’ third season is premiering into a TV landscape that has already said its goodbyes to Marvel’s collaboration with Netflix. The season feels, in most ways, like an afterthought; it, and the rest of the the Defenders’ series have been long-cancelled, so after a divisive second season, Jessica Jones returns needing to prove why a third season should exist.
As of the first eight episodes, it doesn’t make a particularly strong case. The third season is full of both great ideas and familiar superhero story tropes, but the fundamental problems of the Netflix series’ style remains. In an attempt to capitalize on the success of the show’s excellent first season, Jessica Jones continues to make things personal for its heroine (played exceptionally once again by Krysten Ritter), but in far less compelling ways than before. She’s stabbed almost fatally in the first hour, and then experiences PTSD from it in the third, but it’s an embarrassing callback to the far more powerful exploration of her abuse at the hands of Kilgrave. It’s also difficult to imagine that Jessica would be so thrown over something so comparably mild to what she’s otherwise experienced in the series, which this season more or less ignores. Her then shaking it off and moving on without comment illustrates the muddled natured of the new season, which tries out several different narrative paths without yet landing on a compelling central tenet (or, perhaps, Tennant).
One of the things that Netflix’s superhero series have prided themselves on is keeping the super-powered parts of its story grounded. The reluctant heroes don’t have the cosmic powers of the Avengers or even augmentations that exceed slightly-elevated abilities. Jessica Jones , in particular, has therefore leaned into the psychological side of these “gifts” to great effect in the show’s first season, and less so afterwards, by keeping plots focused around her PI firm, Alias Investigations. To that end, the new season wants to be noir, but any interesting Cases of the Week (aided, briefly, by another super) are dropped almost immediately in service of Jessica both trying to stop and eventually allying with Trish (Rachel Taylor) as the latter embraces her new strength to become a vigilante.
Here, the series enters into one of the oldest superhero quandaries, which is exploring what it means to be a hero. Jessica is still wrestling with whether or not she wants to be the savior of Hell’s Kitchen, but even that “struggle” feels hollow. Jessica is no villain, and she does always help people—however reluctantly. It feels too late to be addressing this, especially in scenes where, comically, Jessica is given a dollar bill from a foe that literally has “hero?” and “fraud?” written in blood on opposite sides. It gives one a sense of the nuance of the season (of which there is none), but it also has more to do with Trish ultimately than Jessica, which is the season’s most major problem.
In many ways, Marvel’s Netflix series have always felt like watered-down versions of better shows. With Jessica Jones in particular, no other character is as dynamic or interesting as Jessica by a wide margin. When the new season checks in with Malcolm (Eka Danville), who is now working for Jeri (and questioning his own moral compass), and Jeri (Carrie-Ann Moss) herself as she comes to terms with her mortality, what should be fertile ground for character drama is instead a snooze. The series also continues to have far more interest in Trish than most viewers do, and when Season Three sidelines Jessica to focus on Trish becoming a vigilante, it nearly grinds to a halt. The show’s strength has always been Ritter, but she’s been given increasingly less to do. Jessica is mostly relegated to sighing, rolling her eyes, and making an occasional quip, but it never goes deeper than that. And it should; the third season sets up a Dexter-esque situation to start where Jessica and Trish (separately, and sometimes in tandem) go after criminals that have slipped through the judicial cracks.
The problem, again, is that these solid ideas are marred both by an inconsistency in the season’s themes and a subpar script. In an unintentionally hilarious scene—which should have been both triumphant and powerful—Trish saves a girl from her date rapist and then rapidly instructs the girl who was nearly unconscious five second before to the complexities of the legal and medical systems she will be facing and what actions she needs to take, as well as explaining everything this creep guy has done in his past. Keep in mind, the girl was nearly assaulted because she was intentionally drugged and almost comatose, but when Trish shows up she’s suddenly fully alert, angry, and able to keep this incredibly complicated sequence of events straight to tell the police. It’s such a missed opportunity to consider the impact of women saving women in a world that has betrayed them, and instead it feels like a script from a fictional TV series pitched on HBO’s Barry as a faux-empowerment series “Payback Ladies … it’s the time of the month for revenge!”
The best hero stories come from encounters with strong and complicated villains. Jessica Jones’ only worthy Season Three villains are mostly meta and insidious: overly long episodes, sluggish scenes that play out in real time, weak supporting character arcs, a sleepy score, and of course a lack of a central villain. And that’s an incredible shame, because in a boys club of superhero television, especially in this particular world, Jessica Jones had the opportunity to be something fresh and interesting and different. Instead it became, like its Defenders brethren, the ultimate in Background Television (in other words, it’s worth watching if you’re a fan or a completionist, but it doesn’t require your full attention).
closing out the Marvel Netflix experience with a season that is bursting with potential it can’t (or won’t) seemingly fulfill is certainly on-brand for this universe as a whole. Season Three is a pale shadow of the first, where the connections to Jessica’s personal life are mostly arbitrary (until a gruesome twist that, again, doesn’t have the power it should), a case involving a serial killer ends before it ever really begins, and Jessica’s quandary over heroism is never given its full due. Ritter, who took such fantastic ownership of this character, deserves more than a season that finds Jessica more or less where it always does-let down by those around her.
Season Three premieres on Netflix Friday, June 14th.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV