Although Jessica Jones is the central character of Jessica Jones, the show does a pretty great job of building its ensemble.
The characters who exist in orbit of the title character all feel surprisingly well-formed and nuanced, three-dimensional and grounded. Although Jessica Jones is not always plotted in the most organic or logical way, it goes to great efforts to add layers to its characters. Over the course of the thirteen-episode season, even minor players like Malcolm or Simpson are revealed to be much more than their initial appearances would suggest. (Although this turns out to be a mixed blessing in the case of Simpson.)
If Jessica Jones has a weaker sense of structure than Daredevil, it has a stronger sense of its own ensemble. This is obvious from the outset. Rather than incorporating the show’s awkward mandatory comic relief into the primary cast as Daredevil did with Foggy, Jessica Jones relegates Robyn and Ruben to recurring status. As AKA Take a Bloody Number demonstrates, this doesn’t prevent every possible awkward tonal mismatch between comic relief and tragic drama; however, it does allow the rest of the cast room to breathe.
AKA It’s Called Whiskey is largely about building up the characters around Jessica, without sacrificing her role in the larger narrative.
Jessica Jones very much belongs to Krysten Ritter. Arguably, Ritter is more heavily burdened by Jessica Jones than Charlie Cox was with Daredevil. Discussing plans for a hypothetical second season, Melissa Rosenberg acknowledged just how much heavy lifting Ritter does on the show:
I think one of the things I would be able to do now, that’s harder to do in the first season, is to really expand on the ensemble. Poor Krysten Ritter, she was in every scene that we shot, we beat the crap out of her. She was a shell of a human being by the time we ended, and that is not sustainable. But when you have a show that’s called Jessica Jones, if Jessica Jones isn’t in a scene the rest of it become almost irrelevant until you earn other character storylines. You’ve got to flesh out those characters enough that you can travel.
This is certainly fair. While the episodes of Daredevil focusing on Wilson Fisk like Shadows in the Glass afforded Charlie Cox a little time out of focus, Ritter remains the centre of the drama in episodes of Jessica Jones centring on Kilgrave like AKA WWJD or AKA Sin Bin.
(Of course, the reasons for this are both thematic and pragmatic. The thematic reason that Jessica remains in focus even as Kilgrave attempts to hijack the story makes it clear that the show refuses to allow the narrative of victims to be coopted by more cynical abusers. In pragmatic terms, it also helps sell the idea that Kilgrave’s tragic back story is just a fabrication concocted by a manipulative mind playing with expectations; that Kilgrave is trying to control Jessica even though she is immune to his power.)
As a result, Jessica remains the centre of Jessica Jones even as other characters drift in and out of the narrative at certain points. While Daredevil seemed unsure about what to do with Foggy and Karen for extended periods of its thirteen-episode run, Jessica Jones is perfectly willing to let some of its characters disappear for extended stretches. Barring a major guest appearance in AKA You’re a Winner!, Luke Cage is largely absent from the middle of the season. Jeri Hogarth fades from narrative importance after the events of AKA 1,000 Cuts.
There is a sense that Jessica Jones is willing to be flexible with most of its major cast, willing to use characters as appropriate without straining to fit them into a narrative where they do not belong. Carrie-Anne Moss and Mike Coulter are valued members of the ensemble, but they are all the more effective for the fact that show does not keep them around for longer than is strictly necessary. They are used for very explicit purposes and the show phases them out rather than trapping them in dead-end plots.
Indeed, there is a sense that Jessica Jones might have been stronger were it willing to adopt a similar approach to the character of Kilgrave rather than making him such an integral character. There are points in the first half of the season where Kilgrave seems stuck in a holding pattern because he cannot actually do anything until everything else has been properly established. However, the show feels the need to make him the centre of attention. Even in episodes in which David Tennant does not appear (such as AKA I’ve Got the Blues), Kilgrave is a driving force.
It is possible to read this as a metaphor for how the effects of abuse linger long after the abuser themselves has vanished. (AKA I’ve Got the Blues does this quite well.) The problem is that the show does not actually need Kilgrave for the impression of Kilgrave to be effective. The more the show uses Kilgrave, particularly in its first half, the less effective he becomes. The introduction of Kilgrave in AKA Crush Syndrome feels particularly pointless, because his reintroduction in AKA It’s Called Whiskey is so much more effective.
