Two and a half years after it debuted, Marvel’s Jessica Jones returns to Netflix on March 8 with all its strengths—and weaknesses. Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Yes, the new season suffers from the same pacing issues that have plagued the individual Defenders’ series and their group outings. The number 13 remains an unlucky one for all the Marvel shows, regardless of which corner of Hell’s Kitchen is being protected or explored. There’s just never enough story to stretch over a baker’s dozen of episodes, which has created stretches of obvious wheel-spinning, and worse, a whole burner season.
And yes, the fraught relationship between plot and characters remains stubbornly in place in the five episodes made available for review. The hard-boiled detective’s cohorts get more development this year—a lot more, in Trish’s (Rachael Taylor) case—but new neighbors and rivals threaten to overwhelm the stark neo-noir setting. Like Jessica (Krysten Ritter) scrambling to find enough work to delegate to her assistant, Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessica Jones struggles to set up disparate, occasionally converging, storylines that are also engaging. This time around, it’s not just a matter of giving everyone something to do, but also making sure that every one of those moments counts, even in a season that will almost certainly feel overlong.
Another actor might find these obstacles insurmountable, but like her character, Ritter clears them in a superhuman bound. Even when the story has ground to another halt, you won’t want to take your eyes off the screen, lest you miss any of her sneers or terse quips. In many ways, she’s the same old Jessica, brimming with anger and whiskey, throwing physical and verbal jabs while nursing reopened wounds. In the first season, that portrayal made the vigilante, who’s always had an aversion to the “hero” mantle, easily the most riveting of all the small-screen Marvel characters. Ritter continued that fine tradition in The Defenders—Jessica may have had to play nice(r) with her ass-kicking comrades, but the actress stood out among her counterparts, proving she’s the greatest weapon in Netflix’s crime-fighting arsenal.
Series creator Melissa Rosenberg hasn’t harnessed Ritter’s smoldering star power so much as entered a kind of synchronous orbit, working in tandem with her lead actor on characterization and even dialogue. The show mirrors that partnership in its latest outing by strengthening Jessica’s support network, beefing up Trish’s and Malcolm’s sidekick bona fides, though there’s still a clear hierarchy. And season two really does need Jessica (and Ritter) in as close to top shape as possible, because in the midst of unveiling more painful revelations, the new episodes venture into perilous territory—that of the origin story.
After some repeated nudging from Trish, Jessica realizes she has to know how she ended up this way: imbued with superhuman qualities that only strengthen her self-loathing and -medicating. Rosenberg and her writers, including Jamie King and co-executive producer Jack Kenny, make liberal use of flashbacks, jumping from the PI’s present-day concerns to the accident that left her family dead and a young Jessica at the mercy of IGH. It’s a necessary evil, but all the jumping around does little for the already fitful pacing.
The first three episodes meander, looking this way and that at threats new (professional competition) and old (Janet McTeer as a shadowy figure from Jessica’s past). Then slowly but surely, the season begins to take shape, shifting from the backward glances at those responsible for Jessica’s enhanced abilities to just sitting with the traumatized hero, who’s still coming to terms with having killed Kilgrave (David Tennant) in the season-one finale. Numerous threads unspool and create some confusion (and indifference), but Ritter steadies the diverging narratives, her fury cutting through all the booze, bills, and boardroom backstabbing (what is this, Iron Fist?). That’s just one of the many notes in her performance; Ritter’s Jessica is just as full of regret and resilience as she is rage. A growing fear of what she is or might become runs through the first five episodes, but there are also flashes of hope.
That mix of optimism and realism reflects the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which weren’t even in their nascency when the first season concluded, but are impossible to ignore while watching Jessica Jones, which is very much the story of a survivor. And Rosenberg has taken great care of that tale, enlisting women directors for all 13 of the new episodes. It’s the kind of subtle show of force that Jessica tests out as the second season approaches the midseason mark (also note how the new season’s premiere lands on International Women’s Day). Although production had wrapped well before the wave of allegations against various high-profile predators began last fall, there’s a storyline this season that taps into those uneven power dynamics, setting its survivors on the path to resolution. But the show never forgets how elusive closure—and justice—can be. Although it stumbles in the darkness that it goes to great lengths to establish, Jessica Jones’ second season sheds light on societal ills while also lighting a way out for its protagonist.
Reviews by Caroline Siede will run Thursday, March 8 and Friday, March 9.