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The Defenders – Worst Behaviour (Review)

One of the big issues with The Defenders is that it works a lot better as a weird cross-cutting fusion of four different television series than it does as a single cohesive narrative.

The H Word and Mean Right Hook feature a few small crossover between primary and supporting characters; Foggy and Luke, Misty and Jessica, a fight between Luke and Danny, a quick tease of Matt and Jessica. Otherwise, the four lead characters seem to operate in isolation from one another, continuing threads and themes from their own shows, even as they inch closer and closer together. Worst Behaviour and Royal Dragon finally bring the big four characters together, while still trading on the incongruity of this team-up.

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This tension provides the first half of The Defenders with a compelling narrative hook, an interesting set of internal conflicts between various genres and styles and conventions. In contrast, a lot of this tension evaporates in the second half of the season, as The Defenders figures out exactly what it wants to be in Take Shelter and Ashes, Ashes, before devolving into a familiar and distracting chaos with Fish in the Jailhouse and The Defenders. The first half of the season is compelling, because it seems to be about more than wave-after-wave of generic ninja.

As the team begins to cohere in Worst Behaviour, worlds begin to collide. There is something sublime and ridiculous, as the audience comes to realise that a blind vigilante might coexist alongside a super-strong alcoholic private investigator, a bulletproof social crusader and a billionaire martial arts expert. It is weird, wonderful and jarring. The Defenders manages an interesting frisson in Worst Behaviour.

Lift off.

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The Defenders – The H Word (Review)

It’s a hell of a town.

One of the most striking aspects of The Defenders is its emphasis on New York City. Of course, the Marvel Universe has always been centred on the Big Apple. Decades before Fantastic Four #1 laid the foundation stone for that elaborate shared continuity, Marvel Comics #1 established New York City as a hub for characters like Namor, the Angel and the Human Torch. The city has a long and rich shared history with the comic book publisher, allowing visitors to take tours of iconic comic book locations and even lighting the Empire State Building in the colours of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Matt’s got the devil off his back.

Of course, this long-standing association between New York and the Marvel universe has inevitably bled over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most obviously, The Avengers places its iconic long pan around the eponymous heroes right in front of Grand Central Station. Spider-Man: Homecoming features its hero swinging through Queens and the suburbs. However, most of these scenes are shot on location outside New York; Atlanta and Toronto frequently double for New York.

In contrast, the Netflix Marvel series have all shot in and around New York. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all went to the bother of filming Manhattan, rather than trying to recreate the city using another location. In many ways, it feels like these series unfold in a more authentic and grounded version of New York than the corresponding feature films, right down to the fact that their skylines all feature the real-life MetLife Building instead of the fictional “Avengers Tower.”

Trish Talk.

The Netflix shows did not always engage with a particular vision of New York. Iron Fist was so confused about its own identity that it never engaged with the city around it. Jessica Jones never invested in Jessica’s surroundings, but it still found time to include the city itself in the title character’s goodbye tour in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. However, both Daredevil and Luke Cage were very firmly rooted in their own versions of the Big Apple. Daredevil imagined a pre-gentrification eighties urban hellscape, while Luke Cage celebrated the history and culture of Harlem.

Given that The Defenders is being overseen by showrunners Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, it makes sense that the series would have a very strong sense of place. Ramirez and Petrie were previously in charge of the second season of Daredevil, which imagined a version of New York that seemed trapped in the urban decay of the late seventies and early eighties, Bang even evoking the Summer of Sam in its introduction of the Punisher while the ninjas that populate the second half of the film look to have escaped a particularly dodgy seventies exploitation film.

Cage re-match.

However, The Defenders is not particularly interested in one individual version of New York. It is not a show that is firmly rooted in one single idea of the Big Apple, not a story that unfolds against the backdrop of one individual conception of the urban space. Instead, The Defenders is particularly interested in the capacity for these various iterations of New York to overlap with one another. The opening credits offer a visual expression of this approach, suggesting the series serves as a point of intersection.

The Defenders is a series built around the infinite potential of New York, this idea of the city as a space in which narratives collide and coalesce, where separate stories might come together and where people on their own journeys might find common cause with one another. The Defenders seems to accept that nightmarish cityscape of Daredevil is hard to reconcile with the uncaring urban environment of Jessica Jones or the vibrant community of Luke Cage. However, The Defenders also insists that they are are all facets of the same city.

Oh, and Danny is there too.

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Jessica Jones – AKA Smile (Review)

So Jessica Jones comes to an end.

