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“Jessica Jones” Season Two Boils Down the Superhero Formula to Personal Terms

In these thirteen episodes, the boozed-up P.I.'s main adversaries are the forces doing battle within herself

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The second season of Marvel/Netflix’s Jessica Jones, which debuted on the streaming service last month, is at once a stark departure from the trappings of its genre and a work playing distinctly within the superhero sandbox. (A renewal for a third season was just announced as well.) The first scene places its protagonist within a narrative space specific to her while also drawing on Marvel’s established vernacular. Having emerged from a trauma-centric first season, Jones finds herself at a crossroads of identity she isn’t ready to confront. Now a well-known face among the populace at large, the booze-soaked P.I. is solicited in a pizzeria by a scorned woman who wants her to use her fatal super-strength on an unfaithful lover. Familiar with the burden of taking a life — in season one, it was that of her rapist, Kilgrave, played by David Tennant — Jessica isn’t ready to become a supervillain. But she isn’t certain which path to walk instead: the violent vigilante, or the hero of the people. It’s a decision every modern superhero must make, especially if they’re of the Marvel Cinematic Universe variety and their identities have ballooned into public knowledge. Still figuring it out, Jessica in this moment chooses a path of apathetic non-intervention, for fear of the people she might hurt, physically and emotionally. “A hero would have you locked up for soliciting murder,” she tells the woman at the pizzeria. “A vigilante would beat the shit out of you. Now, which one am I? Choose.”

In the average Marvel creation, this decision of identity ordinarily hinges on the central superhero’s evolving sense of morality in response to the world around them. Not for nothing is the foundation of the Marvel Universe Iron Man’s refusal to manufacture weapons like his father after witnessing their grisly effects up close for himself. In Jessica Jones’s fork-in-the-road quandary, however, it’s her family that is the determining factor. As a teen, she lost her mother, father, and younger brother in a car accident. Thereafter, she was adopted by the mother of a teenage celebrity, who offered up said daughter to directors in exchange for roles. In the ensuing years of drift and malaise, Jessica has been unable to forget the incident that killed her family but left her with the possession of superhuman strength — a result of the research laboratory I.G.H.’s life-saving gene-splicing. Her Manhattan building superintendent and potential love interest, Oscar (J.R. Ramirez), and his young son, Vido, are the only ones who continue to show her unselfish kindness, a warmth so unfamiliar to her she initially rejects it. She’s more used to the people in her orbit — adoptive sister Trish “Patsy” Walker (Rachael Taylor), business associate Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Ann Moss), neighbor/P.I. protégé Malcolm (Eka Darville) — pursuing their own agendas and pushing her away, just as she does them. If she continues on this trajectory, she will inevitably end up alone.

The life-saving experiments that brought Jessica back from the brink and gave her unnatural abilities are the same procedures that, in the new episodes, create a burgeoning monster: the militaristic Will Simpson (Wil Traval). A role premised on the comics’ Nuke, a dark foil to Captain America, Simpson here walks a tightrope between violent impulses and romantic obsession with Trish. The organization behind the technology that granted Jessica and Will their powers is the shadowy I.G.H., which, after some hints and teases the last time around, finally comes into focus here. (Spoilers for the entire second season follow.)

This shift starts when Trish, former child star and current investigative-journalist radio host, pushes Jessica to move past her scotch-swilling ways and face the scars of her past. Trish’s persistence opens as a twofold plan: Helping Jessica chase down these leads would be for her own well-being, and it would also bring the mad scientists of I.G.H. to justice. However, an unseen menace soon begins eliminating all the witnesses by murdering anyone in close proximity to the case; meanwhile, Trish, a former addict, stumbles upon the drug that gives Simpson his temporary super-strength. Though Trish uses it to defend herself at first, she gets hooked on the rush of having superpowers, turning Jessica into a mere pawn in Trish’s new plan to resurrect I.G.H. As the offscreen enforcer continues the violent crusade, the crises pile up: Simpson is killed, Trish is placed in mortal danger, and Jessica is left with a new case that, should she choose to accept it, may force her to use her powers to kill once more.

Midway through the new season, the rampaging murderer is revealed to be Jessica’s mother, Alisa (Janet McTeer), thought to have perished in the car accident. But the I.G.H. procedures also saved her life, giving her a new face, super-strength that far exceeds Jessica’s, and a raging temper that can seldom be controlled. Crucially, though, as misunderstood I.G.H. scientist Karl Malus (Callum Keith Rennie) puts it, the experiment merely tapped into what was already present in Alisa and Jessica’s DNA: Their existing strength and rage have only been magnified by the technology. The circumstance that, in season one, was brushed away as an unnecessary genre trope — Jessica and fellow superhuman Luke Cage merely exchange the words “accident” and “experiment,” rather than harping on the technicalities of this superhero’s origins — re-enters the spotlight here as a kind of externalization of a fundamental battle fought by most humans throughout history. It’s not a battle of good versus evil, but one between the dueling forces of becoming our parents and moving past what they made us. Suddenly, Jessica must wrestle with bringing her mother to justice for her crimes and finally having a relationship with her in adulthood.

