Jessica Jones is more antihero than superhero. She boozes. She screws. She needs cash — and fast. Sure, she can jump up the side of a building or break a locked door with ease, but she pays those feats no particular mind. Marvel’s Jessica Jones pays no mind to her powers either, at least in the first installment of the thirteen-episode season. There’s no special swell of music or CGI to accompany the out-of-this-world elements. The first time Jessica Jones uses her powers — she leaps a few stories up to a fire escape — it’s so quick and understated, I almost missed it.
Instead of bouncing and leaping across New York City like a spider, she downs Jim Beam and tries to get by as a private investigator, which, in her own words, means “looking for the worst in people.” In the opening stakeout sequence of “AKA Ladies Night,” with its voice-over and noir-ish neon palate, I couldn’t help but think of Jessica as a grown-up, twisted version of Veronica Mars. They’re both independent, sardonic, and hold people at a distance. And like the best noir detectives, they’ve been burned before. (Although Veronica Mars never did her investigative work while sitting on the toilet.)
In the beginning of this episode, it’s unclear what did cause Jessica’s damage. Looking for fast cash, she heads to a white-shoe law firm and asks one of the partners, Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) to throw more investigative work her way. Jeri thinks Jessica is erratic and volatile, but she’s still tried to hire her in the past. (Jessica passed on the job offer.) She asks Jessica to track down a strip club owner, then serve him with a personal injury lawsuit.
It’s the kind of case that pays the bills, but doesn’t hold Jessica’s interest. There’s one stakeout, however, that does capture her attention. After effortlessly jumping to a fire escape, she watches a local bar that sits on the corner of an apartment building. A handsome man exits the bar with a beautiful dame on his arm, an end-of-the-night trophy. Jessica flinches at the sight. This is more than a run-of-the-mill cheating spouse case.
Some viewers might bristle at the hard-boiled noir clichés like stake-outs, empty booze bottles, and headstrong dialogue. (“Some cases you can’t let go of.”) I enjoyed getting sucked into that world, though, and the first episode understandably needs to set the tone of the series. So what if it hits you over the head a few times? The well-handled execution of those tropes, along with an excellent performance by Krysten Ritter, elevates the scenes that deploy them. I’ve never read the comic series that inspired Jessica Jones, but its comic-book origins are obvious. Angled shots and moody-but-colorful lighting give the show an other-worldly vibe — one that makes me want to turn the page, in the best possible sense. What’s going to happen next?
Jessica sits on the fire escape, peering at Bar Man, who’s now moved his lady friend into one of the apartments above the bar. (This must be one of those co-ops with a strict “no curtain” policy.) As she’s watching, a colorful vision of a man’s head ominously appears next to her, then vanishes. For the first time, Jessica seems threatened and unsure of herself. But it’s also clear that this vision has appeared before. To calm herself, she repeats a series of street names.
The next day, Jessica is in her apartment, fighting off a hangover — whether it’s from the booze or the vision, I can’t tell — when a couple from Omaha arrive. (Jessica’s apartment serves as the headquarters for her company, Alias Investigations.) “Someone at the police station” recommended Jessica to help them locate their missing daughter, Hope, an NYU track star. She’s gone off the grid, which isn’t too uncommon for Midwest girls new to the big city.
Jessica takes the case. She starts digging with a visit to Hope’s roommate. The roommate is in, but doesn’t answer. The locked door doesn’t faze Jessica and, with a quick twist of the knob, she waltzes in, much to the roommate’s surprise. She’s angry that Hope left her with the rent, especially because she ran off with some guy. Jessica’s ears perk up at the mention. “Why else would a best friend crap on you?” the roommate cracks.
After the missing track star case stalls, Jessica searches for the elusive strip club owner. She finds him, but he tries to escape in his car before he’s served. She grabs the bumper and stops him cold. As the car wheels turn uselessly, the strip club owner looks confused … until realization washes over his face: “You’re one of them.” This is the first indication that Jessica Jones isn’t the only one with special powers.
After serving him, Jessica goes back to the bar from her stakeout. She’s outside the bar, peeking through the windows, when she spies Bar Man taking out the trash. He works there; they don’t appear to know each other. He invites her in for an impromptu “ladies night” drink special. She closes out the bar and has an intense conversation with him about her work. Bar Man (Mike Colter, a.k.a. Lemond Bishop from The Good Wife) accuses her of flirting. “I don’t flirt,” she explains. “I just say what I want.”
This exchange leads to headboard-banging sex at Bar Man’s place. It’s graphic and gritty, at least by comic-book television standards. (Thankfully, we’ll never see Barry Allen do Iris doggy-style on the CW.) Afterwards, Jessica rifles through his medicine cabinet and finds a photo of a woman. Her reaction suggests that the photo, or the woman, means something important.
After Jessica bolts from Bar Man’s place, she returns to her search for the missing track star. Turns out, Hope recently bought lingerie and ties with a credit card. This doesn’t seem out of the ordinary until later, when Jessica checks out a restaurant Hope had visited with her guy. Immediately, Jessica flashes back to a memory of a dinner she had at the same restaurant with a man. This version of Jessica bears no resemblance to the current one. She’s automated. A puppet under the control of her master. And like Hope’s guy, her date has an English accent.
When the flashback ends, Jessica freaks and tries to buy a plane ticket to Hong Kong. She needs cash and — you guessed it! — she needs it fast. She climbs onto the high-rise balcony of an apartment where Trish, a television talk-show host, lives. Trish doesn’t say anything about Jessica’s entrance, so there’s some history here. (Is she a sister? Maybe a friend?)
Whatever is happening to Hope has happened to Jessica. His name is Kilgrave. Trish reassures her (“he’s dead”), and suggests that Jessica is suffering from PTSD. If Kilgrave isn’t dead, though, Trish thinks that Jessica needs to save Hope. Jessica declines. She could “never be the hero” Trish wants her to be.
(Okay, okay. Maybe some of this dialogue is a bit lazy and uninspired.).
During a cab ride home, Jessica has a change of heart; she directs the cab to a hotel, where the doorman greets her by name. Shudder. She heads into a hotel room and finds Hope lying on the bed. Hope wants to leave, but she can’t get out. Jessica explains that Kilgrave is controlling her mind. Jessica pulls a kicking-and-screaming Hope from the bed — she is physically pained when she disobeys Kilgrave’s orders. Jessica reunites Hope with her parents, explaining how time and distance will lessen the effects of mind control. She teaches Hope her “street name” mantra, then Hope hugs her, which makes Jessica briefly drop her guard and smile.
The reunited family walks into an elevator to leave. As the elevator doors close, Hope glances at Jessica, who’s watching from the hallway, then pulls a gun from her purse. Kilgrave still controls her mind. When elevator closes, gun shots are fired.
Jessica runs down to the ground floor in a panic and, after the doors open, Hope is surrounded by her bloody, lifeless parents. She looks at Jessica blankly and says one word: “Smile.”
Overwhelmed, Jessica exits the building in shock. She stops herself in the street, however, and decides to head back into the building. Hong Kong will have to wait.