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Review: Jessica Jones

Culture, Reviews, Why Aren't You Watching This?

November 30, 2015

Jessica Jones, the second of the original series being produced by Marvel and Netflix, has been out for a little more than two weeks. We’re about to dig deep and talk about the guts of the thing, why it works and what makes it excellent. So, spoilers they are ahead, obvs, but we’ll try and keep them to a minimum.

There was some concern about how Jessica Jones was going to be translated from comic to screen. It’s a dark story, about a hero who get co-opted her first time out, and is physically, mentally, and spiritually destroyed by one of the scariest villains Marvel has ever produced over an eight month period. There’s a real sense of darkness throughout the tale, grounded by who and what the villain is, and his taint touches everything that happens. Would Netflix be willing to host something this disturbing.

Well, yes. They’ve done it before, even if they did caper off with a whimper at the end.

But it’s still different. This is not your standard Marvel fare; it’s not your standard anything fare. It’s radically different from pretty much everything else you’re going to see, and it hits every point it wants to make while staring you in the face and daring you to blink.

You won’t, by the way. You won’t blink. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from the screen. This is just as good as Daredevil was, and has an even greater impact than that masterpiece did.

Right from the start, Jessica Jones establishes that the main character is female, that the characters that are going to have development in this tale are all female. The male characters are mostly static, eye candy, or obstacles to be overcome. Their agency is tied to Jessica’s story, and any catharsis they experience is only through the advent of her presence and tied to her growth.

What’s remarkable about this is that the inverse is often true: female caricatures on traditional television have served subservient roles to male characters, helping them to grow, providing obstacles, or being prizes to be won. Instead of looking to be lauded for strong female characters, Jessica Jones opts to give us strong characters that just happen to be female.

JJ 003

“We’re pretty great, you know?”

And not all of these characters are good, or strong. Jessica Hogarth, a lawyer that contracts Jessica for various jobs, is shown to be callous, selfish, and generally horrible. Pam Walker, Jessica’s adopted mother, is a self-involved woman who abused her daughter and adopted Jessica for publicity’s sake. Jessica herself suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder the likes of which you will see nowhere else.

Which is another thing that Jessica Jones does exceptionally well: portray what it is like to live with PTSD. The paradigm under which our society lives is based on materialist-nihilist principles, meaning that our culture accepts physical reality as the sole truth. In this case, that means that society typically sees mental illness as either a moral weakness or something that simply isn’t real, despite any evidence to the contrary.

Recently, we’ve been re-examining our cultural beliefs, and mental illness has been getting a lot of attention and is now being equated to physical illness. Depression, anxiety, and other ailments are being given the same consideration as their physical counterparts, and being seen as sicknesses rather than failings. Jessica Jones gives us a variety of characters that are suffering from PTSD and doing the best they can, from the villainous Kilgrave to Trish Walker to Jessica Jones herself.

Jessica spends much of her time trying not to let her world overwhelm her, having to take moments to separate and ground herself as life goes on around her. She’s dealing with an eight month period where her agency was taken from her, where she was raped in every possible way with no end in sight, and where her escape from that situation came about because of happenstance rather than rescue.

The truth is that mental illness is real; it is a struggle to live with depression or anxiety or anything of the other illnesses that can afflict a mind. Some people are born with these illnesses, and others – like PTSD – happen because of experiences in life. Like physical scars, they never go away, but they can be lived with. Trish overcame her trauma to become a celebrity. Jessica is still coming to terms with things, but she’s getting there.

And if Jessica Jones treats mental illness with respect, it stares unblinking at the horrors of rape. Compare this to Supernatural or Agents of SHIELD or any of a dozen other narratives where someone is mind controlled and raped and the situation is played for laughs. A woman was raped in Supernatural and her life was destroyed by it and her trauma is used as a punchline. Agent Ward is raped by an Asgardian in Agents of SHIELD and the other characters mock him for it.

Willing to wreck anyone that thinks stealing agency is a punchline.

Willing to wreck anyone that thinks stealing agency is a punchline.

