Spotlight: “Jessica Jones” Season One

Warning: some spoilers for season one of “Jessica Jones” follow.

The Marvel Netflix shows are some of the most interesting takes on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short).  They represent more grounded takes on a world that includes Norse gods and hulking green steroid monsters.  They represent a moral ambiguity that underscores a franchise typically full of characters whose main struggle is “I’m not powerful enough” before they discover “oh wait, yeah I am” and then promptly throw the bad guy through a building or two.

I’ve already talked about “Daredevil” season one and two.  “Daredevil” was the start of the Netflix shows, representing a darker, more nuanced superhero story.  And while season two started to collapse under the weight of its multiple plots, season one still represents some of the best Netflix has to offer.

So, going into it, I had no idea that “Jessica Jones” would feel so different.

Like “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones” is dark, but even from the show’s title sequence you can tell its tone is different.  The opening sequence for “Daredevil” showed the world being filled in bit by bit, which was a representation of the main character’s unique perspective.  By contrast, the title sequence for “Jessica Jones” plays with shadows and silhouettes.  It features many shots of windows and perspectives that imply being watched or observed, which ties into Jones’ career as a private investigator.

 

A shot from the title sequence.

 

 

It was about midway through the first episode when it hit me: “Jessica Jones” is essentially a modern noir story.

The aspects of the show line up: a private investigator with a tragic past, a piano-heavy soundtrack underscored with hints of jazz, and voice-over narration done by Jessica herself.  I’m not familiar enough with the character or the comics she comes from to say for sure, but it feels to me like the show is steeped in that tradition.  At its core, “Jessica Jones” is still a superhero story, making the noir elements mere icing on the cake.  But it’s enough to give the show a unique style all its own amidst the other Marvel Netflix shows.

“Daredevil” season one was all about Matthew Murdock coming to terms with who he wanted to be as a hero and the lines he was willing to cross.  We followed him as he grew into the hero he needed to be.  By contrast, “Jessica Jones” keeps things from us and much of the season is about uncovering those parts of her past to better understand her as a person.  It becomes clear by the end of the first episode that Jessica tried the hero thing before and something went terribly wrong.  The bad times in her past are centered around a mysterious figure named “Kilgrave” who has the ability to control people’s minds.

Jessica is guarded and masks her feelings with sarcasm.  At the outset it seems that she’s done trying to play the hero, but she’s quickly drawn back in when a new client sets her on a collision course with her old nemesis, Kilgrave.

 

Jessica, brooding as always.

 

They could have easily pulled Jessica too far down the sarcastic, gloomy route and made her an unlikable protagonist.  But her sarcastic quips and grim worldview are punctuated by glimpses of a person who wants to believe better, who wants to do good.  During one of the episodes, we get flashbacks of Jessica before Kilgrave that show how she gradually comes to the realization that she wants to help people.  Even her job as a private investigator after the fact clues us in to her inclination for helping people, despite her outward attitude.  The show succeeds at bringing us into Jessica’s world and letting us learn who she is bit by bit.

One aspect of the show that worked better than I would have expected was the introduction of Luke Cage, another Netflix Marvel hero who was later given his own show.  I’ve talked before about the inter-connection of Marvel’s universe and how that could become a problem, but that isn’t the case here.  Rather, the inclusion of Luke Cage feels natural.  His past and Jessica’s intertwine, which is evident from the start when we see Jessica spying on him in the very first episode.  The progression of their relationship and how it ties in to the greater plot of the season is done very well here.  It never feels forced or added for the sake of tying it in to the larger Marvel universe.

Another aspect of the show I was surprised by was the villain, Kilgrave.

 

Kilgrave.

 

Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a very different beast from Wilson Fisk in “Daredevil”.  Fisk was a character who believed he was changing the city for the better, albeit through extreme and violent methods.  By contrast, Kilgrave has no such noble goals.  He’s selfish.  He’s vain.  He’s unhinged and positively psychotic.  And he has an unhealthy fixation on Jessica, especially considering she’s the only one who’s ever escaped from his control.  Tennant was a great choice for the character too, providing that charming yet unpredictable nature to the character and making him a memorable villain.

