Maybe it’s because I got more accustomed to the show’s rhythms, but I liked “Jessica Jones” Season 2 (March 2018, Netflix) more than the first. Everyone is established in their roles, and things like Jessica (Krysten Ritter) being perpetually drunk, or someone making reference to that fact, flow in a natural noir-detective-drama way. Even though the overall plot leans more superpowered than hardboiled, Melissa Rosenberg’s series is as comfortable in its genre trappings as Jessica is in her favorite pair of jeans.
The MCU movies are rightfully critiqued for having a “villain problem,” in the sense that its villains are rarely as interesting as its heroes. That’s not an issue in the Netflix TV series, and “Jessica Jones” Season 2 is a case in point as Jessica squares off with her own mother, Alisa (Janet McTeer), in a thread that calls to mind “Of Mice and Men” and “Frankenstein.” Alisa is lucid and reasonable half the time, but her brain can also switch over to monster mode.
Another engaging bad guy is Karl (Callum Keith Rennie), a scientist who, yes, is an unethical fame-seeker, but also genuinely wants to help people. His experiments saved the lives of Jessica and Alisa after the car crash that killed Jessica’s father and brother, and also gave them the powers that cause Jessica so much internal angst and cause Alisa to be a rage monster.
Drug addiction is a substantial theme of Season 2 as Trish (Rachael Taylor) starts using Simpson’s (Wil Traval) inhaler, which gives an energy boost that makes her feel like a superhero – until she’s due for the next hit. She starts using it so innocuously that I don’t even recall the moment, but before long she’s hooked, and she has lost her job and alienated her friends. Malcolm (Eka Darville) shifts his addiction from drugs to burying himself in work as Jessica’s associate – and a background thread reveals he’s a sex addict, too. In a grim running joke, Jessica keeps firing Malcolm, unaware that she can’t get away with that forever.
This leads to the biggest theme of the season. We know Jessica is a self-imposed loner who makes exceptions for only one or two people at a time. Season 2 digs deeper into why she is this way – particularly in the season’s best episode — turning her from an archetype into a fleshed-out person, and one who has a chance of changing her ways. “Jessica Jones” Season 2 is front-loaded with the best – and, I suspect, most expensive – episodes, but it develops a momentum that carries it to the finish line.
Here are my rankings of the 13 episodes:
1. “AKA I Want Your Cray Cray” (episode 7, written by Hilly Hicks Jr.) – This has all the predictable appeal of a flashback episode (how Jess acquires her famous leather jacket, where the name Alias Investigations comes from, etc.), but it’s more than that. Despite not doing much to de-age Ritter and Taylor, the ep is a nice portrait of the recent past, of partying in your 20s, and of making mistakes prior to your adult life. And Patsy’s song of the title is not so much a parody as a perfect example of a shallow radio smash from 10 years ago that could dominate the NYC club scene. “I Want Your Cray Cray” could’ve been a hit if it was released in the mid-Aughts and had the right marketing push and luck, and that sentiment lines up with Trish’s expertly managed yet hollow career. I’ve compared Alisa to Frankenstein’s monster, but here she reminds me of Darth Vader at the end of “Episode III”: Give her bad news and watch her go off.
2. “AKA Start at the Beginning” (1, Melissa Rosenberg) – The second chapter of a superhero saga is often the origin story (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze,” for instance), and such is the case here as we dig into how Jessica got her superpowers during the part of her life that has been literally and figuratively blocked from her brain. Granted, Jessica’s issues run much deeper than fretting about being a “freak,” but when we learn other people have been experimented on, it makes this story worth telling. Rosenberg nicely establishes Jessica’s internal struggle in the opening scene: Jessica wraps an investigation and is then solicited by the client to commit a murder; she hates being labeled a killer because she suspects she is one, having offed Kilgrave (David Tennant) last season. The hefty-but-speedy Whizzer (Jay Klaitz) is an entertaining guest character, and this hour quickly reacquaints us with this everything we love about “Jessica Jones”: reconnaissance, heavy drinking, abandoned buildings and the title character’s bad attitude.
3. “AKA God Help the Hobo” (4, Jack Kenny) – This is a perfect blend of character beats and the mystery behind secret medical lab IGH. In the wake of a murder for which she is wrongly arrested, Jessica mutters “It’s not me,” which has double meaning since she wonders if she is a killer by nature; the notion isn’t yet overplayed. Jess and Oscar’s (J.R. Ramirez) chat over wine has the neat twist where Jess puts the moves on him too soon and he says “This is not normal.” But still, she’s trying to make a connection, so maybe she’s not a misanthrope. The ep also includes stark commentary on drug regulations as lawyer Jeri (Carrie-Anne Moss, whose performance is all the more amazing for how different it is from her “Matrix” action role) is unable to legally acquire the pills she needs for her ALS. We are also treated to a creepy revelation that Trish’s boyfriend Griffin (Hal Ozsan) is using her. (This turns out to be a fake-out – he’s being secretive to set up a marriage proposal — but it’s still thrilling to imagine such an intimate betrayal.)
