After finishing the first season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones this weekend, I can tell you two big reasons why I enjoyed it so much:
- It features a host of tough, witty women in leading roles. It totally reminds me of Lost Girl and Gilmore Girls in that respect. Jessica Jones and her best friend Trish Walker are the main female leads in the show, but there are several other women in important roles — some victims, some villains, all surprisingly unpredictable.
- Jessica Jones is way more private eye than superhero. Though she uses her powers a few times — more and more as the show progresses, I’d say — she spends more time tracking down the villain through investigation.
If you’re looking for tons of well-scripted fight scenes (like that amazing long shot hallway fight in Daredevil), this isn’t the show for you. If you want an optimistic show about heroes who always fight for good, this isn’t the show for you.
What Jessica Jones does well is create a noir-like atmosphere and story with gender role reversal. And it just happens to feature some superheroes.
The Private Eye and the “Femme” Fatale
Noir traditionally features an isolated anti-hero — and that’s exactly who Jessica Jones is. The only real difference from most noir (circa 60 years ago) is that she’s a woman instead of a man. However, she’s as much of a jaded loner as any male noir protagonist ever was. She even nurses a drinking problem. Specifically, she’s paranoid from her experience with the show’s villain, Kilgrave.
With the ability to control minds, Kilgrave can command people to do whatever he says — and what’s worse, he actually makes them want to do those things. He dated Jones in the past and controlled her to the point where she murdered a woman on his command. Jones views her entire relationship with him as rape, and now she’s terrified that he will come back to control her. She can’t trust anyone in case Kilgrave is commanding them, too.
In another gender reversal, Kilgrave is the femme fatale of this story. He uses his charm to seduce people, then uses his powers to force their hands. Just as the traditional femme fatale in noir puts on a pretty face to get what she wants, Kilgrave pretends to be a charismatic, wealthy gentleman as he commands people to do his bidding. He makes men give him their expensive jackets, steals money in poker games, and forces the smiles (and other charms) of women he encounters.
Kilgrave is at first a shadowy figure. In the first few episodes, he is only seen briefly in flashbacks; he’s more of a ghost in Jones’ mind than anything tangible. That makes him all the more terrifying. When he finally makes a long appearance, we see how two-faced he is. That’s pretty typical of femme fatales. We also see what made him that way, including a pretty messed-up childhood that almost makes you feel sorry for him.
What’s more, his entire motivation in chasing down Jones is that he believes she is special because of her powers, and that makes her his one true love. He may seem like he cares about her, even to the point of not commanding her (like that’s some sort of gift to her)… yet at the same time he threatens Jones by ordering the servants to tear each other’s faces off if she doesn’t do what he wants, for example. He plays with people like toys and uses them for his darker purposes, even if that’s a twisted version of “love.” It’s an abusive, controlling relationship portrayed with the added novelty and danger of superpowers, but the underlying emotions are all bitterly real.
All of this leads Jones to feel like “a piece of shit,” as she calls herself. Like many anti-heroes, she beats herself up, whether she’s doing good or giving in to her own personal sins. While she knows she is not responsible for the death of the woman she killed under Kilgrave’s commands, she feels guilt over it. She hides it from the woman’s now-widowed husband (Luke Cage), even after she starts sleeping with him. She’s afraid of what people will think of her. She arguably feels much worse about the fact that Kilgrave is using people to get to her and doesn’t care about the body count he racks up along the way.
All of this contributes to her alienation from everyone. She can hide her superpowers to act like someone “normal,” but after her experiences with Kilgrave, she distances herself from people so they don’t get hurt from him.
The Corrupted Police
The show also plays with the noir trope of the corrupted police. Officer Simpson shows up at the house of Jessica’s best friend Trish and tries to kill her. He’s under Kilgrave’s spell. To stop Simpson from accomplishing his mission, Jones has to give Trish a sedative to trick Simpson into thinking he killed her.
Although Simpson later becomes a force for good as he tries to help Trish and Jones, he always wants to murder Kilgrave instead of capture him. This puts him at odds with Trish and Jones much of the time, since Jones wants him alive.
