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The Delayed but Welcome Return of ‘Jessica Jones’

Netflix shelved the Marvel series for nearly two and a half years after its first season, which gave showrunner Melissa Rosenberg an opportunity to deliver a second season that’s more complex and more complete   

Jessica Jones Netflix/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

When Marvel’s Jessica Jones dropped its first season on Netflix in November 2015, the world was, to put it mildly, different. Barack Obama was still president. Donald Trump was seven months removed from announcing his candidacy via golden escalator. Kevin Durant was playing his last season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Netflix had 27 new TV series on the docket for the year—compared with 71 original shows last year, with the number expected to rise exponentially in 2018.

Jessica Jones was put on the shelf for roughly two and a half years to make way for its Marvel-Netflix contemporaries—Daredevil Season 2, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, The Punisher, and The Defenders, an Avengersesque ensemble series that Jessica Jones was a part of. At times, especially when Iron Fist was flailing, Jessica Jones’s absence was magnified. It returns with the Marvel-Netflix experiment in a worst state than it was when Season 1 was released, but showrunner Melissa Rosenberg saw the extended break as an opportunity for the show. “We were able to write all 13 episodes before the camera started rolling,” she told The Ringer. “So we had these very complete, 13 hours of storytelling that we went over and over and over again. The season is very much a 13-hour movie in a way that the first season wasn’t as able to be.”

The change in storytelling strategy seems to have paid off—for viewers who have the patience. Season 2, which finally arrived March 8, is a slow, introspective burn, burrowing deeper into the psyche of Jessica (played by a still-terrific Krysten Ritter), the origin of her powers, the endless toil of addiction, trauma and survivor’s guilt, and—to plagiarize Uncle Ben for a minute—what responsibilities a superhero like Jessica has to herself and the people around her.

“We know what the world is,” Rosenberg says of Season 2. “[Now] we’re really able to just expand and to push into some much more edgy places.” Beneath Jessica’s crass, seemingly apathetic veneer is a compelling superhero, and despite the longer-than-usual hiatus, Jessica Jones remains the standard for Marvel-Netflix television.

Season 2 begins post-Defenders as Jessica reconciles with her past, specifically with IGH, the shadowy corporation responsible for her superpowers after a near-fatal car accident that killed the rest of her family. Jessica likely wouldn’t have survived the ordeal without IGH’s illegal experimentation, but she remembers only fragments of that traumatic past. As Jessica’s best friend and radio personality, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), investigates IGH by means of #journalism, those affiliated with the facility—including other experimented persons with abilities—are hunted down and killed by a mysterious new adversary, played by two-time Oscar-nominated, Tony Award–winning actress Janet McTeer.

The presence of a prestige actress like McTeer in Jessica Jones—as a vague, unnamed character, no less—is a tell that the series is playing coy with the character’s true nature. And when her identity is revealed at the end of the sixth episode, it’s quite shocking: McTeer is Alisa Campbell Jones, Jessica’s presumably deceased mother. Alisa’s violent behavior is the result of IGH’s experimentation after the car accident left her in even worse condition than Jessica. Her emotional outbursts are Hulklike in nature, and anyone that isn’t Jessica or IGH scientist Karl Malus (Callum Keith Rennie) is susceptible to being pulverised by her superpowers.

It’s with this reveal that Season 2 of Jessica Jones transforms into something rarely seen in the superhero genre: The traditional notions of a hero and villain are washed away and replaced by a mother-daughter dynamic beset with trauma and uncontrollable rage. Even the evil-scientist trope is dispelled by Malus, a pot-smoking geneticist with a real affection for Alisa and a sincere desire to solve her unstoppable anger. Everything is painted in gray, rather than black and white. And instead of showdowns in hallways or man-made caverns, Jones and Alisa do a lot of talking on the moral implications of both of their actions and on how—or whether—either of them can be redeemed. The season finale replaces an archetypal showdown with a genuine implication that Jessica and Alisa might just leave the whole New York superhero life behind—a complete departure from the methods of series like Iron Fist or Daredevil.

The time off allowed Rosenberg and her team to mine the depths of their characters, home in on the themes of the first season, and find new avenues for them to explore. What they came up with was quite prescient. In retrospect, the Season 1 arc of the villain Kilgrave (David Tennant) foretold the #MeToo movement in Hollywood: the overthrow of a man who derived his power from coercing primarily women. In Season 2, that theme is explored in different ways. Trish, who was once a prolific child star like Shirley Temple or the Olsen twins, confronts a director who raped her in exchange for a part in his movie when she was a teen. As Rosenberg stresses, this was written into the script long before #MeToo came to the fore, and it speaks to a larger universal truth about the female experience. “This has been going on for centuries,” she says. “While the floodgates have opened with the #MeToo movement, we’ve all been fighting that fight and telling those stories for many, many, many years. This is such a wonderful way to continue the conversation, but the conversation didn’t just start. Many of us have been having it for a long time. More people are listening now.”

The Trish story line introduced at the onset of Season 2 carries a first half that, at times, hits a rut. The second season finds its footing once the Jessica-Alisa relationship is fleshed out, but in the process, it achieves what no other Marvel-Netflix show has before: The story improves with time, rather than deteriorating. Luke Cage never got its groove back after Cottonmouth (pre-Oscar Mahershala Ali) was killed off at the end the sixth episode. Daredevil Season 2 made so much noise introducing the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), but once he was sidelined after four episodes, the season lost its momentum. The Defenders and Iron Fist, meanwhile, weren’t even good to begin with. If the Marvel-Netflix universe was close to hitting the panic button, Jessica Jones Season 2 was a welcome reprieve of quality storytelling. All it, and Rosenberg, needed was a bit more time. “[With extra time], you can find this interconnectedness and take characters deeper, and hone and re-hone them,” she says.

“Season 1 was very much about building the world and the characters,” Rosenberg says, but Season 2 is about careful and constant evolution. In that way, Jessica Jones stands out from its Marvel peers. Women like Jessica, Trish, Alisa, and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) subvert traditional archetypes in a way that remains dynamic and refreshing. Jeri—diagnosed with ALS and being pushed out of her own company—stalks her law offices and chic apartment like a vengeful Don Draper with nothing to lose. Alisa is consumed by rage and brute force, perhaps the most imposing physical presence the Marvel-Netflix television universe has seen. Trish transforms from a sidekick into an antihero and potential Season 3 foil, her relationship with Jessica irrevocably changed by season’s end.

Like any good sequel, Jessica Jones’s second season offers some resolutions for its overarching story lines—Alisa’s fate, IGH’s experimentation, Jessica developing a new romantic relationship—while building new ideas to explore going forward. The wait for another season may have felt interminable for fans of the show, but as it turns out, it was worth it.