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Season 2 of Jessica Jones struggles to find its center

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Without a clear villain in the early going, the show revolves around less compelling plotlines and dour confrontations

Courtesy of Netflix

The villain, not the hero, dominated the first season of Jessica Jones. Kilgrave (played by former Doctor Who star David Tennant) was a chilling enemy who used his mind-control powers to abduct and rape the title character, leaving her as an untrusting, rage-driven mess who was determined to do everything she could to keep him from unleashing the same horrors on others. The first season ends with Jessica (Krysten Ritter) killing him, but her trauma is still with her. In season 2, she’s still trying to control her own fate, raising the question of who she is when she’s free of his influence — and by extension, what her show can become without him.

The first five episodes of the 13-episode Netflix series, provided to critics for advance screening, don’t answer either question in a positive way. Season 2 opens with Jessica back to work as a private eye, struggling to reconcile whether she’s a hero or a killer. Stopping Kilgrave didn’t erase her trauma, and she’s coping by drinking heavily, having meaningless sex, only taking cases that don’t require emotional investment, and generally trying to alienate everyone around her.

After the crossover series The Defenders mostly played Jessica’s alcoholism for laughs, the second season of Jessica Jones gets serious by having different characters repeatedly calling out the hero’s unhealthy behaviors, though creator and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg still wavers over whether Jones’ drinking habits are a real problem or an endearing character trait. Meanwhile, Jones’ best friend, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) has found a new niche for herself reporting on superheroes, but she’s running out of material. That leads her to try to help her friend and her career at the same time by digging into IGH, the mysterious organization that saved Jessica’s life after a fatal car crash, and may be responsible for her super-strength. A pair of gruesome murders linked to IGH force Jessica to admit she actually needs to confront her past.

Courtesy of Netflix

The first half of the show follows Jessica’s wanderings through abandoned labs as she relives disjointed, repressed memories that seem borrowed from a Wolverine plot. Janet McTeer plays a stronger, more violent test subject who’s meant to embody Jessica’s worst parts, a formula that has inspired some of the best comic book villains. But Jessica Jones is telling rather than showing this similarity, with Jessica repeatedly pointing out the connection, since initially, there isn’t enough to McTeer’s character to bring it home otherwise. While McTeer does have one remarkably tense scene where she tries to keep her anger in check as a baby cries, she gets relatively little screen time in the first five episodes. Instead, Jessica mostly faces mundane conflicts, like a new building superintendent (J.R. Ramirez) trying to evict her, and a rival PI (Terry Chen) trying to recruit or ruin her.

Marvel Television Studios’ Netflix shows have contrasted with Marvel Studios’ MCU films since they launched, and that contrast is strongly accentuated in this series, as Jessica Jones asks what it means to be a superhero without a secret identity, the resources of Tony Stark, or problems on a global scale. Jessica can’t punch her way out of most of her problems, and when she can, she generally shouldn’t. Coping with them challenges her limited ability to exercise restraint. A scene where she attends an anger management class is one of the season’s most evocative, as other members share stories of PTSD and abuse, set to the rhythmic beat of a stress ball being bounced against the wall of a dimly lit basement. It shows that while Jessica’s trauma is extraordinary, tied to a supervillain’s powers and a mad scientist’s tampering, her decision to suffer alone is a much more ordinary, relatable choice. Creator and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and her writers emphasize how Jessica needs to open up and accept support from those around her if she’s going to successfully fight both her inner demons and the season’s external threat.

Image: Netflix

The second season’s disjointed secondary plots accentuate Jessica’s loneliness. Season 1 was unapologetically feminist, pitting a heroine against the walking incarnation of male privilege and entitlement. That strong stand makes season 2’s comparatively limp attempts to say something about the #MeToo movement so much more disappointing. Trish is fighting to avoid being pushed back into covering celebrity puff-pieces. She wants to produce meaningful news without having to rely on the resources of her famous war-correspondent boyfriend Griffin Sinclair (Hal Ozsan). Instead, she turns to blackmailing a director she had sex with while underage, in exchange for a movie role.