4. “AKA Playland” (13, Jesse Harris and Rosenberg) – There’s only one way the season can end: with Alisa dead. Despite its inevitability, it’s bittersweet how it comes to a conclusion at the Playland roller coaster that mother and daughter enjoyed in better days. The finale’s biggest strength, though, is how it sets up Season 3, with Malcolm working for Jessica’s rival PI, Cheng (the ageless Terry Chen, memorable as “Almost Famous’ ” Ben Fong-Torres), and Trish discovering that she got powers from Karl’s aborted procedure after all. In a wonderfully subtle nod to comic lore, where Trish becomes Hellcat, a nurse says to the miraculously revived Trish: “You just used up two of your nine lives, Miss Walker.”
5. “AKA Sole Survivor” (3, Lisa Randolph) – The mystery beats are masterfully plucked here as Jess discovers a skull in an incinerator, meets with a contact supposedly named Dr. Leslie Hansen, and then gets word from the morgue that the skull belongs to Hansen. Meanwhile, some of Jessica’s foils are set up: Oscar, the building superintendent who has a warm home life with his son; and Jeri, the uber-lawyer who has put her career ahead of relationships and learns she has a fatal condition.
6. “AKA Freak Accident” (2, Aïda Mashaka Croal) – The season won’t carry forward the vibe of this hour, but it’s still a good one. Because we don’t get a good look at it and because it tears apart poor Simpson, it seems the Big Bad will be a creature rather than a human. Season 1 didn’t handle the inhaler-addicted Simpson’s drug-addled travails all that well, but this ep makes effective use of him, as we see this “monster” is scared of the new “monster.” In a topical plot point, we learn Trish was sexually exploited by her director when she was a child star on “It’s Patsy!,” paving the way for internet essays about the roots of Trish’s desire for physical power.
7. “AKA Three Lives and Counting” (11, Kenny and Randolph) – Tennant has one last blast as Kilgrave, appearing as Jessica’s personal Shame Wizard. Long after the audience gets there, Jessica comes to the correct conclusion, that she’s not a killer at heart, and that she’s more powerful than Kilgrave because she can control herself. Having gotten blood from her crime-scene cleanup on her favorite jeans, Jessica switches into her backup pair for the first time in nearly two years. This could’ve been a clue to an observant investigator, but as often the case on these shows, the elite sleuths aren’t employed by the police department.
8. “AKA Facetime” (6, Raelle Tucker) – This hour gives nuance to the drug theme. In contrast to Trish’s destructive addiction, we learn about good things that have come from IGH’s experiments. While the healer, Shane (Eden Marryshow), turns out to be a fake-out, we do know that Karl cured a deformed boy and allowed him to live a normal life. And what a final twist! The skinless monster was a creepy enough villain, but I was genuinely surprised to learn she is Jessica’s mom, Alisa, wrongly presumed dead for 17 years.
9. “AKA Pork Chop” (10, Croal) – Seeing Alisa’s treatment by a cruel prison guard drives home the point that Jess should not have turned her in. Prison abuse storylines are important, but not fun to watch. More engrossingly creepy is the revelation that Inez (Leah Gibson) and Shane had been pulling a long con on Jeri. When the lawyer comes home to find her apartment cleaned out (which is admittedly farfetched – does she live in a building with no security?), it’s powerful. Jeri’s breakdown is not over the items lost, but for the knowledge that she hasn’t been cured of her ALS, and that these people preyed on her desperate hopes. It’s hard to fathom a lower moment.
10. “AKA Pray for My Patsy” (12, Tucker and Hicks Jr.) – The storyline of Jessica and Alisa on the lam is straightforward, with Jessica essentially having to choose between her mother and the rest of humanity. But my favorite part of the episode is seeing Jeri con the con woman, Inez. This high-powered attorney exists in the gray area between good and evil in previous MCU series, but she develops color here. If she ultimately is labeled a villain, well, she’s a villain I’ve learned to love.
11. “AKA The Octopus” (5, Jamie King) – The “innocent guy in prison” is another of those important but tough-to-watch storylines, but Daniel Everidge gives a memorable turn as the mentally challenged David, the fall guy for a murder. Jessica flirts with being nicer in this episode, giving Malcolm a well-earned raise and forging a rapport with a cop, Costa (John Ventimiglia). The satisfying IGH mystery is largely wrapped up only five episodes into the season, paving the way for the last eight to be character-centric, mostly for the better, sometimes for the worse.
12. “AKA Ain’t We Got Fun” (8, Gabe Fonseca) – Jess and her mom have a long talk for the first time, but it’s fairly mundane. Still, the episode stands out as a portrayal of how frighteningly easy it can be to get hooked on a drug, as Malcolm takes a hit off Trish’s inhaler after she lies that “It’s not addictive” and immediately realizes his mistake. Incidentally, Mal and Trish – rather than the titular superhero — star in the season’s first street fight. This ep has the bluntest example of a humorous aspect to Season 2: Any time two people of compatible sexual orientations are in the same room (here it’s Jeri and Inez), they end up in bed together. It’s like daytime soap storytelling, but on fast-forward (a refreshing contrast to “Iron Fist” Season 1).
13. “AKA Shark in the Bathtub, Monster in the Bed” (9, Jenny Klein) – In a rare blatant superpowered moment for this series, Jess and her mom bring a bus to a halt. But this is a low point of the season because it’s mostly the Joneses weighing their options – to kill their way through law enforcement, to hide, or to run away. It’s surprising when Jess turns her mom in to the authorities, but not in a satisfying way, since there’s no dramatic catalyst; she seemingly comes to the decision because the episode’s running time is up.
“Jessica Jones” Season 2: