Trish: “I’m calling the police.”
Jessica: “They can’t help, Trish.”
-Jessica Jones, Season 1
The Killing (U.S. version, 2011-2014), The Fall (2013-2016), Top of the Lake (2013-), Happy Valley (2014-), Marcella (2016-), Paranoid (2016-), and Jessica Jones (2015-) are seven recent television series featuring women investigators as their protagonists. Snap assessments of Jessica Jones have focused on the show’s place in the Marvel superhero cycle, for obvious reasons. But both seasons of the series are also linked with the 21st century “bleak chic” television crime narratives, especially the subset of the new noir focused on women’s subjectivity. These series present investigations of abusive men as a synecdoche for exploitation writ large in a corrupted system. Series after series and season after season reveal husbands, boyfriends, fathers, teachers, police officers, corporate magnates, and even therapists to be predators. The worst offenders are authority figures who all too often represent the investigator’s own nearest and dearest. Jessica Jones fits into this larger pattern by featuring a protagonist who is both an investigator and a survivor of gender-based violence – one determined to “do something about it.”
But Jessica Jones also presents a quintessentially American sidebar to productions primarily focused on policewomen characters. By making its title character (Krysten Ritter) a private investigator rather than a cop – a super-antihero with post-traumatic stress caused by an abusive ex with mind-control powers, Kilgrave (David Tennant) – Jessica Jones operates in a noir world. While she resembles many of her policewomen counterparts in being “erratic,” “volatile,” and “effective,” Jessica’s role invokes different national mythologies than those occupied by conflicted representatives of the State. “They’re called private investigations for a reason,” Jessica notes dryly to the police, drawing a line between her concerns and theirs. In Season 2 of Jessica Jones, cops play an ambivalent role at best. In one episode, the protagonist suggests that law enforcement might be involved in framing suspects and planting evidence to do so. The season’s narrative turns on Jessica’s decision to stand by her super-powered mother, Alisa (Janet McTeer), after the latter has killed a detective attempting to apprehend her.
Each episode of Season 2 was written and directed by women supervised by showrunner Melissa Rosenberg. It clearly aligns itself with Season 1 in its departures from its literary source material in the Alias comic book series. In the comics, Jessica’s biological mother, Alisa Campbell, dies in a car crash with a military vehicle carrying chemicals that turn her daughter into a superpowered mutant. In the Netflix series, Alisa also survives the crash, but the transformation of the pair is wrought by Dr. Karl Malus (Callum Keith Rennie) using gene therapy in an illegal private medical research facility, IGH.
This key difference created by the adaptation process casts Malus in the Netflix series as a somewhat analogous figure to Kilgrave. Malus’ abuse of Alisa’s body parallels Kigrave’s abuse of Jessica’s mind. What’s lacking in both cases is consent to this physical and psychological meddling, respectively, by men whose primary desire appears to be a kind of puppetry using other peoples’ bodies, the creation of living dolls. In both cases, the men involved are possessed by the delusion that their actions are supposedly motivated by something they refer to as love, but in fact are evidence of remote control. Malus – the hint is in the name – is a particular kind of creep whose unnerving smile and keenness to be seen to care suggests that his role as a false ally represents a bookend to Kilgrave’s abuse.
Jessica’s choice to remain by her mother’s side after the police open their manhunt might be viewed as a problematic survey of the parameters (and limits) of women’s solidarity as well as an exploration of women’s violent rage in the face of an oppressive system of control that stretches from the personal to the political and encompasses relationships across the board with male authority figures at multiple levels of encounter. As messy and melodramatic as the plotlines of Season 2 and Season 3 appear, they nevertheless serve the same set of questions as those posed in Season 1. These narrative twists and turns also slow down the investigation by detouring into a tangle of concerns involving violence perpetrated by women who have had violence inflicted on them. Is trauma an inescapable closed loop? Mom is eventually put down, not cured, by Jessica’s adoptive sister, Trish (Rachael Taylor), in a rather noirish finish set in an abandoned amusement park, a potentially ambiguous nod to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. In Season 3, this pattern of family melodrama repeats itself with a new variation on similar themes, pitting Jessica against Trish, who has gone bad after developing her own superpowers and turning into a dangerous vigilante (“Hellcat”). The difference between them is both personal and philosophical – Jessica ultimately insists on some higher, almost Kantean sense of the absoluteness of the rule of law despite her innate distrust of the police. But it’s also clear that she views Trish’s killing of her mother not as a mercy killing but as a murder. Jessica determines to incarcerate, not destroy, her sister, even if that means sending her to “The Raft,” a nightmarish prison for mutants that is not run according to the principle of the Categorical Imperative.
