JESSICA JONES S2: LADY BIRD, But With Punching

This review spoils the entirety of season two of Jessica Jones. It’s also almost exclusively about plot/theme, and largely ignores performance, cinematography, etc.

The first season of Jessica Jones is the best work that Marvel TV has done. That’s a low, low bar, but it’s actually an excellent season of television, one that works even without the tyranny of the low expectations of The Defenders. The season had all the elements needed to make magic: a great character who is deeply flawed, a terrific villain played by a perfectly cast actor, and a moral arc that spoke to both character and theme. A little long, as all Netflix shows are, JESSICA JONES nonetheless kicked a tremendous amount of ass.

Season two thus has a higher bar to clear. And it’s doing so without the cushion of a storyline and villain that’s already been hashed out in comic book form; season two’s Big Bad is an invention of the show, more or less. But Jessica Jones’ behind the camera team is up to the task, and once we take into account the Law of Netflix (“Henceforth let it be known that all series shall be, at minimum, two episodes too long and thus introduce a lethargic meandering at some point in the season”), we see that they made a new season that matches up to the first.

First things first: Jessica Jones season 2 wisely ignores all the other Netflix shows. Nobody talks about Iron Fist or Luke Cage, or if they do they do it so quickly and in such a minor way that I missed it. They do, however, talk about other superheroes, and this season Captain America actually gets named (who can forget the awful “The Flag Waver” shit from season one?). One of the problems of JESSICA JONES season one was that it took place in a superhero universe that seemed devoid of superheroes, but in season two there are more powered beings and the existence of powered beings is a pretty matter-of-fact aspect of daily life in New York City.

That’s a big deal to me, A Nerd, because the Netflix shows have felt painfully disconnected from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. I understand the politics going on (you’ll never see these two universes crossover, at least not while the current folks are in charge of each), but that doesn’t mean I like the way it work. And Jessica Jones season two proves you can add the flavor of a shared universe without meaningfully sharing the universe.

 Jessica Jones season two begins on a strong note; the first episode sets up the plot right away, a real change of pace for these Netflix shows. We get our characters in order: Trish Walker is itching to find something more serious for herself than Trish Talk, which leads her to following up on IGH, the mysterious company that gave Jessica her powers. After much cajoling – and the murder of a speedster (The Whizzer, who shows up in the right blinding yellow color scheme, only to get squashed) – Jessica finally begins getting deeper into the mystery as she realizes someone or something is killing off people connected to IGH. Meanwhile Malcolm, now Jessica’s assistant, tries to bring some order to Alias Investigations, and Jeri Hogarth discovers she is dying of ALS and starts to behave very badly. On top of that, a new super (like building super, not superman man) moves into Jessica’s building, and he’s a thrilling combination of hot and disdainful of our hero.

These threads weave in and around each other, and the showrunners wisely treat them like TV show plots – they don’t all need to collide and climax together like in a movie. Some of them certainly do, and Trish’s arc is inextricably linked to Jessica’s, but Jeri sort of has her own thing going on that speaks more to the thematics of the season rather than the plot (although it does connect with the main plot, if semi-tangentially). This, for me, is good longform storytelling, and it’s structured in a way that allows the show to crest most of the shaggy extra episodes in the middle.

So who is the Big Bad? This piece is already marked as spoilery, but let me re-mark it here, as it’s a big reveal. Don’t read further if you don’t want to know.

The Big Bad is none other than… Alisa Jones, Jessica’s mom. Thought killed in a car crash, it turns out that Alisa was rescued by the same company that rescued Jessica, and they did the same experiments on her, also giving her super strength. But Alisa was injured more terribly than Jessica, and she’s even less stable, mentally. The mad scientist behind it all, Karl Malus (a real Marvel Comics C lister) has kept her safely tucked away… and fallen in love with her. Now he’s like Jessica’s fucked up stepdad, and Jessica’s mom is running around killing anybody she thinks might threaten Karl or Jessica.

Once that reveal happens a few episodes in Jessica Jones gets to the meat of its themes. As Jessica deals with her murderous supermommy, Trish has to deal with her disapproving stage mother – who was also Jessica’s foster mom. The story becomes about mothers and daughters and sisters, and Jessica Jones pivots from season one’s examination of how men abuse women to look at how women abuse each other.

It’s Lady Bird with super powers – Alisa is trying to do her best to protect her daughter, but along the way is traumatizing the shit out of her. We see that Jessica is a lot like her mom, that they self-medicate in similar ways, that they both have out of control anger issues. We see the ways their dysfunctional relationship falls right into old patterns after Jessica learns her mom is still alive. And we see how all of this is related to abuse and addiction cycles.

