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Jessica Jones – AKA 99 Friends (Review)

Jessica Jones has always been more interested in the style and aesthetic of noir than in its storytelling.

The show’s visual aesthetic and stylistic sensibilities hark to noir. Jessica Jones is a cynical hard-drinking private investigator, who routinely works cases involving cheating spouses. She narrates her harsh reflections of life as she studies the world through the lens of a camera. Meanwhile, sad saxophones play in the background of lonely establishing shots of New York as the city that never sleeps, while our hero works alone late into the night seemingly accomplishing nothing. That is to say nothing of the actual opening sequence, with its impressionistic flair.

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While Jessica Jones borrows a lot of the stock archetypes and set-ups associated with noir, its storytelling is more of a hybrid between conventional superhero drama and feminist psychological thriller. The problem is that Jessica Jones never actually feels comfortable with its main character’s profession. Despite the fact that Jessica Jones is a licensed private detective, the eponymous character spends precious little time actually detecting stuff. Jessica’s investigations are generally in pursuit of Kilgrave, with her profession treated as a background detail.

AKA 99 Friends demonstrates how uncomfortable Jessica Jones is with this aspect of its title character. Over the course of the show’s thirteen-episode run, AKA 99 Friends is the closest that the show comes to offering a straightforward “case of the week” episode. Unfortunately, it is pretty terrible.

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Part of the appeal inherent in Jessica Jones is the delightful blending of the noir aesthetic with superhero genre conventions. Both are pulpy genres, even if their trappings seem diametrically opposed to one another. Superhero stories frequently feature bright colours and humanist narratives, while noir stories unfold in grotty surroundings where the worst in mankind can emerge. Putting a character who can fly (or jump) and lift cars over her head (or to waist-level) in a conventional noir story is an interesting contrast.

One of the problems with Jessica Jones is that the story does not feel long enough to sustain a full thirteen-episode run. There are several points where it feels like the narrative stalls to extend the story. Kilgrave is captured no less than three times over the course of the run, but is able to escape on each and every occasion. Characters like Will Simpson get lost in their own subplots. In the first half of the season, Jessica Jones struggles to keep Kilgrave an active character while still setting everything up.

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There are several possible solutions to these problems. The most obvious would be to shorten the season order. The version of Jessica Jones as it exists now would probably work better with a short season; it would be significantly improved by cutting the season order to ten episodes, perhaps even to eight. It would make Jessica Jones feel more like a miniseries than a season, but that might not be such a bad thing. Brevity can be a virtue, particularly when the alternative is padding.

The alternative would be to engage episodic storytelling while setting up character and plot points that will pay off later in the season. This was the approach that Daredevil used to avoid feeling too short for its own thirteen-episode run. Many of the early episodes felt almost procedural as the show carefully set up its characters and their arcs. Cut Man and Rabbit in a Snowstorm both presented the lead character with a clear plot unfolding over the forty-five minute block of television, allowing room to develop themes and characters around those plots.

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Jessica Jones is a little less comfortable with episodic storytelling. AKA Ladies’ Night does an excellent job setting up the characters and plots for the season, but AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey tended to trip over one another as they expand on those ideas. AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey both introduce Kilgrave as a character, making one of them redundant. AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey both feature a fairly pointless subplot about how Kilgrave (like everybody else) has a weakness to anesthetic.

AKA 99 Friends has a similar problem. It is the first episode of Jessica Jones in which David Tennant does not actually appear. This is not to suggest that Kilgrave is less of a concern, but it does suggest that he is not an immediate concern. So AKA 99 Friends is largely about setting up arcs that will pay off down the line. It introduces concepts that will become important later in the long-form plot. Jeri Hogarth confirms that she is getting a divorce. Jessica founds a survivor’s group. Simpson involves himself. Malcolm is exposed.

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These are all important, but they are not immediately important. They will come in handy later. So AKA 99 Friends has to have some sort of central narrative around which this place-setting might be arranged. Given that Jessica Jones is a private investigator, it makes sense to lean on that angle. Magnum, P.I. could milk entire seasons out of the premise of a central character who is a private investigator. It should be easy enough to build a single relatively self-contained episode about a super-powered private investigator.

