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Jessica Jones – AKA Take a Bloody Number (Review)

AKA Take a Bloody Number is the penultimate episode of the season, and continues the process of narrowing the focus.

There is a sense that Jessica Jones is largely clearing away the clutter as it moves towards its final episodes. AKA Sin Bin found the show building to critical mass, and subsequent episodes have shrewdly decided to begin letting the air out slowly rather than bursting the balloon. AKA 1,000 Cuts resolved Jeri’s divorce subplot and killed off Hope Slottman. AKA I’ve Got the Blues disbanded the survivors’ group and took care of Will Simpson’s supersoldier plot. AKA Take a Bloody Number brings back Luke Cage, allowing the show to focus on the relationship between Luke and Jessica for the first time since AKA You’re a Winner! Luke seems to have missed the show’s climax, but he is still a matter than needs addressing.

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One of the strengths of Jessica Jones is a willingness to let its cast drift into and out of focus as the plot demands. Characters like Luke Cage and Jeri Hogarth are absent from consecutive episodes, and stretches of the season. This is likely due to actor availability issues, with Mike Colter soon to be headlining Luke Cage and Carrie-Anne Moss arguably the biggest star (and certainly the most recognisable “film” star) in the cast. Nevertheless, it does allow Jessica Jones a narrative expedience. Instead of having to constantly check in on various characters with a drip-feed of character development, the show can decide only to use them as is strictly necessary. It is a technique that works out quite well for the show. (Indeed, the show might have done better to adopt it with Kilgrave.)

AKA Take a Bloody Number works as a fairly streamlined piece of television, resisting the urge to escalate the scales (and the scope) of the story as it approaches its endgame. The climactic confrontation between Luke and Jessica is arguably just as effective as the climax of AKA Sin Bin, despite the smaller number of intersecting plot threads and involved characters.

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It is far too early to tell how the phenomenon of “binge-watching” has changed the face of television drama. As with the changes that developed from the emergence of DVD as the default mode of home entertainment at the turn of the millennium, there is a sense that it will be quite a while before critics and commentators are in any position to properly assess the consequences of so radical a shift. As with the success of DVD, the spread of broadband and the development of media streaming provides an intersection of technology and culture.

The changes are already being felt in how these developments have changed the market place. At the start of 2015, Netflix had almost sixty million subscribers world-wide. If Netflix were a traditional television network in the United States, it would be the fourth biggest network in the country. Of course, it is not a traditional network; that is the appeal. Netflix allows viewers to consume what they want where they want when they want. It is the logical conclusion of the DVD revolution. Scheduling and consumption in the audience’s hands.

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It is no surprise that other companies have latched on to Netflix’s model as the future of multimedia entertainment. Amazon Prime has begun producing their own on-line content. Indeed, The Man in the High Castle launched at the same day and time as Jessica Jones, amounting to what has been described as “streaming’s first blockbuster battle.” Although neither side reveals exact viewing figures, independent metrics suggest that Jessica Jones may have taken the day. But it did have stronger reach and brand recognition to begin with.

There is some indication that digital streaming is the future of television development. Although they are still decidedly vague on the logistics, CBS have announced plans to launch a new Star Trek show on their own digital platform. The default mode of distribution – favoured by shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Transparent, Daredevil – is to effectively release every episode at the same time. It is, in effect, releasing the DVD boxset before the weekly broadcast. Many of these shows will never have a weekly broadcast.

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It goes without saying that this changes the experience of watching the show. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner lamented the loss of the week-long “breather” between episodes:

I would try to convince [Netflix] to let me roll them out so at least there was just some shared experience. I love the waiting; I love the marination. When you watch an entire season of a show in a day, you will definitely dream about it, but it’s not the same as walking around the whole week, saying, “God, Pete really pissed me off.” And then at the end of the week, saying, “When he said he had nothing, that really hurt.” I remember people saying that. You can reconsider it. And you see it pop up in your life. I feel like you should be able to be as specific as you possibly can, and let that sit with people. I loved having the period in between the shows, and it probably is the end of it. I do love the idea of pressing that button and getting it right away and getting as many as you can take.

It is a valid creative concern as on-line television pushes shows closer and closer to a “binge” model of storytelling, where cliffhangers are conveniently resolved with the literal click of a button.

