The Insomniac Appeal of Jessica Jones

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The Insomniac Appeal of <i>Jessica Jones</i>

Near the end of the first season of Jessica Jones, the femme fatale-slash-private eye (played to spiky perfection by Krysten Ritter) spends a night on the couch. She doesn’t sleep, though—she rarely does, at least not in the traditional sense, preferring to pound Kentucky bourbon until she slips out of consciousness. Instead she stirs, tosses off her blanket, and unlooses a sheaf of memories: Of a fight between her adoptive sister and closest friend, Trish, a golden-haired child star, and Trish’s domineering, abusive stage mother; of snapping a hairbrush in half, shattering a marble sink with her fist, and lifting the slab to the ceiling with ease; of Trish calling her a “freak,” soon amended to “gifted,” not in disgust but in awe. When the flashback concludes, Jessica rouses herself to pursue a lead at the darkened morgue, and from there the series loses me again, setting in motion a three-episode denouement that a more disciplined program might pull off in one. I want more of that plaid-shirted “freak,” that emo orphan, that live-action Violet Parr with dark hair in her eyes. I want more of that walking bruise, that restless woman, that motherless daughter, that difficult friend. I want more of the nocturnal Jessica, prowler of rooftops and fire escapes, high-powered camera slung over her shoulder. It turns out that Jessica Jones is for the nighthawk in me, and perhaps the nighthawk in us all.

The term “nighthawk” is the most apt I can muster: Edward Hopper’s 1942 oil on canvas has the appearance of film noir, avant la lettre, and it’s to that movement of the postwar American cinema—urbane, hard-boiled, and disillusioned, per Paul Schrader’s indispensable “Notes on Film Noir,” with vertiginous camera angles and chiaroscuro lighting—that Jessica Jones, created by Melissa Rosenberg, owes both its aesthetics and ethics. (“Humanity sucks and they don’t deserve saving,” Jessica grouses to Rachael Taylor’s adult Trish in that Season One episode, though she goes on to save at least of few of ‘em anyway.) In the painting, the viewer peers in on the Miss and Messrs. Lonelyhearts of an all-night diner, each one a crisp figure in its harsh, fluorescent glow. From the start of the series, Jessica seems most content on similar terrain: In its opening minutes, the pilot draws attention to the awkwardness of her head hitting the pillow with a crooked composition, then sends her into the night with a thermos of Jim Beam to play L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies to Mike Colter’s Luke Cage. Even the title sequence, more “comic book” than “crime drama,” captures Hopper’s understanding that spying is a form of searching, of forging a connection with a stranger in the city’s strange land. After all, its signal sequence is practically a flipbook of penciled silhouettes in tenement windows, spotted through curtains, bars, wooden frames, and thin blinds.

The appeal of Jessica Jones, then, is not its commitment to invention—though its interest in “female road-rage in all its varied facets,” as Paste’s Amy Glynn writes, is rich, and rare—nor its brisk action—as with Netflix’s other entries in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” it’s overlong, over-plotted, overworked, like bread that’s been kneaded with a jackhammer—but something like the opposite. If sleeplessness is as deep in your sinews as it is in mine, in fact, Jessica Jones might be comfortingly familiar. Its near-silences and fugue states are those of the sheep-counter and the infomercial-watcher, the last-call loner and the midnight flâneur, the obsessive, the worrywart, the livewire, the night owl. The series comes to resemble the Season One meetings held by survivors of its supervillain’s mind control: It’s an insomniac support group, attuned to the frustrations and consolations of being awake.

For most TV characters—for most people—a sleepless night is tantamount to torture. For Jessica Jones, though—for nighthawks like me—it can also be seductive: Wakefulness is watchfulness, and watchfulness is a way to think. Jessica Jones Season Two, as Glynn, Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién, The New Yorker’s Moira Donegan, and numerous others note, is a portrait of women’s rage in triplicate, as Jessica unearths her origins, Trish tries to find purpose in fame, and Jeri (Carrie-Anne Moss) fights to retain a place at her firm after being diagnosed with ALS. Still, it’s the characters’ coping mechanisms, as much as the trauma itself, which informs the series’ action; despite their self-medication (and self-flagellation), the women also find sustenance, a certain clear-headedness, after dark. In the Season Two premiere, Jessica and Trish slough off the indignities of a long day at work under the night sky, a 1946 noir called The Killers projected on the building behind them; in the second episode, in which Jeri goes on an ill-advised afternoon bender with three sex workers, she finally comes to her senses at nighttime, bursting into tears at the red wine on her carpet. The insomniac appeal of Jessica Jones, in the end, is its willingness to consider the appeal of insomnia—the moment, once you’ve become inured to not sleeping, that you begin to luxuriate in those hours, to see them not as a curse, or the mark of a freak, but as something of a gift.

This, I suspect, is why that Season One flashback—which presages more to come in Season Two—struck me so forcefully. Jessica and Trish’s bathroom détente, in which each promises to keep the other’s secret, is less about what’s hidden than what’s revealed, which is that neither is interested in hewing to expectations, limitations, norms. Though Nighthawks, noir, and Jessica Jones draw the point in terms of night and day, light and dark, it’s not sleeplessness, in the specific sense, that matters—it’s restlessness, of the sort that connotes independence, exertion, retreat from the mean. Though it’s far from perfect—in stretches it might cause even the most committed insomniac to doze off—Jessica Jones recognizes that the plaid shirt, the dark hair, and the pale complexion, the leather jacket and the wary eyes, are mere markers of this restless streak, that the thing itself is not a state of being, but a state of mind.

Coupled with its washed-out, flat “daylight”—not gloomy, exactly, but wintry, thin; the light of hangovers and red-eyes and long walks home from your ex-boyfriend’s apartment—Jessica Jones’ understanding of night dovetails rather beautifully with its understanding of noir. Disillusionment, at the core of Jessica Jones’ aesthetics and ethics, at the center of its heroine’s long, lamp-lit walkabouts among the city’s silhouettes, is the opposite of mind control, groupthink, boosterism, convention: To be disillusioned is not only to be disappointed. It’s also to cease being deceived.

Season Two of Jessica Jones is now streaming on Netflix.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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