When Jessica Jones first aired on Netflix, it set the bar high with its antisocial, hard-bitten female lead and insightful depictions of abusive relationship dynamics. Now, as Marvel’s beloved private eye returns, viewers may be wondering how the show will live up to that impressive debut. But season two of Jessica Jones seems more concerned with a different question: namely, how we move forward and define our future.
While season one dealt with surviving trauma, season two looks at learning to live with and past it. Granted, that’s not exactly what it says on the label; the main storyline focuses on Jessica (Krysten Ritter) unearthing the secrets of just how she acquired her superpowers, which provides ample opportunity for Evil Mystery Corporation Adventures. To get to the bottom of things, however, Jessica needs to face the scars incurred by the loss of her family and deal with the emotional roots of her immediate present in order to succeed going forward.
This dichotomy in and of itself is a big deal, because TV audiences rarely see badasses who get the job done yet also have human feelings. Usually it’s one or the other. We’ve all seen the detective/police inspector/David Caruso throwing out some pithy pre-commercial break bon mot, then briefly mentioning a dead loved one before returning to business as usual, right? The emotions are secondary to the story.
Not so in Jessica Jones season two: without emotions the story would be dead in the water. Does grappling with our fears strengthen us? Are we, instead, better off repressing our worst selves? These are pretty relatable questions for anyone who’s experienced trauma in their own life, or really anyone with issues that compromise their mental health. Who are we when our weaknesses come into play?
One major way the show addresses these questions is by actually being a show about women – i.e. not caricatures of Strong Female Characters, but instead women with real motivations and inner lives. Jessica is, as always, a half-drunk misanthrope who nevertheless carves out space in her heart for the few people to whom she owes a psychological debt. Patsy (Rachael Taylor) is a contemporary combo of the classic Staunch Pal and Girl Friday archetypes, continually left in the dark but still relentlessly plucky and ready to do anything for her best buddy. There’s even a moment where a few female sex workers, taking some down time after a drugs-and-doing-it session, chat amongst themselves about their kids, boyfriends, and general life hassles in a scene you almost never get to see. Normally a prostitute scene would be played for titillation, but this reminds you that the women involved are human, damn it.
By centering on these and other women as people, Jessica Jones season two shies away from treating them as objects. That’s particularly significant considering how many other crime stories on screen or in print depend upon violated female bodies; although this season sustains its share of gory deaths, the corpses we see penetrated by construction equipment, hideously dismembered, etc are almost all male. The physically brutalized feminine as a spectacle is passe by the time Jessica Jones season two rolls around; we’ve moved on to tacitly discussing why that’s messed up. If you want to talk trauma in any real way, this is a good point from which to start.
However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the whiteness of it all does detract at times. Every leading character is white, with only a few side cast members of color (Eka Darville returning as Malcolm; Terry Chen as a new rival owner of a PI firm). In this context, Jessica’s protestations to her Latino building superintendent about being discriminated against because she’s “different” and “other” ring hollow. Likewise, a scene wherein Jessica tells Malcolm—a black American man—that no one has a reason to be afraid of the cops “unless they’ve been in the back of a squad car” does not feel comfortable. I’m surprised Malcolm didn’t just walk out right there and then.
Of course, he couldn’t, because like us he wanted to see what would happen next. And this is the perfect show for that. Jessica Jones season two allows Marvel to do what it always wants to do with its Netflix offerings: slow-burn procedurals. That format may not always suit other shows; The Punisher, for instance, was greatly hampered by its insistence on checking all the procedural boxes. Here, though, it works, because not only is Jessica Jones a detective story, it’s the show that really set the tone for Marvel’s Netflix programming. What better way to do a detective story than by hunting clues and solving crimes—and by treating women with the respect they deserve?
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