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Even the creator of Orange is the New Black, a show that has largely benefited from this model, has expressed some concern for how it changes the mode of the conversation:

“I miss having people on the same page,” Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan tells THR, adding, “I do miss being able to go online and have the conversation the day after. But it’s kind of a waste of time to lament that because that’s not the way our show comes.”

It is a legitimate concern, particularly with regards the emergence of on-line “spoiler” culture. At what point does it become appropriate to talk about spoilers for a show that was released all at once? How can the debate around the show synchronise?

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It can often feel like the conversation around a show released according to this model flares up and disappears. The arrival of a show like Daredevil or Jessica Jones generates about a week or so of intense media coverage before fading quietly into the background until the next season arrives. Weekly television has the effect of keeping a show in conversation for longer. Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder generate weekly reviews at the very least, but they also foster thinkpieces and discussion across an extended season.

Then again, there is a sense of moral panic about these arguments; the same anxieties that surround any major change in media. The known is familiar and comfortable; the unknown is scary and strange. This applies in both general and specific cases, to media and to genre. Even films and television were met with trepidation when they were emerging as broadcast form; rap music and horror films were the source of much anxiety. History has a tendency to sort the good ideas from the bad. It is history that will make its judgment on this new model.

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Ignoring the debates about the relative merits of the form, there is no denying that the “binge” model has changed more than just the way that the stories are consumed. It has changed the way that these stories are told. As Joe Quesada discussed on Marvel’s approach to Daredevil and Jessica Jones:

You can’t deny that there will be binge-viewing. You know that there are going to be some Marvel fans that when this show premieres, they are going to go on to Netflix, and they are going to sit there for 12 to 13-plus hours, and watch the entire thing all the way through. It’s going to happen. The Netflix model offers us the advantage of being able to construct the show in a manner that is very different than a weekly network TV show. Even the way that you parse out information and reveals within the show can be different than you would on weekly TV. With weekly TV, you sit there and go, “The audience may not want to wait two or three weeks to get this particular bit of information.” Whereas with Netflix, we might be able to hold onto a particular piece of information, because they may just watch it two hours later.

The “binge” model changes the way that the shows engage with viewers. It could be argued that the “binge” model puts a lot of power in the hands of the viewer. As any long-term Marvel fan knows by this point, with great power comes great responsibility. Or something like that.

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With weekly television, there is a tendency to under-estimate the audience. Arguably, this is the reason why network television has historically favoured episodic storytelling over more serialised narratives; the idea is that the episodes can be shown out of order and that viewers can just watch episodes at random with no need for context outside of the forty-five minute block. It was a bonus if shows like The A-Team explained their concept in a handy voice-over at the start of the opening credits.

Even as network television stumbled towards a more serialised approach to narrative, there was a reluctance to trust the audience to remember certain character arcs or plot threads without constant reminders. This was particularly apparent in the early seasons of 24, when the production team would work very hard to keep certain characters around during long stretches where there was nothing for them to do. Teri Bauer’s bout of amnesia in the first season is an obvious example of the show struggling to avoid sidelining a character while the show unfolds around them.

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(Perhaps the best example remains Kim Bauer’s encounter with a cougar late in the second season; the production team had no idea what they wanted from the character, but felt the need to keep her around. As a result, Kim tended to drift into random peril across the show’s run. Kim’s brief face-to-face with the feline menace has become one of the most memorable and iconic sequences 24 ever produced, for all the wrong reasons. It is a great example of a serialised show afraid to let its audience forget about a character while that character has nothing to do.)

To be fair, this approach makes a certain amount of sense with a show airing weekly. With exposure to the characters rationed, there is every possibility that casual viewers might forget where they left the various players. More than that, audiences might actually be curious about what is happening to a particular character while they are off-screen. With the traditional network model, audiences would have to wait weeks for a glimpse of the familiar character. In a word where every character has a fandom, that is perhaps too much to ask.

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The binge model removes these constraints. A viewer watching Jessica Jones and wondering where Luke Cage or Jeri Hogarth has gone is only a couple of hours away from an answer. Consuming the show as a “binge” (or even in “blocks”) makes it easier for viewers to keep track of where various characters are in the larger arc of the season. It is entirely possible for viewers to finish a binge not realising that Carrie-Anne Moss was absent from AKA I’ve Got the Blues and AKA Take a Bloody Number because they only saw her character an hour or so ago.