Jessica’s distinction between an abstract concept of law and the corruptible operations of police forces seems true to the world of noir, and, in Season 3, the noirish impulse of the series asserts itself in its selection of a non-“powered” villain (Gregory Salinger, played by Jeremy Bobb) who is a serial killer of the hyper-intelligent “superpredator” type more commonly seen on TV rather than in real life.
Meanwhile, the systematic and near-absolute distrust of institutions that acts as a post-Crash hallmark of the series is enlarged to include the police themselves, inducing troubling questions about the potential for successful reform from within by police officers. In Season 1, Jessica must save a young woman (Hope Schlottman [Erin Moriarty]) from being railroaded by the judicial system while an NYPD officer (Will Simpson [Will Traval]), temporarily under Kilgrave’s mind control, pursues Jessica and Trish. Kilgrave corners Jessica by connecting with Hope’s parents in a police station. Cop Will comes around to the side of the victims, but the series pointedly disallows its viewers trust in the man.
In Season 2, Trish becomes addicted to a potentially fatal cocktail of chemicals lefts over in Simpson’s focus-boosting inhaler, suggesting an overall breathable atmosphere poisoned by militarized police tactics and biomedical modifications, high-tech culture gone off the rails. This is arguably what Marvel does best across the board, recasting techno-progress as body horror and corporate medical research as mad science. Trish falls into the moral abyss of this Faustian bargain of unfettered power, cutting out the middleman of judicial processes by becoming judge, jury, and executioner of very bad men. This aligns her with the attitude of a vigilante who has given up on a hopelessly corrupt system, and plausibly reveals the process by which some people turn fascist, not in this case from opportunism or a lack of ethical convictions but rather through an excess of extreme moralizing. In Season 3, the “one good cop” figure is the recurring character of Eddy Costa (John Ventimiglia), whose ongoing “deal” and relationship of trust with Jessica first gets him in hot water, but then, later, results in his rehabilitation as a force for good within the force. Ambivalence about the police vys throughout the series with the need for narrative coherence along the lines of conventional melodrama, as does loyalty to a higher principle clash with the easy path of vigilantism. We need the police, Jessica seems to imply, even though we cannot trust them.
Jessica’s comments about lawyers in Season 1 – “scumbag henchmen for corporate America” – underline an anti-institutional position even more alienated, lonely, and suspicious as the type of crusading undertaken, say, by the women attorneys played by Glenn Close and Rose Byrne in Damages (2007-2012), who at least still operate using the legal system. But Jessica inhabits a similarly (and equally justified) paranoid sensibility: “A big part of the job is looking for the worst in people.” Call it the good paranoia. Jessica reveals hints about another side of her character when she sounds like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe (“My greatest weakness – occasionally I give a damn”). But overall her outlook in Season 1 is actually more redolent of Chinatown’s (1974) paranoid Chandleresque variations, in keeping with the comic book’s anti-everything 1970s vibes about the system. Season 2 changes this dynamic considerably by introducing what at first appears to be fatal flaw in Jessica’s emotional armor. By putting her mother first, she inverts, along gendered lines, a version of the “man alone” p.i. who provides the moral compass and the much of the commentary for a certain subset of film noir. Family – or at least mothering – or sistering, in Season 3 – reasserts itself as a gravitational force that pulls against one’s own autonomy as the primary location of one’s true loyalties. Here’s where the series melts down into a fascinating generic incoherence that exists in a curious gray area between the volatile but healthy paranoia of the so-called “women’s films” of the 1940s, the complex inheritance of its comic book film noir tropes, and the contemporary pantheon of superhero narratives based on extrajudicial mechanisms for punishment in a world lacking in justice.
Jessica’s neighborhood in Hell’s Kitchen is fashioned to resemble vigilante-themed 1970s films – the series overlaps with the Blaxploitation milieu of Jessica’s lover, the “unbreakable” African-American hero Luke Cage (Mike Colter), himself an ex-cop imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, who, after his release, must contend with a murderous “pig on the payroll” of the NYPD in his own Netflix series. In this Seventies-styled New York world of paranoia, trusting the system can be fatal. Luke Cage’s good cop, Misty Knight (Simone Missick), keeps the faith with official institutions even though she knows that the system is “broken.” Kingpin (aka Wilson Fisk, played by Vincent D’Onofrio), the villain in Daredevil, comments acerbically on the actions of the police: “Isn’t that what I pay them for?” Another decent cop in Daredevil remarks: “Ever seen Serpico? Honest cops are usually the ones who get shot in the face.”
