Screenshot: Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix)

I’ve always been a sucker for a flashback episode, particularly in these Defenders series. Flashbacks let a show fill in the gaps, bring to life things that have only been mentioned in passing, and reveal new sides of familiar characters and actors. In the case of these Defenders shows, they also offer a break from the repetitive procedural structure. There are no computers to hack or clues to chase in “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray.” The episode’s narrative drive comes first and foremost from its characters, which is how I prefer my TV shows. Yet flashback episodes like this one also run the risk of expanding a show’s world too much by squeezing in massive but hitherto unmentioned events into a character’s past. And while “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray” highlights the best of what a flashback episode can do, it also highlights the worst too.

So let’s talk about Stirling. There’s no getting around the fact that within the larger context of this series, the sudden introduction of a character like Stirling is flat-out absurd. Rather than feel like a surprising reveal that helps Jessica snap into focus, Stirling just feels like a retcon. According to this episode, Stirling was a major, identity-defining part of Jessica’s life; her leather jacket look, her penchant for petty crime, and even the name of her business all stem directly from her relationship with him. So why the hell haven’t we heard about him before?

Even worse, Stirling’s brutal murder threatens to take the level of trauma in Jessica’s backstory to almost comical levels. The episode tries to lampshade that by having Jessica acknowledge that everyone she loves seems to wind up dead. But Stirling’s death is one too many major tragedies to toss into her personal history, especially since we know her encounter with Kilgrave is still to come. And again, I’m left to wonder why none of this has come up before. Why wasn’t Stirling’s death one of the things Jessica listed off during her anger management session? If you really wanted to, you could try to argue that Jessica has repressed her feelings about Stirling because she fears she may have provoked his murder (which she assumes was carried out by his criminal friends). But the simpler answer is that Stirling has never been mentioned before because he’s a new creation the writers just came up with.

And, yet, while those macro concerns are incredibly valid, in the vacuum of this episode, Jessica and Sterling’s tragic love story worked for me. Krysten Ritter does an excellent job modulating her performance so that college-aged Jessica is a lighter but by no means sunny version of herself. It’s fascinating to watch Jessica casually and joyfully slip into a life of crime. And the way Jessica is so willing to center her entire world around Stirling after her falling out with Trish is deeply telling; Jessica is desperate for the stability of a family and—like a lot of people in the early 20s—she builds that stability around a romantic partner who might not actually be the healthiest match for her. Ritter and Mat Vairo have good chemistry together that helps sell their quick burning relationship. And though Stirling does some really questionable things, like trying to get money from Trish and pimping out Jessica’s body guard services, he manages not to come across as a complete villain.

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It also helps that this episode isn’t solely focused on the Jessica/Stirling dynamic. It has other pasts to dig into as well. “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray” gets its name from Trish’s brief attempt to reinvent herself as a sexy Britney Spears-esque pop singer following her days as a child start. Jessica isn’t thrilled with Trish’s single “I Want Your Cray Cray” and she’s even more disappointed in Trish’s return to a drug and booze-filled lifestyle. That’s what first drives Jess and Trish apart, and this episode does a lovely job depicting the complex ebb and flow of their sisterhood during one of its most tumultuous times. Plus it’s fun to actually get a glimpse of the notorious past present-day Trish is always trying to separate herself from.

But the real reason “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray” exists is to fill us in on the story of The Killer a.k.a. Jessica’s mother, Alisa Jones. If this season wants us to get on board Alisa’s sudden return from the dead—something I’m still not sure I can do—it has to do the legwork to make that twist believable. And “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray” definitely tries its damnedest to make this story work.

The car crash that killed Jessica’s father and brother left Alisa severely injured and heavily burned. She spent the next five years in a medically induced coma while being treated (well, experimented on) by IGH. Dr. Karl was able to give her life-saving medical treatment and facial reconstruction surgery for her disfigured face (which explains why Jessica didn’t recognize her), but the side effects included both super strength and a super temper.

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It’s a lot of information to take in, which is a reality Alisa must contend with too once she’s brought out of her coma and told that her genes have been edited, her husband and son are dead, and her daughter’s been living with a new family. When Alisa’s story in this episode works—and it doesn’t always—it’s pretty much solely down to Janet McTeer, who sells the internal struggle Alisa faces each time she tries to control her new super temper. After breaking out of IGH (we see Luanne’s horrific death and Inez’s injury play out), Alisa sets out to reunite with Jessica. But though she manages to reign in her temper with Dorothy, she loses it with Stirling and winds up murdering him before she fully realizes what she’s doing.

Screenshot: Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix)

Though we spend a lot of time catching up on her past, some of the most interesting elements of Alisa’s story have still yet to be explored. The flashback ends with Alisa voluntarily returning to Dr. Karl’s care and there’s still a lot left to be unpacked in their relationship, particularly when it comes to the romantic element, which seems to involve a very, very unhealthy power dynamic. For now, however, “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray” centers its story on the relationship between Alisa and Jessica, who listens to her mother’s story and then reveals she can never forgive her for what she did to Stirling.

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It wouldn’t be unfair to say “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray” feels less like an episode of Jessica Jones and more like a piece of Jessica Jones fanfic. On the other hand, the fact that this episode is so different from everything else in this season also works to its advantage. Even if “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray” is a tangent and a retcon, at least it’s breezily paced and entertaining to watch. After a painfully slow start to the season, that definitely counts for something.


Stray observations

  • Krysten Ritter is fantastic in this whole episode, but she deserves special kudos for the scene in which she finds Stirling’s body.
  • Another wrinkle in the Walker family dynamic: Jessica was the one who pushed Trish to reunite with Dorothy in order to make sure Trish got through rehab okay.
  • My favorite scene in this episode is the one where Alisa and Jessica bond over a tampon.
  • Were we supposed to have guessed that the “The Killer” and “the meat-face person” were one and the same? That was a big shock to me.
  • “This is important. My label thinks I could win a VMA.”
  • Relatedly, “I Want Your Cray Cray” is actually kind of a jam. I’d give it a VMA.

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