Jessica is an alcoholic, but untreated. Trish, meanwhile, is a recovering drug addict who wanders into dangerous territory. Last season we saw that her boyfriend Will was actually involved in a supersoldier program, which turned him into the villain known as Nuke in the comics. In season two Trish ends up taking the supersoldier inhaler herself, longing to get in on Jessica’s superhero action. Predictably this is a relapse for Trish; even though she wasn’t previously addicted to supersoldier asthma medication, she WAS addicted to feeling different and powerful. This new drug gives her that.

 Jessica Jones is smart about addiction. It understands that the drug or the drink isn’t the problem, it’s the symptom of a bigger problem that often goes untreated. That isn’t to say the drugs or the drink aren’t huge, huge issues, but they’re huge issues exacerbated by underlying emotional and spiritual problems that can manifest themselves in new ways. It’s why some addicts clean up by refocusing their addictive behavior in a positive direction like exercise. It’s all about seeking control over parts of ourselves that are uncontrolled, and sometimes that control comes in the form of drowning those parts and sometimes it comes in the form of ignoring those parts.

For Trish is comes in the form of getting powerful in general. Growing up under a suffocating stage mom, abused by the director on her children’s TV show, Trish is desperately seeking a way to be powerful. She sees how Jessica is powerful (while missing all the ways Jessica is terribly terribly weak. One character tells Jessica, after being beaten up by her, “You’re the weakest human being I’ve ever met.” He’s totally right), and she wants that for herself. The supersoldier drug gives her that possibility.

Malcolm is also looking for that control and power. He tries to find it by wrangling Jessica’s life, but Jessica refuses to be wrangled. He then begins undertaking his own investigations, and along the way he betrays his own recovery, using a 9th Step amends visit to steal an ex’s key card so that he can sneak into a building and get info. Malcolm acts out his powerlessness by sleeping with as many women as he can meet, running a heavy operation on OKCupid intended to keep him in constant and meaningless sex. Malcolm got sober, but being sober isn’t enough. Like Trish, he isn’t treating what’s eating him up inside. And so by the end of the season he has gone from the lovable next door junkie-cum-assistant and become a suit-wearing agent of evil alongside the season’s bad guy PI character.

Those two work under Jeri Hogarth, the high powered lawyer whose story is very tangential this season, but still connected. Jeri, who has been having some trouble throughout the Marvel Netflix shows, is diagnosed with ALS – she’s living with a death sentence. But she’s a high powered, cunning woman, and so she refuses to give up power. Again, it’s the same thematics at play; while Jeri isn’t in recovery she is out of control, hiring hookers to party down with her for days after her diagnosis. But she soon springs into her own kind of action – a witness in the IGH case gets bivouaced at her house, and Jeri uses the woman to get at another IGH test subject, a person who supposedly has miraculous healing powers.

This is great – it’s a superhero universe storyline. Of course people with terrible illnesses would go after supers for cures. I’m not sure why people aren’t knocking down Tony Stark’s door for this stuff, to be honest. But Jeri gets scammed, and the last bits of her power are stripped away from her – first at work, and then at home where the con artists take everything she has. Her revenge is all about re-asserting her own control, and she loses her soul in the process.

But back to moms. The relationship between mother and daughter is the biggest battleground for control and power in the series; Jessica Jones season two explores not just the way that relationship forms you as an adult but the way that, as an adult, you re-approach that relationship. For both Trish and Jessica the tables are, in their own ways, turned – Trish is very successful, which is what her mom always wanted, and Jessica is now forced to take care of her mother, a reversal. But the two women are self-sabotagers, burning themselves to the ground at every opportunity, and one of the ways they do this is to get into terrible rhythms with their own mothers.

Jessica’s relationship with Alisa is the most complex. The show is giving us a very classic addiction triad – the mother, who is an addict and who impacts her daughter, passing along the addiction. And between the two of them is the stepfather, in this case mad scientist Karl Malus, who is enabling the mother in every possible way. Rather than helping Alisa – stopping her from killing, for instance, or turning her in to the authorities to get the treatment she needs – Malus simply makes her comfortable and dotes upon her. Dramatically it’s a nice reversal; for the first half of the season we think that Malus is using Alisa as a weapon (before we even know how Alisa is), but it soon becomes clear that their relationship is way more complex and way more fucked up than that.

When contrasted with Trish and her mom it’s a nice reversal as well; rather than having the mad scientist be a driving, manipulative masculine force, the show has him as a soft quisling who makes everything worse through his need to enable. Dorothy, Trish’s mom, is the more aggressive and controlling figure, giving off the sort of domineering energy we might expect from a male character. By complicating this, JESSICA JONES season two walks away from simplistic gender based examinations of abuse and control and expands its horizons to see the way human beings do these things to other human beings. Jeri Hogarth is another example; her behaviors in this season are the behaviors of a male anti-hero on an AMC show, but Jessica Jones understands that such behaviors aren’t limited by your chromosomes.