Daredevil, like Luke Cage, was suspended from further production by Netflix, and The Defenders, which amalgamated these all of the New York City Marvel shows with Iron Fist, proved to be weak tea, dulling the blade of Jessica’s wit and relegating her to a supporting role in a “team” setting where she clearly did not belong. Jessica Jones survived this ruthless cull of martial arts-focused “algo-shows” more clearly designed for adolescent male consumption. Cage makes a pleasing reappearance at the end of Season 3 of Jessica Jones, suggesting a recurring role in Jessica’s world. But the reason why her eponymous series has lasted longer than any of the others set in the same city arguably involves an audience preference for a complex women lead whose gravitation away from conventional family structures bring her into alignment with a career traditionally associated with the perennial solitude of tough guys.
Another interesting sidebar to note here involves the differences between strong female investigator protagonists or characters in television on either side of the Atlantic. In the British cultural context of BBC-funded shows about female cops, the fundamental axes of these narratives about women sleuths are markedly different than in the American Marvel series, with their absolute distrust of authority and officialdom. As Louise A. Jackson notes in her social history of the Women Police Branch, women police officers act as “flexible, tough, and feminine” extensions of State power in the “penal welfare state,” looking after but also patrolling troubled and victimized women and children (207). In Broadchurch (2013-2017), for example, Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), inhabits the effective but traditional role of a female subordinate connected with the “softer” aspects of police work that make her both indispensable and vulnerable. Both Top of the Lake (set in New Zealand and BBC funded) and the American version of The Killing – modeled after the Danish State television (DR) production Forbrydelsen (2007-2012) – suggest that this double-edged dynamic endemic to policewomen characters remains plausible in a global context.
Jessica is different. She’s “not normal” – literally, as a mutant with “powers,” and metaphorically, in her outlier status as a downmarket investigator working with a privatized paranoia of State law enforcement. Emily Nussbaum’s 2015 New Yorker essay “Graphic, Novel: ‘Marvel’s Jessica Jones’ and the Superhero Survivor,” contextualizes the show’s innovations:
…in the world of Marvel Comics, a female antihero—a female anything – is a step forward. But a rape survivor, struggling with P.T.S.D., is a genuine leap. While the fact that “Jessica Jones” is Marvel’s first TV franchise starring a superpowered woman – and that it was created by a female showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg – amounts to a pretty limited sort of artistic progress, the show doesn’t need to be perfect in order to deepen the debate.
Jessica Jones offers a riposte not only to Marvel’s big-screen blockbusters but also to the popular myth that the strength of 21st century television coheres in male creators and “unhappy, morally compromised, complicated” protagonists who fall into the category of “difficult men,” as Brett Martin dubbed them in his account of the “creative revolution” in “the signature art form of the 21st century” (2). Increasingly, Martin’s dated cable guys are only one part of a much larger story. It’s tempting to view Jessica Jones as part of a wider shift in the digital media landscape of “post-cinema” that is rapidly evolving beyond traditional categories for spectators in the second decade of the 21st century. Commercial convergences – quantifiable demand for “Crime Shows with a Strong Female Lead” – surely provided an algorithmic justification for Netflix to stream (rather than broadcast or project) Jessica Jones’ hybrid of superhero franchise and women-focused detective series.
The deeper mythologies underlying these narratives are complex and not especially precise, but these overlapping tensions between various mixed genres and mixed messages is intriguing in and of itself. At the level of production, the exigencies of “post-cinema” – the world of digital entertainment culture on streaming apps – allowed for Rosenberg not only to act as Creator, producer, and showrunner on Jessica Jones, but also to execute her progressive program of hiring an all-women/only-women set of directors and writers for each individual episode of Season 2. Season 3 drifts away from this pointedly programmatic approach but preserves relatively parity, while also providing Ritter with a Director’s role on Episode 2 (“AKA You’re Welcome”).