Jessica is destroyed by what was done to her. The character of Hope and her whole family are entirely undone by what was done to her. Jessica has to remind Hope that nothing that happened to her was her fault, while society is ready to condemn her and blame the victim. We see this happen in our own world, where people are raped and then blamed for it; what were you wearing, why didn’t you fight, you knew him so it couldn’t have been rape

There’s a male character that lost his jacket to Kilgrave, and equates his pain to that of everyone else. He had no choice in what was done to him and can’t get over it, and no one makes fun of him for his inability to do so – a narrative choice that acknowledges that any loss of agency is horrible, regardless of the scale.

By that same token, however, rape, mental illness, and trauma are never used as an excuse for poor choices. Everyone is culpable for the things they do and the choices they make, and serious weight is given to every action in Jessica Jones in a way that very few other narratives manage, regardless of medium.

Kilgrave himself is a monster, yes, and we’re shown that he has a tragic backstory that explains what he is without excusing it. He is evil on a level that we haven’t seen in Marvel before, and is treated as the terror he is without exception. No one sympathizes with him specifically because of what he does: his actions and continued monstrousness make it okay to pity him without forgiving him.

An apology only has weight if there’s no excuse behind it and the offending party intends to be better, two qualities that Kilgrave lacks utterly. He is a charming, pretty monster, a predator that no one believes in and who leaves a trail of broken lives in his wake, and is all the more terrifying for how everyone around him accepts him.

Kilgrave would like to remind you that everything he does to you is your fault.

Kilgrave would like to remind you that everything he does to you is your fault.

The slow reveal of Kilgrave – and Jessica herself – help to ground this tale in the real world. Jessica Jones, at its heart, is a detective story. She has to uncover the truth of things methodically, discovering new facets of the crime she’s investigating while taking us along for the ride. Taken purely on that front, this is brilliantly done and executed, but it’s everything that happens around the story that makes the story so much more than it might otherwise be while also laying the groundwork for both a sequel and the next of the Marvel/Netflix collaborations.

And the next collaboration? Luke Cage.

If the character of Jessica Jones is a study of a cultural failing, the character of Luke Cage is one of the most important power fantasies imaginable: he is a black man whose power is to be bulletproof. Given the terror that African-Americans live in of being shot by police officers or crazy white fundamentalist terrorists and the way the media portrays these incidents, it’s not hard to imagine why so many people might dream of having that super power.

All evidence points to this series being breathtaking.

All evidence points to this series being breathtaking.

Jessica Jones gave us fully fleshed characters, firmly grounding in reality, who happened to be female. Given this, we fully expect Luke Cage to give us grounded main characters who just happen to be black. It’s hard to imagine a more timely or necessary narrative.

The acting of everyone involved is brilliant. Krysten Ritter’s turn as the title character is based around a tough fragility – someone who looks strong but might break at any moment, and everything she does, from walk to silence, reflects Jessica’s pain. Rachael Taylor and Mike Colter both bring their a-game, inhabiting their characters with a vulnerable depth that Jessica can rely upon. David Tennant’s performance perfectly captures the solipsistic horror that Kilgrave is.

A special shoutout needs to be given to Eka Darville, however, as it’s the character of Malcolm Ducasse that truly ties everyone else together. The revelation of who he is and what’s been done to him is the purest motivation anyone could give Jessica outside of her own experiences, and he handles his role with a pure sense of hope and tragedy in equal measure.

There’s some subtle and not-so-subtle ties to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too, mentions of Thor and Captain America, kids playing at being the Avengers, and Rosario Dawson resuming the role of Claire Temple from Daredevil. All this gives the series an increased sense of depth without requiring anything more than what’s present and without taking away from this specific narrative.

In short, Jessica Jones is just about perfect, and you should watch it.

And season two. We need a season two.

And season two. We need a season two.

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Jessica Jones Trailer

Culture, Videos, Why Aren't You Watching This?

November 11, 2015

Perhaps Netflix was afraid that we would forget about their brand new Marvel property coming out, what with Star Wars being so much in the new of late. It’s a fair fear; Daredevil has name recognition and sounds like a superhero, where as Jessica Jones sounds like, well, someone you might bump into while grocery shopping.

And that? Sort of the point. Jessica Jones is a hero who failed, getting caught by a bad guy mind-controller her first time out and used as his muscle for eight months. The series picks up after that, where she’s built a life for herself as a private investigator and just tries to get through the day. A new trailer just got released, and it’s a doozy:

Yeah, I know what we’ll be doing in these offices come the twentieth. You’ve got our attention, Netflix. Let’s see if you can do better than the last time you got our hopes up.