This is a nice example of how the binge model affects storytelling. These artificial constraints no longer exist. There is no need for every episode to cycle through a checklist, popping in on various characters even when there is nothing that those characters can contribute to the overall plot of the show at that particular moment in time. (Similarly, there is no real obligation to rigidly adhere to the forty-five minute runtime; episodes of Jessica Jones all clock in around fifty minutes, but there is considerable give-and-take.)

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It is an aspect of this new model that suits Jessica Jones very well. Both Luke Cage and Jeri Hogarth are major characters, even if they do not appear in every episode. Instead of appearing per forma, the characters appear as needed. It has the effect of focusing the show and increasing the value of their appearances. Audiences generally know that the characters are showing up for a specific purpose, not just because the actors are under contract and the production staff feel obligated to include them.

This is particularly important when it comes to the final episodes of Jessica Jones. The show has built up an impressive cast, with the opening credits ballooning to include performers like Wil Travel and Erin Moriarty over the season. However, having the freedom to expand and contract the cast suits the needs of the story being told. One of the smarter aspects of the final stretch of Jessica Jones is a willingness to narrow and tighten its focus instead of constantly expanding. The cast of a given episode can get smaller when the story of that episode demands it.

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That said, there are other pleasures to AKA Take a Bloody Number. Although the middle section of the season was quite harrowing, Jessica Jones shrewdly balances its darker storytelling elements with a sarcastic sense of humour. Both Krysten Ritter and David Tennant are exemplary comedic performers, with impeccable timing. Kilgrave might be a monster, but Tennant and the writers mine some delicious black comedy from his tantrums. In many ways, Kilgrave is simply a child who never heard the word “no.” It is horrifying, but also a little uncanny.

When Kilgrave throws a hissy fit about his father’s difficulties expanding his power set, Kilgrave decides to act out by ordering a by-stander to cross the road and stare at a fence forever. “Now, Kevin, be reasonable,” his father implores, as if dealing with a petulant child. Kilgrave simply responds, “Well, it won’t actually be ‘forever’, will it? Because it’s incremental, not exponential, remember?” It is a delicious response, quite like Kilgrave’s response to Luke arriving to kill him. “Take a bloody number,” he instructs. As if organising a road trip, “Get in the sodding car.”

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It is impressive to think that Jessica Jones waited so long to bring Luke Cage and Kilgrave into contact with one another. That is another luxury of being able to draft characters into and out of the show as necessary; it means that there are still some fresh pleasures to be derived from various interactions even twelve episodes into the season order. David Tennant is a wonderful performer, but he has surprisingly strong chemistry with Mike Colter; the writers play to this by allowing Kilgrave’s exaggeration to play off Luke’s sincerity.

When Luke confronts Kilgrave about the murder of Reva, Kilgrave responds, “What was I supposed to do? Just let her expose me?” In one of the delightful unintended consequences of Kilgrave’s mind control, Luke is compelled to answer. “Yes.” When Luke explains that he shares a special connection with Jessica, Kilgrave demands, “Tell me the truth: did you bugger my chances with her?” Luke is honest and direct, “No, you screwed that up yourself.” That actually catches Kilgrave off guard. “I’ll have to think of a fitting response to that.”

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There is a commendable efficiency to AKA Take a Bloody Number, with the episode devoting a lot of energy to clearing the plate for a confrontation with Kilgrave in AKA Smile. A lot of the romantic reconciliation between Jessica and Luke takes place in AKA Take a Bloody Number, even if Kilgrave is secretly pulling the strings. Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter work very well together, even outside of the joy of pairing up an unstoppable force with an immovable object.

However, not all of the tidy-up is so elegant. Jessica Jones never quite found the right tone for Robyn, never managing to develop her into a fully-formed character like it did with Jeri or Malcolm or Simpson or Trish. Even after Rubin was murdered by Kilgrave, the show struggled to reveal Robyn as anything other than two-dimensional comic relief. (Although she did double as a convenient plot device in AKA 1,000 Cuts.) Although her scenes with Malcolm in AKA Take a Bloody Number are supposed to humanise her, she still feels too much like a caricature.

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There are a number of awkward tone-deaf moments in the scenes between Malcolm and Robyn, particularly when Malcolm brings Robyn to the dock where she can bid farewell to her fraternal twin. The discussion of Pisces as a “water sign” is oddly touching, coupled with the twin imagery. However, all this hard work is offset by awkward gags like Robyn’s suggestion that Malcolm is “into” her or that she hopes “they have free express shipping in heaven.” There is something rather mean-spirited about how the show handles Robyn, as if it is constantly laughing at her.

