The first season of Jessica Jones captivated me. But after more than two years of anticipation of a second season, the first five episodes of the show’s second season left me disappointed and, worst of all, bored.
[Update: Now that the full season is out, we’ve published our final review here.]
It’s been a long time since Marvel’s alcoholic, misanthropic private detective walked onto Netflix-playing screens. A second season was announced in January 2016, but would have to wait until the rest of the Marvel Netflix slate debuted, including Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher and The Defenders, as well as a second season of Daredevil. After a first season so tense and riveting that I only paused to just relax for a bit, I had high hopes for the return of the Jessica Jones team.
Netflix has only provided media with the first five episodes of the 13-episode season, and I fervently hope there’s something in the later batch of episodes to make up for how slow and stakes-less these first five feel.
The core problem with the beginning of Jessica Jones’ second season is simple: It lacks a clear antagonist to compare with David Tennant’s slippery, terrifying Kilgrave. He was the rare combination of a character who could present an insidious threat even when not present, played by an actor who convinced you that he felt victimized, but never ask you to sympathize with him. Even this feels weird to admit — that a show about a woman overcoming her abuser feels lost without him.
Absent a constant danger, Jessica Jones’ second season decides to focus on Jess’ superhero origin story, and her inner turmoil following Kilgrave’s death at her super-strong hands. Jessica worries that she’s become a monster — and the show does make a good case, almost immediately, for why one might feel like a monster for killing a completely amoral serial rapist/murderer — and everything she digs up about her past just makes her feel more monstrous.
If the first season was all about anxiety, this one is about anger. Jessica feels like she’s losing control of herself and her morality, after a season of trying to wrest control of her own life from a genuine monster. “With great power,” intones one character, in a line that I hope was at least a little tongue-in-cheek, “comes great mental illness.” The show repeatedly establishes the mental cost of dealing with supernatural abilities, whether you have them or simply have encountered them.
But all of these personal stakes necessarily mean lower stakes. The fate of New York, or of preventing Kilgrave from victimizing his way through the rest of his life, loom much larger and scarier than Jessica’s personal goals. This is especially true if those personal stakes belong to a character who isn’t especially sympathetic — and Jessica Jones has always defied sympathy, in and out of comics. This makes her rare among female protagonists, but even as a big fan ready to watch her fuck up, I got tired of seeing my girl make the same mistakes over and over again.
The episodes available to press presented a show that told its story too slowly, and a story that was difficult to become invested in. I can admit: I’m going to stick it out until the end, because of the goodwill Jessica Jones bought with its first season. And also because the fifth episode showed a bit of an upswing, by finally giving our villain the time and space to be properly frightening to the world.
But I don’t see Jessica Jones’ second season winning over anyone who was lukewarm about her first — or anyone who skipped it entirely. I’m a big fan, and even I left these first five episodes wondering exactly what had happened to the series that gripped me and never let go in 2015.