In the first episode of Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix) its titular cranky heroine says the girl she is tracking is ‘either an idiot in love or she’s being conned – which amount to pretty much the same thing.’ The series then grabs ahold of this sentiment and runs with it. In fact you could say that it follows the course of its tremendous opening theme-tune: plinky-plonky noir then all hell breaks loose.
Jessica Jones (the almost disconcertingly large-eyed Krysten Ritter) is a hard-drinking super-powered private eye and pessimist – the world would be a happier place if all pessimists could hurl people who piss them off through windows. Not that Jessica is purely a thug, she has her own morality, and she possesses the true misanthrope’s sympathy for the rest of the world: we’re all in the struggle together, so let’s try to get through it. It is refreshing to watch a programme that not only isn’t about romance at all but where the protagonist’s love interest barely makes it above the level of fuck buddy. Also refreshing, or perhaps thirst-inducing, is a female character who likes a drink and doesn’t want to change her behaviour – surely she would also smoke, but I guess that would be a step too far.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Ritter’s characterisation of Jones: in a ‘superhero show’ practically devoid of special effects and where the choreographed fight scenes are little more than a woman shrugging off as many blows as possible, giving a performance that’s as interesting as any action is paramount. Ritter pulls this off in spades by giving us a character that is simultaneously infuriating, amusing, cool, sexy, ill-tempered, wry, and smart. It’s enough to drive one to watch Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23.
This might be a Marvel programme but it isn’t just Agent Carter in modern dress, this is part of the dark grittier world occupied by Daredevil, which aired on Netflix earlier this year. And like that show – but with less ninjas – no one comes out much the better on the other side. Also like Daredevil, it possesses a strangely compelling villain: but whereas Matt Murdock had Wilson Fisk, Jones has Kilgrave – and it’s much easier to sympathise with a murdering crime boss than it is a mind-controlling rapist.
All of the drama rests on the tension – coiled like the grimiest of rusty springs at the bottom of a junk yard – between Ritter and David Tennant’s Kilgrave. Granting that they both deliver excellent, nuanced takes on the role of, and relationship between, hero and villain, it’s asking a lot of an audience to accept all of these shades of grey. Shouldn’t Jessica just be in counselling, talking through her feelings, not charging through the streets looking for justice? How can we laugh at Kilgrave’s essentially childlike awfulness knowing what he’s done? And, incidentally, why is it that, as a society, we are more comfortable with murder than rape?
This is the deadly cocktail Jessica Jones mixes for our delectation and somehow it sips well. Because, in the end, she snaps his neck. Kilgrave is pitiable, but not so much that we feel sympathy for his fate. Jessica isn’t a rape victim, she’s someone who was raped and has the power and tenacity to try and do something about it. She is a champion of the hopeless: we can all go on, through the struggle together and try to carry on – and if the world gives us no thanks for that then we can carry on drinking.
It’s been a fallow year for drama and, I wonder, is Jessica Jones the programme of the year? Quite possible and closely followed, I would hazard, by Daredevil. Indeed, Netflix has provided all of the most pleasurable viewing this year: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Grace and Frankie, Master of None, and even the slow-starting third series of House of Cards, not to mention the quiet genius of Better Call Saul. In 2016, traditional media has a lot of catching up to do.