There is also a sense that AKA Take a Bloody Number might also being doing some set-up for a hypothetical second season of Jessica Jones. Of course, it is impossible to know when this speculative season would emerge. Luke Cage is still in the future, as is the hastily green-lit second season of Daredevil. Production has yet to really begin on Iron Fist, which might be the most challenging of the four miniseries. It seems highly unlikely that the second season would emerge before The Defenders.

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Nevertheless, Melissa Rosenberg is quite keen about the possibilities of a second thirteen-episode run of Jessica Jones. Before the season was even released, she stated, “I’d love to do a Season 2 of this. I would love to do a Season 2.” After the show emerged as a massive hit, Rosenberg qualified the possibility:

The question becomes is there actual time? There are logistics involved, because Defenders has to shoot by a certain time, contractually. Actually, I’m not sure; I’m not at all involved in those conversations, much to my dismay. The first question is whether or not we will even get a second season. The second question is, if so, when? Will it be before The Defenders or after? I’d certainly love it to be before but there are things that play into that — time, availability.

Nevertheless, it feels like AKA Take a Bloody Number is setting up some story threads designed to pay off long past AKA Smile. Whether those elements come to fruition in The Defenders or in a hypothetical second season is still up for grabs, but there is definite groundwork being laid.

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AKA Take a Bloody Number confirms that Jessica’s mysterious superhero origin is tied into a mysterious company known as “IGH” that is also tangentially tied into the scientific research that made Kilgrave possible. Although Jessica claims not to have looked at the footage on the memory key she hands to Luke, there is every possibility that “IGH” is tied into the origins of Luke Cage as well. So there are any number of places where this might pay off at some point in the future.

It is interesting to speculate on what “IGH” might be, even without any context or meaning. Three of the four Defenders shows have strong ties to the work of Brian Michael Bendis. His work on Daredevil was a major influence on that show; he created Jessica Jones in Alias; although he has never written a comic titled Luke Cage, Bendis is largely responsible for popularising the character. In light of all this, it seems quite possible that “IGH” might be drawn from Bendis’ own work in the wider Marvel universe.

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Given the connections between “IGH” and superpowers, it seems quite possible that the company might be tied to a concept that Bendis popularised – “mutant growth hormone”, or “MGH.” Although the drug has a historical basis in Marvel continuity, Bendis was responsible for pushing it into mainstream continuity at the turn of the millennium. Bendis used it in parallel arcs of Alias and Daredevil exploring the spread of a recreational drug that gave users superpowers. If “IGH” is linked to the concept, it makes sense that it should tie to multiple heroes.

Of course, Marvel Studios does not actually own the film rights to their “mutant” mythology. Although “mutant growth hormone” is not particularly tied to the X-Men franchise in its modern incarnation, it makes sense that the company would move away from the “m-word” in labelling. In fact, the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode TAHITI featured a more generic “GH-325”, where the “GH” was suggested to stand for “growth hormone.” If the Defenders series are going to play with “mutant growth hormone”, they will likely strip out the “mutant.”

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With what would they replace the “mutant”? Marvel has adopted a synergistic approach to rebranding many of their X-Men-related concepts that might be of use to Marvel Studios. For example, the company rather cynically rewrote the histories of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch so as to fit more comfortably with the characters who appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron. According to recent changes, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are no longer the children of Magneto and are not longer mutants per se.

More recently, the company decided to rework the Inhumans so as to appropriate many of the core attributes of the X-Men. The Inhumans are no characters who randomly manifest superpowers and who find themselves subject to a world that fears and hates them. There is a clear sense that the company is trying to rework the Inhumans so that they might work as surrogates for the X-Men in Marvel Studios productions, taking a familiar story and awkwardly welding it to characters who can legally appear in Marvel Studios film and television.

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This conflict has been literalised in Jeff Lemire and Humberto Ramos’ Extraordinary X-Men, a comic which reveals that the X-Men are actually facing extinction as a result of the changes made to the Inhumans. The war between the two Marvel brands is rendered explicit, as Oliver Sava explains:

Marvel’s X-Men have always had a target on their heads, but now the publisher is pointing the gun. Since the beginning of 2013’s Inhumanity event, mutants have been getting gradually less attention as Marvel pushes the Inhumans into the X-Men’s former role, a strategy that many have speculated is a hostile response to Fox owning the film rights to mutant characters. In a Nerdist interview last year, long-time X-writer Chris Claremont stated that the X-Men office was forbidden to create new characters because they become Fox property, and Marvel doesn’t want to promote Fox material. While there has been no formal word from any of the editors or creators that have a direct role in the X-Men’s post-Inhumanity status quo, the treatment of Fox-owned properties at Marvel Comics supports Claremont’s claim.

