I went through a traumatic experience in 2013, the kind of experience that upends everything you understand about the people you know and what people are capable of. I had to move out of my apartment, go through years of intensive therapy, and move across the country before I didn't feel like I had to pile things in front of my bedroom door every night to ensure I would hear somebody enter.
It's been five years and I still feel hesitancy when walking down the street or entering a bar. There's a huge separation between me and my trauma, both in terms of time and space, but the issues still linger. Post-traumatic stress disorder is like having a constant stalker who throws you into a panic every time you see them out of the corner of your eye. It's a villain in your life that never truly goes away, despite any recovery you may seek.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), the Netflix Marvel superhero with super strength, a very consistent outfit, and an alcohol abuse problem, feels similarly in her second season. While she has literal supervillains to face, a more abstract spirit lingers over all the characters: trauma.
In Jessica Jones Season 2, the main villain to defeat isn't a superpowered being, but the literal past.
SPOILERS for Jessica Jones Season 2 ahead
When we meet up again with Jessica, she's finally free of Kilgrave (David Tennant), the telepathic manipulator who kept her under his spell, forced her to kill others, and raped her in Season 1. But she still can't sleep without the aid of a strong drink. When she's listing out her Rolodex of horrible memories at court-mandated anger management, the force of her rage causes a wall to crumble. In her efforts to return to normal life post-Kilgrave and post whatever happened in The Defenders, she continues to push down her feelings.
Over the course of the second season, we realize a few things, mainly that Jessica is horrible at getting over her past trauma. She still has abandonment issues following the death of her family in a car crash when she was a teenager and carries around the guilt of being the only survivor (and getting powers she feels are a burden to boot). Kilgrave's assault on both her mind and her physical being has also left some negative side effects. At Jessica's lowest point in Season 2, Kilgrave's voice actually returns, taunting her and feeding into her worst insecurities and greatest fears. When she's able to overcome him, he tells her he'll always be nearby — in case she needs him.
After watching the first five episodes of Jessica Jones Season 2 — the ones made available to critics ahead of time — it was tough to say who the main villain was. Season 1 took no time introducing Kilgrave along with the stakes both in Jessica's real world and on her mental health. There was some languishing throughout the rest of the season as Jessica tried to reform Killgrave before eventually killing him, but the point was clear.
Superheroes need supervillains. It's a tradition of comic book storytelling. So, who is Jessica's villain?
We get the first true confirmation of a concrete "villain" in Episode 6, when the mysterious, wigged woman played by Janet McTeer introduces herself as Jessica's long-lost mother Alisa, who supposedly died in the infamous car accident. She was also held hostage by the shady organization IGH that gave Jessica her powers. Alisa also has some abilities of her own. However, she also has more anger and mental health issues that not only kept her from reuniting with Jessica for years but threaten their mother-daughter relationship going forward.
For Jessica, it's not just a matter of "defeating" her mother in the way she defeated Kilgrave, or any other superhero in the Marvel universe defeats its villain of the week. It's attempting to figure out how to handle the situation. Jessica doesn't want to take Alisa out of the picture, especially after years of thinking she was dead, so she tries various ways to cope. First, she tries ignoring the whole thing, which is impossible considering Alisa's killing spree. Then she tries living with her, taking care of her, and then even joining her. Although it becomes clear that the only way out of the situation is to kill Alisa, Jessica refuses to do so. If her mother coming back as a supervillain is a physical manifestation of Jessica facing her past — including one of the biggest traumas of her life — she's facing it poorly.
You can say that Alisa is a product of another person's hubris, another instance of a woman in the Jessica Jones-verse who was used by a man without her consent. While she has fallen in love with her captor and mourns his death later in the season, there's still an undercurrent of control that taints the relationship and keeps her angry. She also has massive guilt surrounding her missed years with Jessica (along with that whole killing-her-boyfriend thing), and all of that feeds into her dissociative rage. While Alisa is a symbol for Jessica's past traumas, she is also a person facing the same conflict. She is a victim too.
Most of the main and supporting cast in Season 2 can be seen as victims. Even Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and Malcolm (Eka Darville), two people who represent some stability in Jessica's life, fall under this umbrella. Both are dealing with drug addiction with various coping mechanisms and varying degrees of success. Trish, faced with her insecurities regarding her ability to protect others, turns to drugs and falls into old habits that not even Jessica can help her break. While struggling with addiction, she also has to deal with lingering feelings about her mother, who emotionally abused both her and Jessica for years, along with a movie director who sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager. These all add up for Trish, presenting scenarios for the character where she should be able to protect herself but can't. That conflict turns her back to some old habits despite years of rehab and therapy.
Meanwhile, Malcolm is trying to fill the void left by drugs with anything he can, including menial tasks and casual sex. At one point, Jessica forces him to face his past in the form of his ex-girlfriend and the college he dropped out of. He's luckily able to accomplish this without creating more mental scars, but it's ironic that the person who made him face his own past can't do the same for herself. Malcolm is one of Jessica Jones Season 2's relative success stories. He admits to having a problem, takes control of his life when relapsing, eliminates toxic forces, and gets a high-paying job. He even proves himself to the other characters as trustworthy and someone to be reckoned with, which is more than both Trish and Jessica can tout by the season's end.
While watching Jessica Jones I think back to Star Trek: Discovery, which introduced a character, Ash Tyler, with PTSD thanks to months of torture and rape. It was amazing not only to see somebody in a Star Trek series going through complex mental anguish but also to watch a man go through it. It's something the viewer, on the surface, might want to see — someone overcoming his inner conflicts as a sign of growth and the completion of a character arc. Unfortunately for the sake of viewers, Tyler's trauma was erased by the season finale, where the magic of Trekkie TV science basically cured all his ailments.
In real life, mental illness and trauma can't be cured with the touch of a button; nor can they be erased by the downfall of a villain or the conclusion of a TV show. That's not how it works. It's a lifelong battle that a person must manage and live with in order to survive. Jessica's trauma won't disappear just because Kilgrave is dead; nor will Malcolm or Trish's drug problems or Alisa's rage. Jessica Jones doesn't have a satisfying conclusion because mental illness never does.
By the end of the season, Jessica has isolated herself from Trish and Malcolm, so we think that she's going to fall back into her old habits of pushing people away. However, she knocks on the door of her superintendent and has dinner with him and his son. The final shot is of her detailing her superhero exploits, talking out loud with people about her life. It's a huge step for her and a sign that she has seen growth this season, even if it's not a definitive sign of full recovery.
Jessica Jones has always been about harsh and blunt realities concerning trauma, and Season 2 doubles down on that. It was never about defeating the villain in one swoop, but it's something that can be dealt with over time.