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Krysten Ritter carries this Netflix show with her considerable strength, but David Tennant does his best to steal it as Marvel’s scariest villain to date.

 

In this golden age of television, detective shows are often leading the conversation. True Detective season 1, Fargo, Hannibal;­ all have been beautifully cinematic, dark, and twisted looks at human nature and the psychology of the darkest recesses of the human mind. Although a product of Marvel TV, Jessica Jones has more in common with these shows than its superhero counterparts. Best of all, it takes the ideas presented in its fancy white dude cousins and turns them on its head with a super diverse female­ cast.

Jessica Jones follows the titular detective, gifted with superhuman strength, as she attempts to track down and stop Kilgrave, a fellow gifted person whose mind control ability has left a wake of broken lives in his path. After he possesses a young woman, Hope, to kill her parents right in front of Jessica, she must try to bring him in alive in order to prove Hope’s innocence. I’ll try to avoid spoilers from here on out, but consider this your warning.

Jessica is as broken and hard boiled as Rust Cohle, but her burden is even greater. Not only is she alone in the world, but her gift keeps her even more guarded. Her strength became a curse in the hands of Kilgrave. When we meet her in the series, she’s dealing with the fallout of his control, struggling with PTSD as she makes a meager living as a private investigator.

The first half of the series puts Jessica’s powers on the back burner, letting her operate as a detective and setting up a terrifying cat and mouse game with Kilgrave. We barely see David Tennant, but his presence permeates nearly every frame. The moment Hope kills her parents is bone­chilling, and it sets a bold and unexpected tone for the series. It’s not so much dark and gritty as it is desperate and troubled. Jessica cannot trust anyone, but it is not her own choice.

And this idea of choice becomes a central conceit for the entire show. Jessica struggles with PTSD not just because of a murder she committed while under Kilgrave’s control, but because he spent 18 months raping her, forcing her under his care, and disregarding any of her own agency. While other detective shows often explore the state of man, and of masculinity, Jessica Jones finally gives us the female version of that story. It’s incredibly powerful, and they cover ground that I never thought I’d see in one of my favorite genres.

In exploring ideas of rape, consent, and choice, show runner Melissa Rosenberg does not pull any punches, but she does not re-victimize or use the sexual and sensual nature of these crimes to titillate. In fact, the only sex we ever see in Jessica Jones is positive and definitely focused on female pleasure. Good thing, too, because Mike Colter and Krysten Ritter have an insane amount of chemistry. Watching Luke Cage, who also has super strength and unbreakable skin, and Jessica explore their powers in such an intimate and heightened context as the bedroom is a lot of fun and really sexy.

The show finds a great balance between its explicitly feminist messages and telling a great story that anyone can enjoy. If you’re not looking for it, you may not see it. But Jessica’s allies include her best friend and adopted sister Trish, sharky lesbian attorney Jeri Hogarth, her junkie neighbor Malcolm, and Luke Cage. The villains are all successful white men, and anyone whose motives you might be questioning can be pretty easily figured out by paying attention to this key detail. It’s a funny way to turn common perception on its head, but because Jessica Jones is so deep in its detective and superhero genre influences, it does not feel like a show about gender and race. If you are looking, though, it’s a breath of fresh air in a TV landscape still dominated by “difficult men.”

However, as good as the first half is, and as compelling the shows overall themes are, it falters in the back half as the detective story gives way to a super-powered chase between Jessica and Kilgrave. The series is probably about 3 episodes too long:­ there’s only so many times you can watch Jessica catch Kilgrave, only to have him released by someone else’s mistakes or misgivings at keeping him alive. And while I was happy to spend more time in this version of Hell’s Kitchen, I grew tired of the repetitive plotting, especially as it was forced to become more convoluted with each catch­ and ­release.

Similarly, Jessica and Trish’s relationship, which is supposed to be the crux of the series, gets diluted with the introduction of Simpson,­ Trish’s love interest and Jessica’s questionable ally. Doing a terrible Bill Paxton impersonation, he distracts from the Kilgrave storyline, and he brings poor Trish down to his level. Time spent between the two of them is time that would have been better served developing the friendship between Jessica and Trish. There are also a number of parents and parent ­figures brought into play, which feels like an attempt by the Marvel Powers That Be to redirect the audience from the overtly feminist subtext in favor of something more comic book, and, lamely, more easily digestible.

That being said, these are small gripes for a show that I have already found myself rewatching, even after a 13 ­hour binge. Krysten Ritter is absolutely perfect, and I am so happy to see her leading such a kick­ass show after being prematurely booted off the air in Don’t Trust the B*. David Tennant has single­handedly solved Marvel’s villain problem. Kilgrave speaks to our deepest fears and insecurities, and Tennant harnesses that fear with such enthusiasm. He’s scary not because he wants to take over the world, but because he wants to take over human will, ­ something so much more fundamental and personally affecting. I hope they explore more villains like him, both on TV, and, if we’re lucky, in the Avengers films. If you haven’t started yet, I highly recommend you turn on Netflix right now and start binging.

 

Directed By: ​SJ Clarkson, David Petrarca, Stephen Surjik, Uta Briesewitz, Bill Gierhart, Rosemary Rodriguez

Produced By: ​Melissa Rosenberg, Joe Quesada, Jeph Loeb, Stan Lee, Liz Friedman, Kevin Feige, Tim Iacofino

Written By: ​Melissa Rosenberg, Brian Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Jenna Rebak, Liz Friedman, Jamie King, Scott Reynolds, Micah Schraft

Starring: ​Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, Mike Colter, Rachael Taylor, Carrie Ann Moss, Eka Darville, Wil Traval

Distributed By: ​Netflix

Date released: ​November 20th, 2015, all 13 episodes

Run time: ​13 – 52 minute episodes

Rating: ​N/A

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