Karl Malus, for his part, turns out not only to be a humanitarian forced to work in the shadows (rather than, say, a Victor Frankenstein type), but also Alisa’s new husband and, in essence, Jessica’s surrogate father. While Jessica and Alisa’s rage pre-dates their accident, the form it currently takes comes from the same place (Karl’s experiments) and results from his decision to separate them until Alisa’s dissociations and violent outbursts could be controlled. While unethical, he is by no means malevolent. But he is also the ultimate signifier that the hell these women face, externally and within themselves, stems from the same source. He may be a person, but he is also a circumstance. He is what happened to both of them: the man who gave them the gift of life, albeit without their consent and with dangerous side effects.

Following this backstory reveal in episode seven, Jessica and Alisa remain at odds with one another, spurring a six-episode tête-à-tête. Where previous Marvel/Netflix efforts like Luke Cage, Daredevil, and even Jessica Jones season one fell victim to wheel-spinning, spreading thin their plots over thirteen contractually obligated episodes, Jessica Jones season two makes this seemingly inevitable repetition part of its substance. As Jessica grows closer to Alisa, she becomes something of an emotional pendulum, swinging between desiring to help her mother and be a daughter once more, and wanting to do her duty as a potential hero by preventing Alisa from hurting anyone else. In viewing her mother as human, through fleeting smiles and the recounting of faded memories, Jessica sees the best in her. Yet through Alisa’s temper and her desire to kill anyone who would hurt Jessica or Karl (including Trish), Jessica also begins to see the worst in her mother, the rage that exists in her. It’s through this dilemmatic swirl of emotions that Jessica’s question of Heroism-versus-Vigilantism is reframed in more personal terms: Will Jessica reject Alisa, thus becoming her own person entirely separate from her mother? Or will she accept her, aiding and abetting her escape, thereby preserving their bond of blood? In this articulation, the Hero is no longer merely a law-abiding crime fighter, nor is the Vigilante simply the violent foil. For Jessica, the Hero is an identity entirely divorced from her roots, from the rage that made her who she is. The Vigilante, on the other hand, is the full-on embrace of both her mother and of the darkest parts of herself. Jessica’s choice is absolute.

Marvel and other franchises like The Fast and the Furious have discovered success in tales of found family. (Per director James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about the bonds between adults who were abused as children.) But throwing off the shackles of toxic or abusive parents is easier said than done. While Jessica’s found family centers on her adoptive sister, Trish (a connection cemented after the two cut Trish’s manipulative mother out of their lives), her birth family isn’t one she can simply ignore — doing so would result in more casualties. The opportunity for Jessica to reconcile with and get to know her birth mother despite Alisa’s violent actions is a narrative scenario uniquely dependent on a lack of negotiable momentum: For each step forward, there is a step back. Jessica’s dilemma exists in stasis; there are seemingly equal upsides and downsides to confronting her abusive parent, as if either path will lead to its own brand of misery. Some moments lead her toward her mother, toward warmth, toward the childhood of which she was robbed; others lead her away from the one person who understands her volatile physical and emotional circumstances, having lived them herself. As Jessica debates between locking up her mother and letting her roam free, she also has to consider the logistics of where to put Alisa if she chooses to turn her in. A prison for super-powered people would mean total isolation; a regular prison would allow mother and daughter to have a semblance of a relationship, but would put guards and inmates at risk.

Ultimately, Jessica sets her sights on helping Alisa across the Canadian border. But even this decision never gets a chance, thanks to her mother’s sudden demise. This time, Alisa’s death is for real, and comes at the hands of Jessica’s own sister, who takes a shot from the shadows before Jessica has had a chance to say a proper goodbye. Knowing Jessica would likely not have been willing to pull the trigger herself, Trish takes matters into her own hands to protect them both. In the process, Jessica is left with one final choice now that she’s been robbed for good of a relationship with Alisa. She must decide whether to embrace the alternative to rejecting her mother — becoming her mother, by hurting Trish in a fit of rage — or whether to keep walking an uncertain path with no easy answers until she figures out how to pave a new one. She chooses the latter, isolating herself from everyone including Trish once more, though when her neighbor and romantic interest invites her for dinner for what feels like the thousandth time, she finally accepts.

Jessica Jones is not yet a fully formed individual; she is rendered an abrasive archetype, and she cannot progress until fundamental questions about her identity are answered. Her growth as a character was stunted by the trauma of her parents’ accident, resulting in a tumble down a drunken rabbit-hole and the resultant cruelty to herself and to those around her. As much as her signature black leather jacket is her uniform, as a P.I. and as a superhero, it’s also a cocoon. It’s an armor she can’t shed for fear of losing the best parts of the people around her or becoming the very worst in them — the same desirable and detestable qualities that exist in herself. But it’s in the mere act of rejecting her inertia and finally accepting that invitation from Oscar and his son that any new path even becomes possible.

After being jolted out of her dilemma, unstuck in time thanks to even more trauma brought on by her sister, Jessica is no longer caught between two destinies: taking up the mantle of a violent past, or rejecting it to the point of refusal to deal with its fallout. If she is to be molded into a new person, her own individual, someone who doesn’t have to choose between Hero and Vigilante, then her process starts here, after having lost (willingly or otherwise) all the relationships that had defined her for so long. It’s a journey she’s positioned to undertake with people who care for her unselfishly, and, most importantly, people she no longer desires to push away.

Jessica Jones streams on Netflix.

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