Hell hath no fury: Jessica Jones, Season 2

There are three things that are guaranteed to happen in any Marvel-Netflix show: someone who is presumed dead will turn out to very much alive; people will go into the hospital, where violent altercations rather than healing will take place; and someone, the villain, or the companions, or even the hero, will break out of jail. Season 2 of Jessica Jones hits all three points, and then some.

jjtop1-539x600That’s not to say that the season is predictable. Far from it. Characters that we thought we knew behave in surprising, fascinating ways. To be honest, I found myself far more intrigued by the old faithfuls: Jessica, Jeri, Trish, than any of the newer entrants. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Plenty of time for dissection later.

Season 2 opens very shortly after the horrors of Season 1 and The Defenders. Though the show doesn’t make too much of the events that took place in the latter, Season 1’s ghosts literally linger into the present, with one episode bringing back Kilgrave as an annoying, sadistic voice in Jessica’s head. It’s clear right at the outset that it will take more than a team-up with a bunch of other heroes to put Jessica’s demons to rest, and the events of these 13 episodes make it seem like that ‘rest’ will be a long time coming.

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While Jessica is trying to move past her trauma, Trish is doing all she can to dig deeper into the secrets behind her friend’s superpowers, openly going after the mysterious ‘IGH’ on her talk show.  Her journalistic ambition, however, ends up ruffling some powerful feathers, and it’s not long before a ruthless killer is on the loose, determined to shut her up. Jessica, the best friend, rushes in to protect her, and finds that far from the monster she had imagined, she is confronted with a disturbingly familiar figure: her mother.

5b78d313-9912-4c30-ac58-6e252f94bef2-jj1This, really, is the heart of Season 2, the reckoning with one’s past, the sins of the mother, and the manner in which they shadow our character’s lives. Jessica’s mother, Alyssa, is the recipient of the same mysterious treatment that saved her own life, and gave her her powers. Alyssa’s powers are far stronger than her daughter’s, but unlike Jessica, she cannot control herself. Subject to horrifying, murderous rages, Alyssa lashes out at Trish, and those she sees as threatening her survival, hers and that of her partner, the Frankenstein-like Dr. Karl Malus.

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In this season, Jessica comes face to face with her maker(s), the scientific one, and the biological. While she struggles to handle the dilemma posed by her mother—-a mass murderer who represents, to Jessica at least, her one chance at family—Trish falls down a rabbit hole of her own. Growing up as a victim of abuse, both from her domineering, driving mother and various men she encountered in showbiz, Trish has long felt helpless, and sees IGH as her one path to salvation. We watch her spin herself into deeper and deeper holes, putting her relationship with Jessica at risk. Indeed, by the end of the season we’re not even sure if they can ever be friends, let alone sisters, again.

Darkness hangs over the indomitable Jeryn Hogarth as well, who receives a diagnosis of ALS early on in the season. This launches her on a quest to find a cure, which brings us in contact with my favourite new entrant: Inez, a nurse who once worked with IGH. This being the Marvel-verse, nobody is as trustworthy as they seem, and victories do not come easily, if they come at all. In this world of superpowered beings, it seems easy enough for Jeri to believe in Inez’s stories of a ‘healer’, another patient of IGH who can heal sick persons with his touch. A desperate Jeri clings to this story, but of course, it meanders to a bitter end.

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Season 2 was written and presumably put into production long before the flood of stories that form the #MeToo movement, and the resounding echoes of the same in Hollywood. Maybe it’s because those stories, and that anger, is still so present that it was impossible to watch this season without thinking about it, seeing anger in all its forms distilled into and played through these female characters. Whether it’s Trish’s anger over her helplessness at the hands of an inherently hostile, bullying world, Jessica’s anger at herself for her seeming failures, Alyssa’s much more violent rage that was, tellingly, the result of a man’s botched experiments, or Jeri’s colder, existential fury at having the life she’s worked so hard at taken away—all of these are powerful, telling illustrations of what happens to a dream too long deferred. The male characters, Malcolm, Karl, other new entrants Oscar and an investigator named Pryce Chang, are frequently stunned by the force of this anger, and the achievements and actions it can give rise to. Often, they are left helpless in the face of it, tied up in bathtubs, driven to suicide, or defecting to rival organisations. The only exception seems to be Oscar, who presents the one pleasant thing for Jessica this entire season.

