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Nine times out of ten, a gumshoe blessed with super strength, the power of flight, a hair trigger temper and a stare icy enough to make glaciers look hospitable probably doesn’t need protection. That one other time, though, the hard-nosed detective is stalked by an equally gifted person with even worse anger management problems.
In its second season, the contrast between the title character (Krysten Ritter) and her antagonist is the core of “Jessica Jones,” the best of Netflix’s Marvel Cinematic Universe series. Having adapted the character’s major storyline from page to screen, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg has composed an original storyline focused largely on Jessica’s struggle with her identity after killing her rapist, the mind-controlling sadist Kilgrave (David Tennant), in Season One, avenging herself and his other victims.
Taking life takes a major toll on Jessica, even though it was for moral reasons. Worse, it’s begun to influence people around her. When you can lift a refrigerator like a cardboard box or put your fist through the hood of a car, people tend to want and expect things from you. They also assume that being strong on the outside means being strong on the inside.
That’s one of the focal points in Season Two: The mental toll superheroism takes on superheroes, and how super status complicates spiritual healing. Instead of being about power, it’s about the consequences of power. Consider the first episode, where Jessica spies on a two-timing boyfriend and brings the evidence back to his spurned significant other. Furious, the woman tries to pay Jessica to knock off her cheating beau on the spot, her logic being that since Jessica killed Kilgrave, she should be OK with killing other people, too. Faced with that perception, Jessica is first enraged, then shaken. She isn’t a murderer. She tells her client as much, and later, she tells herself the same: “That’s not me.”
The phrase should be her mantra. “Jessica Jones” does orbit around a central villain, revealed in bits and pieces early in its progression, but, in keeping with Season One, the real conflict is within Jessica. As she recovers from her ordeal with Kilgrave, she endures new ones, and she’s stymied at every turn as she tries to get back to something close to normalcy.
Grant that “normalcy” for Jessica involves denial, found in either the bottom of a whisky bottle or meaningless carnal encounters in grimy bathroom stalls, but the world doesn’t make her life easy: Her new apartment super, Oscar (J.R. Ramirez), has a grudge against her because she has powers; a risk management firm run by Pryce Cheng (Terry Chen) wants to absorb her business to avoid competition; and Trish (Rachael Taylor), her best friend and frequent sidekick, is overeager to bring the shady corporation responsible for experimenting on Jessica as a child to justice. (Jessica, unsurprisingly, is less enthused to face her past.)
Oh, and someone (or something) is prowling New York City’s streets and bumping off gifted folks, too, leaving Jessica and the audience wondering who’s looking out for superheroes when they can’t look out for themselves. (There’s a minor if unintended “Watchmen” element at play here that suits the show’s hard-boiled aesthetic nicely.) “Jessica Jones” shrouds its Season Two heavy (played by Janet McTeer) in mystery while holding her up as a mirror for Jessica, adding a final wrinkle to the season’s mosaic of trauma. It’s a bit too much, for Jessica and for the series. Rosenberg and her writing team pile on enough inconveniences and secondary characters that the story begins buckling just a few episodes in. Jessica’s journey of self-reflection is dramatic enough without excess turmoil, after all.
But as messy as the season may be, its jumbled components coalesce under the umbrella of Jessica’s persona. As in Season One, the most important element of “Jessica Jones” is Jessica. It doesn’t necessarily matter that the narrative is strung together from seemingly disparate threads, or that pitting Jessica against her evil twin toes the line of cliché. As long as this character-driven show hangs its countless plot details on its cast, and particularly on Ritter's stellar lead performance, it works better than similar far could hope to.
Given less room for sarcastic one-liners and more room for introspection, Ritter alternates between maintaining her aloof composure and falling apart on screen. You wouldn’t want to get into a fist fight with her, but the more she reveals the cracks in Jessica’s psyche, the more ballast she gives the series. The closer she gets to the truth of her origins, the more she questions her sense of self. That question looms over “Jessica Jones” and its heroine, and the search for an answer is its most distinct pleasure.
The second season of "Jessica Jones" starts streaming on Netflix on Thursday, March 8.
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