Sunday, February 14, 2016

Jessica Jones (created by Melissa Rosenberg)

Strings on me

Melissa Rosenberg's TV adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis' R-rated comic book Alias, featuring one Jessica Jones (Kyrsten Ritter in the series), isn't perhaps the first ever to depict a superhero suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (arguably there's Batman) but she's the genre's state-of-the-art incarnation, a canny mix of crime thriller tropes (hard-drinking hard-hitting stone-cold cynical private investigator) and comic-book melodrama (former superhero attempting to earn a living / get herself a life).

What's interesting is that the show doesn't feel sound or look like a Marvel Comics project at all; from the jazzy score accompanying digitized versions of David Mack's artwork to the noirish cinematography of Manuel Billeter you could be forgiven for thinking you're watching something directed by Curtis Hanson or (better yet) John Dahl (and as a matter of fact he did do one of thirteen episodes)--it's more than halfway through the first episode before we see Jessica lifting a man's car up from behind (the sexual implications of the act being deliberate I'm sure) and we're reminded with a bit of a shock that, why, this is set in the MCU--the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But it doesn't have to be--achieves its best effects without much help from said universe. 

Jessica was at one point under the mental control of Kilgrave (David Tennant)--the Purple Man in the comic though he's never addressed as such here, despite his propensity to light-colored suits--and the series is startlingly frank about the implications. Jessica compares the experience to being physically and mentally violated over and over, and it's disturbing to see that for all her enhanced strength and miraculous ability to fly (she calls it 'controlled falling') she's wide open to the same psychological anguish found in rape victims (if you wonder why with her powers she doesn't just glide away--it isn't that easy; it's never that easy). 

Someone points out that with Kilgrave's powers ('Kilgrave'--overcompensating much?) he could take over the world instead of indulging in sexual slavery and the occasional housebreaking, and Tennant's achievement is to turn this plot flaw into consistent comic gold. For a supervillain there's little that's super about him: he's smallminded, he's petty, he's endlessly vain; easily the biggest part of him is his overdeveloped sense of entitlement. 

Trauma, the aftereffects of abuse, is a major theme; so is control. Kilgrave's power is the most obvious manifestation but you can find variations and examples--the power of a domineering sister (Colby Minifie as Robyn) over her wimpy twin brother, the power of a manipulative lawyer (an amazing Carrie-Ann Moss as Atty. Jeri Hogarth) over her clients and employees (Jessica at various points has been both), the power of a woman (Rachael Taylor as Jessica's stepsister and confidant Trish)  over her beloved friend and sibling, the power of parents over their children (Rebecca de Morney as Trish's abusive mother); most disturbing of all, the power--or allure--victims have over their abusers. Kilgrave (skip this and the next paragraph if you plan to see the series) may be an uberhuman puppetmaster but he has limits: he can't control anyone beyond a certain distance and beyond a certain period of time (the explanation--a genetically manipulated virus--isn't all that persuasive); he also jerks along on a string of his own, his obsession over Jessica. It's the single creepiest detail about him, the fact that he's so seduced by, so totally addicted to, the emotions he arouses in his victims--in her as a victim; it's also potentially his Achilles heel, if Jessica can ever bring herself to exploit it, to use the single most repulsive aspect of the man against him. 

The writing is clever enough and taut enough that we're pulled along as well, despite a few snags (Robyn as a character is probably more annoying than the writers intended) and implausibilities (Kilgrave sends a cop to kill Trish and the cop happens to be a former Special Ops and member of a shadow organization?). On occasion even the directing lives up to the series' standards: I'm thinking in particular of John Dahl's sole episode "Sin Bin," where Kilgrave is trapped in a hermetically sealed glass cell. The writer-director of Red Rock West and The Last Seduction is a master at pacing plot twists for maximum tension and you see his hand here, in the way every detail of a desperately jury-rigged plan is swiftly and surely turned against itself, so that the opposite of what's intended is achieved--the effect is like slowed-down video footage of a car crash, where you see with the clarity of enhanced senses (the lighting, the framing, the leisurely forward surge of car towards wall) the disaster loom and feel totally helpless to do anything about it. 

The rest of the series doesn't enjoy that level of visual skill, but the writing does continue to choreograph in detail Kilgrave's and Jessica's deadly pas de deux--and I like the detail; I like the fact that nothing comes easy to Jessica, not the name of the doctor who buys a dialysis machine for an unlikely patient, not the realization of a critical fact in one of her recurring traumatic flashbacks. I like the odd fact that he's a good if unhappy match for Jessica. Superpowered jerk meets superpowered victim: both hate having to deal with each other, both bitch and whine but can do little about it, aside from the occasional slam into a wall for emphasis. As Ritter plays her and Tennant plays him, they're the screwball comedy lovers from hell.  

By series' end you can't help but be aware of a grim even humorous view of human relations: that people are by turns malleable, opportunistic, endlessly cyclical. The best we can do, as one character puts it is hold on to what we've got--maybe hope we don't inflict too much mutual damage in the process.

First published in Businessworld 1.8.16

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