The opposite of binge watching?
by Thom Yee
It’s been a while since we’ve done a review for a Marvel Netflix show, and while there are a variety of reasons for that (some of which have nothing to do with the shows themselves) there’s really only one that matters: Most of them aren’t very good.
Especially Jessica Jones. And especially Jessica Jones season two.
That’s the prevailing thought that ran through my mind as I trudged through the thick, viscous, muddy morass of a story that was Jessica Jones in its second season, doing my best to dig in and find some sort of purchase, some sort of reason to keep going with the show in the weeks following its March 8th debut. It’s at about the halfway point of JJ season two, after weeks of trying, that I had to stop, fully stop, and move on to greener pastures — Killing Eve — which turned out to be such a directly engaging and immediately rewarding show that it’s genuinely hard to convey in words how great and smart and effortlessly provocative and modern but timeless it really is. In fact, go watch Killing Eve. Right now. Seriously. It’s only eight episodes and it’s a definite 5/5, heart.
God, I wish Jessica Jones was anywhere near as good as Killing Eve.
But anyway, it’s at about JJ season 2’s midway point, just as Jessica corners the dangerous woman she’s been tracking and learns a shocking truth that threatens to upend the (to that point) entire season’s events, that I stopped watching the show entirely, largely for reasons of personal sanity and self-respect, that I could no longer bring myself to care anymore; I just couldn’t watch Jessica Jones anymore. I didn’t hate the character, but I never cared what she was doing, and I did hate most of the people in her life. So I moved on. I caught up with Fear the Walking Dead, which has actually gotten to be really, really, really, really… not bad in its fourth season, with a sharp departure from its original narrative, cast, and style; I caught Barry, with Bill Hader, which was really strong and emotionally true while still being, just barely, a comedy; I watched Westworld in its flawed but still very watchable second season; I finished Netflix’s GLOW in its second season which was pretty terrific, and, of course, when it came time, I even gave Luke Cage season two a shot, because, despite my documented problems with Luke Cage season one, I still really like the character. More on Luke Cage season two later [obviously, given the title of this post].
And when that was done, I could still see Jessica Jones season two, staring at me in my queue, taunting me, calling me a quitter, questioning my sense of completion, my TV-watching ethics, and insulting my honour. Okay, maybe not that last one, but eventually I finished Jessica Jones season two. Here’s what I thought.
What are they about?
Uh… they’re both Netflix shows… they’re both set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but have just about nothing to do with what happens in the movies… they’re both more street-level than the MCU movies (so powers, but not really SUPERpowers)… one’s about a superstrong female detective and the other other’s about a bulletproof black man… and they’re both in their second season.
In a way, it’s fitting, actually, that, of all the Marvel Netflix shows established so far, it’s Jessica Jones and Luke Cage that I’ve, inadvertently, put together for a review. They’re married after all. In the comics. They’ve only slept together on TV (Spoilers? But really, they, both characters, sleep with just about everybody they meet on their respective shows). And, of Marvel’s Netflix heroes, it’s also Jessica Jones and Luke Cage who are at the most similar points in their development — both bring a wealth of experience from their past lives that are now bleeding into their present situations, both are at similar levels of maturity and shy away from the title of hero, and both were more on the out than the inside of the central story told in The Defenders.
That Defenders bit, the first (and maybe last?) team-up in the Marvel Netflix universe, is a particularly important part of both of these shows as well, because both Jessica’s and Luke’s growth as characters in that show inform significant parts of where these characters and shows are now in their second seasons. There’s a natural flow with the events of the shows and especially shared background characters that doesn’t require you to have seen the others but is always rewarding for those who have been along for the ride since the beginning.
But is it just me, or is it a bit of a shock to the system to see these characters already in their second seasons. Back when these Marvel Netflix shows started, it felt like there was a little more breathing room between installments, first with Daredevil season one and Jessica Jones season one in 2015, then Daredevil season two and Luke Cage season one in 2016, and then things kind of got out of control with a very rushed Iron Fist season one leading directly into The Defenders, AND The Punisher all in one year in 2017. The Marvel Netflix transition to three shows a year hasn’t felt nearly as seamless as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s to three movies a year, and, at least for me, it’s just gotten to be a bit too much to take in. Luckily, though, the powers that be at Marvel seem to be taking at least one important step in improving things for these shows going forward. More on that later too.
Are they any good?
Surprisingly yes, both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are very decent in their second seasons, particularly in comparison to their firsts. I’ve had noted problems with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in their season ones, and the creators of both shows did a pretty good job of addressing some of my biggest problems in their season twos. But one of these shows was clearly better than the other.
The overarching narrative with which I began this review very much focused on Jessica Jones far more so than Luke Cage, and, make no mistake, there’s not even a hint of reverse misogyny in that construction, it’s just because Jessica Jones, for a significant portion of its second season, sucked. The first half of Jessica Jones season two is, quite literally, the reason I stopped reviewing Marvel Netflix shows.
But it got better. Like, A LOT better in its second half.
To start, I had very little idea what was going on in terms of the show’s central mystery in its first six episodes, and while I’ll admit that’s a me-side problem that you won’t all necessarily experience, it was an indication of how disengaged I was in the main story Jessica Jones was telling. I knew some crazy woman who seemed more physically powerful than Jessica was running around killing people, I knew that there seemed to be other people who shared super-powered origins with Jessica were getting killed, I knew Trish, Jessica’s stepsister and best friend seemed unusually, and I knew Malcolm, the recovering drug addict, had become Jessica’s investigative assistant of sorts, but I didn’t (and mostly still don’t) care about Jessica’s past or how she got her powers, and by the time Jessica caught up to the crazy, murderous, superstrong woman, I couldn’t keep watching the show, even with the twist that episode ended on because it was a predictable twist seemingly out of the worst hack soap opera writer’s handbook.
