Dirty walls, dirty roles, dirty worlds (on noir and “Jessica Jones”)

(Warning, this is fairly spoiler-heavy for the Netflix series JESSICA JONES, based on the Marvel Comics series)

I had this theory once, one I planned to do an in-depth academic work on about private eyes in the post-war tradition. The theory was that they were the literary birth of the middle class, bridging rich and poor, a motif of carving out a place for yourself in the old world.

There’s also this idea I wanted to connect to (not mine) about how PIs are, in a literary sense, representations of people without causes or goals or roles. They are literal and metaphorical go-betweens, unable to function in assigned roles because of a weird Chandler-esque mixture of severe character flaws and righteous too-good-for-this-world goodness that, even if it functions nowhere near tier best interests, keeps them moving forward to do te right thing…for a price. After all, Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” (my go-to source for the root of detective fiction) discusses characters like Marlowe as being both “good enough” and “the best”, not perfect, but far too good for the worlds they live in.

In that model, I went into watching JESSICA JONES, the new Netflix series based on a critically acclaimed Marvel comics character, and in the same world and vein as their last hit, DAREDEVIL. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos created ALIAS (the comic book) as a sort of “The Wire”/private-eye look at the dirty underbelly of the Marvel superhero universe in 2001, where it ran until 2004. Their character, the new creation Jessica Jones, was a retconned connection to various characters in the Marvel  world, a minor superheroine now working as a private eye. It was probably best known for Gaydos’ unique art as well as some intensely “mature” subject material way out of the mold of conventional superhero stuff. It is, like a lot of Bendis’ work, very dialogue-driven, and everyone (in the book) has a pretty distinct singular voice (my major complaint about his writing).

Regardless, as a comic it’s interesting because it embraces a lot of the lesser-known aspects of detective fiction, which are reflected a lot in the Netflix TV adaptation, which was retitled JESSICA JONES and stars Krysten Ritter in the eponymous role of the PTSD-affected, borderline-alcoholic, generally-awful-but-ultimately-efficient superhero-ed private eye.

Characters like Jones in this show, as well as other fictional detectives set in literature and film and TV post-WW1 and WW2 are interesting because they primarily sprung up (especially after WW2) as we started to see a new economy form, molding and shaping a new social class, the middle class. The middle class of modern America bridged the gap between the ultra-rich and the powerless and poor, as seen by the growth of suburbs, dining establishments like diners, etc. They’re all about the in-between previous older and limited options.

Now, you have new options. The private eye was the option for romanticized (but also low-priority and practical) justice when suddenly it became financially available. They’re not fixers for the ultra-wealthy (another character trope of the genre that tend to be mirror opposites of PI’s), they clash directly against them. At the same time though, you also have the PI who works for the ultra-wealthy as their avatar of will and action in social circles they can’t reach or have any real influence in, finding lost wives and sons and daughters, murderers of friends, wayward fathers.

You kind of have to wonder what kind of character, though, would want this position. JESSICA JONES ends with our protagonist not really feeling that good about herself, still relatively alone, still boozed up, still in pain, still unsure about her role in this world and the limits of her social responsibility. It’s a fascinating way to end a work of fiction that’s entirely about someone grappling with an archnemesis whose entire existence is a stain on their lives.

However, it’s not a unique ending. Noir is (and I’m paraphrasing 100 BULLETS crime comic writer Brian Azzarello here) about even the winners losing, because the story isn’t what matters, it’s the characters.

Private eye characters that emerged after WW2 (and WW1 to an extent) established what we now consider a bit of a motif in the character; they’re constantly surly, they’re survivors of something (as PTSD has come into the literary consciousness as a thing it’s been integrated into the narrative), and most importantly, these characters really can’t do anything else. Anti-authoritarianism and a background in some level of violence and practical problem-solving (which Jessica Jones somehow all has to a T) are a combination that creates people who just don’t work well with others. Furthermore, it’s proven in the literature to be a

The beauty of this all, though? The beauty of the writing and directing and production teams of JESSICA JONES applying all these is that they perfectly capture what makes private eye fiction so good;

Private eyes are, at their root, incredibly self-loathing over how they work. It’s a constant game of betrayal, of one-upmanship, of desperate plays, of making yourself unlikeable to get something out of someone. Jessica is, thoroughly, not a good person. At all. She pushes people away, engages in a borderline abusive friendship with the next-door-neighbor (of course it’s all OK because it’s discovered he’s a spy for Killgrave), and assumes the worst in people, all in the name of protecting herself.