AKA Smile accomplishes quite a lot, ably assisted by the narrative streamlining that took place from AKA 1,000 Cuts, AKA I’ve Got the Blues and AKA Take a Bloody Number. Indeed, many of the character’s find resolutions unfold in those episodes, leaving AKA Smile free to concentrate on wrapping up the arc. Jeri Hogarth’s arc is complete. Will Simpson has been handled. Robyn has found some measure of peace. Although Jessica and Luke spend a considerable portion of AKA Smile together, they do not actually have a conversation.

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As a result, AKA Smile has room to breath. There is time to focus on the conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave, to ruminate on the bond between Jessica and Trish. There is even time for a minor crossover from Daredevil, with Rosario Dawson dropping by in the character of Claire Temple. Oddly enough, there is even a slight sense of padding to all this. Kilgrave’s confrontation with Jessica in the hospital feels somewhat unnecessary, given their confrontation by proxy at the climax of AKA Take a Bloody Number and in person at the climax of AKA Smile.

At the same time, there is an endearing confidence to AKA Smile that ensure the finalé is never tied down or overwhelmed by the narrative weight that Jessica Jones has amassed over its thirteen episode season.

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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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Jessica Jones – AKA I’ve Got the Blues (Review)

Jessica Jones loses a little steam when it gets out of the adrenaline rush that was the AKA WWJD?, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts triptych.

There is a sense that the show is not entirely sure about how exactly it wants to end; like its eponymous lead, there is an anxiety about sticking the landing. It is a problem similar to the one that faced Daredevil, which had its own issues when it come to offering a satisfactory conclusion to a season-long arc. (Indeed, Daredevil feels more like a checklist of matters that require closure rather than a story of itself.) More than that, the show has built towards a sustained climax in its eighth through tenth episodes, but there are still three hours left to fill.

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Jessica Jones has always felt a little over-extended. AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey essentially introduced Kilgrave twice. AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts each feature Kilgrave captured by our heroes only to escape through various convenient means. The Will Simpson subplot fits with the themes of the season, but does feel like a stalling tactic. Malcolm provides the heart of the show, but the writers never find a convincing voice for Robyn and so their subplot also feels like padding.

So there are some basic structural issues going into the final few episodes of the season, just as there were some structural issues with the opening few episodes of the season. Nevertheless, Jessica Jones does make a number of clever decisions as it builds towards its conclusion. Instead of ramping up and outwards, as would be the natural impulse, the show begins narrowing its focus and winding down. AKA I’ve Got the Blues and AKA Take a Bloody Number are surprisingly intimate in their scope following the scale of the show’s climax.

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Jessica Jones – AKA 1,000 Cuts (Review)

AKA 1,000 Cuts continues to toy with the conventions of the superhero genre.

The revelations about Kilgrave’s past in AKA Sin Bin represented a rejection of the psychology traditionally applied to comic book villains, creating a villain who could not blame his sociopathic tendencies on a convenient childhood trauma. AKA 1,000 Cuts plays upon another standard genre convention, the idea of the superhero who doesn’t kill. In terms of superhero storytelling, the old “thou shalt not kill” rule is always a reliable source of existential angst for a suitably ambiguous hero.

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As with many of the conventions toyed with on Jessica Jones, the trope is played relatively straight on Daredevil. Again, there is a sense of Jessica Jones as something of a playful twisted response to Daredevil, often subverting or undermining many of the genre conventions that Daredevil so skilfully embodied. At this point in the first season of Daredevil, Matt Murdock was wrestling with the question of whether or not to murder Wilson Fisk. Much hand-wringing and angst resulted, playing into the show’s masculine Catholic aesthetic.

While Daredevil seemed anchored in moral absolutes, Jessica Jones opts for a much more pragmatic and relativist solution. The question posed by Jessica Jones is not whether killing Kilgrave can be justified; the show embraces that reality quite skilfully in AKA 1,000 Cuts. The question is what it takes to justify it. AKA 1,000 Cuts offers a fairly harrowing answer.

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Jessica Jones – AKA Sin Bin (Review)

Kilgrave lies.

To be fair, that much should be obvious. Kilgrave is a character whose power hinges upon his ability to manipulate people using words. Of course he lies. Even his name is a lie. He lied to Jessica about the effectiveness of his powers, revealing that his decision not to control Jessica against her will wasn’t really a decision. He lies to everyone about his past, painting his concerned parents as cliché monsters. He lies to himself about his motivations, genuinely believing he is a victim in all of this.