AKA It’s Called Whiskey does a remarkable job building up to Kilgrave’s appearance, a slow boil that would be all the more effective without the complete reveal of Kilgrave in the penultimate scene in AKA Crush Syndrome. Although AKA Crush Syndrome ensured that the audience only caught glimpses of David Tennant’s face during those scenes, he still felt like a physical presence. In contrast, Kilgrave’s first “appearance” in AKA It’s Called Whiskey is limited to a call into “Trish Talk.” It is a very effective scene, for a number of reasons.
On a visceral level, Tennant has a great voice. Tennant is Scottish, but he does a very impressive British accent. In fact, Tennant frequently uses his “Estuary English” accent, one of the more common British accents employed by the BBC and perhaps the most distinctive and quintessentially British accent owing to its prominence in popular culture. (Indeed, the more formal “Received Pronunciation” is recognised as a somewhat stereotypical accent used to suggest particularly upper-class British characters.) So Tennant’s voice is enough to make an impression.
However, the scene also speaks to some of the more subtle influences on Jessica Jones. Although much has been made of the show’s noir sensibilities, Jessica Jones is something of a hybrid. The private eye setting, the wailing saxophones, the city sensibility, the gritty narration all come from the noir tradition. The super powers, the weaknesses, the spectacle, the fight scenes all come from the superhero genre. However, Jessica Jones is also very much a feminist psychological thriller. It is not a forensic procedural, but it is a grounded horror story.
As such, it makes sense for the show to pay homage to Thomas Harris, the writer of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. Both novels dealt with implicit misogyny and sexual politics, although The Silence of the Lambs is the more explicitly feminist text. However, Trish’s backfiring attempts to lure a psychotic murderer into making a mistake hark rather consciously to Will Graham’s attempts to catch Dolarhyde in Red Dragon. In particular, Trish and Will attack the killer’s sexuality, with Trish making jabs about “serious Oedipal issues” and “impotence.”
That said, the sequence of a psychotic killer having a very civilised (and seemingly polite) conversation in a British accent with a female character safely insulated from him cannot help but evoke The Silence of the Lambs. The show makes a number of such nods over its run. Both Kilgrave and Lecter are presented as satanic forces with unnatural powers of persuasion, although Kilgrave never convinces anybody to swallow their own tongue. The chamber that holds Kilgrave in AKA Sin Bin very much recalls the various iconic depictions of Lecter’s glass-fronted cell.
More than that, though, there is something very clever about idea of introducing a character who controls people through the power of his voice on a radio talk show. AKA It’s Called Whiskey suggests that there is power inherent in Kilgrave’s voice. Jessica is horrified to hear it again; it triggers all sorts of memories for Hope. Even Jeri, who claims to be a skeptic, is given pause when Kilgrave’s voice fills the air. It is a deeply uncomfortable scene, one that brilliantly sells the idea of Kilgrave as a man with a powerful voice even when that power is not a literal superpower.
(Of course, over the course of the season, it is revealed that Kilgrave’s powers are not completely governed by his voice. As with his comic book incarnation, it seems to be linked to pheromones in the early part of the season. That is why locking him in an airtight chamber in AKA Sin Bin is so effective. Of course, by the time the show reaches AKA Take a Bloody Number, Kilgrave has moved beyond even those limitations to the point where he does not need to physically share the space with his targets.)
AKA It’s Called Whiskey builds naturally to the first shot of David Tennant’s face. Kilgrave’s influence is felt during the assault upon Trish, even though he is not present. Jessica Jones does an excellent idea of underscoring how creepy Kilgrave’s manipulation is. “You don’t want to do this,” Trish tells Simpson as he attacks her on Kilgrave’s orders. Simpson simply responds, “Yes, I do.” Describing her own experience, Hope offers, “I could feel this tremendous need. He said ‘wish her a happy birthday’ and suddenly that was the only thing that I wanted to say.”
Even during the final act, as Jessica follows Simpson back to Kilgrave, the episode does an excellent job of building up the villain and slowly peeling back the layers. As Jessica sneaks across the rooftop, the audience hears Kilgrave before they see him. As Jessica peers through a skylight, the audience is treated to a shot of the back of Kilgrave’s head. The shots in the penthouse are wide, as if to emphasise how much Kilgrave controls despite his smallness within the frame. By the time we catch a glimpse of his face, it feels haunting.