Marvel Studios is already capitalising on this narrative restructuring. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has made good use of the Inhumans as obvious surrogates for the X-Men, appropriating much of the metaphorical framework that had previously existed around the so-called “merry mutants.” Still, it could be worse. They could be the Fantastic Four.

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In light of all this, it is entirely possible that Marvel Studios has continued the process of porting over various concepts attached to the X-Men and rebranding them so that they can be used with an Inhuman label. (It is worth noting that the Inhumans first appeared in an issue of The Fantastic Four, whose film rights belong to Fox rather than Marvel Studios. These rights issues can be confusing and contradictory at times.) As such, “mutant growth hormone” might become “inhuman growth hormone.” So “MGH” becomes “IGH.”

Of course, this is pure speculation. This may turn out to be completely incorrect, with absolutely no basis in fact. Still, it is fun to speculate about such things. However, there is some evidence to suggest Marvel Studios would want to tie Jessica and Kilgrave’s origin to the Inhumans. The comic book event Inhumanity and the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have suggested that the Inhumans have becomes Marvel’s “go to” methods of conveniently and organic explaining the spontaneous development of superpowers now that the “mutant gene” is off the table.

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Still, this is very clearly a problem for another day… or season. AKA Take a Bloody Number even acknowledges it as such. When Trish draws Jessica’s attention to the mysterious “IGH” corporation, Jessica shrugs it off as a problem less immediate than Kilgrave’s efforts to expand his own powers and abilities. “Please, Trish,” Jessica begs. “I can only fight one big bad at a time.” It is a nice self-aware line, acknowledging that “IGH” can probably be pushed with Dardevil‘s “Dark Skies” into the pool of “possible future storylines.”

In a way, the title of AKA Take a Bloody Number is quite informative. The episode is very much about lining everything up so that it can be dealt with in an orderly fashion. The reconciliation between Luke and Jessica is front-loaded, so there is not too much weight to carried over to AKA Smile. Malcolm and Robyn get to resolve their little plot line so they don’t slow down the finalé. Kilgrave is established as enhancing his powers so AKA Smile can start from there. “IGH” is seeded for later use.

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On paper, this should all feel a little too mechanical and clean, but AKA Take a Bloody Number anchors it all in the central character dynamics. The episode is powered by combinations of characters interacting. Trish and her mother; Jessica and Luke; Luke and Kilgrave; Jessica and Kilgrave via Luke. It gives the episode an emotional weight that allows it to feel like more than just box-ticking.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of Jessica Jones:

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4 Responses

  1. “Then again, there is a sense of moral panic about these arguments; the same anxieties that surround any major change in media.”

    Yeah, I think the genie’s out of the bottle on this one. Once upon a time there were only three channels, and everyone watched Happy Days on Tuesdays and exchanged stories about Fonzie on Wednesdays. (I’m 30, I’m not talking from experience here!.)

    On the other hand, we have r/Defenders and numerous other threads to discuss the show in real-time, which is a fair substitute. I doubt Moffat loses sleep over the lack of water-cooler talk. He’s too forward-thinking. He saw the potential in hashtags.

    • Yep. It’s a fascinating new world. One of the best parts of doing The X-Files from beginning to end was watching the start of that change, from episodic network television to the arrival of DVDs and network serialisation. (Through cable television and reality TV.) Now I just need to figure out something between 2002 and present.

      • That’ll be tough. I might be wrong, but did networks retreat back to the comfort and familiarity of episodic TV? If you wanted serialization you had to resort to reality shows. You’d know better than I, but the big three networks (in the states) are more old-fashioned than ever these days. Even the genre shows (Once Upon a Time, Supernatural) are samey if you watched more than three episodes.

      • Yep. I think from 2002, I’d have to hop onto the Golden Age of television train via HBO, and ride that through to Streaming City and Pulpy Plains.

        Sorry. I may have stretched that gag.

        Edit: I should say I’m not in any real rush to do another “beginning to end” rewatch of any show. Although I think the Star Trek announcement forced my hand.

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