The biggest problems with the first season of Jessica Jones are structural in nature.
Writing a season of television is tough. It is particularly tough when the season is heavily serialised, requiring the production team to break the story down into a distinct number of easily digestible chunks. It is especially tough when the season is going to be released all at once for public consumption, allowing the audience to watch as many episodes as they want as frequently as they want. Is a thirteen-episode drama released all at once effectively just a twelve-hour movie with conveniently timed bathroom breaks? Or is it the same as any other drama?
Jessica Jones struggles with this. It begins struggling with it quite early and continues struggling with it until the final couple of episodes. There is a sense that the production team are not entirely sure what the ideal mode of consumption is for Jessica Jones. Is the show supposed to gulped down in three or four marathon sessions, or is it meant to be savoured over a longer period of time? Do the episodes need to stand on their own or should they flow together? Do the team have to worry about repeating certain story beats (“capture and escape”) too close together?
Jessica Jones never quite answers this. The show has a strong enough cast of actors playing an interesting enough selection of characters that it is easy enough to forgive these problems. The world feels well-formed and the immediate story beats are generally interesting enough that the show never drags or feels repetitive. However, it does occasionally wander down certain storytelling dead ends. AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey take the show down its first such narrative cul de sac.
There is an argument to be made that Jessica Jones works best when it eschews the standard superhero storybeats. The show works better for avoiding many of the familiar superhero origin story beats, relegating them to a few character-driven flashbacks in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me. Although many of the primary characters happen to have superpowers, Jessica Jones arguably plays best as a psychological thriller and affection modern noir. The superhero elements are just a fun crossover element, as they were in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones very consciously evoke The Wire in their early episodes. The commentary on urban decay and media integrity between Ben Ulrich and one of his sources on the waterfront in Rabbit in a Snowstorm feels like a scene that might have been lifted from David Simon’s epic exploration of urban systems. AKA Crush Syndrome introduces a recurring police officer played by veteran character actor Clarke Peters. Clarke Peters’ most iconic role remains that of diligent police offer Lester Freamon in The Wire.
That is a very lofty television reference for two Netflix superhero shows to make. Many people would consider The Wire to be one of the pinnacles of the artform. While both Daredevil and Jessica Jones are impressive, they are not anywhere near as influential or as radical. Nevertheless, including those homages early in the seasons is a clear statement of purpose. While Daredevil and Jessica Jones are very much superhero shows, they are still rooted in an aesthetic that aligns (if not quite overlaps) with high-quality television drama.
So AKA Crush Syndrome feels a little awkward when it obsesses about Kilgrave’s weaknesses. Early in the episode, Jessica promises Hope, “I find his weakness. Then I find him.” It sounds as if Jessica is about to search for kryptonite for creeps. The episode continues to make several references to this investigation, with particular emphasis on the word “weakness.” When Doctor Karata explains that Kilgrave’s power don’t work under anesthetic, Jessica boasts, “That’s it! That’s his weakness!”
It is a fairly unimpressive weakness. After all, most people have a weakness to anesthetic. Jessica probably has a weakness to anesthetic, given she can get drunk. Luke probably has a weakness to anesthetic. Sure, Jessica explains that Kilgrave’s powers work while he is sleeping and Karata explains that anesthetic is different from sleep, but it still feels very arbitrary. The episode might as well suggest that Kilgrave has a weakness to bullets… or neck-snapping. It very odd detail to be so specific about.
It is particularly frustrating given that it does not actually go anywhere. AKA Crush Syndrome has Jessica discover the weakness and AKA It’s Called Whiskey has Jessica trying to get ahold of the anesthetic. However, all of this set-up only fleetingly pays off with a failed abduction of Kilgrave at the end of AKA The Sandwich Saved Me and a more successful abduction at the end of AKA WWJD. In both cases, the effects of the anesthetic could be explained with a throwaway line of dialogue. By the end of AKA 1,000 Cuts, Jessica has decided it’s just easier to gag him.
Similarly, AKA Crush Syndrome spends particular time meditating on the idea that Kilgrave has been horrible wounded; that he was almost killed in the bus crash and that he has received two kidney transplants. “He cheated death,” Jessica observes. “How?” While almost killing Kilgrave explains how Jessica had enough time to try to get her life back together after the crash, it does put an emphasis on his injuries. For all the attention that AKA Crush Syndrome pays to his near-death experience, it never really comes up again.
