The Villainous Women of Jessica Jones

The second season of the Netflix superhero drama finds texture in three major characters.

Krysten Ritter stars as the superhero Jessica Jones in Netflix's Marvel show by Melissa Rosenberg

This article contains spoilers throughout the entire second season of Jessica Jones.

Early in the first new episode of Jessica Jones, Patricia “Trish” Walker (Rachael Taylor) is shown, without context, at a children’s birthday party, dressed in rainbow sequins and an auburn wig, halfheartedly singing the theme song from the children’s TV show she starred in (It’s Patsy!) a decade or so ago. At the end of the performance Trish rushes away without posing for photographs, prompting one of the gay dads who hired her to observe, semi-admiringly, that “Patsy’s kinda mean.”

It’s a throwaway moment and a punchline, but it also foreshadows much of what’s to follow in the second season of the Marvel Netflix show. Trish is different. During the superb first season of Melissa Rosenberg’s superhero series about an alcoholic private detective with a traumatic past (played ably by Krysten Ritter), Trish was Jessica’s foil and sidekick, as pulled together and bland as Jessica was snarly and compelling. But in the second, which comes almost two-and-a-half years later, Trish gets a more fleshed-out backstory, involving a TV director who preyed on her when she was 15, a mother who exploited Trish for her own gain, a Britney-esque meltdown of a pop career, and a sordid addiction to drugs and alcohol. She also (significant spoiler) becomes the bad guy.

Or one of the bad guys, at least. The 13 new episodes of Jessica Jones meander from action scene to chase sequence, with a whole lot of filler in between. What they’re most obviously missing is a Big Bad like Season 1’s Kilgrave (David Tennant), an antagonist who’s both disturbing and charismatic enough to shape a whole season of a television show around. They also suffer from Netflix bloat, the affliction of every other Marvel superhero series on the streaming service, all of which could could prune almost half their running time without sacrificing anything substantial. But Rosenberg made one specific change in the season that stands out: Each of the three potential villains is a woman.

It wasn’t entirely clear until the final episode which character was going to transform into Jessica’s main antagonist, but there were several potential candidates. Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), newly diagnosed with ALS, seemed like she might be gunning for superpowered status, given the fragility of her own human body and her always outsized ambitions. I spent most of the early episodes wondering how long it would take Jeri to find the doctor at IGH who “made” Jessica and compel him to fix her. But in the end it was Trish, unwillingly detoxing off a government-issued inhaler, who did just that. Trish’s desperation to be powered had turned into the focal point of the series, pulling her toward vigilante stunts and drug-fueled obsession that put everyone in her orbit at risk. Trish became a monster just as Jessica—learning more about her past and discovering that her mother was still alive—became more human.

The third element in the triad was Alisa Jones (Janet McTeer), a mysterious woman with freakish strength and an estimable array of frizzy wigs who was revealed in the sixth episode to be Jessica’s mother. It was an astonishing reveal that made almost everything that came after it feel anticlimactic. The introduction of Alisa shed some light on Jessica’s origin story as a superhero: how she was revived—after the car crash that killed the rest of her family—by the rogue hippie Dr. Karl Malus (Callum Keith Rennie) and his experimental gene therapy. And how her mother was also brought back from death by Karl, who later became her caregiver, and her husband. But it also shed some light on Jessica as a person. It’s been tempting in previous episodes to attribute Jessica’s worst habits (her slovenliness, her temper) to her status as an orphan, but here was Alisa to point out that she was simply taking after her mother all this time.

As Season 2 proceeded, it pitted Jessica against Alisa, then Trish, and then repeated the cycle. The gamble, which didn’t quite pay off, meant a lack of both narrative momentum and tension, given that neither of the women Jessica was up against, her mother and her best friend, truly seemed to pose a threat to her. But it was a fascinating experiment by Rosenberg. In the first season, she used a superhero show to delve into the ramifications of trauma and the dynamics of abusive relationships, underpinned by superior performances from Ritter and Tennant and their obvious chemistry. In the second, her focus was family instead, and how women are just as likely as men to be distorted by greed, ambition, pride, and power. “You want ratings, power, and stardom,” Jessica tells Trish, scornfully. “Yes, yes, and yes,” Trish replies. “Because those things will help me help people.” But her professions of altruism aren’t remotely persuasive.

The second season’s biggest achievement is moral complexity, something remarkable for a superhero show. Jeri’s conclusion, in which she encourages the woman who conned her to become a murderer, feels satisfying, even though Jeri’s behavior is reprehensible. Alisa, who kills several innocent people, including a cop, remains a sympathetic character. Trish, who falls sway to her own jealousy of both the Jones women, doesn’t. It’s frustrating, because the series presents a patchwork of different scenes and threads (Jeri’s predatory behavior at work, Trish’s biography) that are tantalizing by themselves, but it never quite shapes them into a unifying worldview. What you long for as a viewer is a way to make sense of it all, but it’s messy, more like real life than a well-formed drama.

Still, it’s intriguing just to see female characters engage in behavior like this. Trish, with her rapacious drive and diminishing ethical boundaries, becomes progressively more like her mother, the narcissistic Dorothy Walker (Rebecca De Mornay). Jessica refuses to become like hers, but she can’t condemn her, either. And Jeri, who reveals in one scene that she grew up in a trailer, behaves more and more like someone abusing her power in the workplace (if she were a man, she’d be precisely the kind of character the #TimesUp movement is coming for). Accused of sleeping with her assistant, she replies, “Did you not see the way she dressed? She practically did a split on my desk.” She shamelessly ogles her yoga teacher and treats sex workers like dirt, throwing money at them and ordering them out of her apartment. But she also engages in a sexual liaison with Inez (Leah Gibson) that’s a masterclass in how to gracefully ask for consent.

The new season benefits from stellar performances, particularly Moss as Jeri and the British McTeer as Alisa. In one scene early on, before it’s entirely obvious who or what Alisa is, she’s seen playing the piano at home, as a neighbor with a baby drops by to say hello. It’s clear that Alisa is drawn to the infant, but wary about letting them hear her play. When the baby’s cries throw off her rhythm, Alisa has a terrifying outburst of rage in which she destroys the piano, with McTeer conveying all of her ferocious anger while also making her oddly sympathetic.

The cost of the focus being on Jessica’s family is that Ritter herself has less to do. She’s still luminous to watch, and enjoyably DGAF, but she’s left playing the straight woman to her increasingly off-the-wall mother and best friend. Taylor struggles more with selling Trish’s transformation, possibly because her evolution is too much of a leap to begin with. Even given all the information that’s revealed about her past, it’s hard to accept the ugly, violent person Trish becomes with the  kind, supportive woman she was before.

It’s unconfirmed as yet whether Jessica Jones will see a third season. The new episodes, which exclusively used women directors, seem to have suffered from the long gap between the show’s debut and its return. But what’s admirable is that Rosenberg is still thinking of stories that very few other people in television are telling at the moment. Compared with shows like Daredevil and Iron Fist, Jessica Jones is in a different category, using its superhero not for spectacle, but to convey something deeper about the world outside the show. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely worthwhile.