There are problems. The most obvious problem is one of intertextuality. Jessica Jones is a mostly faithful adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ comic book Alias. While that comic book featured swearing and sex, it was still part of the larger Marvel continuity. While AKA Ladies’ Night is surprisingly faithful to the first issue of the comic, it does not replicate the cliffhanger. At the end of her first issue, Jessica Jones trails a woman to what appears to be an illicit rendezvous, only to discover her companion is… Steve Rogers, Captain America!

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It is a great ending, and one that makes it immediately clear that Jessica Jones coexists in the same world as Bruce Banner and Tony Stark, as if her past membership of the Avengers does not demonstrate that. The only problem is that it is a difficult to incorporate that sort of stuff into a thirteen-part television show, for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Chris Evans is never going to guest-star on a Netflix series. Even aside from that, Disney are likely concerned about kids following popular heroes to a series as sex-conscious as Jessica Jones.

These concerns are entirely understandable. After all, live action media comes with its own issues. Broadly speaking, Jessica Jones is not affected by the decision to strip out all of that interconnected continuity. Jessica’s story is no less tragic for the fact that she was never a member of the Avengers or didn’t go to school with Peter Parker. Indeed, the series is in some ways enhanced by the decision. Jessica’s ability to overcome Kilgrave is all the more effective for the fact that she did it alone and without the help of Jean Grey.

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At the same time, the intertextuality was a massive part of what made Alias so much fun in the first place. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos clearly had a great deal of fun examining various corners of the Marvel universe from a unique perspective, whether the sad tale of superhero hanger-on Rick Jones or the experience of an outed mutant teenager. While that intertextuality is not part of Jessica Jones in the same way that it is part of Alias, it is fun to imagine.

(There are shades of it to be found in the show. Some of the smaller and more interesting tangents of Jessica Jones touch on what it must be like to live in a world where alien invaders can suddenly fall from the sky. As Trish contends in AKA It’s Called Whiskey, would it be insane to believe in Kilgrave in that context? As Jeri suggests in AKA Crush Syndrome, is mind control analogous to driving drunk? It’s fun to imagine an alternate universe where Jessica Jones could rope in Mark Ruffalo for a guest appearance about superhero culpability.)

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Still, AKA 99 Friends does feature Jessica actually investigating a case. Sadly, there is very little actual investigation. Audrey Eastman just shows up and tells Jessica what to do. “Follow him after work,” Audrey instructs Jessica. “I guarantee that he will go straight from the office to her.” The legwork is already done for Jessica. The only really cool investigating that AKA 99 Friends offers is a nice scene of Jessica pinning herself between two buildings for a nice surveillance shot. “So, that’s it?” Jessica remarks. “Follow your husband and take sex pictures?”

It is fairly grotty. Of course, grotty is kind of the point. Private investigation is not a glamourous job by any measure, certainly not in the real world. However, the joys of having a character like Jessica and the framework of the shared Marvel universe is that it should be easier to springboard into an interesting story. However, AKA 99 Friends never takes any interest in its central case. The character of Audrey Eastman exists solely to mark time, and to reach a climactic scene where Audrey and Jessica can bluntly shout the themes of the show at one another.

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It turns out that Audrey is planning to murder Jessica, having discovered that she is a “freak.” This is very much stock superhero storytelling, anchored in xenophobia and fear of the Other. The X-Men have been doing this for decades. Apparently, this theme was originally part of Melissa Rosenberg’s pitch for the show at ABC:

When I was doing the network version of it I was able to stay closer to the original comic book plot. The universe, the mythology of the universe in the book, is that people with powers are fairly integrated into society and there’s a lot of prejudice against them. There’s the metaphor of The Other, which was a fun story to tell, but by the time we got up to Netflix, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a slightly different mythology so I really had to move away from that storytelling. There wasn’t a lot of plot I could take with me from the book, but I certainly used as much as humanly possible because I was just such a huge fan of the book.

Rosenberg is correct that this theme was a significant part of Brian Michael Bendis’ work on Alias, however the author more skilfully incorporated into Powers which was created free from Marvel’s shared universe and existed as much more of a “superhero procedural.” Grafting the theme into AKA 99 Friends feels clumsy.