Jessica Jones very wisely allows Kilgrave to be British. The comic book character upon whom Kilgrave was based was originally Croatian. While David Tennant is actually Scottish, allowing him to use an English accent rather than approximating a Croatian or Scottish accent is a smart choice; Tennant’s British accent adds a lot to his character. Jessica Jones practically revels in the character’s new-found Britishness; he uses “sh!te” rather than “sh!t”, uses the words “wankers” and “bloody” in AKA Take a Bloody Number.
There is also something darkly hilarious about Kilgrave idly shouting coaching advice at the rugby match on the television. “Don’t just kick it all the time, you ginger twat!” Kilgrave urges, a single line that skilfully manages to establish both how deeply unpleasant and how incredibly British Kilgrave is with a bluntness that is surprisingly charming. Forget Robyn and Ruben, the best comic relief in Jessica Jones is the sheer joy that the show takes in allowing Kilgrave to be a stereotypically evil and socially unpleasant British character all at the same time.
Of course, keeping the accent allows Jessica Jones to play Tennant’s performance off his most iconic role in Doctor Who. Kilgrave is arguably a twisted reflection of the Tenth Doctor, a self-righteous spoilt brat with the power to do what he wants when he wants with no sense of consequences. Kilgrave sweeps up beautiful women and takes them on wild adventures with him, and can talk his way out of any situation. Of course, the Tenth Doctor was simultaneously emotionally manipulative and oblivious, but he was never as vicious or explicitly abusive as Kilgrave.
Kilgrave is not the only character efficiently and effectively established by AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Luke Cage was always going to be an interesting character for Jessica Jones, given that Netflix will be releasing its own Luke Cage miniseries in 2016. Luke Cage is effectively a guest character in Jessica Jones before getting spun-off into his own show, putting the writing team working on Jessica Jones in a very awkward position about what they can or cannot do with the character within their thirteen-episode run.
Discussing the use of Cage and the obligations imposed by the shared universe, Melissa Rosenberg reflected:
Nothing had been predetermined. We were determining it as we went along. Jeph Loeb said, “Well, you know, he does kind of have his own series so the origin story is the stuff of his series.” There’s so much that you can’t know. At first I freaked out. I thought, “I can’t tell anything with him,” but it ended up being quite perfect because it just leaves more of a mystery for that relationship. The series is called Jessica Jones. It’s not called Luke Cage. Actually, it ended up bringing us back much closer to focus. Luke’s story is important in how it branches off Jessica’s and how that connection is made. Then he goes off into his own storytelling.
Jessica Jones uses Luke Cage very well. He feels like a fully-formed character rather than a point of crossover.
Building a shared universe can be tough. Some of the roughest patches in the Marvel cinematic universe come as a result of shoehorning in references and set-up. Iron Man 2 comes to mind, with a large part of that film dedicated to establishing characters who would come in hand for The Avengers. Even in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor wandered off in the middle of the film to spend time in what amounted to a trailer for The Avengers: Infinity War. It is hard to serve both an individual story and a wider universe.
That is arguably obvious even within the Netflix shows. While Daredevil had to do some universe-building with Stick, the show offset the problems by rooting the episode in another failed father-figure for Matt. The world-building felt secondary to the character drama. It also allowed for ninjas. While Jessica Jones more carefully avoids even dropping the names of superheroes, it does run into trouble when it tries to more specifically weave the trauma of The Avengers into the plot of AKA 99 Friends.
As such, the handling of Luke Cage is impressive. It never feels like a springboard to the character’s own show. He never references other popular Marvel characters with whom he might be having wacky adventures. He doesn’t idly doodle the Iron Fist logo while longing for a bromance. His dead wife is Reva Connors with no nod towards his frequent comic book associate Misty Knight. Luke Cage undoubtedly has his own stories to tell, but Jessica Jones does not let them intrude on the story being told here.
Indeed, one of the more satisfying aspects of Jessica Jones is how it generally avoids a lot of the standard superhero story beats. Luke Cage distills his origin down to “experiment”, while Jessica Jones explains her beginning as an “accident.” That is all that needs to be said. While AKA The Sandwich Saved Me does fill out some of Jessica’s back story and AKA I’ve Got the Blues floats a theory for her powers, the origins of her powers are never the focus of the story. The audience just takes for granted that they are the result of an “accident.”
