Marvel Netflix Series: JESSICA JONES (Season 1) ... Is Way More Racist Than You Remember
The second in a series on the ex-Netflix Marvel shows. Kilgrave made me do it.
Season 1 of JESSICA JONES has more authentic notes of mystery, horror, and detective noir than I ever expected from Marvel, and the trauma/abuse narrative runs as deep as I’ve been told over the years. That said, it meanders more than Daredevil S1 — and it has some issues many viewers may not have been attuned to yet in 2015.
The show opens strong with tasty spins on noir tropes: Jessica takes on clients who have their own baggage; narrates in a moody voiceover; and has genuinely chilling, split-second flashes of trauma from an unidentified man. Sadly, most of these nice touches fade away after a few episodes — and with the amount of discourse this show generated, I unfortunately already knew what the mysterious flashes meant. (That last point is not necessarily a fault of the show itself, but it does speak to broad issues of pop culture ubiquity and “socially acceptable spoiling” that are a direct result of the Marvel Model.)
Krystin Ritter was a fantastic choice for JJ, with her big, watery eyes and naturally upturned nose. She sells us on a depth of pain, fear, and vulnerability under the surface of what could have been a terribly clichéd Hard-Drinkin’, Take-No-Shit Tough Broad portrayal we’ve all seen before. Luke Cage is introduced smoothly enough that it took me a few episodes to realize he was a superhero setup of his own and not just an organic love interest for JJ. Unfortunately, though Mike Colter does show us early on that he has access to a natural, watchable charisma and screen presence, I find his delivery flatter and flatter as the season presses on.
I do also like their chemistry, and I kind of love how the season mostly glosses over the origins of their powers with a comically nonchalant exchange: “Accident.” “Experiment.” Though questions about those origins are raised later as season cliffhangers, this isn’t the version of this story that hinges on that, and at this stage in the cultural saturation of superhero narratives, that’s okay — welcome, even.
One of the weaker areas is the writing contrivances by which JJ meets other superpeople. Luke is just the chance subject of a job — as it’s still not clear to me whether she knew his connection to Reva prior to ending up at his place — and even worse, Kilgrave just met her on the street while she was fighting some muggers.
Most of the action scenes and super-jumps admittedly feel limp after the brilliant choreography and editing of Daredevil’s fight sequences. The first big ensemble brawl doesn’t take place until episode 5 and weirdly has no score at all, making it stand out in an awkward way. There isn’t really a single clean, solid punch or jump edit in the whole 13 episodes, and over time it gives those moments the feel of an under-budgeted teen action-soap from the 90s.
Hope Shlottman is a really interesting character that I wish got more screen time, played deftly by Erin Moriarty from The Boys. Her monologue about being pregnant by r*pe is an emotional turning point that powerfully extends the Kilgrave abuse narrative beyond JJ’s trauma alone. After that point, what really began to impress me about the show is just how theme-oriented it is compared to most mainstream superhero content. Rather than being a story about one abuser and one survivor, this season weaves, compares, and contrasts at least four different kinds of abuse dynamics:
Kilgrave, of course the classic, gaslighting, charismatic manipulator.
Jeri Hogarth, the cutthroat who’ll do anything to cover up her faults.
Will Simpson, the love-bombing “I swear I’ve changed this time!” sleaze.
Dorothy Walker, the body-shaming, child-exploiting, helicopter stage mom.
In episode 7, “AKA Top Shelf Perverts,” Jessica’s forceful confrontation with Trish’s mom even boils this arrangement of relationships and themes down to an elegant thesis statement:
Dorothy: People can change, Jessie.
JJ: It doesn’t make the bad shit you did go away.
On that note, re: the Trish/Will relationship, it felt kind of weird for a show about avenging women survivors to have a female lead end up with a man who tried to kill her, even if he did so under mind control — but at least that plot ends how it should, with his own underlying darkness revealed. One upshot of this B-story is how it captures another side of abusive dynamics, i.e. the lies we tell ourselves to rationalize what we’ve become normalized to. It’s sadly true to life that even Trish Walker, a prototypical Strong Female Heroine, can fall prey to illusions like “I can change him!!1” This kind of thinking is also strongly reflected in JJ’s own brief flirtation with the question of whether she could turn Kilgrave and his power to the “hero” side.
(As a quick aside, I’m deeply shaken that the late 90s/early 00s was already far enough in the past to serve as origin backstory seven years ago — as evidenced by the fact that “Patsy Walker” was clearly a Hilary Duff type and that JJ was a proto-LiveJournal goth kid, based on her raggedy “1996-1999” journal lol.)
Episode 8, “AKA WWJD?” is a turning point where we start to abandon the noir trappings fully. The scene in the backyard with JJ’s former neighbor is one of the more compelling Kilgrave moments, and this episode also begins to spell out surprisingly explicit parallels between Kilgrave and Jeri via Jeri’s ruthless approach to divorce. It’s also where I start to really get Tennant’s place in the show. At first I found him too charming and likable, not scary enough to sell this kind of monster. But the “I love you” reveal — the moment when we, and JJ, realize Kilgrave really doesn’t think he’s doing anything harmful to Jessica and actually believes he can still “win her over” — proves it a clever casting against type with a subtle degree of realism.
