Photo: David Giesbrecht (Netflix)

It’s cliché to say “a hero is only as good as their villain,” but it’s true that these Defenders show have all been at their strongest when they’ve paired their heroes with a compelling antagonist: Daredevil and Kingpin. Luke Cage and Cottonmouth. Jessica and Kilgrave. Though I initially assumed Will Simpson would step into the role of this season’s main villain, we’re introduced to a new threat in this episode: Janet McTeer’s as-yet-unnamed mystery woman.

Like many of the best comic book villains this unknown woman is a mirror image of the hero she’s facing. McTeer’s character is also a super strong woman who appears to live on the fringes of society. And like Jessica, she seems to be motivated primarily by anger. Her attack on Jessica mirrors Jessica’s attack on Pryce in the premiere. This mystery woman can’t seem to stop herself from flipping over a table even as she’s slightly shocked by her own behavior. It’s a strong, exhilarating sequence on which to end this episode. Unfortunately, “AKA Sole Survivor” takes its sweet, sweet time getting us there.

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My biggest wish for these Defenders shows is that they would limit their episodes to a strict 45-minute runtime. Currently these episodes clock in around 55 minutes, and while 10 minutes might not seem like a huge difference, it means each episode winds up feeling unnecessarily sluggish. “AKA Sole Survivor” features extended subplots about Hogarth fighting to keep her position at her law firm; Jessica battling an eviction notice; and Trish and Griffin struggling to navigate their relationship. And too many of those storylines feel like they’re going through the motions to fill time rather than offering truly compelling thematic and character beat.

Take, for instance, the way we come to learn that Oscar is on parole: Malcolm pays a visit to the building’s landlord, who randomly announces how excited he is that his boyfriend is finally moving to the States from Cambodia, which leads Jessica to realize that Oscar forges documents. It’s a weird, unnecessarily long tangent that’s not particularly interesting to watch. It’s not that procedural elements can’t be compelling—in fact, I found Trish and Jessica’s method of tricking the morgue attendant to be particularly ingenious, as was Malcolm’s way of leading the paparazzi away from Trish’s building—but there needs to be an element of actual cleverness to them. And there’s none in Malcolm’s landlord visit.

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To be fair, I also think some of this episode’s structural flaws stand out more to someone who’s taking detailed notes in order to review the show than they would to someone who’s simply letting the story wash over them. In other words, I didn’t necessarily have a bad time watching “AKA Sole Survivor.” It’s just that in retrospect, Jessica and Trish’s lengthy investigation into Dr. Leslie Hansen feels like it goes nowhere. Hansen is just a red herring to lead us to McTeer’s unknown woman. So to analyze their investigation in this review feels kind of pointless even if, as I mentioned, the morgue business was pretty fun to watch. (Well, as a fun as a morgue-set scene featuring a charred human skull can be.)

Though IGH still isn’t completely working as a big bad, the idea of exploring Jessica by delving into her personal history is far more successful. That’s utilized to great effect in a trippy dream sequence in which Jessica downs whiskey via an IV while her family’s ashes rain down around her. The episode opens with Jessica telling Trish that she thought about committing suicide after losing her family. And she echoes that deathwish when the mystery woman informs Jessica that she briefly died on the table before IGH brought her back to life. (Giving people powers was apparently just a side effect of IGH’s medical work, not its goal.) Those are dark ideas, even for a show that’s never shied away from darkness, and I’m glad this series is still committed to seriously exploring Jessica’s trauma even as it weaves its larger IGH mystery.

Photo: David Giesbrecht (Netflix)

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Another strong character-focused aspect of this episode is that Hogarth’s storyline finally intersects with Jessica’s. Hogarth comes to Jessica hoping to find leverage against the partners who are trying to force her out. And she also reveals that the illness she’s been diagnosed with is ASL. I’ve never completely connected to Hogarth as a character in her own right, but she works well as a parallel for Jessica. Both are tough, isolated women who define themselves first and foremost by their work. So despite their acrimonious past, it’s believable that Jessica would feel compelled to help Hogarth simply because she sees so much of herself in her former employer. After feeling a bit unmoored in the first two episodes, it’s nice to see Hogarth’s storyline brought more firmly into the main fold.

But the best thing about “AKA Sole Survivor” is that its ending made me genuinely excited to start the next episode. In a binge-able series like Jessica Jones, that’s often the most important thing of all. A compelling villain can help a superhero story snap into focus, and I’m excited to see what Jessica Jones chooses to do with its new one.

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Stray observations

  • We get a brief cameo from Daredevil’s Foggy Nelson in this episode. Unfortunately, Hogarth was far less excited to see him than I was.
  • I love that Jessica investigated Griffin as soon as Trish started dating him. Jessica claims there’s nothing too suspicious in his past, but we also see him ominously insert a thumbdrive onto Trish’s computer so who knows.
  • Regardless of whether or not he’s evil, I really liked Griffin’s speech about realizing just how emotionally difficult it is to be the worried partner left at home.
  • This episode features perhaps our most explicit MCU reference yet (Vido asks Jessica is she knows Captain America) yet it also has Jessica confidently claim, “It wasn’t a memory. Meat-face creatures don’t exist.” Aliens invaded New York and a sentient robot lifted Sokovia into the sky, Jess. I don’t think meat-face people are out of the question!
  • Malcolm briefly thinking Trish was going to murder the paparazzi was hilarious.
  • “You have seven pillows.”

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