This is somewhat refreshing, given how exhausting superhero origin stories can become. As Noah Berlatsky reflects:
But the assumption that origins have to come first, and have to be central, seems like it frequently leads film-makers into unforced errors. If you go to a superhero film, you’re already committed to a fairly high level of suspension of disbelief. You’ve bought into the idea that superheroes exist. There’s just no need to carefully walk an audience through the preposterous pseudoscience whereby the heroes are supposed to have turned into rocks or flame or whatever. Why not forget about the backstory altogether, and give us an adventure? Who cares about the science fair project? Just show us the monster bashing out of the sewer.
As the superhero genre becomes more and more common, it becomes reasonable to expect audience to keep up.
There is something frustrating about the fixation upon origin stories. Spider-Man received two cinematic origin stories in the space of a decade, with Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man devoting considerable time to explaining how the hero got his powers. It is suggested that the next Spider-Man reboot might gloss over that. “I think that everybody feels like you know he got bit by a spider and you know Uncle Ben died, and we probably don’t need to revisit that,” reflects writer Jonah Goldstein.
Similarly, the fact that Jeffrey Dean Morgan got cast as Thomas Wayne in Batman vs. Superman suggests that the upcoming superhero film will offer yet another take on the character’s origins, which have already been explored on-screen in Batman, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman Forever and Batman Begins. This seems particularly ironic, given that the sixties Batman! glossed over that same origin, trusting audiences to understand what was happening based on a single line uttered with complete conviction by Adam West.
Even Daredevil could occasionally feel like a thirteen-episode adaptation of Batman Begins, right down to the bit where ninjas smuggle a weapon of mass destruction into the hero’s city as he tries to stop them. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this. Batman Begins remains the best superhero origin story ever committed to film, give or take an Unbreakable. It is also one of the best superhero films ever made, even if it is eclipsed by The Dark Knight. There are worse choices than emulating Batman Begins.
Jessica Jones very cleverly eschews a lot of this. In many ways, it is the opposite of a superhero origin story. Jessica Jones is very much a superhero retirement story, the tale of a character struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder after an attempt to play superhero went spectacularly wrong. If the superhero genre is to endure, the key is in finding diversity in stories. Guardians of the Galaxy is a superhero space opera; Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superhero conspiracy thriller. Jessica Jones is its own unique animal.
Mike Colter does great work as Luke Cage, creating a complex and multi-faceted character who seems to have a rich internal life. As befitting a character who will be launching his own show, Colter seems to suggest that Cage has his own drama and his own trauma; he just isn’t eager to share it yet. It helps that the camera loves Colter, luxuriating in something approaching the female gaze. Luke Cage might just be the most explicitly sexualised character in Jessica Jones, befitting the feminist subtext of the show around him.
Jessica Jones does a lot to flesh out its ensemble. AKA It’s Called Whiskey cleverly peels away some of the layers around Trish. Trish had been introduced in AKA Ladies’ Night as something of a stock female friend character. Her role in the narrative seemed obvious; Trish was the well-adjusted female friend who was designed to encourage Jessica to re-engage with the world around her. Trish would either manage to crack Jessica’s tough exterior, or she would end up dead as validation of Jessica’s cynical philosophy. (If not a call to action.)
Instead, Jessica Jones suggests that Trish is just as damaged as Jessica, that she is dealing with her own trauma tied to her mother. “I made some upgrades,” Trish offers, giving Jessica a guided tour of her apartment. Jessica responds, “What you made is a fortress.” When Jessica points out how extreme all of this is, Trish clarifies, “Nobody touches me anymore, unless I want them to.” It is quite clear that Trish is just as damaged and traumatised as Jessica, dealing with her own issues in her own way; self-defense is her alcohol.
Then again, Jessica Jones suggests that the key to surviving trauma is companionship. Jessica has to learn to trust the people around her, like Luke Cage or Trish Walker. When Jessica intervenes to save the life of Simpson, he seems genuinely shocked. “I fell with you,” she explains. “You caught me,” he insists. Jessica refuses the label of hero implied by his suggestion. “We both survived, that’s all that matters.” Over the course of the first season, Jessica Jones suggests that the only way to truly survive is together.
As such, AKA It’s Called Whiskey‘s focus on building the ensemble feels entirely appropriate.