All this does serve a clear purpose. The fixation on Kilgrave’s perceived “weakness” in AKA Crush Syndrome is secondary to Jessica’s tour of the twisted and broken people left in her adversary’s wake. It provides an excuse for Jessica to leap from victim to victim so that the audience can get a sense of the collateral damage that Kilgrave causes. Even the decision to make that weakness a medical anesthetic serves to align Jessica more clearly with Jeri’s personal drama, given that Jeri’s soon-to-be-ex-wife is a medical doctor.
Still, it feels like a rather circuitous route. The plot feels like it is stalling as it tries to line up all of the pieces. This is not the only time that it happens; it is not even the only time it happens within these episodes. The decision to position Kilgrave as an opponent across the entirety of the thirteen-episode season means that the scripts have to find a way to keep him relevant as everything else moves into place around him. Kilgrave doesn’t become an active participant in the plot until AKA WWJD, but the show still devotes considerable attention to him.
This is particularly obvious with his introductory scene at the end of AKA Crush Syndrome. The obvious point of the scene is to provide the audience with all that they need to know about Kilgrave; he is not a nice person, he uses mind control, and that mind control reaches horrifyingly deep. The problem is that it feels unnecessary. A lot of this was implied in AKA Ladies’ Night and is more effectively established by the climax of AKA It’s Called Whiskey, which covers a lot of the ground more effectively.
The penultimate scene of AKA Crush Syndrome feels somewhat redundant, even calling attention to its own redundancy. “I’m going to be your guest here,” Kilgrave informs his hostages. “Indefinitely.” However, Kilgrave has already moved to another stylish apartment with another impressive view by the end of AKA It’s Called Whiskey. The entire sequence introducing Kilgrave in AKA Crush Syndrome could be excised while losing nothing in the larger context of the season. It is not that it is bad, it is just covered better elsewhere.
Kilgrave’s continued presence causes other structural issues with the season. During the middle part of the year, Jessica Jones has to find ways of keeping Kilgrave busy while Jessica is doing other stuff. So Kilgrave blackmails Jessica into sending him pictures of herself in AKA You’re a Winner! while the show spends a lot of time detailing Kilgrave’s purchase (and renovation) of Jessica’s childhood home in AKA You’re a Winner! and AKA Top Shelf Perverts. Again, it is not that these sequences are bad; they just feel a lot like stalling.
In many ways, Daredevil would seem to be the obvious point of comparison here. The show also told what amount to a single season-long story with an adversary introduced over a slow burn. The show ran into many of the same pacing problems that affect Jessica Jones, particularly when it came to stalling particular plots so that other plots could advance to where they need to be. While Jessica Jones learned a lot from Daredevil, the early part of the season is a lot weaker.
Daredevil opened with a series of relatively episodic adventures that served to slowing introduce the audience into the world of the characters. Into the Ring was a proto-origin story, while Cut Man centred around the rescue of a single kidnapped child and the bond between Matt Murdock and Claire Temple. Rabbit in a Snowstorm adopted something approaching a legal procedural model, with Matt and Foggy assigned to protect a client who they knew to be guilty. Each story built towards the arc of the season, but it also stood alone.
The basic idea of a television show built around a private investigator would lend itself to these sorts of stories. After all, there have been lots of classic episodic shows about private investigators. Doing that in the context of the Marvel universe for a few hours would be fun. As Jeph Loeb acknowledges:
One of the things that’s fun about being a private detective is that the line between what’s legal and what’s not legal gets very blurred. We did have a great deal of fun playing with the kinds of traditional P.I. things that you know about, whether it’s the noir films from the ‘40s or whether it’s a film like Chinatown. Those were the kinds of inspirations. It’s gumshoe, but in a very modern way, never forgetting who she is and what it’s about. Her drive is not always necessarily to solve the case, as much as it is to go, “Okay, can I pay the rent? How am I going to get through this day?” Those are the kinds of things that make it much more compelling because than you’re not sitting at home trying to figure out the plot. What you’re doing is rooting for the character, particularly in this world that Netflix has so generously given us.
However, very little of that actually makes it into the show. The sequences of Jessica sleuthing in AKA Ladies’ Night and AKA Crush Syndrome are about as far as the series actually ventures into the realm of the private detective. Even when Jessica is hired in AKA 99 Friends, most of the work is already done for her.
Looking at the layout of the first season of Jessica Jones, it seems like the show never quite capitalises on the appeal of “super-powered private investigator.” Over the course of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ run on Alias, Jessica Jones investigated a number of cases before encountering Kilgrave. Instead, AKA Ladies’ Night opens with the return of Kilgrave and builds from there. As a result, pretty much every episode – with the exceptions of AKA 99 Friends and AKA You’re a Winner! – finds Jessica on the trail of Kilgrave.
