Juno plus Lolita.
We live in a time that’s filled to the brim with fictional things exploding. Those endless kabooms aren’t limited to the cinematic universes of DC and Marvel, not by a long shot, but watching superpowered people blow things up has become something of an international pastime. It can be a lovely change of pace, then, to watch our heroes slow things up a bit, to meander, to reflect, even to stew. A moodier, quieter superhero tale sounds mighty appealing, and so does a second season of “Jessica Jones.” It is my solemn duty to inform you that Netflix is about to give us both at once, and the results are less enthralling that you might expect.
That’s not to say that the results are poor. Far from it. But as Melissa Rosenberg’s series returns for its long-anticipated second lap, it’s hard to ignore that the pace is flagging a bit. In the five episodes released to critics, Jessica (the excellent Krysten Ritter) gets put through the wringer. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she stays stuck in the wringer, a place she’s evidently called home for years, and which the destruction of Kilgrave (David Tennant) did not change. She’s stuck, and in these five episodes, she grudgingly attempts to get unstuck by confronting the demons of her past, mostly metaphorically. It’s compelling stuff, centered on a remarkable performance from Ritter, but when compared to the taut, often thrilling, and deeply upsetting start to the show’s excellent inaugural season, it’s hard not to wish for more.
It’s likely that such a wish will be granted, because what these episodes lack in forward momentum, they make up for in ever-mounting tension. Much of that tension comes courtesy of Janet McTeer, who plays an as-yet unnamed character of terrible, mostly silent menace. That silence, combined with the show’s slow pace, means that there’s little to be said about McTeer’s role thus far, other than that she vibrates like a piano wire pulled just a little too tight. The deliberate narrative restraint has an upside, as McTeer’s oddly blank performance makes for a genuinely gripping canvas, but there’s a downside as well: five episodes in, I still have no real idea what’s going on, other than that there’s a mystery Jessica needs to solve, and McTeer’s malevolent force may have some answers.
If McTeer’s unnamed villain could use some extra definition, the opposite is true of Rachael Taylor’s Trish Walker. Perhaps the show’s writers became concerned that Trish was underused in the first season. Perhaps the ultimate direction of this season depends on Trish being navigated to a particularly vulnerable place. Perhaps they simply wanted to make room for a subplot (involving a film Trish made as a kid) that feels particularly relevant at the moment. Whatever the reason, the second season of “Jessica Jones” gives Trish (and Taylor) an oddly full plate. Each of her throughlines is reasonably well-executed, give or take one revisited story from the first season, but they don’t coalesce in the way they should. The effect is overwhelming, but it’s not merely Trish that begins to collapse—the same is true of every episode in which two or more of these storylines converge.
Whatever lack of clarity or meandering pace the show might display, there’s one element that remains both fiendishly sharp and crystal clear, and that’s Jessica’s experience, brought expertly to life by Krysten Ritter. If anything, Ritter’s understanding of Jessica seems to have deepened in her time away (and her time as the most compelling element of “The Defenders.”) Jessica’s barbs are as splendidly, acidly delivered as ever, even if they come as less of a surprise, and her timing remains impeccable. But it’s in Jessica’s struggle to confront her new reality—she’s a killer, no matter how justified—while running from her past that Ritter really excels. From the season’s earliest moment, Ritter makes it clear how much harder all these old tricks are to perform. The booze and bad choices remain, but they’re clutched at more desperately and their effects are far less likely to linger.
Ritter’s a good actor, and so is Jessica Jones, but Ritter allows us to glimpse just enough of what’s behind Jessica’s hardened mask to see a woman who’s drowning and not even looking for land. Ritter doesn’t create this depth on her own, however. The writers and directors of this season of Jessica Jones—a group that’s predominantly female—seem particularly interested in Jessica’s trauma, her progress, her past, her weak spots, her fears, her self-loathing, her autonomy.
When that’s the focus, the show soars. There’s a particularly effective scene in the fifth episode, “AKA The Octopus,” when what Jessica assumes will be a sneering confrontation becomes a vulnerable and quietly moving moment of gratitude from one Kilgrave survivor to another. In sequences like that one, Ritter’s performance is so good that little else matters. Her mostly silent reaction to this slightly choked moment of connection is a complex cocktail. Shock flits across her face, followed by shame and sympathy, all before this reckless, detached woman silently accepts the metaphorical hand outstretched. Ritter’s performance is so good, and the show’s understanding of both her skills and of Jessica’s complexity so pronounced, that little else is needed: not a villain, not a fight scene, no casual sex or hard-drinking required.
The good news is that in these five episodes, moments like those are plentiful. Not all of them belong to Ritter, either, though she’s the obvious MVP. Carrie-Anne Moss remains a master of the cutting one-liner, but as Jeri Hogarth confronts a new reality, choices as simple as how and when Moss wrings her hands can speak volumes. As Jessica’s neighbor-turned-employee Malcolm, Eka Darville gives a performance of boundless, but understated, empathy. Despite her strangely overcrowded slate, Rachael Taylor’s Trish Walker remains a worthy foil for Jessica, and while the frustrating opacity of her role makes the subtleties a bit harder to notice, McTeer’s performance is rich with small, arresting vocal and physical choices.
It’s entirely possible that the first five episodes of “Jessica Jones” will click into sharper focus when the season’s overall direction becomes clear. Perhaps episode six is what brings it all together. Regardless, two things will remain true. The first is that even a slow, somewhat meandering “Jessica Jones” offers a central character as compelling as nearly any other on television, male or female. The second is that, unless you’re “The Wire,” five episodes is too long a wait for the pieces to start to come together. “Jessica Jones,” like its protagonist, can’t be called simply good or bad. It’s messier, stranger, and far more complicated than that. And that’s a good thing, flaws and all.
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