By revealing that Alisa is the monster halfway through the season, Jessica Jones sets itself up for a strange back half. I like the way it worked out, but I can understand if the sudden shift of gears – represented by an episode that’s completely a flashback to Jessica in college, when her mother secretly murdered (!) her first boyfriend – throws some viewers off. For me it’s a brilliant move, a true undercutting of expectations. If the first episode of the season sets up a plot – IGH is killing off people connected to their supersoldier program! – the midpoint annihilates that, recontextualizing everything that happened before in a more personal and shockingly down-to-earth way.

The back half of the season sees Alisa and Jessica as a reluctant team, mirror images of each other, swilling bourbon in leather jackets and beating the shit out of dudes. Alisa is Ghost of Christmas Future for Jessica, but also Ghost of Christmas Past – she is the source of a lot of Jessica’s malfunctions and also a warning sign for where those malfunctions will lead her. Watching Jessica grapple with this, while also grappling with the legal ramifications of her mother’s murder spree, is great drama. She’s trapped right in the middle of everything – she wants to help her mom, but doesn’t know whether that means helping her escape (enabling her) or turning her in (letting her bottom out), all while trying to figure out how not to end up like this woman in the end.

Jessica is what we in recovery call a double winner – an alcoholic and the child of an alcoholic (the alcoholism in this show, by the way, is both literal and metaphorical). It’s a rough position to be in, and maybe if Jessica and Malus went to an Al-Anon meeting together they could get some clarity. But this being a TV show, they have to work all of this out with their fists – and I’m okay with that. At any rate, Jessica is struggling with something very specific but also very universal. I have never met a woman who hasn’t looked at their mother with a combination of love and trepidation – love for this woman who did so much for her, and trepidation that she will grow up to be that woman. It’s refreshing to see these kinds of issues playing out in our superhero fiction; I’ve been rewatching the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and they’re awash in daddy issues. It’s good to have at least SOME mommy issues happening as well.

I’m not sure how I feel about the way Jessica Jones season two wraps up the storyline; it removes serious decision-making from Jessica and instead has Trish show up like The Punisher to kill Alisa in an unguarded moment. The show is clearly setting up season three – Trish’s story ends with her having obvious superpowers, paving the way for her to become Hellcat – but I didn’t want Alisa’s story to wind up the stepping stone for a battle between foster sisters next year. The central conflict at the heart of Jessica Jones season two is so good that it deserved to be wrapped up by its hero.

Then again, maybe there is no way for our protagonist to wrap this up. That’s the case in real life – there are no clean endings in situations like this, especially one where an addict/alcoholic refuses treatment. Alisa doesn’t want help, she wants to drag Jessica into her life and become vigilante partners with her. This is one of the dangers for alcoholics dealing with those they enable – the enabling boomerangs back on you. All the other person wants is a companion on their journey to self destruction, and they’re happy to have you along for the ride. I’ve heard so many stories of mother/daughter alcoholic teams in just the year and a half I’ve been sober.

It’s like the ending of Lady Bird – Lady Bird gets on the phone to her mom but can only leave as answering machine message. There’s a move towards reconciliation and understanding, but it’s not tidy and complete. Like Lady Bird, Jessica Jones season two refuses to put a tidy bow on this complicated, messy, uncomfortable mother/daughter relationship.

Still, I would have liked something a little more decisive from Jessica. She was basically bending like a willow tree in the gale force wind of Alisa’s dominance, and in terms of character arcs it would have been powerful to see Jessica standing up a bit more, perhaps more willing to pay a price for the events of the season. But perhaps Jessica’s arc is not about that – at the end of the season we see her sitting down for a regular dinner with the hot super and his family, and Jessica is really good with this guy’s kid (who, in excellent thematic consistency, has an intense and domineering mom who tries to kidnap him at one point). This is the hope for Jessica – her own improvement will continue at whatever slow, often backstepping pace it does, but the most important thing is that she can remove herself from cycles of abuse and not inflict it on the next generation. It doesn’t seem as though Trish can do that (even though we have not seen Trish with/around kids she is still displaying domineering, controlling behavior in the way that she ends Jessica’s story for her), but there’s hope for Jessica.

That hope matters; while season one may have been more harrowing in a psychological thriller way, season two is exhausting emotionally, and it doesn’t give Jessica a lot of room to be likable. In fact the season has her actively alienating Malcolm (although as the season goes on we see that he’s manipulative and weird in his own ways, so maybe that was wise of her) while aiding a murderer. She actually commits a murder this season, one of my favorite moments in any of the Netflix shows – a moment that shows how we actually hurt others. It’s almost never on purpose, it’s almost always the result of a series of bad, stupid and destructive choices… and we almost never take responsibility for it. In this case Jessica kills a prison guard and then makes his death look like a suicide. I wonder if the consequences of that might catch up with her at some point in the future; I certainly hope the series doesn’t just leave that corpse buried forever. Karma comes at its own speed.