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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jessica Jones puts its unique spin on the superhero morality debate

Illustration for article titled iJessica Jones/i puts its unique spin on the superhero morality debate
Photo: Abbot Genser (Netflix)
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In my review of Jessica Jones’ second season premiere I praised the show for positioning Jessica’s murder of Kilgrave as its emotional fulcrum. But the truth is, I only meant that compliment to a certain extent. I like the idea of exploring Kilgrave’s murder in terms of what it means for Jessica as a character; how does killing Kilgrave and being publicly known as a murderous vigilante shape her as a character? What I’m less interested in is the question of whether Jessica’s morality has now shifted or whether she’ll go on to become someone who kills regularly now that she’s killed once.

Because the answer is obviously “no.” We know Jessica and we know that her sense of morality is fundamentally stable, even if it’s perhaps more flexible than the average person’s. So many live action superhero properties explore questions of ethical lines, violence, and murder, but I seldom find those explorations interesting because—at the end of the day—the heroes and villains are pretty much always crystal clear.


So imagine my surprise that this season of Jessica Jones is actually able to raise questions about morality in a genuinely interesting, complex way. Because unlike Jessica, who we know to be a fundamentally good person, Alisa’s morality is much harder to parse. For one thing, she’s regularly killed and in situations that had absolutely nothing to do with self-defense or with saving the world. And her violent tendencies clearly aren’t solely motivated by her outbursts of rage either. She’s perfectly calm when she suggests that the easiest thing to do is to kill Pryce Chang after she and Jessica survive his assassination attempt and manage to knock him out and kidnap him. Alisa’s propensity for violence isn’t just a side effect of IGH’s experiments. It’s become a part of who she is.

And yet, I can’t help but want to see Alisa and Jessica team-up and become a wonderfully snarky mother/daughter crime-fighting duo. Live action superhero properties have primed me to always root for the emotional family reunion and at her best Alisa is a genuinely endearing character. She’s not a charismatic antihero, she’s an intense but no-nonsense woman who also happens to sometimes commit mass murder. (Maybe she should just team up with Frank Castle.)

Like the previous episode, the clunkily titled “AKA Shark In The Bathtub, Monster In The Bed” does a great job adding more layers to the Jessica/Alisa relationship. Alisa is adamant about the fact that the car accident that left Brian and Philip dead wasn’t Jessica’s fault, and you can feel a massive weight lift off Jessica’s shoulders as she hears those words. That’s the same sense of relief Alisa feels when Jessica forgives her for staying away for the past 17 years. Watching the way Jessica is able to calm Alisa down during her rage outbursts, it’s easy to think that the two of them could find a way to make it work—that Jessica could be the key her mom needs to start a new life. But does Alisa deserve a new life when she’s brutally murdered so many people? In a superhero landscape saturated with those kinds of questions, it’s remarkable that Jessica Jones is able to present them in a new, compelling way simply by making me care for and detest Alisa in equal measure.

“AKA Shark In The Bathtub, Monster In The Bed” is also the first and really only episode of the season with some genuine action scenes. They mostly boil down to two somewhat perfunctory scuffles between Pryce, Jessica, and Alisa. But there’s also an exhilarating moment in which Jessica and Alisa team up to stop the bus that’s ferrying Sonia and Vido out of the country. The action itself isn’t hugely spectacular, but the setup is incredibly unique. How often do you see two super strong women—let alone a mother/daughter pair—work together to save the day? The answer is very, very rarely.


And it’s another moment that complicates the question of Alisa’s morality. The Vido rescue mission is the first time it occurs to Alisa that maybe the way to control her powers is to utilize them, rather than repress them. It’s a fantasy Jessica briefly allows herself to indulge in before realizing that it will only ever be a dream. Alisa can’t be allowed to walk free. And though it might take Jessica a little longer than it should to come to that realization, she eventually does. Her moral compass is as strong as we always knew it was.


Stray observations

  • Griffin Watch: Griffin is seen reporting from Aleppo, where he doesn’t seem to be getting up to anything nefarious.
  • Seems like Jessica should’ve just texted Officer Costa rather than making a phone call her mom was obviously going to overhear.
  • Continually to spiral, Trish publicly insults and then quits her radio show, gets a job interview with ZCN, and runs out of her inhaler enhancer. I’m sure that’s going to end well.
  • Malcolm, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen since he took off running after his own experience with the inhaler.
  • I was surprised by how moving I found the scene where Shane heals Hogarth. Carrie-Ann Moss turns in a really fantastic, emotive performance.
  • Another performer I want to praise is Terry Chen. It would be easy to turn Pryce Chang into a one-note jock, but Chen imbues him with a real sense of humanity.
  • The idea of eating spaghetti for breakfast doesn’t gross me out, but the idea of eating spaghetti with butter and jam absolutely does.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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