Photo: David Giesbrecht (Netflix)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching these Netflix Defenders shows, it’s that you don’t come to them for plot. None of these shows have fully succeeded at telling a tight but compelling story over a 13-episode season, although the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones came the closest. (Iron Fist and the eight-episode Defenders series—where Jessica Jones made her most recent appearance—are by far the worst offenders.) So the fact that Jessica Jones’ second season premiere doesn’t set up a hugely compelling narrative drive isn’t all that concerning to me. I watch these shows—and Jessica Jones in particular—for character and theme far more than for plot mechanics. So the bigger question is, will the show’s character arcs and thematic material be as strong this season as they were in the last one? Based on this premiere, the answer is yes and no.

The good news about “AKA Start At The Beginning” is that the characters still very much feel like themselves. Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones is still bitterly pretending she doesn’t have the biggest heart in New York City. Rachael Taylor’s Trish Walker is still doggedly trying to make the world a better place. Carrie-Anne Moss’ Jeri Hogarth is still trying to crush anything and everything that stands in her way. And Eka Darville’s Malcolm Ducasse is still a cuddly teddy bear in human form. This second season premiere confidently builds on the status quo of the first season by reinforcing the things that worked and cutting the things that didn’t. Malcolm is now firmly a part of Alias Investigations, despite Jessica’s propensity for telling him he’s fired. Jessica and Trish are still deeply committed to each other despite their very different outlooks on life. And, best of all, there’s no sign of season one oddball Robyn.

The second season’s new characters also slot quite nicely into the show’s world. They include Trish’s new dreamboat journalist boyfriend Griffin Sinclair (Hal Ozsan), Jessica’s PI competition Pryce Chang (Terry Chen), Jessica’s new neighbor/superintendent Oscar Arocho (J.R. Ramirez), and Oscar’s adorable son Vido (Kevin Chacon). And though he’s dead by episode’s end, Jay Klaitz’s “Whizzer” is just the sort of off-kilter, tragic character who fits perfectly into the off-kilter, tragic world of Jessica Jones.

Whizzer describes himself as a fear-based hero and that ties into one of Jessica Jones’ overarching themes: the way that trauma and fear shape us. The first season centered on Jessica recovering from the trauma of having been kidnapped and abused by Kilgrave. This season she’s recovering from the trauma of having killed Kilgrave—an act that was unavoidable but still deeply upsetting for her. The events of The Defenders go all but unmentioned in this premiere and instead it’s Jessica’s confrontation with Kilgrave that defines her in the public eye. The pizza shop owner who hires Jessica to track her cheating boyfriend assumes that Jessica is now more than happy to serve as a hitman in addition to a PI. And Jessica is deeply concerned about how both her reputation and her soul have been shaped by Kilgrave’s murder. It’s scarily easy for Pryce to rile her up and Jessica only just stops herself from doing real, permanent damage to him during their office brawl.

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That’s just one of a few different narrative themes introduced in this premiere and, so far, it’s the most interesting. Elsewhere, “AKA Start At The Beginning” seems to be setting up an X-Men-esque scenario in which everyday people are prejudiced towards those with superpowers. It’s not a huge part of this episode, but there are hints of it in the way Chang refers to Jessica as a “power person” or the look Oscar gives her after he watches her lift a refrigerator on her own. It feels a bit clumsy and I don’t think it’s a particularly natural fit for this show’s world, but it’s far too early to tell for sure.

The third and final big thematic throughline of the season is the mystery of Jessica’s origin story. This is the thread I’m least interested in and which, unfortunately, looks like it will be the central focus of the season. It ties directly into the IGH conspiracy stuff that was the weakest part of the show’s first season. And of all the fascinating aspects of Jessica as a character, how she got her powers is the one I’m least interested in.

Photo: David Giesbrecht (Netflix)

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Thankfully, this episode grounds Jessica’s IGH investigation in something slightly more personal than just a generic superpower origin story. Jessica’s history with IGH first began with the car accident that killed her family and left Jessica as the sole survivor. That’s the initial trauma that set Jessica on the path to becoming the person she is, and it’s one she’s never fully been able to face since it happened. She left her family’s ashes sitting in Trish’s storage unit for 17 years because she couldn’t bear the thought of figuring out what to do with them.

Although this episode features a man being crushed to death by falling scaffolding, it’s most haunting scene is the one in which Whizzer (without realizing what he’s doing) lobs a box of her family’s ashes at Jessica. The box smashes against the ceiling and its contents fall around Jessica like snow. It’s a shocking, morbid moment that eventually helps motivate Jessica to begin investigating her own history with IGH—a history that just might include a literal monster.

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The job of a second season premiere is to lay out the themes the season will be exploring, which are hopefully related to, but not just repetitions of, the first season. “AKA Start At The Beginning” mostly does that, even if it’s a little too slow and unfocused for its own good. And though a post-Kilgrave season of Jessica Jones is in danger of going off the rails in the way Daredevil did without Kingpin, this premiere’s relatively strong point of view gives me hope: Whether the past comes via a forgotten box of ashes or a sparkly dress and a red wig, it’s something you have to face sooner or later.


Stray observations

  • Welcome to coverage of Jessica Jones’ second season! We’ll be covering the whole season over the course of the next two days, with seven reviews dropping today and six tomorrow.
  • Jessica Jones’ second season in entirely directed by women and mostly written by them as well. This particular episode is written by creator/showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and directed by Anna Foerster.
  • Will Simpson (Wil Traval) is apparently also back this season to which I say: I’d rather have Robyn.
  • Trish’s new boyfriend is so obviously the type of character who will turn out to be secretly evil that I hope the show is intentionally leaning into that trope only to subvert it.
  • Pryce Chang’s weird pride about always being on time feels like a joke from Arrested Development or something.
  • The way Ritter delivers the line, “Don’t step on him” about her brother’s ashes is heartbreaking.
  • “I never take no for an answer.” “How rape-y of you.”

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