One of the most brilliant underpinnings of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” comes down to one word: “Smile.” It’s a word loaded with meaning for the women of the world, just trying to get from one place to the next, who hear it shouted by catcallers as they walk down the street.
And it might seem like an innocuous suggestion — just a man wanting a smile from a pretty woman — but the way creator Melissa Rosenberg weaves it into the narrative is just one way the series tackles not just the idea of superheroes and female-driven noir, but of the basic reality of life as a woman; about the struggles for control and power which are so tough to understand until you end up on the other side of things — until someone takes those things away from you.
On its surface, “Jessica Jones” is well-executed on the level we’ve come to expect from Netflix-produced series, featuring a top-notch cast, solid writing and great use of its New York location to invoke both classic noir and ’70s cinema. Here are some broad strokes about a broad: The show, based on the comic “Alias,” created by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, stars Krysten Ritter as a private investigator with some pretty extraordinary powers, as well as a major instance of trauma that’s left her brittle, paranoid and scarred. She’s not completely isolated, thanks to her one-time best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), her sometimes client/sometimes lawyer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), her maybe one-night-stand Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and her junkie neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville). But she’s doing her best to survive on her own.
For those who haven’t indulged in any other Marvel properties, ever, you’re in luck. The first mention that Jessica lives in a universe populated by other beings with superhuman abilities doesn’t come until minute 17 of the first episode, and overall the series functions independently from “Iron Man” and the like. This even applies to the previous Marvel series released by Netflix, with one exception: Rosario Dawson reprises her role from “Daredevil” as Claire, but by the time she shows up you’ll forget you were waiting for her (and she’ll charm you either way).
“Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” do have another thing in common, though. Elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, superheroes may fly overhead, but both shows are much more interested in life on the ground. For “Jessica,” what this means is a deep dive into the realities of trauma: how it shakes us and how the people on the sidelines of battle are forever changed by what happens.
There’s no such thing as collateral damage in this show — not really. Every death, every injury, has emotional weight. And that means something because this show has a body count that is not kidding around, but feels earned every step of the way. Especially because the people affected by the action aren’t cast aside or easily discarded, and the damage done isn’t just done by trauma. How the traumatized affect others is also important, a reminder that responsibility for our actions isn’t mitigated by circumstance. The words “I’m sorry” are said a lot over the course of these 13 episodes. They very often need to be heard.
There’s some nitpicking that can be made if you want to look for it. For example, I wasn’t a fan of a few tertiary characters who were painted too broadly to fit in with the show’s otherwise grounded center. And anyone feeling burned out on voiceover in general might have a hard time getting past the first few minutes of Episode 1, which lean heavily on it. But there’s something really extraordinary about this show, and it comes down to Kilgrave. Man, woman, gay, straight, black, white — every character has layers. Everyone has complications. And that’s not just the background against which Kilgrave works. That’s what Kilgrave strips away and amplifies the importance of along the way.
David Tennant plays the (in Joss Whedon terms) “big bad” of the season, a man able to make anyone do what he says, just with the power of his voice. That basic idea might sound pretty scary on paper, but “Jessica Jones” does a brilliant job of expanding upon it to some truly horrifying places, making the most random of strangers into weapons against Jessica as well as themselves. (The show exists in the same “PG-15” realm of “Daredevil,” which is to say you see just enough to know how bad it gets.) And at least at the beginning, the most horrifying part of Kilgrave’s power is the fact that Kilgrave once used that power to use and abuse Jessica for a significant period of time.
The Jessica/Kilgrave storyline originated from the comics. In both versions of this story, Kilgrave is the reason why Jessica abandoned her fledgling efforts to become a proper sort of superhero. But after hearing executive producer Jeph Loeb praise “the dynamic between Krysten Ritter and David Tennant” last summer, I’d gotten paranoid that “Jessica” might fall into a Stockholm Syndrome-esque trap. (The history of television, after all, is filled with these sorts of problematic relationships.)
But major credit is due to Rosenberg, by the way, for not dodging the word “rape” the way that Bendis did in “Alias,” and for in general making Kilgrave’s powers the centerpiece of a story about consent, and control — which are themes so vital to a story about women. Remember that one of the great feminist statements of the 20th century was Virginia Woolf’s slender tome on being a woman writer. Its title? “A Room of One’s Own.” That was a bold statement, back then — a request for some personal space to work, a space that a woman could control.
Things have gotten better since then, but Woolf’s underlying statement remains the same. Kilgrave’s powers make the metaphor explicit, but it’s implicit in so many ways, so many subplots, and it’s something “Jessica Jones” just gets. If you think women every day don’t experience a constant battle for power over their own lives, you’re not paying attention.
Jessica is a character in search of control, using alcohol to quiet her feelings and isolation to limit her exposure — except for one thing. The one thing Jessica can’t control, despite all her best efforts, is her desire to help others. It gets her into as much trouble as her drinking and other bad decisions, but it’s the thing that helps her handle her personal guilt; because at the very least, as she says near the end of Season 1: “Doing something good helps with the self-loathing.”
So there she goes, walking down the street, doing the best she can to help with the powers she has. Just don’t tell her to smile while she does it.