That being said, I found it strange that they decided to not reveal his face until near the end of the third episode.  Anyone who knows David Tennant or has seen him in other shows will be able to tell that it’s him from the moment he says anything, so waiting on that reveal just seems a little pointless.  Even the pre-release stories for “Jessica Jones” had already confirmed David Tennant would be playing him.

All that being said, Kilgrave is a great villain and provides a very personal adversary for Jessica to face.  But not everything is perfect with the first season.

I’ve mentioned before how “Daredevil” season one decides to refer to the day when literal aliens invaded and blew up half the city in the first “Avengers” movie simply as “The Incident”.  It’s a weird, out-of-place choice that almost feels like they’re trying to distance the Netflix shows from the movies because of their wildly different tones.  “The Incident” shows up again in Jessica Jones, this time in the form of a minor character (read: very minor…as in they only appear in one episode) who has grievances with super powered people because of losing someone during the siege of New York.  It ends up feeling forced and has no purpose other than being a red herring.

There’s also a subplot featuring a police officer Jessica saves early on in the show.  It’s revealed later on that he is part of a mysterious research group with a doctor that developed some kind of combat enhancement drug.  It comes out of nowhere with no real buildup and doesn’t resolve itself by the end of the season.  Rather, its whole purpose seems to be to tease a future plot, as very late in the season it’s revealed that this mysterious group may have ties to Jessica and how she got her powers.

And that’s another thing that bothered me with the season.  Early on, after Jessica learns that Luke has powers as well, they have a brief conversation about where they got them.  Luke tells her his came from an experiment and Jessica says hers were an “accident”.  For much of the season, I assumed Jessica knew exactly how she got her powers and it would be revealed later on.  But as it turns out, Jessica has no idea.  During the final episode, she has a line where she mentions that she looked into her past before but kept hitting dead ends.  But it isn’t until near the end of the season that there’s any hint of that.  So when she says “accident”, we’re not really clear what she means by that.

Despite these issues, “Jessica Jones” is well worth a watch.  The pacing takes a dip during the last few episodes and the final confrontation doesn’t feel as climactic it should be, but overall it’s another great entry into the Marvel Netflix shows.  Its style and tone are quite different from “Daredevil”, so if you go into it expecting a similar outing, you might find yourself surprised and put off at first.  But if you give it a chance, “Jessica Jones” provides you with a wonderfully deranged villain and a gripping personal story.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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What’s in a Story? Part 2: Making the Story

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post called “What’s in a Story?  The Importance of Narrative Fiction” where I talked about, what else, the importance of fiction.  I decided I wanted to write a second part to it, specifically talking about what makes a story entertaining or engrossing to people.

The most obvious thing right out of the gate is characters.  Everyone loves a good character in a story, whether they’re good or bad.  Sometimes, we find that we may enjoy the villain’s side of things more than the hero’s.  This was definitely true of the first season of the Netflix show Daredevil.  This is not the say that the hero, Matthew Murdock, was any kind of slouch in the proceedings.  He had a very nice bit of conflict throughout the season where he was constantly confronting himself about how far he was willing to go.  But in the end, Wilson Fisk (the villain) stole the show for me.  I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the show yet, but Fisk’s backstory is incredibly disturbing, depressing, and gripping.  He’s one of those villains that actually has a noble goal, but the means he is using to get there are very much a problem.  Without the conflicting nature of Fisk I doubt the show would have been nearly as engrossing of an experience for me.  It’s one of those strange experiences where you actually understand where the villain is coming from, which isn’t something we often get from modern superhero fare.

This is what characters can do for a story.  They inject it with life.  They give it a lasting impact, make it stay on your mind for a long time after its inevitable conclusion.  This is a big part of the reason why movies like Interstellar stay with me for so long, because the characters in it are so well written.  They give the world they reside in a certain believable quality that it otherwise wouldn’t have.  They are the people who you follow through the story, beginning to end.