Tragically, what the show gets right about misogyny and patriarchy, it gets deeply wrong about race and addiction. I have to comment on the absolutely jaw-dropping racism in episode 3, “AKA It’s Called Whiskey.” This is what I was alluding to up top, and (I hope) it would never fly in a 2022 production.
One of JJ’s “lovably messy” neighbors is Malcolm, a Black man suffering from heroin addiction. Eka Darville does what he can with a grossly underwritten role, but the depiction is problematic to begin with: everyone refers to him as “junkie,” etc, and he wanders around the halls and the block in a half-cognizant daze that echoes racist “crackhead” tropes popularized in the Reagan era.
When Ruben, another wacky neighbor, comments that “everyone’s a little racist” and has to unlearn the assumptions they make about a person like Malcolm, for a split second I actually thought this was a worthwhile moment of self-awareness about the tropes depicted around Malcolm.
…but then what JJ takes from that exchange is that she can use that racism (and ableism) that Malcolm faces, to turn him into a distraction — by THROWING HIM ACROSS A HOSPITAL FLOOR AND YELLING “HE JUST LUNGED AT HER” — so that she can buy time to steal a drug that might help pause Kilgrave’s powers.
I’m utterly floored that I’ve never even heard about this scene, much less seen any discourse around it on social media. Sure, BLM was only about one year strong in 2015, but most Black Americans already knew then what we should all know now: that IRL, this is an act of violence that would likely get Malcolm locked up or shot to death.
The scene does end on a lukewarm note of guilt for Jessica, as Malcolm glares at her through a frame-skippy haze while being questioned — but then, you know, it causes him no lasting harm and it’s never mentioned again. Simply put, this is inexcusable.
Later in the season, fed up with Malcolm’s illness and the ways it inconveniences her, JJ verbally abuses Malcolm with “tough love” bullshit that’s obviously informed by popular propaganda, mythology, and pseudoscience around addiction treatment. JJ’s plan to “help” Malcolm is to chain him to a pipe, hand him heroin (that she apparently spent money on herself for this sole purpose?!), and yell at him to mAkE a ChOiCe — and then he’s magically cured for the rest of the season! Yay!
What makes all this even worse is that another wacky, messy neighbor of JJ’s — Colby Minifie’s hilariously played Robyn, a white woman and sister to Ruben — ends up being a sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of burdensome neurosis, who goes from a shrieking shrew stereotype to delivering blunt, loaded lines like “I hate suicide!” and “I hate mental illness.”
Not unrelated, this show follows heavily in Daredevil’s footsteps in terms of validating the use of beatings and torture as morally justifiable and methods of obtaining valid, usable information. This is not unique to these superhero shows, but it’s a pernicious, two-pronged lie that always needs to be pointed out when it rears its head.
In stark contrast to Daredevil S1, the first Jessica Jones finale is a bit of a letdown for me. The “climactic” final confrontation is completely anticlimactic: Kilgrave sets up a bunch of kill-slaves who do nothing of consequence, and JJ just…stands still? to pretend she’s under his sway again? so that he’ll let his guard down and get close enough to her to be killed in one move?
Which is to say, everything we went through with stealing the sedatives…setting up the soundproof room…finding Kilgrave’s parents…Kilgrave’s efforts to amplify his powers…none of it mattered at all. It all came down to a simple bluff and a snapped neck. (At least along the way there was a buck wild scene of an ER doctor trying and failing to drill into Luke Cage’s skull. Lmao.)
When you consider that in context of how the noir stylization and trauma flashes fell off, or how the much foreshadowed plot with Kilgrave recreating JJ’s childhood home went nowhere, there’s a pattern of writing gone directionless, perhaps not unrelated to the season’s length — which felt much more bloated here than in S1 of Daredevil.
There was even a plot that involved trying to use JJ’s blood to create an antidote to the virus (?!?!) that gives rise to Kilgrave’s power. The only point I can find for even introducing that, in retrospect, was perhaps to set up the fact that Jessica’s freedom from Kilgrave’s power was about being pushed to her breaking point with Reva, not some random (and incredibly fortunate) genetic immunity. I’m not sure that was even intentional, but at least it’s more followup than many other abandoned threads get.
Somewhat related to the topic of neglected threads: the obvious metaphors around Hope Shlottman — i.e. how JJ feels so strongly that she needs to save HOPE, and how she only feels free to kill Kilgrave after HOPE dies — are actually operating a full level above most mainstream superhero media. I just wish they emphasized it more via tonal and stylistic consistency — or by making Hope a more constant presence in the show, rather than dropping her for so long prior to her dramatic suic*de.
In conclusion, while this first season of Jessica Jones was once held up as a paragon of how much can be done with superhero media, turns out it’s been nearly a decade since then — and today it feels more muddled, more like what it is: a well intentioned early experiment, to mixed results, in a medium that inherently begs to be graded on a curve.
P.S. — David Tennant performs urination with uncomfortable realism.
This piece is part of an ongoing series. Find the other parts below:
Jessica Jones (Season 1)
All content © 2022 Sinistra Black, All Rights Reserved.
Images referenced under Fair Use.