There are reasons for this, of course. Indeed, the problems with AKA 99 Friends suggest that Jessica Jones might not have been designed to follow an episodic model. The diversions from the primary plot frequently feel unsatisfying and distracting. While Jessica Jones is perfectly willing to drop the plot lines featuring Luke Cage or Jeri Hogarth for entire episodes, Kilgrave always remains a threat. Even when David Tennant does not actually appear, Kilgrave is an on-going concern.
As Melissa Rosenberg conceded, Kilgrave was very much the focal point of the season:
Kilgrave’s definitely the through line of the entire season. There is procedural element somewhat, but again the series is really about her character. It’s not about the case of the week. Kilgrave is so wrapped up in who she is and one of the events that has shaped who she is so much has to do with Kilgrave, so the procedural is really the backdrop for the storytelling.
This is something of a double-edged sword since his plot cannot actually go anywhere for a while.
Although undoubtedly accidental, AKA Crush Syndrome does suggest a nice thematic overlap with Daredevil. The production team wisely keep Jessica Jones quite insulated from the wider shared universe, but thematic resonance seems appropriate. After all, while Brian Michael Bendis was scripting both Alias and Daredevil, the two books seemed to work in synch with one another. Matt Murdock would hire Jessica Jones and Luke Cage as bodyguards; Jessica Jones could count on Matt Murdock as a lawyer.
AKA Crush Syndrome introduces some religious iconography into Jessica Jones. It is never quite as heavy as the imagery employed across the first season of Daredevil, but it is enough to present a nice thematic ripple. Visiting the home of a victim of Kilgrave, Jessica is shocked to discover the victim’s mother is highly religious. “Maybe God sent you,” the mother assures Jessica. “Maybe he didn’t.” Later, she reflects on the horrible accident that happened to her son. “You can never see God coming.”
That conversation represents perhaps the most significant reference to God in Jessica Jones. However, the show maintains a light recurring religious metaphor for the next couple of episodes. “God didn’t do this,” Jessica reflects. “The devil did.” The show repeatedly acknowledges Kilgrave as a satanic figure. “What if the devil did actually make you do it?” Jessica muses in AKA It’s Called Whiskey. It certainly seems an apt metaphor for a character capable of such subtle manipulations of human will.
While on the subject of comparisons to Daredevil, it is worth remarking upon the space shared by the two series. Melissa Rosenberg wisely keeps her characters relatively separate, to the point that Jessica herself rejects a superhero team-up in AKA Smile. However, it is clear that the stories unfold in a similar conceptual space. It is a version of New York, but a version of New York that is simultaneously different to the real contemporary version of the city and the urban backdrop that appeared in The Avengers.
Jessica Jones revels in its New York trappings. Jeri Hogarth seems to always have a view of the Empire State Building, no matter where she is in her company’s offices. Jessica rides the subways and takes yellow cabs. There are establishing shots of elevated trains. Jessica and Luke chase a courier to Central Park in AKA Take a Bloody Number. The show is very affectionate towards the romantic idea of New York, capturing a lot of the iconic imagery of the city.
Perhaps that explains the fixation on trauma and fear that run through Jessica Jones and Daredevil like a fault line. In The Avengers, the Chitauri invasion of New York City was treated as analogous to the attacks of 9/11. In many ways, that was a trauma that affects the community to this day. The character of Will Simpson is presented as an army veteran who enlisted in the New York City Police Department, but one skilled with improvised explosive devices as AKA WWJD demonstrates.
Indeed, terror is very much the weapon employed by Kilgrave, who holds innocent lives ransom to his demands. At the end of AKA WWJD, Kilgrave even employs what amounts to a suicide bomber. Kilgrave is willing to sacrifice countless lives of converts to his cause, people won over by charming rhetoric uttered with complete authority. The terrorism metaphor plays out in the background of the season, building towards a climax win AKA 1,000 Cuts. It is treated very much as part of the fabric of the show’s New York setting.
As with Daredevil, there are also nods to the city’s rough history with urban crime. Across the first season of Daredevil, the Chitauri invasion was used as an excuse to roll back the clock on decades of gentrification in Hell’s Kitchen; presenting the community as a brutal urban sprawl. There are moments in AKA Crush Syndrome where it seems like the characters have wandered back into the gritty urban version of New York that existed before the implementation of Guiliani’s “zero tolerance” policy.