Because of the jagged theme, the season itself seems to move in a halting fashion, and it takes a while for it to find its stride. That being said, though, there’s a lot to unpack in these 13 episodes, and I’m sure that those who watch it will end up thinking about it for a long while. We cover a long trail, from the opening shots, that follow Jessica about her tawdry tasks of stalking cheating spouses, to the close, which sees her, somewhat hesitantly, embracing if not the fact, then the idea of happiness. Earlier in that same episode, Jessica had recalled how she felt ‘dead’, alone ever since the loss of her family. At the end, she seems to have opened herself to the notion that ‘death’ in her case is a choice, and taking steps to face the other way. Whether Oscar and the relief he offers will prove permanent is a question that remains; for now, it looks as though she might finally, finally, be working towards some sort of peace.

The peace that comes after a storm, or before one? Only time, and Season 3, will tell.

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Soaring on the Other wind

The tale of puberty, that difficult, awkward phase of a person’s life, has been told many times. I recall it with alternating flashes of embarrassment and nostalgia. There are some parts of it I think of fondly—the suddenly much more serious friendships, the whispers of crushes and romantic interest—and others I prefer to forget.

Why do I begin with this? I’ve read, somewhere, that the books we read in that phase, or as young teenagers, are the ones that affect us most, that stick with us and mould what becomes of us later on. I don’t know where this was, or even whether it’s scientifically proven, but I’ve often thought of it, and wondered at its validity, especially in my life. It’s true, for me at least, that the books I read in those years, 13 to 17, are the ones that have stayed with me longest, and still feature on my ‘top ten’ lists, even now, more than a decade later.

leguin_ursula_kUrusla le Guin’s books were among those.

I still remember it so clearly. When I hit 13, and my body began its weird, inexplicable morphing towards adulthood, my mother made me start ‘exercising’. This was very strange to me, since I was a fairly active child, attending dance classes and karate classes. True, I spent most of my time between those classes lying around and reading, or walking around and reading, but this emphasis on ‘exercise’ mystified me. She would make me, and my sister, go upstairs to the terrace, and do ‘something’. Skip, I assume. Or run. I’m not sure, mostly because, the moment I reached the terrace, I would pick up my book, and walk around, reading.

It was exercise of a sort, I suppose.

One of the books I picked up was Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet. I was coming to it fresh from The Lord of the Rings, and I knew, already, that I liked fantasy. I was more at home among dragons and Elves and heroic ideals than I was in any other place (like near a skipping rope, obviously). Being a smug little 13 year old, I thought I knew what I was in for, and being a smug little 13 year old, I was surprised.

The world of Earthsea was nothing like Middle Earth. It was dirty, and it was corrupt, and its residents smelled bad and lost control of their bowels. I distinctly remember a description of a princess—a princess—gasping in fear and the narrator commenting on the snot dangling from her nose. I was so scandalized by this; I was coming off fresh from the Arwens and Galadriels, who probably never had to sneeze, let alone leave mucus dangling from their noses.

But I loved it, and most of all, I loved the women in it. Two of them, specifically. I worshipped Tenar, the priestess in her tombs, who turns her back on everything she knows to flee to freedom and the outside world. I loved how she became wise, and venerable, and that I’d been able to watch her do it, in a way I never had with Galadriel. She felt reachable, closer to me than any woman Tolkien had created.

And I adored Tehanu. I’ll always remember The Other Wind for its last scenes, the victory and sheer power that accompanied Tehanu’s departure. I wanted to be her, and it’s with only the smallest bit of embarrassment that I admit wishing I was part dragon, so I too could transform in  a blaze of glory, and sail away from everything on the other wind.

rebecca-guay-the-tombs-of-atuanLe Guin’s world, and her women, were complicated, and messy. They were not an escape from reality. Puberty is a strange time. I remember feeling terrified, of everything, of myself, of inexplicable, hard to name things. Life didn’t seem neat and tidy, the way Tolkien’s world was at the end. There were darknesses in every corner, and I think, at that age, I was just beginning to realize it. At least, I was beginning to realize the dangers that accompanied my existence as a girl, and learning to cultivate a very particular kind of fear.

And strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, le Guin’s fantastical world reflected that darkness. It had at its root a greyness that Tolkien’s didn’t, a reckoning with the fact that many lives are haunted by danger, and dread.  And yet, her heroines managed to overcome it, whether by jumping madly across chasms, trusting to the words of a stranger, or reaching their arms up into the heavens. They struggled and they made mistakes, and they faced horrors, but they won through a hostile world.

They endured, perhaps with grey in their hair, or burns on their faces. But importantly, they endured, fighting on, or flying into, another day.

the other windAnd I guess that’s what she’s done, enduring in a genre traditionally hostile to women, living life with a grace and fortitude that she infused in her characters. I’d like to think that she crossed that crumbling, horrible wall, and found it waiting on the far side. That Other wind, that swept her up, and took her to lands more fantastic than we, lingering behind, can imagine.