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Hemlock Grove – Season 3 [Review]

Fail, Reviews

November 2, 2015

We liked Hemlock Grove. We really did.

The first season was a meandering hot mess of a story, this weird and protracted journey. It was about nihilism and loneliness, alienation and supernatural realism, and we loved it. The story sprawled out like an uncomfortable lover, discomfort set against some truly inspired directorial choices and striking performances from everyone involved. It had some problems, but made those problems work with it. It was a difficult narrative that gave you as much as you were willing to put into it, and it ended on a terrible sense of nothingness. It was awesome.

We weren’t looking for the second season. The second season crept up on us; we were wandering through Netflix and, lo and behold, there were new episodes on offer. We watched those, too, and we adored them – everything from the first season was tightened and improved upon. The directing was tighter, the characterization intriguing, and the story truly daring. If the first season was about ennui, the second dwelt on cruelty, on the idea that nothing is ever truly alright. We loved it more, and went back and watched the first season again.

Doing so gave us a deeper appreciation for both of these stories, the ongoing mythology and the tightness of that mythology. We got the book and read that, comparing the close-knit narrative between the printed page and the flickering fiction of that first season, then watched the second again. We were fans. We want to make this clear, right from the start.

Because the third season is a – and is about – disappointment.

And no amount of crying is going to make it okay.

And no amount of crying is going to make it okay.

Spoilers lurk ahead. I find it difficult to care about spoiling a season I’m urging you not to watch.

A quick recap: Hemlock Grove is a small mining town where the mining died, and the family that started and ran the town changed over to cutting-edge pharmaceuticals. The town is very New England in decor, but New England in decay; the town is cracking and showing it’s age, strangled by a pervasive and hidden evil. The only building untouched by that entropy is the White Tower, a sparkling edifice to scientific nihilism and innovation, both in equal measure.

Sounds cool, right? It gets better. The family that owns the White Tower are the Godfreys. The patriarch of the family committed suicide, leaving his brother, niece, wife, son, and sister behind. The brother is a psychiatrist who is sleeping with his dead brother’s wife, a secret that his wife tries not to let on that she knows. The wife in question is Olivia, as white and pale as the tower, raven haired, aloof, and ruthless. Her children are Roman and Shelley, one a teenage boy set apart by his wealth, the other set apart by her monstrous appearance. Their cousin Letha is pregnant and claims the father is an angel. Roman and Letha are strangely attracted to one another, and Roman is going through some things.

See, Olivia is a vampire.

Or upire, as they run with in Hemlock Grove. We get some insight through her into what the upire are like, and we see how powerful and horrifying they can be. Olivia is a powerful figure, untouchable and so many steps ahead of everyone else that no one can even hope to play on her level. She has plans for everyone, and escaping them is not an option.

Into this rich tapestry comes Peter, a gypsy who recently inherited a trailer on the edge of town. He and his mother move in just as a series of animal attacks start up, which is troubling because Peter is a werewolf. He knows he’s not at fault, so there has to be someone else out there, and he and Roman form a friendship and end up going to confront evil.

They’re able to connect because they are set apart, and their bonds go deeper than mere friendship. There’s romantic tension between the two of them, which is complicated when Peter sleeps with Letha and Roman finds out the horrible truth about the father of Letha’s child. The two of them still manage to work out their differences and maintain their tie, confronting the evil that lies at the heart of the attacks, but after that Peter is forced to leave town for reasons of gypsy.

Roman is devastated. Things go wrong, and we’re left with a terrible sense of finality.

That’s a brief overview. There’s secret societies, historical tragedies, gypsy magic… Hemlock Grove is beautiful and terrible in its scope, and relentless in the hurricane of festering decay that ruins everything in the town. It’s awesome. We highly recommend it.

Season two starts a few months after the first one ended. Peter’s mother is arrested at a funeral and dragged back to Hemlock Grove. Peter, the dutiful son, follows her back to try and get her free – first legally, and then through jailbreak. It isn’t long before he’s swept up in the town’s entropic field again, crossing paths with Roman.

And we're not even touching on how awesome Shelley is.

And we’re not even touching on how awesome Shelley is.