What the viewer gleans from the narrative in all three Seasons, on the other hand, is constrained by commercial considerations endemic to Netflix’s production system as well as by a libertarian drift that aligns the detective genre with the superhero picture and the Western to emphasize mythical American conceptions of vigilantism and individual autonomy. Ironically enough, it’s the villain of one of these Marvel Netflix series, Fisk in Daredevil, who pinpoints the problem of the vigilante “ideology,” as he calls it. As a lawyer by day and vigilante at night, Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) is particularly exposed to this critique. Fisk scoffs at the idea that “one man” thinks he can “make a difference.”
Fisk’s jab is a weirdly resonant counterclaim to the mythologies omnipresent in popular American genre pictures. This Lone Ranger mythology – the most troubling aspect of the culture industry’s obsession with superheroes in a world where faith in the rule of law has collapsed – has a radioactive core. It denies the possibility of a shared future shaped by solidarity or any type of collective political activity, instead channeling the viewer’s rage into narratives about impending emergencies and potential catastrophes that leave one with no time to enlist any structural changes in society. In fact, this is the logic of giving up on the realm of the political in the widest possible sense, or, rather, of replacing politics with individual acts of heroism that will save the world (for the moment, at least until the next disaster). It’s the worldview of self-identified saviors who are often dangerously narcissistic. Things are so dire, these figures believe, that extrajudicial action is required to set the world to rights, and “I alone” am the person who can save us, because, after all “I” am always the person wearing the white hat and the mask. In a real sense, this represents an abandonment of collective politics and its replacement by individual acts of violence. It is precisely this reactionary dynamic that is so clearly rejected by the end of Season 3, in Jessica’s rejection of this kind of rhetoric from the Hellcat-ized Trish.
So Jessica Jones complicates the mythologies embedded in its subgenre in a few intriguing ways, leaving the viewer with more questions than answers. In Season 2, Jessica’s choice to remain at her mother’s side an act of solidarity against patriarchal control, or is it a deceptive trap that replaces loyalty to one’s work with loyalty to one’s family? Or is Jessica’s decision a far more interesting choice between two terrible alternatives – letting her mom die alone or turning her in to the police? Perhaps her compassion for this traumatized and violent loved one created by the capitalist biomedical tech industry has exceeded her “ideology” of becoming a solitary person surviving within that system. Is solidarity as important as survival? Maybe we make a difference not by saving the world ourselves but through little networks of solidarity with those who are outcast and damaged, attempting to locate a place where we might heal or die in peace outside of policed institutional settings? Or is that, too, an illusion manufactured by our consumption of melodramas about loyalty to family, to private investigations and individual autonomy, and to a gig economy based entirely on work for hire? Jessica’s decisions in Season 2 and Season 3 respond to these questions about her biological mother and her adoptive sister in intriguingly different ways, leaving the viewer with the overall impression of pleasingly unresolved ambiguity endemic to television melodramas that seem to contain a multitude of contradictions while exploring a variety of hot-button issues.
In posing a vital question in the opening of her book One Dimensional Woman – “where have all the interesting women gone?”- Nina Power’s critique of the consumerism of some contemporary feminist discourse is grounded in “the conviction women and men have the inherent ability to something other than one-dimensional” (1). Jessica Jones presents an intriguing case study vis-a-vis Power’s book insofar as it presents women characters fashioned by women creators who are very interesting indeed. Part of their interest lies in their refreshingly multidimensional inability to present themselves or conceive of themselves as symbols of any one thing. By Power’s lights, the show also contains its fair share of critique regarding what she calls “Feminist™ woman,” a nausea expressed towards the vision of she who gets “the nicest shoes and the chocolatiest sex”(30). As an alternative protagonist from typical fare, Jessica lives to mock consumerist ideals of Woman from her jaded, depressed, and alcoholic cloud of knowing. Her mother’s uncontrollable and unacceptable violence is another blow aimed against nice normality.
