The first thing you should know about Marvel's new superhero show Jessica Jones is that it doesn't require the viewer to know or care about superheroes.
Jessica Jones doesn't shy away from Marvel lore — it takes place in the same post-Avengers Hell's Kitchen as Netflix's previous Marvel show, Daredevil, and you'll catch stray references to characters like the Hulk. But it's not beholden to Marvel lore, either. If you're disinterested in piecing together the increasingly dense continuity that links blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy to a half-dozen interconnected TV shows — or just sick of the world's ongoing infatuation with big-budget superheroes — well, you have something in common with Jessica Jones' superhero protagonist.
Jessica Jones is a detective — the founder and sole employee of a firm called Alias Investigations. Her cases are standard-issue P.I. stuff: catching cheating spouses, delivering legal summons, and so on. She avoids anything that resembles a normal work schedule or social life, and she buys her cheap whiskey in bulk. In short, she's a classic noir detective, in the vein of The Maltese Falcon's Sam Spade or The Big Sleep's Philip Marlowe, or more recent entries to the genre, like Veronica Mars (on which Krysten Ritter played a key role).
Jessica Jones wastes no time establishing its genre priorities. After a stylish credits sequence set to a jazzy noirish score, we're introduced to Jessica behind the closed door of her detective office. "New York may be the city that never sleeps, but it sure does sleep around," Jessica says in a wry voiceover monologue. "Not that I'm complaining. Cheaters are good for business." When a disappointed client threatens to get violent with her, Jessica doesn't pause before smashing his head through the glass on her door.
In those few minutes, Jessica Jones lays itself bare: This is a detective show first and a superhero show as a distant, distant second. In a world of Hulks and Thors, Jessica's superpowers are pretty modest (though leaping tall buildings in a single bound is useful when you want to scale a top-floor fire escape, and super-strength comes in handy when you need to break through a locked door).
Jessica Jones is haunted by Kilgrave, a horrendously sinister supervillain played by David Tennant. Kilgrave has the power to manipulate anyone by the sheer power of suggestion. If he shows up at your apartment and asks you to let him in, you'll do it with a smile. If he asks you for anything, you'll hand it over without asking a question. And if he tells you to kill yourself — well, you'll do that too.
Kilgrave is easily the most well-conceived and terrifying villain in Marvel's cinematic universe — so much so that his introduction highlights how weak most of Marvel's other villains have been. (Sorry, Loki.) In theory, he can have anything or anyone he wants — but he retains a particular obsession with Jessica, who he kept in thrall for months as a kind of escort. Jessica's extended, mind-controlled torment at the hands of Kilgrave happened a year before the series began, and she believes he is dead. But she's still deeply haunted by him, in ways both direct (unsettling dreams and hallucinations) and indirect (cynicism, alcoholism, and a general distrust of pretty much everyone she meets).
The brilliance of Jessica Jones is the way it combines Jessica's very real PTSD with a paranoia that is — in her very strange case — entirely justified. Kilgrave is a maniac who delights in tormenting her, and his powers give him an endless array of methods to do it. She can't trust anyone, because Kilgrave can force anyone to do anything he likes. Her lover, or her best friend, or any random stranger on the street could be under Kilgrave's control, which means it's safer for everyone if she pushes everyone away. And there's always the vague, looming threat that Kilgrave could get bored of toying with Jessica from afar and take her mind back, too.
In Jessica Jones' early episodes, Kilgrave is similar to the shark in Jaws — rarely seen but omnipresent. The series wisely drops the luminous fuchsia skin tone that earned him the sobriquet "Purple Man" in the comics, but his color of choice remains key to his character. It's not just his wardrobe; it's the walls and items in the rooms where he has spent time, as if his particular brand of evil can infect the world around him like a creeping illness. And most of all, we meet his victims: regular people who, having recovered their minds, are deeply traumatized at the awful things he made them do.
Jessica Jones doesn't avoid the full ramifications of what a mind-controlling psychopath might do with those powers. Though the episodes I've seen don't come right out and say it, Jessica is clearly a rape survivor. ("There is the history of assault, yes, but we don't depict it. It's not literally on your screen," explained Ritter in an interview with Variety.) That subject matter puts Jessica Jones into what tends to be dicey territory for television; in recent years, shows like Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, and American Horror Story: Hotel have attracted justified criticism for dealing with rape in a glib and superficial manner.
But in the extremely capable hands of writer and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, this difficult source material is handled with uncommon grace. Jessica Jones never trivializes Jessica's assault — but it doesn't make it her defining characteristic, either. She can grapple with the horror and pain of her experience without letting it break her completely, and while she clearly has her issues, she's also smart, tough, and courageous enough to push back.
As a temporary solution for the glass she smashes in the first episode, Jessica Jones hangs up a piece of cardboard with the phrase "FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE" printed across it. Some visitors might be inclined to read that as a statement about the thin, jaded woman inside — but anyone watching Jessica Jones will have a hard time reading it as anything other than an ironic counterpoint. There's nothing fragile about this protagonist, and "handle with care" is a warning for your benefit, not hers.
All 13 episodes of Jessica Jones are now available on Netflix.