Roman himself has moved out of his mother’s home. He’s stolen her power and her wealth, though he’s unsure what to do with either. He’s been left with a baby that he will defend at all costs, but there is clearly something off about the child. He’s been hurt by Peter’s leaving and lashes out when the two of them see one another again, a lashing that hurts them both.

A girl has a car accident outside Roman’s new home, and Peter’s gotten a job working at a towing company. The girl, Miranda ends up sleeping with one, then the other, and finally both. She sleeps with both of them. At once. We get the first healthy threesome relationship outside of Savages, a slap in the face of monogamy, with all three of them made better and healthier people by the connection they share.

Everything comes together, the stories, characters, and mythologies of the first season grown and improved upon. the secret society of the first season comes back in force, and appears to have a civil war in its ranks. A wounded Olivia plays with redemption. The cutting edge medicines of the White Tower betray an incredible sense of both innovation and science run amuck. The baby has three loving and doting adults who love it completely.

Hemlock Grove being what it is, none of those positives can last. Things go wrong everywhere – the secret society has a civil war in its ranks. Olivia does something unspeakable and returns to power in grand fashion. Sixteen years of ambition is thwarted via a terrible atrocity. The child appears to be a literal Antichrist. Miranda and the baby are stolen by a dragon.

Miranda and the baby are stolen by a dragon.

The freaking season ends with Miranda being stolen by a motherfucking dragon.

So where does season three begin? With a bunch of gypsies robbing a truck using Peter’s lycanthropy. It’s a misstep that carries over everywhere else. The dragon – the motherfucking dragon that kidnapped Miranda and the Antichrist – barely gets more than a passing mention as everyone acts out of character and nothing makes a goddamn bit of sense.

You would be better off avoiding the one episode you're in, Miranda.

You would be better off avoiding the one episode you’re in, Miranda.

Olivia is a frustrating case study of the whole season. The dominant powerhouse of the first season is gone, and even the wounded survivor of the second is absent in favor of a whimpering shadow of what was. The promise of a the first season’s strength is dashed in favor of a short-sighted unreliable narrator that doesn’t fit anything we know about who this person is. The actress does a fantastic job, giving a powerful performance that belongs to a character that isn’t Olivia.

She’s not the only person to suffer in this way. Roman and Peter and the whole cast appears to have been guzzling stupid pills by the bottle. See, a good chunk of the surviving cast saw the dragon, and none of them seem even mildly interested. It’s idiotic. Let me save you ten hours:

Miranda dies off camera. One gypsy betrays the rest and is killed by the mob, resulting in a bunch of other nonsense deaths that end with Peter ripping out Roman’s heart. The dragon is killed right after they remember the dragon is there; it takes about a minute. All the myth-building about upire society is abandoned; they’re just people that sometimes need to drink blood, the horror and majesty stripped from them so that we can get an idiot zombie thing. The baby being the Antichrist is completely forgotten about, as is the secret society.

Nothing makes any sense at all, except Shelley. Shelley has a coming-of-age story that’s equally sweet and powerful, coming into her own and claiming her own power. She eventually abandons Hemlock Grove and we get a neat parallel of the end of the first season, the only time the third season feels anything like the first or second. Of course, she’s also running away with a much older homeless man who is also a wanted felon, and is carting along the Antichrist. Your happy endings may vary.

The third season also lacks the sweeping directive ambition that the first season excelled at and the second echoed. It’s flat. It’s boring, taking the fertile ground tended to so carefully in the first and second and salting that earth until there’s nothing worth watching. Nothing. Everyone dies for reasons that makes no fundamental sense other than to give the series a sense of finality.

Hell, just look at Roman. The writers forget that Roman can control people with his gaze. They forget that Shelley is important to him. They forget that Miranda is important to him. They forget that not killing anyone is important to him. They forget that trying to keep his humanity is important to him. They forget everything we know about the Upir. Nothing he does in this season makes any sense at all, right up until the point his best friend murders him by ripping out his heart, thereby trapping himself in wolf form forever.

Hemlock Grove

Roman needs a stiff drink of hemlock after watching the third season. We feel you, buddy.

What fucking idiocy is this?

