Jessica Jones’ first season told the story of a rape survivor grappling with PTSD and confronting the source of her psychological and physical trauma. Then, Jessica (Krysten Ritter) ultimately triumphed over her demons, but as the first half of the second season unfolds, Jessica Jones explores the idea that her journey of recovery did not and could never really have ended with Kilgrave’s death—it wouldn’t have been honest, and wouldn’t have laid the groundwork for the compelling, difficult story Jessica Jones’ second season tells.
The interesting thing about adapting a character like Jessica Jones for television is that compared to Netflix’s other Marvel heroes, there isn’t nearly as much source material to draw from. So much of Jessica’s connection to Kilgrave (also known as the Purple Man in the comics, played in the show by David Tennant) and her battles with self-destructive behavior—the things that most defined her comics iteration—were thoroughly explored during Jessica Jones’ first season.
The fact that season two comes back to these parts of Jessica’s character might at first seem like showrunner Melissa Rosenberg is merely retreading old ground, but the reality is that Jessica Jones is depicting a more realistic representation of what long-term recovery for someone like Jessica might really look like. When we meet Jessica again in the beginning of the new season, she’s fresh off her victory over the Hand in The Defenders and back to her old life of private investigation, skirting the law, and heavy drinking. Things have returned to “normal” for Jessica, but it’s immediately clear that a return to normalcy doesn’t quite mean that Jessica’s in a better place.
As her friend Trish (Rachael Taylor) pushes Jessica to look deeper into IGH, the organization that imbued Jessica with her powers when she was a child, the private investigator begins to uncover the new mysteries Jessica Jones is most centrally focused on. But even as the truth about what happened to her and her family begins to take shape, we see that Jessica is still struggling to cope with her PTSD. Moments of anxiety call repressed memories to the surface, and force Jessica to re-experience traumatic moments that at first seem unrelated to the time she spent under Kilgrave’s metahuman thrall.
Jessica Jones doesn’t immediately bring Kilgrave back into the picture as a specific manifestation of her pain. Instead, the show judiciously harkens back to Kilgrave just enough make clear that Jessica’s still working through that point in her life, but not so much that the show feels as if it’s rehashing things we’ve already seen. Rather, it’s a part of the constellation of experiences that have shaped Jessica’s life that she’s still processing—something her detective work enables her to do in a nontraditional, but interesting way.
In the past, we’ve seen Jessica coping with her trauma by throwing herself into her work and self-medicating, but her IGH investigation presents her with an opportunity to sit down with a mental health professional (at Trish’s suggestion) and (court-mandated) group therapy. Jessica ultimately rejects both as being wastes of her time, but as the season goes on and Jessica discovers that her mother’s actually alive, she’s put in a position where she can actually start to unpack her trauma in a way that works for her.
In a way, Jessica’s mother Alisa (portrayed wonderfully by cast newcomer Janet McTeer) is both season two’s Big Bad and Jessica’s greatest ally. She’s responsible for the string of murders that pull Jessica back into the spotlight, but she’s also the person Jessica needs most to help her. What begins as an investigation into the identity of an enhanced serial killer in time becomes a Jones family reunion.
Jessica sees herself in Alisa, not just because she’s her daughter, but because they’re both survivors coming back from similar kinds of trauma. Like Jessica, IGH’s experiments left Alisa with inhuman strength that brought her to the attention of a man who saw her as an opportunity to achieve his own goals. Though the specific details are different, the broad strokes of how both women came to be trapped in psychologically and physically abusive relationships are strikingly similar. Jessica’s fear that she may be a monster because of the monstrous things she’s capable of doing has always been a recurring theme in Jessica Jones, but Alisa is that idea made flesh. In Jessica’s case, she could always reason that it was really Kilgrave’s influence that made her murder, but seeing Alisa slip into fugue states where she cannot stop herself from killing because of what IGH did makes her consider whether the monster was part of her long before she met Kilgrave.
Though Jessica has a network of friends and associates who care for her, she’s never been able to resist the compulsion to alienate those around her, usually out of a desire to keep them safe. So Alisa is one of the few people alive that Jessica can relate to and, understandably, that scares the hell out of her. It’s by spending time at first hunting and then later protecting Alisa that Jessica’s able to see that she and her mother are, in fact, also different than one another in significant and important ways.
Though they share similar tempers and can bend steel with their bare hands, Alisa has a much easier time justifying her killing as an unintended consequence of the uncontrollable rages she has as a result of IGH’s experiments. Jessica, on the other hand, is steadfast in her conviction that regardless of the reason why she’s killed in the past, she has to take responsibility for her actions, even when others do not.
Jessica reminds herself multiple times throughout the season that she’s morally opposed to killing and at first seems as if she’s desperately clinging to that idea because she wants it to be true. But by the end, it’s an outright conviction of hers because it is the truth, a breakthrough that comes to her after she wills away the echoes of Kilgrave that still haunt her mind and make her unsure of her agency.
Jessica Jones’ second season doesn’t close with its titular hero fully rehabilitated and free of her demons, but that isn’t really the point. That isn’t how recovery from psychological trauma works. It isn’t about going “back” to the way things were or about reaching a singular endpoint. It’s an ongoing process of learning new things and relearning others as you work toward becoming someone new—someone who’s gone through hell, made it back, and is even stronger because of the experience.