"With great power comes great mental illness," a Jessica Jones character says as he tries to explain how his fear-based abilities have changed him. This is the core of the Marvel show's second season, and the first five episodes drive this pointed, revisionist theory of superheroism home. At a moment when the national conversation about shootings ping-pongs between "mental illness" and a fantasy about "a good guy with a gun," Jessica Jones wonders whether that fantasy isn't actually the illness, and what that might mean.
Sophomore seasons are tricky, and Jessica Jones took almost three years to produce a second season with Krysten Ritter's crusty, alcoholic heroine whose unwanted super-strength has messed her up, possibly beyond repair. Some early reviewers have found the season lacking; they miss the suspense David Tennant's Kilgrave — a formidable villain whose ability to control minds turned the season into a brain-bending exploration of consent — undeniably supplied.
I understand that criticism; Tennant was great, and the bizarre pleasure of watching Jessica Jones smile — because she was being controlled — was a brilliant way to make us confront the way women are asked to perform emotions they don't feel for other people's enjoyment. There's no question that the first five episodes of this season of Jones are slower and less focused. But I might like them even more, partly because it takes so long for an antagonist to emerge, which means that Jones' constitutive rage has nowhere to go. Absent an enemy, the show turns inward and starts chewing itself up. It's fascinating.
To state the obvious: A superhero needs a worthy antagonist to have meaning and purpose. Without bad guys, the good guy lacks an outlet that connects his virtue to violence. What happens then? And what happens when the good guy isn't a good guy at all, but a girl, and one so conflicted about her own actions that she can't call herself "good"? What happens, in short, when the powers certain people develop in response to the violence inflicted upon them are no longer needed?
It's a problem familiar to those who return from war zones: Channeling anger into the destruction of an enemy is a skill that doesn't get much exercise in the regular world. One finds oneself psychically ill-equipped to deal with ordinary problems, alienated from everything that seems normal.
That's exactly what ails Jessica in one of her early encounters in season two: She's still working as a private investigator, and she's confirmed that her client's employee (and boyfriend) is cheating on her. When the client breaks down crying at this revelation, Jones looks thoroughly ill at ease. And when the client asks Jones to kill the boyfriend for her, Jones' answer — that she's not a killer — is so weird, both in content and delivery, that you can tell she's on the ropes. She's trying to figure out how a normal person would respond. By the end, she's pointlessly destroyed a chair, scared everybody, and solved nothing.
As if to drive home Jones' misfitry, the series introduces Pryce Cheng (Terry Chen), a "risk management" specialist — that's fancy for a white-collar PI — who's very good at what he does in a corporate law kind of way. He was captain of his football team, an ex-soldier, and he thinks he's on The Good Wife and that he's Real Bad. He's introduced as Jones' antagonist, but it's genuinely funny to see how poorly he fits the show's terms. Like, he thinks the ugly thing to do is poach clients. He's a normie. He sues Jessica for hitting him. He calls the police.
"Tough is working your ass off to build a reputation," he spits at her at one point while she stares at him. It's wonderful; they're practically different species. Cheng adds something the series really needed: an ordinary perspective that casts into relief just how weird everybody else is.
While Cheng busily looks for lawyers to destroy Jessica, Jessica toasts three cardboard boxes containing her dead relations and attends anger management classes, where the difference between her problems and the other students' is … stark.
The show's visual language has changed slightly, as if in preparation for the villain (of whom I will say as little as possible because the revelation is marvelous and worthwhile). The camera used to linger on Jessica's perfect, luminous skin and dark hair and eyes to make the contrast reflect her anger. In the first couple of episodes of the second season, the camera lingers instead on her haggardness. She's shot as exhausted and strung out; every part of her droops.
But the thematics remain the same. Jessica Jones has always used Jessica's relationship to doors to reflect both her chronic insecurity and the way her power masks it. The door to her apartment/business (the blurring of these two is pointed and intentional) spent much of its first season broken, but even when it's intact, it's half glass. The lock is meaningless; people walk in and out of her apartment/business whenever they want. That Jessica has no expectation that doors confer privacy or safety is partly the point: She was violated from within.
One reason the second season's early episodes feel slow (for Marvel) is that they're letting Jessica and her best friend Trish struggle with their own internal conflicts and ambitions. Trish has always wanted to be more than "Patsy," the child sensation her stage mother drove her to be. She wants to help people, and she wants to be powerful enough to do it. Trish accordingly chases power with external aids (like reinforced steel, and weapons). She dates it. She befriends it. Jessica, on the other hand, represents power that can't escape its own lethal potential. I like their near-sisterhood. I especially like that it's as much a function of their affinity as it is of Trish's mother awfulness.
There are problems, of course: For one thing, Netflix's Marvel shows never handle pacing particularly well. This season is no exception. For another, one of the clunkier moves involves some strange sermonizing about racism. Jessica — a person with powers, but also a white woman — is shown being discriminated against by several people of color who justify it on the grounds that she isn't a "protected class." It's weird.
But there's a lot to like here. The thing about Jessica Jones is that she's never really sounded like a superhero. She's not The Punisher or Whizzer or Daredevil. She wants to be a person. It takes a neighbor's kid calling her Super Lady — a perfectly reasonable thing to call a female superhero — to make you realize how hilariously wrong it sounds. Jones doesn't fit. That's the problem. What's interesting is that neither — based on early hints — does her archenemy.