Most of this behavior is, of course, justified, and comparing her to other private eyes in fiction you get similar behavior. The isolation is a defense mechanism, as much armor as her jacket and gloves and boots, the hat and trench coat of the male noir PI cliche. A part of the behavior I assume is also a symptom of untreated and self-destructive PTSD, brought on by her extremely scarring past with Killgrave.

There’s an aspect to it though that gets touched on a bit with JESSICA JONES a bit more in-depth than old film and prose gumshoes. Even though this job makes her such an unlikeable person, a person who (as the character says) some people blame for the problems they ask her to find out, it’s what she’s good at, in complete odds with everything else. Jessica can’t help but get sucked into doing the right thing, and doing it well. The bit of flashback we see indicates she doesn’t really have any other marketable skills besides figuring things out, and she has no real desire to do much besides get into people’s business and drink. Why not be a detective?

Of course, it’s not perfect. I think writing-wise the bit the show gets “wrong” the most is in one of the major flaws TV shows and films tend to have, which is the desire to have everyone in a scene have to say something that sounds relevant to the conversation, rather than simply let a conversation play out. The “everyone talks” model is meant to be expository in what seems natural, because it breaks up information into bits from multiple people rather than one long dump. However, combining it with what I think can be an interesting narrative tool (the voiceover, which is somewhat uneven in this show) creates a bit of a crowded dialogue/narrative problem, where too much is being said and told, sometimes repetitively. A lot of criticism of the show comes from the way it seemingly “restarts” a few times throughout the episodes, going back to square one, though I’d consider that to be more a symptom of the realism of solving a crime by constantly coming up against dead ends or failed attempts to get at your suspect, but that’s just me.

Overall (I’m trying to remember if when I started this piece a few days ago I was going for a review or an analysis) I liked JESSICA JONES a lot. I liked the shitty ending (not shitty as in bad, but shitty as in it’s almost another reset with “Alias Investigations, how can we help?” creating the nonstop loop of temporary satisfaction in helping others because you can’t fix yourself), and I liked the characters quite a bit, they were probably the best part of it. The sneaking in of semi-obscure Daredevil character Nuke was really cool, done really well, as well as finally making Patsy Walker interesting for the first time ever.

I think that as the latest in the line of messed-up assholes-solving-crimes genre, it fits well, trimming a lot of the fat out of a comic and tightening it up in places where it needed, something that the film and TV Marvel stuff is really good at doing. It’s not perfect, but honestly crime fiction never is, it’s a messy weird world where dumb and dangerous stuff has to get done to either going down swinging our float to the top and hope you’re not too beat up to survive after “winning.”

I think Jessica Jones floated to the top. I guess we’ll see if they ever do a second season.

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2 thoughts on “Dirty walls, dirty roles, dirty worlds (on noir and “Jessica Jones”)

  1. Okay, I finally watched all the episodes (I wasn’t in a hurry) so I finally read your essay and OH MY GOD!!! How didn’t see the pattern before? Here’s the thing, have you ever watched “Case Histories” from the BBC? I guess you have because you like PI stories, right? Anyway, the intro of Jessica Jones reminds me of the intro of Case H. and some other point in the show also remind of the show and I wasn’t sure why and here you gave me the clue: The PTSD as a PI trope. In Case Histories the protaganist had traumas as a kid and tries (and fails terrible) to work them out forcing himself to get in this dangerous jobs, first soldier, then cop and in the end PI. Also, a lot of violence agaisnt women in Case H.
    Well, I like Jessica Jones and now I need to reconsidered all the PI fiction I had read. (Including my own?)

  2. Pingback: A year in review | COSTA K's MISC. THINGS

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