That subplot has some compelling seeds, particularly about how a woman’s desire for privacy can conflict with an obligation to warn other potential victims about a predator. But the incident largely seems geared toward pushing Trish into her own emotional breakdown so Jessica can save her. If there’s one good thing about this plot, it’s the increased presence of Trish’s manipulative mother (Rebecca De Mornay), whose advice on her daughter’s career and love life is delightfully hateful.

The season’s most ill-conceived story is the one surrounding attorney Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), who appears in the opening episode giving a poignant acceptance speech for a Women in Law award, where she discusses her wish to be seen not as “impressive, for a woman,” but as impressive by any standard. The original comic book version of Hogarth is a man, and gender-swapping the role to have a woman to play a power-hungry master manipulator with a complicated sex life is a bold decision. It accentuates the fight against gender norms — the same fight Rosenberg and company face by centering their story on a hard-bitten, hard-drinking female noir detective. That trope switch-up was refreshingly novel in season 1, but now Jeri’s schemes feel more desperate, as the script turns her into a victim. Her firm’s partners want to push her out for sleeping with her secretary, and their resolve becomes even stronger when Jeri is diagnosed with ALS. The writers are trying to make Jeri sympathetic again after her season 1 decisions allowed Kilgrave to escape and kill several people, including Jeri’s wife.

Courtesy of Netflix

The attempt to redeem Jeri is no more successful than the soap-opera-style plots foisted on the supervillain parents in Runaways. Having bad things happen to deplorable people with the hope that the audience will care about them feels manipulative, and doesn’t work to excuse the bad actions they’ve already taken. Again, there are compelling ideas in Jeri’s plot, which touches on the right to a dignified death, perceptions of the disabled, and the importance of legacy. But they’re wasted on a character who feels irredeemable, and whose selfishness in these early episodes once again leads to a completely avoidable death. What’s left is the frustratingly obvious path the writers have charted to looping Jeri back into the IGH plot.

The first five episodes are marked by oppressive dourness, with precious little relief. At one point, Daredevil’s Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) rushes into Jeri’s office in a cloud of righteousness and optimism, and is quickly rebuffed, as if hope and justice are concepts best left to another show. But that kind of humor is rare in this series, and so is Foggy’s optimism. The brightest notes come from Jessica’s interactions with her junkie neighbor turned professional associate, Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville), who is working hard to both push and protect her. Kilgrave ruined Malcolm’s life as well, and he’s tied his recovery and redemption to Jessica. Malcolm shines as a character because of the exuberance of his emotions — in season 2 more than ever, he fights back when Jessica tries to sideline him, and practically glows with pride when she accepts his assistance.

Courtesy of Netflix

It’s certainly possible that the show comes together in a satisfying fashion after the fifth episode. While Kilgrave was a powerful driving force in season 1, his importance was a problem in the middle episodes, as the plot stretched credulity in an effort to keep him relevant while allowing the heroes some wins. Season 2 has a different problem: the biggest issue is more likely to be how the season ends. An early scene where Jessica faces a speedster, accomplished via some strikingly ugly special effects, is a reminder that superpowered brawls aren’t Jessica Jones’ strong suit. And judging from the setup and the trailers, that certainly seems to be where things are headed.

Season 2’s most promising plot may be the budding alliance between Jessica and a police detective played by John Ventimiglia, who sees her as a hero for killing Kilgrave, rather than an out-of-control vigilante. His take on the story — much more in line with the audience’s presumed views — cuts through the black-and-white morality that too often dominates superhero stories, and sets up a grey-area dynamic that could really let the show’s noir sensibilities shine. Where season 1 of Jessica Jones was about confronting trauma, season 2 launches by exploring how and whether she can heal. Hopefully Jessica and her show will come out stronger by the end of it.

Season 2 of Jessica Jones released on Netflix on Thursday, March 8th.