I want to make this clear: it is possible to kill off a cast and do it well. It could and should have worked well for this show, where entropy lies at the heart of every last person. There are some fantastic stories where everyone does – King Lear comes to mind, as does American Mary. What made the massive death scenes in Lear and Mary work was the strength of the characters involved, but Hemlock Grove spends the whole of season three ripping those characters apart. If you can’t care about the characters one way or the other, their deaths have no meaning.

There are two main characters on this show, which is about their relationship. We spend little time with them, and even less with them together. Peter is in a shitty heist movie for a bit, then an equally shitty crime thriller. Roman has no purpose whatsoever. Two strong characters – Olivia and Destiny – are stripped of any agency or power they might have had for no reason whatsoever. A new character is introduced and then does nothing, and isn’t even a character that makes sense.

Yes, I’m talking about Annie. Annie ends up being the lost long daughter of Olivia, and the half-sister of Roman and Shelley. See, way back when Olivia was seduced by a gypsy, but we were told in season one that the child wasn’t an upire, and it was strongly hinted that child grew up to be Peter’s ancestor. So, no, she doesn’t make any sense, which means it fits in great with how nothing else in this season makes any sense.

May as well go on a little bit… remember how Pryce is super strong? The writers don’t. Pryce is the genius behind the science in Hemlock Grove, a intellectual powerhouse that is able to match wits with the likes of Olivia while playing secret societies against one another. That’s forgotten here. We get an abuse story instead that would actually have been really powerful if it had been built to, or, better still, had been given to a character that could have made it work. His storyline and eventual death – you guessed it – make no goddamn sense.

What an absolute waste. What a disappointment. The characters don’t get what they want, the viewers don’t get what they want, and no one is happy. We would have been better off lingering with the cliffhanger than dealing with this steaming pile of shit.

In short...

The Good: The cast. The performances are terrific, even though the script doesn’t warrant it. The main characters all bring their a-game, and it almost makes this bearable.

The Bad: The bland direction and sound design. The terrible script. No one acting in character. The dangling plot threads. The abandoned plot threads. The killing of everyone for the sake of killing everyone. The lack of decent werewolf transformations. Vampire zombies that only target vampires. Olivia’s character arc. Roman’s character arc. Peter’s character arc. Pedophilia and incest. Oh, and there’s a horde of dragons that the series doesn’t bother to touch on ever again. What the shit.

The Ugly: The way the scripts of the third season cast aside all the carefully constructed mythology and characters of the first two seasons for nothing.

The Verdict: Avoid this. It’s an interesting case study if you’re looking to watch how to utterly destroy a series. There’s some solid performances that are, outside of context, quite enjoyable.

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Daredevil

Videos, Why Aren't You Watching This?

April 9, 2015

Daredevil is sort of an odd duck, as far as superheroes go.

At first glance, he’s a hero who has no powers. He’s a blind man whose powers mean that he’s not really blind, who works as a lawyer in a crime ridden section of New York that’s bad enough to be called Hell’s Kitchen. He has no other powers other than not being really blind. He dresses in a bright red costume and uses a billy club as a weapon and he’s really kind of ridiculous.

Or, you know, he should be.

(more…)

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House of Cards Season 3 [Television Review]

Reviews, Showcase

March 3, 2015

I have an unnatural addiction to political drama. It started way back in 1999 when my new friend (and now God) Aaron Sorkin took me inside of The West Wing. Over the course of 7 seasons, I developed a love for the cast, world, and writing of the series. It branched into a need for more and I sought out all of Aaron Sorkin’s works, then and now. Still I needed more.

(more…)

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Hemlock Grove – Season 1 & 2 [Review]

Reviews, Showcase

July 14, 2014

2-hemlock-groveI don’t know how to feel about this show.

A year ago, a friend of mine recommended it to me. “It’s a Netflix original,” said he. “It’s got a rich pseudo-vampire and a Gypsy werewolf, and together they’re trying to solve murders that the werewolf is dreaming about. Also, the vampire has a hot cousin who slept with an angel and is now pregnant.” I believe my response was something along the lines of “Wut,” but I tuned into the first episode, willing to give it a chance.

The first season… happened. I don’t know how else to describe it. I binge watched all of it, and at the end of every episode I’d sit there, staring at my television, wondering what I’d just seen. Was there a plot? Was anything happening? An hour of my life was suddenly gone but it felt like nothing had happened. (more…)

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