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It is particularly clumsy because it comes in the episode that is most closely tied to the events of The Avengers. Audrey’s character motivation amounts to losing her mother in the events that unfolded at the climax of the film. This is a fair thematic point. Jessica Jones is a show about dealing with trauma, and the Chitauri attack on New York was a very traumatic event. Trauma is not just a personal experience, it can be a cultural one as well. Trying to mirror Jessica’s own trauma with the city’s larger trauma is a clever touch.

However, Jessica Jones keeps the rest of the shared Marvel universe at arm’s length. Although there are references to the attacks and the invasion, the show takes pains to avoid name-dropping. In AKA It’s Called Whiskey, Luke Cage makes a flippant reference to “the big green dude and his crew.” Even here, Jessica suggests that Audrey’s rage would be better directed at “the big green guy or the flagwaver.” In AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, there is a kid conspicuously wearing a Captain America costume, suggesting some insulation between Jessica and Steve Rogers.

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As a result, evoking the events of The Avengers so casually and so suddenly feels a little out of place. Quite simply, Audrey is not developed enough to sustain the idea. She comes across as a stock two-dimensional bigot without any nuance or character. “How many more people like you are there?” Audrey demands, out of “stock racist talk 101.” She feels like everything that Luke Cage ran the risk of becoming, a transparent and cynical acknowledgement that Jessica Jones is directly tied to one of the most successful franchises in mass entertainment history.

All of this leads to a very shouty climax that is full of characters bluntly stating the themes of the series in a way that has become increasingly popular since the release of The Dark Knight. Audrey’s use of her trauma to justify violence upsets Jessica. “You think you’re the only ones who lost people?” Jessica demands. “You think you’re the only ones with pain?” She elaborates, “I lost mine in an accident. Do you see me trying to kill every sh!tty driver? Because I don’t work out my sh!t on other people.”

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One of the recurring themes of Jessica Jones is the idea that trauma can become self-perpetuating if victims allow it and that suffering does not justify inflicting more suffering. AKA WWJD deals with this theme more directly and more skilfully in Jessica’s conversations with Kilgrave and in how spectacularly Simpson’s attempts at retribution backfire. In a much more effective reiteration of the theme, because it is directed at a more developed character, Jessica will admonish Kilgrave, “My parents died. I didn’t rape anyone.”

(It is worth wondering where Jessica draws the line. Early in the season, Jessica refuses to murder Kilgrave; she puts Hope’s redemption ahead of Simpson’s retribution. However, after the events of AKA 1,ooo Cuts, Jessica is more ready and willing to execute Kilgrave for what he has done. Nevertheless, Jessica is just as skilful in her use of innocent people as Kilgrave. She uses Malcolm as a distraction while stealing the medication in AKA It’s Called Whiskey. She uses the survivors’ group as a source of information in AKA 99 Friends.)

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It is a shame that AKA 99 Friends fails so spectacularly to construct an episodic adventure. One of the issues with the first half of Jessica Jones is the attention that it lavishes on Kilgrave. Allowing the character to recede to the background so the audience can get a sense of what day-to-day life is like for Jessica would be a very effective storytelling tool, if the show could pull it off. “For the first time, I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with Kilgrave,” Jessica remarks at the climax. It seems like the only time she can say that in the entire season.

In dealing with Kilgrave as a metaphor for trauma, it feels like Jessica Jones might fixate more upon retribution than recovery. There is an entire side to trauma that is more than simply balancing the scales or catching the abuser; there is learning to construct a life in the wake of horrific events. “His effect has limits,” Jessica tells Trish at one point. “Time and distance.” In that way, it resembles real abuse. It feels like Jessica Jones never lets its victims get far enough away from their abuser to explore that.

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It is a shame, because some of the explorations of trauma in AKA 99 Friends are very affecting. Even absent form the episode, Kilgrave becomes the embodiment of misogyny. At one point, one victim explains that he ordered her to smile; a seemingly innocuous command that seems all the more pointed in the wake of the recent controversy over the Apple demo. After all, the simple verbal suggestion that a woman should “smile” can come heavily loaded with uncomfortable implications.

In order to avoid another murder attempt, Tirsh has to apologise to her abuser, engaging in many of the clichés of internalised victim blaming and legitimising his violent response to her criticisms. “I was out of line in belittling this man and ignorant of my own limitations in challenging him,” Trish announces publicly. “He is a very fascinating and powerful man, deserving of respect.” Of course, it is all a lie, but the fact that Kilgrave is able to force Trish to say those things publicly speaks to the insidious nature of his power even beyond his ability to control minds.

