Jessica Jones series creator / producer / writer Melissa Rosenberg has had a busy career in film and TV, most notably as the screenwriter who adapted most of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels for film, and as a writer and producer on the serial killer drama Dexter. She’s done producing work on a number of other shows, including Party of Five and The O.C., and she wrote the dance movie Step Up. But she says that over her entire career, Marvel head of television Jeph Loeb, was the first person to ask her the simple question “What do you want to do next?” Given that freedom, she said she wanted to create something like a female Tony Stark: a damaged, complex, compelling character who also had superpowers. Marvel brought her Alias, Brian Michael Bendis’ comic about a traumatized and angry journalist-turned-hero-turned-private-investigator, and she developed the series for ABC, which ultimately rejected it. But Netflix eventually revived it, and in November 2015, the first 13-episode season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones appeared on the service.
Jessica Jones has been a winner with critics and fans, but they’ve waited years for a second season, while Netflix and Marvel focused on other related street-level superhero shows: the Jessica Jones spinoff Luke Cage, the little-loved Iron Fist, and Daredevil, which premiered months before Jessica Jones in April 2015, and got its second season in March 2016. In August 2017, the crossover series The Defenders pulled the characters from all four of these shows together for a single story. And on March 8th, Jessica Jones’ second season finally arrived on Netflix. Just before the premiere, I talked to Rosenberg about how she constructed the second season differently from the first, what she thinks about similarities between this season’s plot arc and The Defenders, and what would be necessary before Jessica could join the ranks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe hero lineup.
You’ve talked about how the first season of Jessica Jones was about dealing with trauma, about survivor guilt and the emotional aftermath of rape. Do you think of season 2 as having a specific overarching theme?
It does! This season is very much about the question of “who am I?” We’re coming off season 1, where Jessica has taken a life. Justified or not, she’s taken a life, and it was actually easy. And that scares her. It makes her wonder, is she a killer, like Kilgrave wanted her to be, like he tried to make her into? Is she a monster, like Janet McTeer’s character? Is she one of these supervigilantes, like people keep trying to pigeonhole her into? Meanwhile, you’ve got Trish stirring up the snakepit of her past, and that’s bringing up a lot of nature vs. nurture questions about who she is. So it really takes us into a deeper exploration and introspection about Jessica’s life. Her conflict this season is both external and internal.
That quest for identity extends into Trish’s plotline and Jeri Hogarth’s, doesn’t it?
Absolutely, and Malcolm’s as well. That’s the question of the entire season, exploring that theme from a lot of different points of view.
You’ve said you wanted a new approach for this season because the first season worked so well that you didn’t want to try to imitate it. Was that primarily narrative or did you want to subtly change the show’s look and feel as well?
The visual look and tone and feel are are very much the same, because that’s the DNA of the show. It’s really more about the structure of the storytelling. In the first season, we had a classic villain, a season-long Big Bad that’s been resolved. This season, we are really taking a different approach, so we aren’t repeating ourselves. We want to explore something new. So this is a steadier build because we had the time to write all the scripts before we shot them. We really approached it as a 13-hour movie. So the first five episodes are like watching the first 35 minutes of a movie. Then you launch into the second act, and there’s a lot more coming.
Netflix doesn’t do test screenings, so when the first season dropped, it was the show’s first exposure to an audience. Given that you then had time to gauge the reaction, did you learn anything that you’ve taken advantage of in the second season?
Well, it was such an overwhelming response. It was humbling and gratifying and all the commentary on it was really just amazing. So we came into the second season terrified. [Laughs] The bar was raised fairly high, and the expectation level was very high. And then you have to just shut that out, and really focus on these characters and what story to tell for them and where you want to take them. So we isolated ourselves again. And with season 2, as with season 1, nobody saw it beforehand except for a small circle of people.
You’ve changed Jessica’s history a lot from the comics, especially around the origins of her powers. Was that originally so you’d have more to explore in later seasons?
Yeah, you know, in order to tell the season 1 story, we needed to know everything we could about Jessica. So we were building a backstory for her even then. It informs some of who she is, and what she can do, and some of her damage. So most of it was in place already. We just got to expand on it and let the audience in on it.
Is there a long-term plan if the show gets five seasons, or seven, or 12? Is there a road map for the future?
I always come to the end of every season wanting to leave as many doors open as possible. When you have a great set of characters, especially a great character like Jessica, you can tell stories for that character all day long, all life long. But it’s really just about leaving doors open. I have vague ideas of what I would do at the end of the series, but I really am focusing on season by season, just leaving myself room and stories to tell.
One of the biggest problems and benefits of superhero comics is that their stories often extend forever if the writers and the publisher can manage it. Would you want to do this for another 10 years?
That’s a good question. [Laughs] Writing this character, and writing for Krysten Ritter and this cast, I’d have to say, is my dream job. It’s the best job in town. I don’t know. It would depend, I suppose, on who continued to be involved in it, and whether I thought I had more stories to tell.
The Hogarth plot this season is reminiscent of what happened with Sigourney Weaver in The Defenders — this very powerful, self-contained woman whose body is failing her, and she’s trying to maintain control and consolidate her empire while she’s worried about dying and her subordinates are rebelling. Was that parallel a concern? Did people at Netflix talk at all about how to make those storylines different?
I really wasn’t tracking that. The Defenders — they’re such different characters and different worlds. I just wasn’t concerned with the crossover there. You know, people get ill. The fact that they both happen to be powerful women doesn’t... they don’t overlap for me. Jessica Jones as a show very much has its own DNA.
What happened in The Defenders doesn’t seem to have had much impact on Jessica. How did you approach integration with that miniseries?
That story kind of happens over the course of a weekend in Jessica’s life, so it really doesn’t impact our story. We’re really just taking up where we were at the end of season 1.
Have there been talks about other crossover events between the Netflix Marvel shows?
Honestly, no. We’re really just focusing on our world and our characters. If a story asks for it, if crafting a story lends itself to bringing in anyone from another story, or bouncing off it, fantastic. But it’s just not a goal. It’s not an objective. The only goal is to really bring people into just this world.
This story seems so personal to you, and you have such control over it. If the MCU movies wanted to integrate her, how would you even approach that?
Our series is very character-driven. Every storyline is born out of this character and her experiences. We’re never slapping a plot on top of her. It’s just “Where would she be now, what would she be doing in this case?” So I think she could go into any of the other universes, any of the other worlds, as long as you really stayed with that. That’s such an essential voice and perspective on our series.
Jessica and Hogarth are developing as characters this season, but they’re both trying to cover up their feelings, and as they try to force themselves to change, they keep sliding back. How did you approach consistency and continuity with their development across 13 different directors?
There’s always a writer-producer on set, for every moment of shooting. And the writers, we’ve been in the room for a year and a half before the directors even set foot on set. So we know every aspect of every script, of every arc. So we’re really there a reference for them. And then you also have the actors, who are the keepers of their characters, and they’re very passionate about those characters and very collaborative. So it’s really a team effort to bring everyone along.
Do you shoot one episode at a time?
We mostly do, which is great for the actors. They’re tracking their character all the way through, so they’re not bouncing around in time as much. Sometimes in the past, we’ve been able to cross-board, meaning shoot two episodes at a time. That’s handy. But due to the availability of our directors, and just the way the schedule worked out, we ended up with 13 different directors this time.