'Jessica Jones' Season 2 Spoiler Review: An Ambitious Second Season That Doesn't Stick The Landing

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick...and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: Netflix's Jessica Jones season 2.)

Jessica Jones season 2 has a monumental task ahead of it. Not only does it have to follow the riveting, near-perfect first season, it has to do it from scratch.

The first season of Jessica Jones neatly wrapped up the main storyline adapted from Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos' critically acclaimed Alias comic book series after Jessica sent Kilgrave to his — well — grave. Now, the sophomore outing of Jessica Jones is left without Jessica's main, nay, only supervillain. Where does it go from there?

The seeds of season 2 were planted throughout the first season: an shadowy corporation, illegal child experimentation, new sidekicks. But Jessica Jones doesn't exactly follow up on those plot threads — and that's for both better and worse. Instead, Jessica Jones season 2 introduces one of the most fascinating and layered dynamics between complex women we've ever seen in a Marvel series. Too bad it's buried underneath clunky subplots and incoherent narratives.

Getting Past the Worst

The opening of Jessica Jones season 2 all feels very familiar. A steamy outdoor affair, Jessica (Krysten Ritter) wearily photographing a couple, Jessica's noir-inspired voiceover punctuating the scene. And for much of the first few episodes, that's what Jessica Jones feels like: a retread.

Not much has changed for the private investigator, despite her having snapped the neck of her rapist and biggest foe. Jessica is still suffering from PTSD, alcoholism, and bursts of uncontrolled anger that lead her to attacking people who assume the worst in her. And she still refuses to accept her newfound fame as a superpowered vigilante. But Jessica can't deny that her life has irrevocably changed, even as she desperately tries to keep things the same.

For the first time ever, Jessica finds herself surrounded by a loving found family. Her best friend Trish (Rachael Taylor) is busy championing the plight of the superpowered vigilante, launching a public investigation of IGH — the mysterious corporation behind Jessica's powers — on her radio show, Trish Talk. Malcolm (Eka Darville), Jessica's recovering drug addict neighbor, has become an eager PI in training under Jessica's tutelage. Though her relationship with her former employer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) has frayed, Jessica has a new support system like never before.

But Jessica remains untrusting, getting her feathers ruffled by the sudden appearance of a new foe: Pryce Cheng (an under-served Terry Chen). A big-shot private investigator, Cheng offers to buy Jessica's firm...or else. Cheng's smug, bloviating villain feels almost like an obligatory Marvel series addition — a relatively flat character to stir up trouble and act as an obstacle at the most inopportune times. With the introduction of Cheng, Trish's IGH investigation, and Jeri's mysterious sickness, already there feels like too many plot threads left dangling at the very start of the season — the classic Marvel bloat. But the best thing about Jessica Jones is not its adherence to the Marvel structure, but to the graphic novel's noir roots. Jessica Jones works best when it's a standalone series (there's a reason the only nod to Defenders is a patronizing "you people like team-ups" comment), and it knows it.

We get treated to a lightly comic montage of sob story cases that Jessica brushes off until one becomes all too real. Whizzer (yes, the guy who's actually named after a Marvel superhero) comes to Jessica for help over a "monster" that is trying to kill him, and ends up dying by a horrific scaffolding accident after Jessica initially ignores him. It's smart to kick the season off with an intriguing mystery that's more than just a "Jessica needs closure with IGH" narrative — the stakes are heightened as Jessica attempts to solve Whizzer's murder and digs deeper into her own past.

The Monster You Made Me Into

Until a couple episodes in, it remains somewhat of a mystery why Jessica refuses to "move on." She's a hero, not just a killer who snapped a man's neck, her best friend Trish continues to assure her. "But Trish," Jessica wearily responds. "It was easy."

Jessica blames herself, she blames IGH, she blames Kilgrave for turning her into the killer that she believes she has become. Throughout the season, she wrestles with her dark proclivities, which comes to a head when she accidentally kills a menacing prison guard. It's an intriguing season-long struggle, but Jessica Jones stumbles by introducing it too late. The buzzy return of David Tennant's Kilgrave doesn't take place until the third to last episode, and while Rytter's rapport with him his as riveting as ever, it puts words to Jessica's struggle too late.

But here we have the central theme of the season: Is Jessica a hero or a villain? It's a common debate hashed out over multiple Marvel Netflix series — The Punisher, two seasons of Daredevil. And that overwhelming guilt over her past threatens to crush both Jessica and the season's momentum. Thanks to a miraculous third-act twist, that doesn't end up being the case.

But it's not simply about scattering her family's ashes or finding out why she was given powers. "My past is killing people now," Jessica realizes to her horror after she suddenly remembers her time at the IGH clinic in flashes of memory, alongside the "monster" that attacked her there. It's wonderful motivation that drives the season along much better than simply existential angst. Because in this case, her existential angst has a body count.

For the first five episodes, Jessica Jones really engages its season-long mystery, acting for the first time like the noir detective series it always was. While the first season had a thrilling, action-packed narrative, Jessica's detective chops were often put in the backburner. Season 2 puts them front-and-center, with early episodes acting as character driven monster-of-the-week stories — with Jessica unearthing a new lead or clue in the case — that juggle the season-long mystery. It's reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except there's only one manifestation of Jessica's internal demons.