Later, Simpson starts taking military combat drugs and becomes an unbearable mess who gets into a fistfight with Jessica and Trish. Though this is a plot twist many didn’t enjoy, at least it continued to play with the idea of the corrupted cop in new ways.
A Dark Tone
Noir isn’t afraid to be pessimistic, and the tone of Jessica Jones is definitely dark — all the way to the very last scene. I’ve heard complaints about the show being too dark; the last shot shows Jones ignoring phone calls from people who need her and sounding as tired and bitter as when the season started. But that’s exactly what makes this show less superhero (where a happy, heroic ending would be assumed) and more noir. It’s exactly what I like about it.
The show isn’t afraid to mock the superhero tropes a little bit, too — just like Jones would. When Trish tries to help her pick a superhero costume, Jones laughs off her suggestions and calls one of Trish’s name ideas, Jewel, a stripper name. There’s also a funny scene in which Jones, clad in a sandwich costume to advertise for a restaurant, stops a car from hitting a pedestrian. It’s her superhero moment, but instead of a skintight costume and cape, she’s dressed as a hoagie.
This isn’t a show about gaining glory for your heroism. Jones cares about people, a lot, but she’s never soft with them and she never asks for attention. While there are clear references to the Avengers, Jones wants nothing to do with that. At the end of the season, she pushes people away just as she always did, and the mood of the story never quite brightens. For Jones, there will always be more shit to deal with.
There are several other key characters in the show who don’t quite fit the noir tropes as well as the rest. Maybe you could argue that Trish — one of the toughest yet most vulnerable characters, and the only one Jones loves — is something like a reporter looking for a story.
Meanwhile, Luke Cage plays the boy-next-door love interest… though as a fellow super-powered individual who has also lost his wife and been victim to Kilgrave, he’s much more than just that. He’s getting his own show next year, which I’m excited about.
Jones’ junkie neighbor who turns out to be a spy is also a Kilgrave victim, and he proves to be one of her most loyal sidekicks after she is able to redeem him.
I could write individual posts just about those characters. That’s how good Jessica Jones is. There are so many angles from which to analyze and enjoy this show. It’s far from perfect — a few episodes in the middle to end area slow way down in pacing and become a little too melodramatic, in my opinion. But by focusing on Jones’ emotional turmoil, flaws, and personal relationship with the villain, the show is very engaging throughout.
Overall, it reminds me of noir with a feminist, modern-day, superhero twist.
4 thoughts on “Noir Turned Upside-Down in “Jessica Jones””
Great write-up. I finished this over the weekend. I was drawn to this show because of the whole thing you point out here of Jessica Jones being more private eye than superhero. It seemed like a cool twist on a show about someone with superpowers to have those superpowers sort of take a backseat. Plus I love private eye stuff. Kilgrave was such a creepy villain too. And they really nailed the noir vibe. Even with the music. I hadn’t really thought of how all the characters fit into these classic roles. That is a neat detail. Very cool show.
Yeah, I hadn’t even thought about the music but that’s a great point! I agree that a big draw is how the powers take a backseat to the private eye style of the show, even though so much of the plot revolves around the villain’s power. Kilgrave is really creepy, and I also like that their relationship is more personal… makes it even more impactful, I think! Glad you liked the show too. I’m interesting to watch Luke Cage’s now. =)
I have about two or three episodes left before I’m done watching the show, but I agree with all your points here! I like that Jessica Jones isn’t the typical superhero show. Maybe it’s too dark, but sometimes life isn’t all sunshine and roses. They deal with tough topics here and they handle them well. Superheroes aren’t always perfect either. They’re still flawed human beings with or without powers. I also agree that every character is interesting to get to know in different ways. They all have their own inner demons to sort through and how they handle them to get to a better place is one of the best parts about each character’s development on the show.
What’s worth noting is none of the females in this show are particularly weak. They all end up being victims of some atrocity or wrongdoing in one shape or form, but they don’t let themselves continue to be victimized. They find a way to empower themselves and fight against being stuck in the victim role. It’s really great to see female characters written in this way, which we sometimes don’t always get to see.
Yeah I like that there’s a real human aspect to the superheroes, and I agree about the female characters! Everyone is really well written and realistic.