Yet it’s also the case that after her mother is killed by Trish near the end of Season 2, Jessica joins the family dinner table of the decent, hunky ex-con Latino super, Oscar Arocho (J. R. Ramirez), where he and his daughter have laid the trap of a melodramatic redemption narrative conclusion involving romance and the potential for literal or metaphorical adoption. The death of her own mother gives way to a possibility of mothering in Jessica’s life, an ending that rings false and highlights the incoherent demands of commercial entertainment in denying radical outcomes. This false note is one that Season 3, after the classic mode of old school television melodrama, “resolves” by simply choosing to ignore. There’s a leap in time. Jessica and Oscar are very simply no longer together. The breakup isn’t explained in any detail, but feels true to Jessica’s more basic programming as a woman alone whose life seems defined by a series of failed attempts to connect along the lines demanded by society. While the decision to dump Oscar from the picture of Season 3 reveals the shaky narrative construction of this plotline in Season 2, his abrupt dismissal from the plot suggests the creator’s awareness of the traps of domesticity, as well as a certain pleasing disaffection from the siren-song of a perfect world in which family and career align. Jessica’s fate remains more interesting and complicated than Power’s nightmare “model of contemporary womanhood”: “They want shoes and chocolate and handbags and babies and curling tongs washed down with a large glass of white wine and a complaint about their job/men/friends…” (Power, 30). Fortunately, Jessica’s combat boots, whiskey nights, and tendencies towards solitude cannot be shucked so easily.
Before it was made available for streaming, I had thought that Oscar’s obliteration or reincarceration might be in the works for Season 3, since the ending of Season 2 provided such a dead-end to the show’s core themes. But while Season 3 shied away from any such radical outcomes, its solution to the problem it created for itself returned Jessica to her baseline point of stasis as a character in an open-ended serial melodrama redolent of “old” network television, with all of the limitations encoded within that particular commercial narrative structure. By making Oscar disappear for all practical purposes, and shifting focus back to Trish, the show continued to explore what happens to its protagonist when family ties tangle the lines of the subgenres that seem to locate Jessica Jones within the mixed messages designed to provide succor to women audiences while also often delivering repressive outcomes to characters who pursue enterprises outside of the family. Meanwhile, in Season 3, Jessica acquires a new lover as a replacement for Oscar. Erik Gelden (Benjamin Walker) is an empath who gets migraines whenever he’s around someone evil, and his best relief from the brain-anguish of his peculiar superpower takes the form of providing Jessica with orgasms. In narrative terms, Gelden’s lack of interest in domineering self-pleasure also nicely prevents him from getting in the way of the primary drama between Jessica and Trish. It’s the women who differ on how to deal with men like Salinger who are characterized in terms of their absolute inability to empathize and their total incapacity for rehabilitation. Trish presents the view that those who cannot be redeemed should be eliminated. But Jessica ultimately rejects the premise that it is her own role – or that of anyone else – to take such decisions on her own, entirely separate from the machinery of the legal system, despite its fallible, damaged, and corrupted realities.
Jessica Jones is still “TV” in the larger sense of its confused loyalties, even if “television” is now doing business in the post-cinema era as Netflix. It’s intriguing to note how much of Netflix’s original American content conveys a suspicion of institutional authority in general and the police in particular built into its corporate DNA, displayed not only in its Marvel series but also in documentaries such as Wormwood, Making a Murderer, and The Staircase. In this matrix of interpretation, the state operates as a force that’s indifferent and incompetent, at best, and actively malevolent, at worst. Private life off the radar of official agencies is regarded as a safety measure if not a matter of survival. But such islands of isolation are also revealed to be impossible on a fundamental level, at least for Jessica.
This almost total lack of trust in the efficacy or intentions of the state – a very American, very 1970s sensibility based on privatized paranoia and the sensibility of hiding out from the prying eyes of the authorities – exists at the tipping point at which the concerns of the libertarians and anarchists regarding “the system” meld and blur. Is this a kind of political radicalism or simply the disguised mindset of private enterprise? Netflix’s algorithms have tapped into a rich vein here that’s not only good for business but also a distinctive market from the PG-rated concerns of the multiplex. If many of these shows too often feed an apolitical drift that encourages a retreat from the public sphere and serves to further undermine the already broken institutions that despairing critics across the spectrum agree are beyond repair or reform, they also tend to amplify without skepticism a larger zeitgeist of fear-based discourses about systemic collapse, global catastrophism, and individual psychological implosion that contemporary audiences find resonant and compelling, particularly on the smaller screen. But, as Power notes, “we don’t have to believe the TV shows” (1). Jessica Jones, for all of its clashing commitments, is a show that pleasingly refracts at least some of this skepticism about the values of its own industry.
Martin, Brett, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Penguin, 2013.
Nussbaum, Emily, “Graphic, Novel: ‘Marvel’s Jessica Jones’ and the Superhero Survivor,” The New Yorker, December 21/28, 2015.
Power, Nina, One Dimensional Woman, O Books, 2009.