Our introduction to the Big Bad (Janet McTeer) is dragged out over three episodes, but it's worth it. Unnamed until the episode 6 twist, the season's villain is a powered woman who's not totally dissimilar from Jessica. Almost immediately, Jessica begins seeing herself in this alienated, angry, brutal killer — questioning how long it will take until she becomes the villain. It's a tired trope that is suddenly turned into a sobering reality when Jessica learns the earth-shattering secret: the "monster" is her mom.

Mommy Dearest

Thought to be dead for 16 years after the fatal car accident that killed their family, Alisa Jones is revealed to be the monster killing all of Jessica's leads and framing her for murder. And instead of a city-wide cover-up of the sinister IGH, the culprits are merely two tragic lovers. Not quite the vast conspiracy that Trish and Jessica expected — or that the show has led us to believe.

The reveal is a huge let-down narratively, but it's a trade-off for an even more compelling thematic conflict. Jessica sees herself in the monster because the monster is literally her mother. Does that mean Jessica is fated to become a human rage monster like Alisa? Or are they both victims of the same megalomaniacal scientist?

But even the megalomaniacal scientist is quite the opposite of that. Dr. Karl Malus (Callum Keith Rennie) isn't so much a mustache-twirling villain as he is a dorky, misguided knowledge-seeker who wears a lot of The Doors T-shirts. He cares deeply about Alisa, keeping her captive both for her own well-being and the safety of others — as well as out of his own slightly creepy fixation on her. But even then, Malus never verges on menacing, toeing the line between benign and affably boring.

But that's all right, because Alisa makes for the much more intriguing, sympathetic villain. Her emotional connection to Jessica is unquestionable, even if Jessica initially mistrusts her because of her different face and years of absence. Alisa had spent the better part of four years in a coma, brought back from the edge of death by Dr. Karl Malus' illegal genetic-editing experiments. But waking up in a panic and learning of her daughter's survival, Alisa had escaped to seek out her daughter, leaving a bloody rampage in her wake. When induced into a rage, she essentially "hulks out," murdering anyone in her way. Realizing that she poses a danger to her daughter, Alisa goes back into hiding — until now.

The next six episodes are spent telegraphing the fascinating tension between Jessica and Alisa, who are more alike than not. Like Jessica, Alisa is a droll, dry, whiskey-drinking independent woman. But she is also a mass murderer. Not since Daredevil's Wilson Fisk have we seen a villain who so deftly balances between sympathetic antihero and horrifying villain. Alisa is a raw, exposed nerve posing as a human being — driven solely by emotions and acting out erratically. But those emotions aren't just anger; she's driven to kill just as equally by her love for Jessica and Karl as she is by her manic bouts of rage. McTeer is given a tough job: to navigate a character whose motivations don't entirely make sense, but to never let the audience become too comfortable with a her. The result is a bit of a confusing mess, but it's in keeping with the show's argument that women contain multitudes.

Complicated Women Being Complicated

"Is this how I get normal?" Jessica asks herself as she chains her mother to the bed in her apartment. They had just escaped from Malus' house where Jessica had called the cops, uncertain how to act on her inner conflict of finally catching the killer and finding her mother.

From here, the season's exciting momentum that it had maintained for the past few episodes starts to fizzle, as the show attempts to stretch eight episodes worth of story over 13. It's another common Marvel-Netflix practice that the show's need to do away with: overlong episode orders that only serve to derail taut, well-written plots. But unlike season's 1 slightly unbelievable plot twists that delayed the story, Jessica Jones season 2's plot twists are all motivated by character. Mainly by the layered, complicated women who populate the show.

Jessica and Alisa's riveting back-and-forth is at the forefront of course, but Trish and Jeri have their own demons to wrestle with. Unfortunately, both Trish and Jeri's — and to an extent, Malcolm's — subplots offer little more than padding for the season, despite promising intriguing insights into each of the supporting players. Trish's subplot is perhaps the most frustrating, with the radio host growing steadily irrational in the face of the IGH investigation. She first resorts to taking her ex Will Simpson's performance enhancers to protect herself, then struggles with its addictive qualities. She has her own "mad as hell" Network moment that goes nowhere before nearly becoming a full-on villain, kidnapping Karl Malus in a self-righteous attempt to become the superhero that Jessica refuses to be. When she shoots Alisa, it's horrifying and has horrifying implications for her friendship with Jessica. But it doesn't quit feel earned. If not for the hackneyed addiction storyline, Trish's arc could have rivaled Jessica's in terms of morally gray actions, but instead they feel like the frenzied actions of an addict.

Jeri, meanwhile, gets even less to do. The high-powered lawyer gets diagnosed with ALS that sends her into a spiral of self-destruction before she resorts to partnering with Inez, a streetwise nurse who Jessica finds during her IGH investigation, to find a cure. But Jeri gets conned by Inez and her convict boyfriend and comes out just as ruthless as before, with perhaps some softer edges.

All the same, despite the frustrating turns, this season of Jessica Jones has some of the most intricate female character work in a Marvel series. The show truly explores all facets of female antiheroes, villains, and wannabe heroes.

Jessica Jones hasn't lost its title as the best Marvel-Netflix TV series, by any means. The second season is an inspired, character-driven follow-up to the incisive first season that threatens to buckle under the weight of its ambitions. But luckily, thanks largely to the raw, searing performance of Ritter and the complex women who support her, it manages to pull it off.