But characters aren’t the only thing that can engage you in a story.  It’s the obvious thing to turn to when talking about books or movies, because they are by their nature scripted and focused.  But what about video games?  Games can have great characters and story on par with movies (just check out the Uncharted video game franchise for an example of an action movie turned video game), but there is also a sense of agency that the player of these games has.  He can choose where to go and what to do to a certain extent, depending on how the game itself is designed.  Some games, like Myst, take advantage of this agency, driving the player to explore and discover the story on their own.  But what makes the story of these types of games engrossing?  What makes them tick?  The answer lies in the setting.

Setting can have a major impact on any story, be it in a game, book, or movie.  But it can have special significance in a game, being that the interactive nature of the medium often immerses you in it in a way that books and movies can’t touch.  In a book, you imagine the setting in your mind.  In a movie, you follow the setting as the director and writer have envisioned it.  In a game, you decide what places to explore and what is important.  Of course, the game developer has to design the setting, so in essence you are still seeing exactly what the person who created it wanted you to see, but the little details the designer may not have found important might speak to you in a way that they didn’t anticipate.

Let’s look, for example, at Dark Fall: The Journal (I know, again right).  I’ve spoken about this game many a time on this blog, but here I want to call it out for a very specific reason.  Dark Fall has a strong sense of setting.  In the game itself, you interact with no physical characters (a ghostly voice belonging to a child guides you for the first few minutes, but you never see him of course).  You play as the brother of Pete Crowhurst, an architect redeveloping the old Dowerton train station and hotel.  After receiving a cryptic and alarming message on your answering machine, you travel to the station to find out what’s happening.  When you arrive, you find nothing and no one.  But you are not alone…

In Dark Fall‘s case, your character is merely a shell, a way to interact with the world and its characters.  The people in this game are no Walter White.  They won’t regale you with a gritty story of succumbing to greed and slowly transforming into a monster.  They’re just ordinary people who lived their lives.  But the way the game presents their stories is what makes it so interesting.

Take, for example, this letter you find in one of the hotel rooms:

 

Dark Fall The Journal (9)

 

 

If you are unable to see the picture for some reason, I will transcribe it for you:

“Betty,

Whats going on?  You told me no one would know I was in this room!  Someone tried the door a while back, I didn’t open it, course.

Then bout half hour ago someone knocked and whispered my name, it aint you, I would know your voice anytime.

If your mam finds out I’m in here she’ll blow her top!  She’ll tell me dad too, and then we’ll really be done for.

I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom.  Hopefully you’ll find it, before who ever it is finds me!

 

Thomas

XXXX

P.S. Bring us some more beer, love.”

 

It’s bits like this that made the game for me, these little snapshots of people’s lives that have been left sitting there.  Considering you never physically interact with any of these people (they did disappear after all), the little touches are what makes the game so interesting.  The style of writing clearly belies Thomas’ out of country origins, and his subdued manner hints at the idea that Betty is the dominant one in the relationship.

But what I like more than all of that is this little bit: “I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom”.  Well, it appears the note never got there…

A little does indeed go a long way, especially where horror/ghost stories are concerned.  Dark Fall is effective not because it throws the ghostly nature of things directly into your face, but because of the feeling that these people were just going about their everyday lives, having fun and dealing with personal issues when suddenly they just up and vanished.  It’s the sense of a life interrupted.

I may have only talked about setting and characters when it comes to making a story tick, but they are by no means the be all end all.  There are plenty of ways to make a story engrossing.  You can even make a story that has no dialogue entertaining, like the movie Apocalypto (I have admittedly never watched it, but the lack of dialogue was one of its bigger selling points).  It all really comes down to knowing what is important in the type of story you are trying to tell.  If it’s a horror story, setting can often be more important than character.  If it’s a gritty crime story, characters are going to be the driving force.  It’s easy to say that a good story is one that’s believable, but harder to say what makes that story believable.

And in the end, it’s all about getting the reader/audience/player to be willing to suspend their disbelief, if just for a short period of time.

 

Well that’s all I’ve got for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week everybody!

Also, don’t you just hate it when someone writes a sequel to something out of the blue?  Yeah…*eyes dart back and forth suspiciously*…me too……

Bye!