When it comes to superhero stories, there’s a widely held belief that a hero is only as good as their villain – and in the case of Marvel’s Netflix shows, the bad guy (or lack thereof) can make or break a season. Jessica Jones has had an interesting relationship with its antagonists – rather than trying to replicate the grandiose performance of David Tennant in Season 1, the show pivoted in an unexpected and tragic direction in Season 2 by attempting to dismantle our idea of a villain altogether, when Jessica learned that her long-lost mother Alisa was actually alive (and also a murderer, oops). In Season 3, the series delves deeper into that murky ethical quagmire, offering a foe that our heroine can’t just punch her way through.The new season introduces arrogant serial killer Gregory Salinger – aka Foolkiller (played with smarmy menace by Russian Doll’s Jeremy Bobb), a Marvel Comics character who murders those he doesn’t consider “worthy” of the advantages life has given them – especially those with super-powers. Salinger has no powers of his own, which makes him a much more pedestrian villain than Kilgrave, and because he’s a regular civilian criminal, there’s a procedural quality to the early episodes that occasionally leaves the season feeling a little like a Silence of the Lambs knock-off.
But after the heightened shenanigans of the first two seasons, there’s something quite refreshing about watching our heroine engage in some actual sleuthing this time around, and if the stakes seem low at the beginning of the season, things certainly ratchet into high gear by the last few episodes.
As I wrote in my Jessica Jones Season 2 review, “in a lot of ways, Jessica is a victim of circumstance who has had heinous things done to her without her consent, and that kind of trauma leaves scars, even if they’re not outwardly visible. But Jessica also makes choices — and a lot of times they’re the wrong ones — about how to react to that trauma, who to help, and who to blame, and one of the most satisfying aspects of Season 2 is how it forces her to reckon with the many shades of grey that occupy the spectrum of morality. Villains can also be victims, good people are capable of bad things, bad people are capable of good, and maybe there is no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the first place, just a bunch of people trying to survive through any means necessary.”
Season 3 takes that central conflict and expands on it in powerful ways. Considering all the trauma Jessica endured over the first two seasons of the show (culminating in Trish killing Jessica’s mother in the Season 2 finale), it’s telling that everyone in Jessica’s orbit is far more self-destructive than she is in Season 3 – Malcolm, Jeri, and Trish are all wrecking balls, spinning out of control after their many misdeeds last season. And aside from being justifiably furious at Trish, Jessica is probably in the most stable, level-headed place she’s ever been when Season 3 begins. Sure, she’s still drinking and screwing the pain away, but she’s also trying to maintain healthier boundaries and is actually functioning as a competent PI, helping the helpless through pro bono work. She’s still not comfortable with the whole “hero” label, but that probably makes her more rational than guys like Danny Rand, who are always proclaiming their righteousness.
Season 2 turned most of Jessica’s supporting cast into completely unlikable caricatures, generally by having them behave in contrived or cliched ways that seemed to be dictated by the need to facilitate plot twists, rather than logical character development. But Season 3 actually does a very effective job of offering context for the characters’ actions, and in most cases, allowing us to empathize with them, even if we don’t always agree with what they’re doing. It doesn’t completely erase the frustrations of some of last season’s B and C plotlines, but it helps.
Jeri’s behavior is still frequently baffling, but as she continues to struggle with the ALS diagnosis she received last season and the sense of powerlessness it causes, it’s understandable to see her seeking out ways to control (and in some cases, rewrite) her narrative. This season, she reconnects with an old flame, Kith (Sarita Choudhury), and immediately sets about trying to dismantle her seemingly idyllic marriage. Jeri tells herself that she’s doing something noble once she finds out that Kith’s husband has been up to no good, but we all know she’s just driven by selfish desire and insecurity, seeking out someone to help her feel less alone before she dies.
Malcolm is now working for Jeri as the firm’s in-house investigator, and it’s safe to say that the fearsome lawyer’s influence hasn’t been a positive one in the former addict’s life – but the season does give Jessica’s former assistant a lot more to do, challenging his notions of being a good guy by putting him in increasingly fraught circumstances.
But the season really belongs to Trish, who truly seemed irredeemable after her actions last season, but makes for a surprisingly compelling POV character here, thanks to Rachael Taylor’s layered and heartbreaking performance. The season’s two strongest episodes (2 and 11) are both told from Trish’s perspective rather than Jessica’s, with episode 2, “You’re Welcome” (confidently directed by star Krysten Ritter) offering us a Hellcat origin story of sorts, as Trish gets to grips with the surprising powers she developed after Dr. Malus’s experiment last season. Trish is so eager (aka desperate) to be a hero in all the ways Jessica has spent her life avoiding, the contrast between them is the most compelling storyline of the season, even when it puts them at odds.
Jessica also has a new ally – and hookup – in Erik Gelden (Benjamin Walker), another comic book character who gets a TV twist here. Erik has low-level psychic abilities that apparently allow him to sense when a person has done something bad – a nebulous power that manifests via headaches and comes in pretty handy at various points in the season. His schtick occasionally verges on MacGuffin-esque, but as an equally damaged and cynical loner, he makes a good foil for our heroine, even if his abilities sometimes make him more of a hindrance than a help.
But where Season 3 excels is in its thorny, complicated examination of morality and justice. Everyone’s very quick to insist that the ends justify the means when it gets them what they want, but this season meticulously sets up the dominoes just to watch them fall in spectacularly disastrous ways, backing our so-called heroes into corners that there’s truly no way out of. By digging further into the grey areas that our protagonists inhabit, Jessica Jones offers a surprisingly nuanced exploration of what constitutes right and wrong, and the fallacy of good and evil – hitting similar beats to Daredevil Season 2 (and plenty of other superhero stories over the years), but with more deft touch than we got from that show’s heavy-handed Punisher arc.
It’s very easy for characters like Jessica or Matt Murdock to serve as judge, jury, and executioner, and since Jessica took the law into her own hands with Kilgrave back in Season 1, she doesn’t pretend to have any moral high ground. But after seeing how Jeri operates, it’s also painfully clear that the law has its limitations – so where does that leave these vigilantes? Luke Cage Season 2 also tackled the idea of a hero needing to get their hands dirty to get the job done, even at the cost of their own soul, and Jessica Jones doesn’t try to offer easy answers about crossing lines or how far is too far when it comes to removing a perceived threat. Salinger is just an ordinary human, not a super-powered psycho like Kilgrave, but that doesn’t make his actions any less horrific, and Jessica is forced to confront some painful truths by facing off with a villain who doesn’t need mind control to manipulate her.
As with all of the Marvel-Netflix shows, the season once again loses steam around the midway point, and shaving off three episodes would’ve helped the pace and impact of the plot, but overall Jessica Jones Season 3 succeeds by telling a character-focused story, one that somehow manages to be even more personal than Jessica’s short-lived reunion with her mother in Season 2. There’s certainly closure here, even if the season wasn’t initially intended as an ending before Netflix canceled the show, but this is a character who still seems like she has more stories worth telling.