A Crown of Wishes

If given space, I could wax eloquent about Indian and Indian-inspired fantasy for days on end. I can tell you all the  problems that (I think) beset it, and how these are not any fault of the  writers, but the  curious definition of ‘fantasy’, such a Western one that depends on a certain severance from belief and faith. Can you write Christian fantasy, for instance, without running into trouble and the waters of offence? Philip Pullman tried, and succeeded, to a certain extent, but I’d argue that the  moment he waded into Bible-heavy streams, his books lost much of their magic and power to dazzle, instead walking along the  edge of becoming transparently ‘agenda’-driven. Same with C.S. Lewis, who did it a trifle more hamfistedly decades ago. Myth fic in India is plagued by the  same troubles, with few authors managing to break the shackles of received wisdom and create something new from the  bricks of the  old: Samit Basu is a notable exception, and some of the  newer authors, like Shweta Taneja and Indra Das, have made strides here as well.

crownAnd so has Roshani Chokshi. Here, I reviewed her debut novel, The  Star Touched Queen. I called it a ‘fairy tale that strides through the  cosmos, refusing to be bound to one particular location, though it is quite culturally rooted in a Hindu setting/tradition. Her follow up, the  literal ‘sister’ to the  first novel is A Crown of Wishes, which tells the  story of Gauri, princess of Bharata, and Vikram, the  Fox Prince of Ujijain. It is, like its predecessor, a love story, but it also bears some of the  more recognizable elements of the  fairy tale, especially given its reliance on that staple: the  tournament, and its related, seemingly impossible, tasks.

Betrayed by her brother and cast out from her kingdom, Gauri finds herself at the  mercy of Vikram, the  prince of the  neighbouring empire of Ujijain. Vikram has just received an invitation to compete in a tournament held by Kubera, the  God of Wealth. He must enlist with a partner, and the  prize, should they win through the  three tasks set for them, is a wish apiece. Desperate to prove himself a worthy successor to the  throne, and not remain the  ‘puppet king’ his father’s council seeks to make of him, Vikram convinces Gauri to partner with him. Not only will she escape the death that awaits her in Ujijain, but this way, she can see to winning a wish of her own, and seeking vengeance against her brother, who holds her kingdom and her friend, Nalini, hostage.

What unfolds is an adventure story that moves between worlds and kingdoms, from the  glittering harem of Ujijain to the Otherworldly Night Bazar (the  site of much drama in TSTQ), from the craggy fortress of the  vanars to the  glittering wish-granting fantasy of Alaka, the  kingdom of the  Lord of Wealth and his consort, the  Kauveri River. Gauri and Vikram find themselves tested in increasingly harrowing ways, and learn truths about themselves and each other (well, it’s a fairy tale—that’s sort of de rigeur). But along the  way, they also make a friend, who is perhaps the  most compelling character in the  book: Asha, a conflicted vishakanya, who dreams of living a life unmarred by poison. Asha kills everything she touches, and can see through to a person’s deepest desires, but she cannot do something as simple as bathe her feet in water, or stroke a bed of grass without someone or something else paying the price for her actions. She longs, like the  Little Mermaid, to be part of a world that at once lusts after and fears her, and out of curiosity, befriends and helps these two strange humans, who are so lost in her magical world.

A Crown of Wishes carries forward Chokshi’s worldbuilding, her creation of a place where Hindu myth comfortably divests itself of the  ‘religious’ overtones that both distort and elevate it, instead using its characters and some of its concepts in creative ways to populate and push her story forward. The  vanars of Ramayana fame here become an abandoned people, left behind by their queen Tara on her pursuit for vengeance. The  Serpent King, a descendent of Kaliya, become a pathos-ridden, Hades-like figure, scorned for his alleged rape of the  Kapila River. Their story becomes a tale within this larger tale, and a mirror to that of Maya and Amar, one of misunderstanding and secrets, and a desire to reach out to another, alien soul.

In an interview with Bustle, Chokshi speaks of writing for ‘second culture kids’, those who are not native Indians, but children of the  diaspora. These are kids whose ‘exposure was different, but whose claim to those tales is the  same.’ ‘It’s a weird limbo’ she acknowledges, but it definitely works well in her case, if this is the  result. Chokshi’s ‘limbo’ state might have allowed her to free herself of the  derivative prisons that myth, and adherence to its, so often imposes on writers, giving her free rein with the  colourful figures and plots that are so rife in Hindu mythology. As a native Indian reader myself, I can only enjoy this liberated look at what’s so often churned out unexamined, and hope that there will be more to come. While Chokshi may have moved on to different projects (her next series is set in ‘a darkly glamorous Paris’), there’s plenty of space for other authors to take up the  challenge, and continue the  task of building an Indian fantasy trove that works both here and for kids of second, indeed, third or entirely ‘other’ cultures. We’ll just have to wait and see.