests. With his authority and seductive voice, he urges Jessica, “You want to do it. You know you do.” Hope recalls of her time with Kilgrave, “He made me do things that I didn’t want to do… but I wanted to.”

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The way that Kilgrave tends to succeed by manipulating the female characters against one another (rather than through direct confrontation) recalls certain observations in feminist psychology, as Noam Schpancer reflects:

Feminist psychology, however, argues that competition among females is driven primarily not by biological imperatives but rather by social mechanisms. According to this argument, cutthroat female competition is due mainly to the fact that women, born and raised in male-dominated society, internalize the male perspective (the “male gaze”) and adopt it as their own. The male view of women as primarily sexual objects becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As women come to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize.

Jessica Jones is tremendously strong; almost certainly physical stronger than Kilgrave. Trish has been training in self-defense and hand-to-hand combat. However, neither is a match for Kilgrave’s psychological attacks.

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AKA Ladies’ Night introduces this feminist criticism of patriarchy as something of a wry joke. When Jessica wonders whether Hope had a boyfriend, Hope’s female roommate reflects, “Of course there’s a guy. Why else would your best friend crap on you?” However, Kilgrave’s power over women quickly becomes something far more unsettling than a joke. He uses his power to try to mould Hope into a surrogate for Jessica, rendering the women in his life as interchangeable. It is suggested that he only released Hope when that did not pan out.

In AKA Crush Syndrome, it is revealed that Kilgrave was able to compel Jessica to murder another woman. Kilgrave becomes a literal embodiment of the corrosive influence of patriarchy; a man forcing women into competition with one another to secure his own power and authority. More than that, Kilgrave is presented primarily as a creep. Whereas Wilson Fisk conforms to the archetype of a mobster, Kilgrave is little more than a desperate and deranged stalker with a crush. AKA Top Shelf Perverts confirms this, both literally in its script and implicitly in its title.

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This is not to suggest that Jessica Jones is inherently skeptical about sexual relationships. Jessica Jones is the most sexually candid piece of work that Marvel has ever produced. The sexual relationship between Jessica and Luke is portrayed as a healthy adult relationship; Jessica might struggle with the emotional beats of the dynamic, but the television show practical revels in their bed-breaking wall-cracking antics. As much as the characters of Jessica Jones might be traumatised, they are certainly not sexually dysfunctional.

(Of course, there are still standards to be maintained. For all that Jessica Jones is more overtly sexual than any prior Marvel Studios output, there is still a sense of sheepishness about it. For one thing, the relatively graphic sexual action is primarily confined to the heterosexual couplings. For another, the show indulges in all manner of television clichés to avoid any depictions of male or female nudity. The show might get away with a bit more blood and violence than the blockbuster releases or the mainstream television fare, but nipples are still out of bounds.)

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There are some minor bumps with AKA Ladies’ Night. Rosenberg’s script is a little heavy on the exposition at times. The series is not content to show how erratic and unreliable Jessica might be, but instead has Jeri explicitly outline Jessica’s major character flaws in bullet-point form during their first meeting. “It’s really about professionalism,” Jeri informs Jessica, hoping that the audience is paying attention. “You are eratic and you are volatile.” Jessice counters that she is “effective.” There is a little too much telling there.

Even the central metaphorical conflict of AKA Ladies’ Night is laid on just a little bit too heavy. Naming the young woman “Hope” feels decidedly heavy-handed. Over the course of AKA Ladies’ Night, and over the course of the season as a whole, Jessica thus finds herself in a position of trying to decide whether to abandon Hope. It is just a little bit on the nose for a show that is clearly positioning its central character on a redemptive arc towards (reasonably) selfless heroism.

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At the same time, Rosenberg’s script does have some great one-liners. One of the strengths of Marvel’s output has been diversity in genre, and Rosenberg really embraces the opportunity to do something of a triple genre hybrid. In Jessica Jones is a blend of superhero action with noir detective and psychological horror, AKA Ladies’ Night really hammers down on those noir beats. Krysten Ritter is absolutely superb as a hard-drinking private detective, while Sean Callery’s score offers electic guitars and wailing saxophones to beat the band.

Rosenberg even offers some delightfully (and knowingly over the top) private eye voice-overs. “In my line of work, you’ve got to know when to walk away, but some cases won’t let you go,” Jessica observes, a line that could only sound more authentic were Jessica wearing a fedora and a trenchcoat. Later, she reflects of Hope, “She’s either an idiot in love, or she’s being conned. Which amount to pretty much the same thing.” It stays just on the right side of the line of self-parody.

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As with the rest of the show, the superhero hijinks integrated quite well. There is a sense that Jessica is downplaying her superhuman abilities by forcing locks or leaving footprints in the ceiling when she forcefully throws a boot. This makes the moments when Jessica employs her gifts in more ostentacious ways – lifting a car in AKA Ladies’ Night or pinning herself between buildings in AKA 99 Friends – all the more effective for their contrast to the mundane application of her powers.

AKA Ladies’ Night gets Jessica Jones off to a strong and intelligent start, providing a clear sense of purpose that carries across the first season. While some later episodes struggle to break the story into logical fifty-minute chunks, AKA Ladies’ Night accomplishes a lot of what a first episode is meant to do. It sets up a lot of what is to come in a rather effortless manner.

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4 Responses

  1. I’m so pleased to see you reviewing this. (I was going to request it.)

    One of the paradoxes of modern life is how many professed Buffy/Sailor Moon fans have rallied to the anti-feminist cause (“Whedon? Pah! His shows haven’t been good since Angel anyway!”)

    • Thanks, Ed! Reviews should be daily on weekdays at midnight Pacific Time. Or eight hours after The X-Files/Lone Gunmen. think there’s a lot to talk about. The first couple are done already, and they’re long.

  2. Glad you’re covering this, I loved your Daredevil series. You are basically the best reviewer of stuff (and I read a LOT of reviews)

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