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Later in the episode, Jessica finds herself confronted by an eight-and-a-half-year-old kid who has been corrupted by Kilgrave. Given the tendency to portray the dynamic between Jessica and Kilgrave as an abusive relationship, this perhaps speaks to the way that children are frequently weaponised during divorces and break-ups, employed as little more than pawns in a passive-aggressive game of brinksmanship between two warring parties. Their own agency and interests stripped away so they can engage in blaming like “you turned everything to sh!t”

Jessica Jones is as fascinated with the response to trauma as it is with the form of trauma. One of the more interesting aspects of the show is its willingness to develop characters in interesting and surprising directions. Most other narratives would discard a character like Will Simpson after his brief appearance in AKA It’s Called Whiskey. After all, Will was just a proxy in Kilgrave’s plan. He was akin to those anonymous henchmen who litter the final act of every other superhero film. Instead, Jessica Jones stays with Simpson ane engages in his own response to trauma.

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As with Jessica herself, it is heavily implied that Kilgrave is not the only trauma in Simpson’s life. Certainly, AKA Sin Bin suggests that Simpson has his own history of abuse and experience. “I did things in the line of duty… horrible things,” Simpson confesses to Jessica in AKA 99 Friends. It seems like Simpson might have already have been messed up before Kilgrave got ahold of him, if his arc in the second half of the season is any real indication. Jessica Jones suggests that trauma is not always limited or singular.

Jessica Jones is largely a narrative of female response to trauma. Characters like Luke Cage and Will Simpson exist primarily as support or contrast. The two regular characters who confront Kilgrave at the climax of AKA Smile are female, after all. Simpson embodies a very traditionally masculine response to trauma. He favours violence as a response. “It won’t end until we stop him,” he warns Jessica. “I may not have your abilities, but I got eight years special ops and an entire police force to back me up.” Later, he gives Trish a gun.

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Although Jessica Jones seldom engages directly with the shared universe, it does engage in more abstract and symbolic ways. Most obviously, Jessica Jones thematically mirrors Daredevil to a certain degree, even borrowing some structure. Although characters like Captain America or Iron Man will never appear in a Netflix television series, their presence in the shared universe does inform the shows. There are certain characters and events are interpreted through the prism of the shared universe, even if no overt reference is made.

AKA 99 Friends positions Will Simpson as a surrogate for Captain America. This makes sense, given that Will Simpson was created by Frank Miller as the character Nuke ; a psychopath with the American flag literally tattooed across his face. The parallels to Captain America are obvious; Miller himself included Captain America in that Daredevil arc. Other comic book writers have built on this idea. Grant Morrison retroactively incorporated Will Simpson into the supersoldier program, while Jason Aaron made him the Captain America of Vietnam.

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Even without any of that context, although some of it is still to materialise, AKA 99 Friends positions Will Simpson as a mirror to Captain America. Wil Travel is tall and athletic, with a crop of blonde hair. He cannot help but evoke Chris Evans, especially during later episodes in which Simpson wears aviator shades. Even Simpson’s casual attire in AKA 99 Friends positions him as a surrogate for Steve Rogers. His leather jacket, blue shirt and jeans look evokes Chris Evans’ appearance in much of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Oddly enough, this connection between Will Simpson and the paragon of American masculinity is a much larger and stronger connection to the shared Marvel universe than anything involving Audrey Eastman. It is a nice piece of intertextuality that relies more on symbolism and imagery than literal crossover or blunt dialogue. Simpson is introduced as a character roughly aligned with one of the Marvel universe’s most virtuous and most masculine and most righteous characters. It does a nice job of foreshadowing his arc in the episodes ahead.

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In short, it seems like Jessica Jones is a lot stronger when it is willing to keep its distance from the shared Marvel universe and engage in the abstract rather than the literal.

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5 Responses

  1. Ha! I am a Netflix addict. Half way through JJ. Love the artwork in the opening sequences but irritated by the pullback from urban to facial profile! Didn’t think I’d ever come across an in depth analysis like yours here! Thanks 🙂

  2. ” a nice scene of Jessica pinning herself between two buildings”

    If they ever make a Bayonetta film, I think we’ve got the casting sewn up.

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