But the twist was everything!
Without giving away what the twist was specifically and how it related to Jessica, the way the back half of the season explored the themes that, it turns out, the season was really about. There’s a depth to these ideas as we find out who these two superpowered women are and how they relate to each other that was really quite affecting and even haunting, and it really put me in the shoes of both of them.
There’s another important thing that the twist achieves beyond reframing the season’s overarching story, and that’s that it largely jettisons most of what was going on in the season’s front half. The truth is that I really don’t care about anyone else in Jessica’s life, not her stepmother, not the people she works with in law enforcement, and especially not Trish. I could almost write an entire review on how much I hate Trish Walker, and the fact that they drop the subplot with her and her fiancé really helped move the whole season along. Even going beyond the ridiculous things they made her character go through in JJ season two, I still dislike the character, I still find her Trish Talk show unbelievably bad, and her new backstory, though effective in further showing how different Trish and Jessica are despite growing up together, is just utter trash.
By the end of Jessica Jones season two, we’ve got a new status quo for the character, not that she’s no longer a private detective or no longer a hard-hitting, hard-drinking loner, but she’s no longer talking to Trish, and I can’t help but feel a little bit better about that, even if it’s clear the show isn’t done with her yet. Added to a genuinely heartwrenching series of events that really did change Jessica, a small twist in Jessica’s living arrangements that may bring her a shred of happiness, and a deliciously evil turn for Jeri Hogarth, who winds up taking over her law firm through blackmail and completely screwing over a couple of people who did her wrong, and you have a very satisfying ending for a season that truly tested me in its first half.
Jessica Jones season two final score
I liked just about everything about Luke Cage in its first season, especially its lead and its style, but I full-on hated almost everything they did with the show in terms of its actual plot. It was a show that I thought had good roots and a strong foundation, but it did a lot of things wrong, its heroes and villains constantly being undone by shallow characterization and poor storytelling choices, and an attempt to switch villains halfway through the show’s 13 episodes undid a lot of the thrust of the story.
Luke Cage season two fixed just about everything.
First and most important, I liked most everyone in Luke Cage season two, and the evolution of these characters, maybe for once in all of these Marvel Netflix shows, made proper use of all 13 of the season’s episodes. Luke’s inner turmoil with being the hero of Harlem and his frustrations with the title feel mostly right, Misty is dealing with her own issues, having lost an arm in The Defenders but also having lost faith in the system after the betrayal of her partner, Detective Scarfe, at the end of Luke Cage season one, and I even understood and gained a bit of respect for Mariah Dillard, a character who came across as a weird mix of bold and overzealous but also naïve and small in season one. Here in season two her choices are bold, at least once she’s backed into a corner, and she’s vicious and relentless in achieving her goals.
Bushmaster, the new villain in season two, is not only compelling and interesting and deeply tied into the show’s backstory, but really badass, and the fight scenes in the show give you a real sense of how dangerous he is. Bushmaster just moves right and that’s something that means so much for these types of shows and something I really hope carries over into Iron Fist season two. And speaking of Iron Fist, season two of Luke Cage makes strong and sensible use of the ties created between Luke and Danny after The Defenders, so much so that, in lieu of a Defenders season two, I would love to see a Power Man and Iron Fist team-up show.
The story of Luke Cage in season two is a bit of a slow-burn at first, but it turns out to be Shakespearean in scope, and where Luke ends up at the end of the season is a truly interesting place that I didn’t see coming. It’s a dramatic turn, but it’s supported by character work that makes it feel earned. There’s even one relationship in the show that’s portrayed with an astonishing and almost mystifying level of sensitivity and grace between Shades and a former associate that elevates the whole show to… I don’t even know, but it’s solid, solid stuff.
That said, Rosario Dawson’s character, Claire Temple, the night nurse who’s treated our hero’s wounds (both physical and otherwise) in almost every Netflix show so far, is more or less written out of the series for somewhat valid but mostly pretty shaky reasons that felt more like the actress just wanted to be done with her contractual obligations ASAP. If you’re a fan of the character, and she’s arguably the strongest one of all of them, then you’ll definitely be disappointed in what she gets to do for her swan song here. I also continue feel that there’s an essential intelligence behind Mike Colter’s portrayal of Luke Cage that occasionally stands at odds with the show, and while season two takes important steps in the right direction, there’s a soulfulness that I don’t feel like Luke Cage wants to reach but still can’t quite get there.
Thom’s Luke Cage season two final score
So… what now?
I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the Marvel Netflix shows, whether Disney’s impending streaming service will screw the whole thing up or if these characters will ever really count in the greater Marvel Cinematiironc Universe, but after seeing Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in their second seasons, I have to feel at least a little bit encouraged in where things are going. Both shows have gone a long way in making these characters more relatable and pushing them into new and interesting situations, and I actually want to see what happens next with both of them.
But here’s the real kicker: Iron Fist season two is only three weeks away, and not only do the creators of that show seem to have a handle on what went wrong with Iron Fist season one, they finally cut down on the number of episodes to 10. The biggest complaint I’ve had with these shows is their pace because 13 episodes is too many. This one single change has me hopeful and a bit excited again for these shows.