Although later episodes get more specific, AKA Crush Syndrome seems to suggest that both Jessica and Trish are afraid of urban crime. Jessica confesses to Trish she is afraid of random violence. “Every corner I turn, I don’t know what’s on the other side,” she admits. “I don’t know who’s on the other side. It could be the cabbie who’s going to drive me into the East River. It could be the FedEx woman, it could be the talk show host who was my best friend.” It sounds like the kind of chaotic city that inspired The Warriors or Escape from New York.
Towards the end of the episode, it is revealed that Trish is bruised and battered from practicing self-defense. The scenario she rehearses with her coach resembles the stock urban crime; a menacing figure approaching with a gun without motivation or without cause. Over the course of Jessica Jones, the fear that Jessica faces evolves to take many forms. However, the fears presented in AKA Crush Syndrome feel as outdated as Wilson Fisk’s extended monologue in Condemned.
Despite all that urban fear, AKA Crush Syndrome also makes it clear that New York is a community in which lives are all connected. Over the course of AKA Crush Syndrome, Jessica repeatedly insists that she must be alone. “Rude girl is lonely girl,” comments a sleazy mechanic. “Counting on it,” Jessica replies. Jessica tries to push away all of the people in her life, whether directly or indirectly. She asks Trish to stop meddling and alienates Luke by getting him embroiled in a police investigation.
However, AKA Crush Syndrome suggests that the city has a strange way of connecting people and bringing them together; even when they would rather stay apart. “Your business is my business when I have to listen to it,” Jessica warns Rubin and Robyn, an example of how lives intersect even when people do not want them to. Even Kilgrave serves as an unlikely thread that brings people together. He allows Jessica to find Hope, commenting on the irony of the name in AKA 1,000 Cuts. The support group provides a number of essential leads.
More than that, Jessica is more closely connected to other people than she might originally think. The city brings her life into collision with that of Luke Cage. If Jessica is an unstoppable force, he is an immovable object. If Jessica is the result of an “accident”, Luke is the result of an “experiment.” Naturally, their lives were already connected before they even met. AKA It’s Called Wiskey reveals that both Jessica and Luke have one crucial person in common. The city has a way of drawing people together who need to be together.
Even Trish can understand Jessica’s fear and anxiety. Although Jessica jokes about Trish doing yoga, Trish clearly nurses her own wounds and scars. AKA I’ve Got the Blues would suggest that those scars forged a bond between the two. Jessica just chooses to insulate herself from the world, while Trish decides to insulate her fear from the world. Ironically, even fear and pain can serve to bring people together in a weird and often contradictory manner. For all its fixation on trauma and hurt, Jessica Jones is surprisingly humanist.
Of course, Kilgrave would argue that he suffered his own trauma. When Jessica assures Hope that what happened was not Hope’s fault, the young woman replies, “I know. It’s yours. He said you left him there to die.” Kilgrave believes himself the victim in all this. In AKA WWJD, Kilgrave gets a delightfully wry line about being “mad at [her] for literally throwing [him] under the bus.” After hearing Hope’s explanation, Jessica realises, “He wants to make me suffer.” Hope clarifies, “Like he suffered.”
Jessica Jones pulls quite a skilled long con with the audience when it comes to Kilgrave’s tragic back story. The show seems to suggest that the character might be as skilled at manipulating the audience (or audience expectations) as he is at manipulating people. AKA Crush Syndrome marks the first point at which Kilgrave tries to manipulate his own personal narrative so as to manipulate the emotional responses of others. It is a very clever and self-aware touch from Jessica Jones, helping to define Kilgrave in opposition to Fisk.
The final sequence of AKA Crush Syndrome would seem like a very clever nod towards this twist. The penultimate scene of the episode is given over to Kilgrave, allowing the character to establish himself as an ominous and threatening force in the same way that the early episodes of Daredevil established Wilson Fisk. However, the position of the scene is quite telling; the final scene of the episode is not given to Kilgrave, but to Jessica. In that scene, Kilgrave is likened to a cockroach. Over the course of the season, Kilgrave is more cockroach than kingpin.
AKA Crush Syndrome does not have the same clarity of purpose that made AKA Ladies’ Night so effective. It also lacks the power of that brutal ending. While Jessica Jones is doing a lot of awkward set-up that does not always pay off, it is using that set-up to establish character and theme. The result is satisfying, if not spectacular. But it does provide a base from which to build.