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He also lies to the audience about his character, as AKA Sin Bin reveals Kilgrave is not a tragic and sympathetic antagonist with an explanatory childhood trauma after all. He is not the archetypal sympathetic bad guy whose actions can be explained away as the result of the horrible things that happened to him when he was a child. He is not the version of Wilson Fisk presented in Shadows in the Glass, a man who might have been a hero under other circumstances. Kilgrave is an unrepentant self-serving sociopath.

One of the joys of Jessica Jones is that the revelation that Kilgrave is unquestioning evil does not in any way make him a less complicated or compelling character.

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Jessica Jones – AKA WWJD? (Review)

AKA WWJD?, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts represent the emotional climax of Jessica Jones.

The key is in handing the show over to its two strongest performers. Whether together or separately, Krysten Ritter and David Tennant are always engaging to watch. These three episodes push Jessica and Kilgrave into a sequence of tight interactions with one another. The dynamic between the two characters is constantly evolving and reversing, but the two actors are strong enough that every second is riveting television. While AKA Smile brings the season to an exciting close, there is nothing quite as powerful as watching Ritter and Tennant play off one another.

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Jessica Jones has a very good ensemble, with a lot of the roles cast very carefully and most the supporting players sketched out and developed. However, the core of the season is about Jessica Jones confronting and vanquishing Kilgrave, the man who abused her and countless others. It is highly debatable whether Kilgrave needed to be the focus of the season, particularly in the earlier episodes where he didn’t really have much to do, but Jessica Jones has reached the point where it can throw Jessica and Kilgrave into direct confrontation with one another.

AKA WWJD? makes it clear that the confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave will not be physical in nature. This is not a conventional super hero battle; Jessica will not be using her power to smash Kilgrave, and Kilgrave cannot use his mind control to manipulate Jessica. Instead, AKA WWJD? confirms that the confrontation between Jessica and Kilgrave will be emotional and psychological in nature; a victim confronting her accuser in pursuit of closure and satisfaction.

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Jessica Jones – AKA Top Shelf Perverts (Review)

Generally, Jessica Jones is quite optimistic in its portrayal of responses to trauma.

In AKA It’s Called Whiskey, Will Simpson tried to murder Trish Walker with his own hands; by half-way through AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, the two are involved in an energetic and fulfilling sexual relationship. In AKA Top Shelf Perverts, Malcolm helps to dispose of the body of Ruben before engaging in a half-season long deception of Robyn about the fate of her brother; but AKA Take a Bloody Number, it seems like there might be romance in the air. In AKA You’re a Winner!, Jessica reveals that she killed Luke Cage’s wife; by AKA Smile, they have reconciled.

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As a rule, Jessica Jones suggests that trauma is not defining or delimiting. Trauma damages a person, but it does not necessarily break them. Jessica Jones never avoids exploring the consequences of abuse – particularly long and sustained abuse – but it also refuses to let its characters be trapped by those experiences. Trish’s abuse at the hands of her mother might have led her to build a fortress, but she still puts herself out in the world. Jessica has been abused by Kilgrave, but she still wants to save Hope. AKA Top Shelf Perverts is the exception that proves the rule.

After the events of AKA You’re a Winner!, Jessica spirals into truly self-destructive behaviour. In many ways, AKA Top Shelf Perverts serves as an effective contrast to the rest of the season, demonstrating how functional Jessica was up to this point. As with AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, the episode suggests that Jessica is not solely defined by her traumas; that she is not broken by her experiences with Kilgrave. AKA Top Shelf Perverts does this by teasing the audience with glimpses of what a truly broken Jessica might look like.

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Jessica Jones – AKA You’re a Winner! (Review)

AKA You’re a Winner! is certainly a much better standalone episode than AKA 99 Friends.

Of course, the episode is tied more tightly into the arc of the season around. Although AKA You’re a Winner! does little to advance Jessica’ on-going pursuit of Kilgrave, it does allow the show to advance many of its individual character plots. In particular, it allows Jessica and Luke a bit of space to advance their own plot while Hope Slottman deals with the consequences of her trauma and while Kilgrave begins to enact his own endgame. There is a sense of pieces moving around a chessboard, but moving with purpose.

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Despite the fact that AKA You’re a Winner! is less literally tied to the hunt for Kilgrave than AKA Crush Syndrome or AKA It’s Called Whiskey, it feels like it adds substantial more momentum to the on-going plot. The middle stretch of Jessica Jones represents the point at which the show has the clearest sense of drive and identity, the point at which the show is most comfortable in its own skin. AKA You’re a Winner! is a relatively light character-driven piece than the episodes around it, but it retains a firm grasp of the characters involved.

AKA You’re a Winner! feels like the kind of episode that Jessica Jones should have employed earlier in the season.

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