The plan to have every episode of the second season of Marvel and Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” directed by women was conceived a year before the Harvey Weinstein revelations. But now that season arrives like a presciently timed herald of the #MeToo-Time’s Up revolution, with 13 female directors and nine of 13 episodes written or co-written by women. For added emphasis, it begins streaming Thursday, which is International Women’s Day.
But “Jessica Jones” was already one of the more women-centric dramas around when its first season appeared over two years ago.
Its creator and showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg of the “Twilight” movies, focused tightly on Jones (Krysten Ritter), a moody private eye who had super strength forced on her as a child, and a few other female characters: Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), a talk-radio host who is Jones’ only friend, and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), a ruthless lawyer who helps Jones when it aligns with her own agenda.
In the first five episodes of Season 2 (an atypically small number for Netflix to provide for review), that triumvirate is even more central to the plot. And their portrayals have taken on new shades. Already isolated — none have children or a spouse — they are defined even more than before by their pain and rage and their desperate efforts to assert control over their lives. Jones is an emotional cripple unable to confront her past; Hogarth’s monomaniacal focus on her career leaves her unprepared to face mortality. The relatively well-adjusted Walker is an abuse victim and recovering addict who can’t commit to a relationship.
And in spelling out these issues, the show inverts some familiar situations and characterizations. We’ve seen a powerful person’s downward spiral play out in a room with multiple hookers, cocaine and embarrassing dancing, but that person usually isn’t a woman. We’ve seen protagonists whose bottled-up anger turns them sullen, violent and heedless of others, but they’re usually men. We’ve seen the heroes of mystery-thrillers worry about their investigations putting loved ones in danger, but heroines not so much. (Conversely, traditional roles are preserved in a plot element involving Walker’s past as a child star that explicitly invokes #MeToo.)
These depictions are interesting to parse and refreshing to see. But a cliché is still a cliché, whether it’s presented from a female or male point of view. And the early episodes of the season make a lot of room for fairly static character development, with proportionally less attention paid to the traditional genre pleasures, like atmosphere and action, which were central to the first season’s invigorating noir-superhero synthesis. (The noir part of the equation is still present, but dimly, in Jones’ occasional voice-overs and in a preponderance of detective work that’s pretty basic and arbitrary, a step or two above Googling when it isn’t simply Googling.)
It appears that Season 2 will be an origin story of sorts, with Walker forcing Jones to delve into her past and learn how she was given her unwanted powers, a dark history involving medical experimentation by a mysterious corporation. Men are relegated to supporting roles here: Jones’ loyal assistant, Malcolm (the excellent Eka Darville); a rival private investigator (Terry Chen); a building superintendent and possible love interest (J.R. Ramirez).
What’s missing in that list is a villain, which brings up the biggest, and in some ways most uncomfortable, comparison with Season 1. Because the most distinctive thing about that season was David Tennant’s portrayal of the mind-controlling psychopath Kilgrave. And the emotional and narrative center of the story, its juice, wasn’t Jones’ anger or her power — it was her fear, the terror she felt at Kilgrave’s hold over her. (That terror also galvanized Ritter’s performance — in Season 2, so far, she’s more one-dimensional and less interesting to watch.)
How would the Kilgrave story line, with its emphasis on rape, predation and Jones’ nearly season-long helplessness, play in 2018? Not well, perhaps, but the series misses the character’s captivating presence. Tennant is reportedly returning at some point in Season 2, even though (spoiler alert) Jones snapped Kilgrave’s neck in the Season 1 finale. But he’s not in the early episodes, and the apparent new villain is murkier in motivation, less overtly frightening and less charismatic. That’s the most significant on-screen change in the show, and it’s a bummer.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.